A Reminder that Life is Unpredictable

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

It’s true, isn’t it, that when you roll out of bed in the morning, you never know what the day will hold for you?

That reality struck me again recently when I heard about the jetliner that took off from La Guardia Airport only to descend into the icy waters of the Hudson River just a few minutes later. We’ve read about and applauded the truly professional response of the crew, especially the pilot, who minimized the damage and saved many lives – passengers in the plane and citizens on the streets. Early reports indicated that the accident was caused when the plane ran into a few birds. Hard to believe that such a relatively minimal incident could cause such a catastrophic event.

But I’ve been thinking about the passengers on the plane. When they woke up that day they had no hint of the events that awaited them. They packed their suitcases, bade farewell to family and friends, drove to the airport, checked-in, passed through security, arrived at their gate and settled down to await boarding – all rather routine. And even as they boarded the plane, stashed their carry-ons and settled into their crowded seats, they couldn’t imagine that they’d soon find themselves standing on the wing of the plane, in the middle of a frigid river, the unwitting actors in a nationally televised drama.

But you and I have days like that, don’t we? We don’t have to be part of a major news story to know about the unpredictability of life. Every day is unpredictable; every day can be filled with surprises.

I’ve heard recently of several folks in our community who tragically died of heart attacks while shoveling snow. They (and their families) had no idea what the day would mean for them when they awoke in the morning.

I think of the individuals who find themselves in traffic accidents – on Route 195 or 95, or 146 or wherever – just about every day. Certainly as the day began they couldn’t predict the accident. If they could have, they’d probably have changed their plans, their route, their time of departure, or their speed on the highway. Nothing like a fender-bender to ruin your day.

Sometimes a simple phone call can completely alter the course of our lives. When I rolled out of bed in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, October 27, 1992 I had no idea that I’d receive a telephone call from the Apostolic Nuncio informing me that I had been named a bishop. Ditto the morning of January 10, 2005 when I received a call telling me that I was coming to Providence. On both occasions a brief telephone call changed my life forever, and I didn’t see it coming.

Any given day might bring you surprises that will change your life completely – the death of a loved one, a diagnosis of a serious illness, the discovery that a spouse has been unfaithful, a kid getting hurt in a sporting event, a fire that damages your home, an unexpected layoff notice, a call from the bishop’s office – the list goes on and on. The ultimate surprise that could change your life, of course, is its termination. You could die today, or tomorrow.

What are the lessons to be learned from the uncertainty of life? I can think of three.

The first is to not get too attached to the things of earth, since everything is transient, everything is passing. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy life, or that we shouldn’t take responsibility for our earthly projects. It is to say that we should always keep some perspective since our time on earth is so fleeting, so brief. As the Scripture tells us, “Boast not of tomorrow, for you know not what any day may bring forth.” (Prv 27:1)

The second lesson is to approach the world with humility, not to overestimate our personal importance in the grand scheme of things. Though our life has real value, we’re only one of about 6 billion people on earth, and our few years here are just an infinitesimal part of the history of the universe – that which has already passed, and that which is to come. As the late, great Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete. We are the workers, not the master builder; the ministers, not the messiah.”

The third and final lesson is that we always have to be prepared for the final drama of life – our death. You could die today. You could die tomorrow. Are you prepared? Are you ready to give a good account of your time on earth? Are you at peace with God and your brothers and sisters? Are there any unforgiven sins in your life? Jesus has given us fair warning: “You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Mt 24:44)

Without a doubt, life is unpredictable. Therefore, when you go to sleep tonight, sleep well. And when you awake tomorrow, strive to live a good and happy life. Enjoy the day, but remember, it might be your last.