The summer before my senior year in High School, a neighboring beach community experienced an unforgettable 4th of July. Long Beach Island is a popular summer destination at the Jersey Shore, and every year thousands of people travel from all over the tristate area on to enjoy its 21 miles of coastline. But there is also a large community of locals, from both the island and mainland, who grew up feeling that this tiny barrier island off the coast of NJ was a part of our very soul.
In 1998, just like every other year, this mixed crowd of locals and bennies gathered at sporadic locations up and down the island, ready to enjoy the fireworks show prepared by whatever township they called their own. In Harvey Cedars, crowds gathered at and around Sunset Park, watching from beach chairs and blankets, from rooftops and porches, and from boats on the bay, eagerly waiting for the spectacular display to light up the night sky. The Harvey Cedars crowd gathered expecting what every other person in every other town expected, and for the first few minutes, that’s exactly what they got. That was, until the wind changed.
Only minutes into the display, embers began blowing towards the crowd and the show was halted. For the next ten minutes, the crowd sat unamused and disappointed, and grew increasingly restless while absolutely nothing happened. As soon as the wind let up the fireworks resumed, but just moments later the unthinkable happened.
A single ember landed in an open cooler where a few fireworks sat waiting for their turn to be loaded and exploded. Within seconds and without warning, a chain reaction set off 200 fireworks on the ground. I wasn’t there, but I know people who were, and they have said it was the most terrifying moment of their lives. Nearly 3,000 people witnessed in horror as an enormous fiery explosion at the water’s edge reminded them of the terrible fact that we all know and wish we didn’t. At any time and without any warning, it can all go up in flames. And there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.
These past few weeks have been like that Harvey Cedars fireworks show, not only for me but for a number of those who are dearest to my heart. My life’s journey hasn’t traversed the calmest of seas, and over the years I have adopted the catastrophist’s motto: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” The worst, however, can’t always be prepared for.
Sometimes the worst is as unexpected as a lighthearted and celebratory fireworks display suddenly exploding into a raging inferno. We all know that fireworks are dangerous, but although we are aware of the inherent danger, we also trust that the danger has been tempered into something safe. We trust that even though something bad could happen, it won’t. If we didn’t live believing that, we would never get on an elevator or into a car. We would never ride a roller coaster or eat from a roadside hot dog stand. We would never take medications or agree to lifesaving medical procedures. We would never fall in love, get married, or have children. We would never live our lives.
Subconsciously, we are all aware of the painfully fragile balance that our lives and everything in them are at the constant mercy of. When bad things happen, restoring that balance takes time and is – quite necessarily – followed by a season of uneasiness and excessive caution. The weak and wounded are much more vulnerable to further damage, and need to be guarded carefully until they have had enough time to heal.
But sometimes, the worst isn’t a single event. Sometimes it is like that fireworks show, when one event sets off a chain reaction that can’t be stopped. Sometimes the weak and wounded don’t have a chance to retreat to safety. Sometimes they are trapped in a place of pain and fear and vulnerability, where the inability to escape becomes even more terrifying than the thing you are trying to escape from.
Sometimes the worst is not one knockout blow. Sometimes it is like that fireworks show, and a number of smaller blows hit in rapid succession from every direction, keeping you swinging at shadows like a frantic game of whack-a-mole, until the swinging back has left you even more exhausted than the beating you’ve taken.
Sometimes the worst blindsides you. Sometimes it is like that fireworks show, entirely unexpected despite our awareness of the very real danger we have subjected ourselves to. Sometimes we are forced to face the terrible truth that although the event was extremely unlikely, the terrible thing we’ve experienced not only can – but has – happened to us. And facing that realization chills us to the bones.
That kind of shock pierces much deeper and causes much more destruction than we realize. We blame ourselves that we didn’t see it coming, that we should have known better, that we shouldn’t have taken that very specific risk at that very specific time, as though something within us could have possibly known the unknowable, or prevented the inevitable.
That kind of shock makes every unlikely and remote danger suddenly feel very real, and the most outlandish prospects of harm and hurt feel entirely present and possible and imminent every moment of every day. Every driver could be drunk, every man on the street a rapist, every friend a closet sociopath. Every phone call could be that phone call. Every storm could be that storm. Every person you love and trust could betray and abuse and lie and cheat and torment and abandon you, and you might never see it coming.
These past weeks have been like that Harvey Cedars fireworks show. There is chaos and crying and confusion and panic all around me, and I’m afraid to even pick up my head for fear that it’s not over yet. I’m afraid to look at the devastation once the smoke has finally cleared. I’m afraid to see how much damage has been done to the places and people I love. I’m afraid to discover how much damage has been done to me.
But then I remember that although the unlikely, unexpected, unbearable worst can and does happen, the unlikely, unexpected, inexplicable miraculous can and does happen as well.
In the aftermath of that Harvey Cedars fireworks accident, we learned that no one was killed. One man lost a finger. A few suffered cuts and sprains, and some were treated for smoke inhalation. But no one was killed.
Life is uncertain. It is messy. It can be painful and frightening, and sometimes it is absolutely devastating. But even in the midst of devastation, the divine spark that exists in the soul of every human being who walks this broken earth still flickers. It is always there, giving us strength to go on when we have nothing left to give and hope in our moments of deepest despair. That flicker never leaves us and never fails us, because it does not come from us. It does not depend on us, or on our abilities, or on our circumstances. It is the gift of the Divine Creator, and He is the one who keeps it burning.
I don’t know why bad things happen when and how they do. I don’t know how long deliverance or restoration or healing or help will evade us. I don’t understand why some prayers go unanswered, and why some people seem to face so much more trouble than others. But the beautiful thing about faith is, I don’t have to know.
What I do know is that God always is, always has been, and always will be working all things out for our good. He just doesn’t work in the ways that we expect or understand or appreciate, and He rarely works as quickly as we want Him to. We are so shortsighted, and so easily forget that His eyes have seen eternity.
His goals are different than ours. We want the pain to stop, the troubles to pass, and the blessings to flow. We want life to be good. We want everything to be easy. But He wants to make us the brightest, most beautiful, most perfect version of ourselves that we can possibly be. He loves us too much to leave us stunted and shallow and spiritually stagnant. He loves us too much to leave us ignorant of how much more extravagant life can be when we learn to live beyond the comfortable and the common. He loves us too much to leave us blind to the unfathomable beauty that exists in the world, in each other, and in ourselves. We see our limitations, but He sees our potential. And He is determined to see that potential reached.
Terrible and tragic things happen, and it never makes sense. But I know that if I hadn’t lived the life I have, with all of its trials and troubles and hardships and heartbreaks, and if I hadn’t known the people I’ve met or walked the paths I’ve both chosen and stumbled upon, I would never have survived these past few weeks. I wouldn’t still be standing, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to believe in the hope that this will somehow perfect one more weakness in me and prepare me for another challenge that awaits me somewhere in the unknown future.
I still wish I could answer the unresolved questions and alleviate the stubborn, lingering pain from the wounds that haven’t fully healed. I still wish I knew why things have happened the way they have. But the reality is I don’t know, and I probably never will. What I do know is how all of those experiences, both past and present, have changed me into who I am today. And somehow, that has made everything worth it.