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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

God, Fate and Shannon Stone

This post is a departure from my ongoing episodic account of how I became Catholic. I have felt the need to write about a recent news item that has had a profound effect on me.

It has been nearly two weeks since the tragic death of baseball fan Shannon Stone at a Texas Rangers game. In reaching for a ball casually tossed to him from the field by one of the players, he tumbled headlong over the railing and fell 20 feet to the concrete below. He died one hour later. His six-year-old son Cooper was by his side when he took the fatal fall.

The magnitude of this tragic event cannot be overstated. That a man in the prime of his life died so suddenly, leaving behind a wife and young son, is tragic in itself, but to know that it all unfolded right in front of his son, while he was trying to catch a souvenir baseball for the boy, is unbearably upsetting.

I wish that I had not viewed the video footage of the event; it was profoundly distressing. (I believe the footage has since been pulled by many news organizations and websites at the request of Stone’s family.) While watching the clip, I found myself reacting physically. I began sweating, my hands started shaking: I was truly traumatized. I saw this little boy, standing there wearing a baseball cap and glove, watching helplessly as his beloved father fell over the railing to his death. The look on the child’s face will forever haunt me. Witnesses relate hearing the child repeatedly screaming out: “daddy!”

I immediately thought of my own son, who is also six years old, and the anguish that he would have most certainly experienced if that would have been me who had fallen. I am heartbroken for this little boy, as I am sure everyone is who has heard this story.

There are so many small details of this story that even add to the heartache: Stone and his son had sat in that area of the stands specifically to be behind the son’s favorite player, right fielder Josh Hamilton. The two had stopped on the way to the game to buy Cooper a baseball glove in the hopes of catching a ball at the game. Stone had called out to Hamilton to throw him the next foul ball he retrieved, and Hamilton had nodded to him that he would.

Moments later, when Hamilton tossed the ball and Stone saw it coming his way, the exuberance of the moment and the shared excitement that he and his son would afterwards share was, I am sure, foremost in his mind. He over-reached in this exuberance, not realizing the risk, and the joyous moment turned horribly tragic. A man died and the life of his son and entire family was forever altered.

The details and circumstances of this story seem to have a certain strange synchronicity, in the way it all came together and unfolded in the most heart-rending and poignant way. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the old Greek tragedies: a converging of many coincidental and innocent elements that culminate in an immense heartbreaking climax. But this story was not written by some ancient playwright seeking to bring about catharsis in his audience. This was real life, and real death.

In the days after hearing about this tragedy, I have been processing through some of the issues it has raised in my mind, and I have taken to heart a few simple but profound lessons.

First of all, it has made vividly real to me that a tragedy of this nature could happen to anyone - to me or to anyone I love - at any time. It would probably not be by falling over a stadium railing, but there are a myriad other dangers and risks we routinely face every day (traveling by car, for instance). Tragedy could change life in an instant, without warning. I naturally cry out to God for protection for me and my family, but at the same time I know that things like this do happen even to those who pray for protection, and I must yield to the reality of it.

The fruit of this acceptance is the increased motivation to treasure every moment. I need to make the most of the present time I have, knowing that I may have very little time left. I have been particularly attentive to my children lately, and have been hugging them a little longer and a little tighter. I relish the fact that I am alive and with them in that moment. There may not be opportunities for other hugs, but I do have that one. The times I spend now with my family, even in the most ordinary activities, have acquired a new value to me as I seek to make the most of the present moments we have been given together.

I also have been struck with something that seems very basic: be careful. This is a dangerous world, and human life is fragile. Lethal dangers are ever present in this life. Avoidable accidents of various kinds claim thousands of lives each year. Motor vehicle accidents and falls top the list by a wide margin. I read a statistic that a person dies an accidental death in this world every five minutes. That is quite alarming.

I have therefore become more circumspect in my everyday life, to avoid unnecessary risks. I shun distractions when I drive. I look for potential dangers when out with my family. I am more cautious around railings and drop-offs. One cannot prevent everything but many injuries and deaths can be avoided if one is simply more attentive to one’s surroundings and to what one is doing, and by taking reasonable safety precautions. Certainly, one can take this too far and fear death so much that one misses out on life, so reasonable prudence is the key. And also, foremost, one must trust in God.

We as Christians believe in a God who has a Plan for this world, and for each one of us. We are each given a certain span of time to live in this world and, whether long or short, we are to make the most of that time. We do not believe in Fate in the ancient sense, of some unavoidable destiny. We are free creatures living in a fallen and sometimes volatile world of merciless natural forces and random happenstance. What we do believe in is a God who takes our choices, and the various events in our lives and in the world, and weaves them all together to fulfill his perfect loving Plan.

God could stop all tragedies from occurring. He is all-powerful. But He has chosen to reveal His omnipotence in a different and more exalted way: by taking all of the tragedies of life and bringing about something beautiful through them. God does not cause tragedy, but tragedy does not mar His joyous design. On the contrary, the tragedy and suffering become the means by which He brings about His Will. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the preeminent icon of this glorious truth: a great tragedy and a seeming failure and loss, which resulted in the greatest victory of God’s Love: the Salvation of the World.

Christ’s Death and Resurrection touches and redeems all of the suffering in the world, in all times and places, and gives it a new meaning and purpose. The Catholic Church has a wonderful doctrine on this redemptive value of suffering which has greatly enriched my spiritual life and my understanding of the world. I highly recommend delving into the Church’s rich teaching on this issue.

At the same time, we are usually not given to know immediately how God uses certain tragedies to bring about good. Often it remains a total mystery in this life. After all, we are to live our lives by faith - God’s ways are not our ways.

For myself, though, I feel that through hearing of this tragic death, I have truly grown in some positive ways. Perhaps this very public tragedy has influenced others as well to take stock and to treasure the present moments they have with their loved ones - and also to be more careful. Who knows, Shannon Stone’s death may ironically save other lives that otherwise would have ended in tragedy, by simply making a multitude of people like me more careful in their daily lives.

Although my heart still aches for this little boy and his family, I do find comfort in knowing that Cooper will have wonderful childhood memories of his devoted father to look back on. Some children grow up with memories of no father, or an uninvolved father, or an abusive father. At least Cooper had a good loving man to call daddy for six years; many children do not even have that. It appears that Cooper lives in a very loving family and community and so, hopefully, being surrounded with such strong support, he will grow up to be the good man his father was, propelled through life by the memories of the great love his father had for him.

Events like this remind us profoundly of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the need to trust God, to “Seek the LORD while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:4 NAB). Our sojourn in this world may not be as long as we think. It may end today. Even now the minutes are diminishing until the time when each of us will leave our loved ones behind and face the One who made us and loves us more than we can imagine. Let us love Him, and those He has placed close to us, while we can.


Russell Yount said...

A very insightful post. I liked your mention of "reasonable prudence." Now that I know you have a blog, I look forward to reading your earlier posts. We haven't met, but I knew Wendy at Campbellsville, and my wife and I are both Catholic converts.

Russell Yount
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

TM said...

thanks Russell - I have heard about you and your wife from Wendy - always good to know other converts - hope you get something out of the other posts here, let me know
God bless-

Joe said...

I like this site

TM said...

thanks Joe - glad you found your way here