I have often been a passenger on the Amtrak train between DC and New York that derailed last night with such tragic results. I’ve always considered traveling by train extremely safe. This accident does not change my mind, though it’s a stark reminder that serious accidents can happen any time and at any place ⎯ even when the possibility of harm is the farthest thing from your mind.
Prayers are going up from across the country for those who died, were injured and traumatized. Those prayers are also a reminder that every day is a gift. There are no guarantees that we will see the sun rise tomorrow.
But this is not a reason to become darkly cynical, expecting the worst to happen. Rather, it’s a reminder that gratitude is an imperative because it’s an intrinsic fact of our existence as creatures of God.
Gratitude is easily forgotten in the midst of life’s annoyances and serious suffering. But when mortality comes near, such as contained in the images of the twisted train cars, the fragility of human existence is brought to mind.
I’m a cancer survivor. For the past four years I’ve lived with much more gratitude than I did for the first 60 years of my life. Anyone who knows me knows that my bout with cancer changed my life, but they also know I’m just as liable to stubborn self-centeredness as before. The difference now is that my life was unexpectedly shattered by the real possibility of imminent death.
That dark visitation was a gift which, as I look back, has made me a better man. I hope I am saying this without self-deception, but I know that my continued survival has created a kind permanent change of vision. The so-called everydayness of life now appears to be extraordinary, such as the sight of my teenage son giggling uncontrollably with his best friend. What once might have annoyed me, now brings a sudden grin to my face.
Yes, I began with the horrible experience of 238 passengers on a train last night which led me to thoughts of what gratitude bestows in our lives. The connection of one thought to the other is natural, one that should not be resisted out of respect to those who have suffered and died. I’m certain that last night’s survivors, in their gratitude, have followed the same train of thought.
I’m also certain that many who are following this story will, perhaps for a moment, give thanks that they remain among the living. That gratitude will subtly color the experiences of the day, making the common shine with an unusual and delightful allure.
This can be our experience from each day, and though it never will be easy ⎯ we are far too flawed ⎯ our gratitude can increase, through prayer and reflection, without the impact of the bad fortune of others.