Seeking meaning in an unjust world

NOTE: Last month, a Jackson County jury found a motorist not guilty of two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Larry Gaunt, 59, and Sierra Gaunt, 14, who were hit by a the driver’s truck while biking near Longview Lake. For more information about the case, go here.

The jury’s decision left many cyclists angry and distraught for what was a perceived injustice. One of those cyclists wrote to fellow cyclist Ed Chasteen, one of the city’s most notable peace activists.

“Ed, while I believe that there is way too much hate in the world and I do my best not to add anymore, the truly personal nature of the Gaunt’s case and the seemingly obvious fault on the drivers behalf leaves me stunned with a verdict such as this. I know that [the accused] has probably suffered plenty and is probably a good person. But I’m left feeling angry and yes a little hateful toward the jury members and court system. I guess this too will pass but in the mean time my thoughts turn toward you and I wonder if you could help me understand how to turn the other cheek.”

Ed’s Response

I was angry and sad at the verdict. How the jury could render a not guilty verdict baffles me. I feel less safe out on my bike now. I ask myself what I should do. The one thing I cannot do is quit riding. Another thing I cannot do is let myself become bitter and hateful. One of my dear friends, Bronia Roslowowski, survived the Holocaust. She was beaten and starved and almost killed. All in her family were killed. For years I have taken my students to visit her. We always ask, “Bronia, do you hate anyone?” “No.” She says. “Not even Nazis?” We ask. “No.” She says. “Why not?” We ask. “Hate kills you first,” she says.

Victor Frankl survived the Holocaust and felt guilty. Why had he survived when his friends and family had not? Out of his struggle to understand this, he wrote a book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychiatrist. Because of his experiences in the Holocaust, he contends that the purpose of life is to make it have meaning. Meaning is not out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. Meaning comes from within us. We live in an unjust and capricious world over which we have little control. The only control we have is how we respond. The world that lies behind our eyes, beneath our skull, above our chin and between our ears is really the only world there is. How we let the outside world inside and what we make of that raw material determines what kind of life we lead and how others respond to us.

Gandhi is one of my life models. In his book, My Experiments with Truth, he says, “In so far as possible, I try to agree with my adversaries.” As I read the morning paper about the not guilty verdict, I thought of Gandhi and found myself trying to imagine how those jurors could find the driver who killed two people not guilty. These were 12 ordinary people, struggling to do what was right as they understood the law. They must have been conflicted and confused. But our system of justice demanded that they make a decision. How will that decision impact the rest of their lives? They will be questioned by friends and family, the curious and the angry. I feel sympathy for them. And I wonder what I would have decided had I heard what they heard inside that courtroom.

I feel sympathy for the family of those who were killed. I can understand their anger. What meaning can be made out of two senseless deaths, I do not know. How long it will take I do not know. As I’m writing these words, my mind turns to Nelson Mandela. For 27 years he was a political prisoner in South Africa. When he was finally released, he was elected President of South Africa. He then selected some of those who had imprisoned him to help him govern the country. Long Road To Freedom is the title of Mandela’s book. No one thought Mandela could forgive his jailers and give them a place in his government. But because he did, he avoided civil war and brought to himself a moral authority greater than any living person in our world.

All of us who love biking and want to be taken seriously and treated fairly have a long road ahead as we try to help our fellow citizens understand us and accept us as equals on the road and in a court of law. Knowing Bronia, Frankl, Mandela and Gandhi help me find my way. Perhaps they might help you. I hope so.

Only when terrible things happen to us and around us do we have opportunity to discover what kinds of persons we truly are. Now is such a time. Who will we be? What meaning can we make? Will we draw people to us and our cause by the way we respond?

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