Lessons on the Fragility of Life

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Three things over the past couple of weeks have reminded me of the fragility of life.

Two weeks ago, a friend, neighborhood activist, former youth soccer coach, husband and father took his own life at a seemingly desperate and hopeless time. Phil Irwin was a good man; he coached my daughter’s team in their early years when they were just learning team sports. He followed a coach we parents had essentially "fired" due to his biting, degrading and never-ending screaming. Phil was an encourager, a coach who nurtured, affirmed and motivated the girls. He made learning to play soccer fun again. With Phil, everyone got to play almost equal minutes every match. He valued the team and each member. Phil's loss belongs to all of us as it always does when a member of our community is lost.

Yesterday, Father's Day, I heard a sermon that included snippets from Tattoos on the Heart, a book by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who spends his time working with members of various street gangs. Boyle has buried over 150 young people who have lost their lives on the streets. In one section, Boyle describes what he has come to understand as the hole each gang member carries in his or her heart, a hole the shape of the child's father. As one reviewer of the book put it, "Boyle both recounts the despair of watching the kids you love cooperate in their own demise and levels the challenge to readers to stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it." Now, that's a lesson I have to keep learning over and over again.

This morning, I walked into one of my favorite coffee shops, Street Bean on Third Avenue at Cedar Street in Belltown. The name has meaning; it's about coffee and the street. Formerly homeless or street-involved kids work here. It's part of the training and rehabilitation work of New Horizon Ministries. Yet sometimes, as I learned today, the power of negative forces in their lives can pull these young baristas away from their stable place of employment.

Three different experiences in recent days with the same powerful message: Life is fragile.

Sometimes, especially for those of us who are busy all the time with important work—at least work we define or like to think of as important—it's easy to forget the essentials, the deep purposefulness of our lives. I know it's easy for me to get caught up in the urgency of the moment, the importance of this or that, and forget or overlook what I've come to take for granted. 

I took Phil for granted, assuming he would always be around, pushing this cause or that, pressuring me on increasing police accountability, questioning the cutback in hours at community centers. I usually see gang members as a police problem, but as Boyle observes they have gaping holes in their hearts, too, a deep fragility that is very difficult to mend. And I assumed the young baristas at Street Bean would continue to be a part of my morning routine, not factoring in their own internal struggles. 

Lessons on the fragility of life. Worthwhile learning, for sure.