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  • Reverend James Squire

A River and a Waterfall

There is a clever ad for the State Street Corporation Financial Services and Bank founded in 1792 located in Boston. The ad got my attention. It begins with a man taking a peaceful journey in a kayak down a river surrounded by lush vegetation and trees. It is peaceful if not idyllic. The camera then expands the view so that you can see more and captures the kayak moving close to going over a high waterfall and then we see a man clinging to a boulder, out of breath, after exiting the kayak and swimming to safety. He narrowly escapes going over the waterfall to certain death. The caption that comes across the screen reads: “Whatever you get into make sure you can get out!” It is an obvious statement of knowing when to leave the stock market after a blissful period of time as our financial life as a nation could go into a recession captured by the image of the waterfall.

The written ad speaks to other aspects of our life that is beyond the stock market. This could be a metaphor for our daily lives as well. We are sailing along and then, all of a sudden, the waterfall is seen just in time to save us from peril and the ultimate risk, death or from a great challenge.

It seems to me that for many people this is a description of their lives and certainly my own as I have personally experienced that river metaphor or have been with people who have had that experience as well. Some lived life challenged by the ups and downs where others seem to be more on an even keel.

One of my more interesting gifts received from a couple whose marriage I was going to bless contained this same metaphor in real life. When I arrived at the site of the marriage ceremony which was on the New River in West Virginia., I learned that the bride’s father owned a whitewater rafting company and the groom who I knew for a long time, said, “We have a gift for you!” The gift was to take a rafting trip down the river but in one of the guide boats which were smaller and therefore more “exciting.” My experience was similar to the guy in the State Street ad. It began with lengthy safety instructions and several guides including the groom who would accompany me down the river.

It was so peaceful and beautiful. One of the guides said, “How about this for your office!” I couldn’t figure out why they spent so much time with safety drills and why so many guides had to be part of the experience. Then I heard the roar! We were on a river that was one of the best in the nation to experience the adventure of whitewater rafting. Yes, I was thrown out of the raft when we hit the fury of the waves as the raft was thrown six feet in the air. I did not have time to be scared as I was interested more in survival. We finished the adventure by entering still waters under the bridge high above us at the New River Gorge where a car company at the time had one of their cars bungee-jumping off the bridge as part of their advertisements. The groom asked me how I was as he and his fellow guides looked at me and listened for my response. I think I said, “Thank you!”, but I really can’t recall. Several years later, the groom died much too young from cancer of the eye.

“Whatever you get into, make sure make sure that you can get out.” From a financial perspective I have been told that if someone could figure out when to get out of the market and be able to time getting back in that they would have answered the $64,000 question. It isn’t easy to do.

But there is a more important $64,000 question to lead the ethical life. It has to do with quality and quantity of life. We normally confront this question at the end-of-life issues. But quantity and quality of life issues are also important for our daily life right now. What makes it interesting is the fact that everyone has a different answer to this question which, I have found, also relates to how we view end of life issues. Ernest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death, makes a critical point that the way that we view death is the way that we live life. I would add that the reverse is true as well that the way that we live our lives is the way that we will view our death.

An interesting discussion in my ethics classes was based on quality and quantity of life issues. The question is, “Would you rather live a life of relative calm with few highs and lows or would you rather live a life of dealing with situations and people where you don’t know how to “get out” or know the end result creating many highs and lows.” It would be like the man in the kayak not knowing that the waterfall lies ahead. Students model their parents. They either will follow their lead or not. Some parents lived lives of quiet desperation where others enjoyed either themselves or those they helped and didn’t really know how things would end. Think ER doctor. Everyone is different and a choice is not good or bad if it is the right life for you. Our school motto at EA touched on this, “Esse Quam Videri”, to be rather seem to be. Live life authentically. Of course, there are those who would like to have it both ways. I am always reminded of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s words who wrote, “Tragedy doesn’t have a ticket into our lives; it has a box seat.” Tragedy catches up with all of us. Knowing this you can try to live a life of moderation, but nothing is guaranteed.

The response to this question of quantity and quality of life brought about lively discussion. I could conduct a course for a term regarding that question and not have a boring moment. For some, passing their days on a beach all day is their definition of the “good life.” That would bore me and others to death.

“Whatever you get into make sure that you can get out.” This is a statement that has global ramifications. Most wars have a clear goal of how to get out when the war is over. It normally means victory to one side and defeat for the other. That statement is why the war in Ukraine has wreaked havoc on the vital balance of allies, negotiations, and the way this war has been fought. It affects quality and quantity of life literally every moment of every day. But it is different from the way many other wars were fought particularly now that Finland and Sweden will be joining NATO. Putin knew how to get in, but he never expected the Ukrainian people to be so brave and NATO to come together making that alliance stronger than it has ever been. Now Putin has no way to get out. That is a problem for Putin but it is also a problem for the rest of the world as we continue to hear Putin’s words, “Why should there be a world if there is no Russia.” He continues to rattle his saber of a possible nuclear attack, all with veiled language surrounding his threat. He doesn’t seem to be concerned about the quality and quantity of the lives and deaths of others which makes him even more dangerous. He is the waterfall and the rest of us are on the river with the Ukrainians with a roar growing out of a once idyllic life in a once beautiful landscape and lovely cities which was Ukraine with danger lying ahead.

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