The Meaning of Life, Part 1: How Death, Patriotism, and Lemonade Teach Us About Self-Sacrifice
By David Metcalfe
August 27, 2017
Secretly Saving Strangers
I’d like you to imagine with me, for a moment, that you are sitting in your living room alone in your house, preparing to watch a movie. Suddenly, two men break open the front door, both yielding shotguns. They begin smashing up the house and yelling obscenities. As you scream in terror, some guy who happens to be walking by on the street overhears you, and runs into the house. Upon arrival, the guy whips out two handguns, like it’s the freaking matrix or something, and kills both of the assailants in a single shot.
That would be an incredible occurrence! There’s a good chance your story would make it to front page news! Now, what if I told you that this has already happened to you? In fact, it has happened to you nearly every day of your life. That’s right, evil men have been attempting to break into your home, while random strangers kill them to protect you, and you haven’t even noticed. The random strangers I’m talking about, of course, is the American military.
It’s actually somewhat terrifying to hear about all of the people who hate America so much they would like nothing more than to kill everyone in it. There are massive groups of people who hate freedom, democracy, and equality, and hate America for embodying those qualities. Though hundreds of these groups exist, the worst, and most prominent, of these was recently embodied by the terrorist organization, Al Qaeda.
“Rich Kid” Revenge and Radicalization
A lot of people were first introduced to Al Qaeda in 2001, after the infamous September 11 attacks. Four planes were hijacked and crashed: two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon in Virginia, and one that didn’t go as planned and ended up in a field in Pennsylvania. It resulted in massive destruction, the deaths of nearly 3,000 people, and injuries to over 6,000 others (CNN, 2013). Al Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, claimed responsibility for the attacks (CBC News, 2004).
Most criminals come from low income families, have little to no education, and have suffered some kind of abuse during childhood (Minh, et al, 2013). This was not the case for Osama Bin Laden. Osama was the 43rd of 53 children born to billionaire construction magnate, Mohammed bin Laden, and his multiple wives. After graduating high school, Osama studied economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He enjoyed soccer, poetry, and of course, studying religion. His family were very normal Sunni Muslims, and many reports suggest that his older brother was quite the ladies man and party animal. Osama was in no way an exceptionally deviant child, was not raised in abuse, and was very intelligent. He was, however, heavily influenced by radical theologians, eventually becoming the protégé of the radical Islamic scholar, Abdullah Azzam (Atwan, 2011).
Osama’s hatred of America likely began when he was 10 years old, after his father died in a plane crash. The pilot made a preventable error that resulted in the plane crashing. And of course, the pilot was American. 20 years later, his older brother (the party animal I mentioned earlier) crashed his private plane into some power lines outside of San Antonio, Texas (Baram, 2008). I have to wonder, is it a coincidence that Osama chose to use planes in his terrorist attack against United States? After suffering the loss of both his father and brother to Americans in planes, expressing his hateful, extremist views through crashing planes seems a rather fitting revenge.
America’s Near Death Experience
After the September 11 attacks, America was repeatedly bombed and attacked by Islamic extremists, and Al Qaeda took control of the Middle East. After essentially decimating the economy and military in America, radical Sharia law was imposed. Democracy, freedom, and equality were replaced by dictatorship, fear, and an abandonment of human rights. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. You know why that didn’t happen? It’s because American soldiers are awesome. They kick ass, take names, and kill evil people in order to save the lives of good people. And the scary thing is, this fictional example of America being destroyed by radical Muslims I gave is not all that fictional. In fact, Abdel Bari Atwan, who interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1996, and has become one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism, suggests in his book “The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida”, that Al Qaeda had a five-step plan to destroy the United States by the year 2020 (Atwan, 2006). Their plan was eerily similar to how the Soviet Union fell in the early 90’s. “Death to America” was no empty threat.
“Too Radical” for Al Qaeda: Evil Takes a New, Uglier Form
After seizing control from the Taliban, killing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and working to restore the struggling nations, millions of people have been saved, and countries all over the middle east are beginning to embrace many aspects of freedom, equality, and democracy. But unfortunately, the good work is never done, as more evil sprouts up from the places it was crushed, most notably in the form of “ISIS” (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). As bad as Al Qaeda was, they did have some morals. There were certain lines they would not cross. When certain branches of Al Qaeda started committing horrific human rights violations (like beheading hostages on camera and sending the videos to their loved ones), Al Qaeda disowned them, calling them “too radical” and “barbaric” (Bird, 2014). These groups that were disowned are, of course, what we now call ISIS.
Everyone was getting scared of ISIS in 2014 and 2015. They had taken over significant parts of Iraq and Syria. By summer of 2015, they controlled a population of up to eight million people, and some reports suggest they had as many as 200,000 active soldiers (Gartenstein-Ross, 2015). But once again, America’s not going to let that happen. You want to commit horrific human rights violations? Well, get ready for a good old American ass kicking. Although America didn’t put boots on the ground for this one, the air strikes, support to local government, and strategy development have forced ISIS to retreat and begin to fizz out. Just this summer, in July 2017, ISIS lost control of it’s largest city, Mosul, to the Iraqi army (Institute for the Study of War, 2017). Things aren’t looking good for ISIS right now, and we have the American military to thank.
Life Savings and Debt Repayment
Now, I’d like you to remember back to the hypothetical story I gave you at the beginning. After the stranger saves your life from those attackers, how would you respond? Well, if you’re anything like Donkey from “Shrek”, Friday from “Robinson Crusoe”, or Peter Pettigrew from “Harry Potter”, you might owe them what’s known as a “life debt”. Now, I wouldn’t personally choose to become their slave for the rest of my life. A significant portion of my life is my family, friends, and pursing my own interests and passions, so if I gave up all of those things, they wouldn’t really have saved my life, but rather allowed a significant portion of the “real David” to die and be exchanged for someone very different. And that’s the amazing thing about American soldiers. They don’t ask for anything in return for their service. They save our lives, and since they don’t ask for anything from us, we are enabled to live our lives to the fullest. They do all of the sacrifice, while we get all of the benefit.
Wait a second, “they do all of the sacrifice, while we get all the benefit”. Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, it’s the definition of exploitation. Clearly, I dismissed the idea of a slave “life debt” mentality, but there must be some kind of proper response to someone laying down their life for your sake. Since they helped us in our time of need, the least we can do is help them when they are in need. Soldiers are tough guys, but unfortunately, the brutality of war can be even tougher, both mentally and physically.
Vile Lack of Veteran Veneration
Since 2001, nearly three million Americans have gone oversees to defend against the evils of radical Islamic terrorism (Watson Institute, 2015). Of these, over 20% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or major depression, and 7% meet criteria for a substance abuse disorder (Seal, et al., 2009), (Studwell, 2011). More than a third suffer some kind of serious mental health condition (Kliff, 2012). Obviously, depression is an awful thing to suffer. PTSD seems to be the most terrifying thing to suffer from. Imagine having horrible nightmares every night, getting anxiety attacks at random times during the day, and going into a violent rage towards your family for no apparent reason. War is hell, but the hell in someone’s mind may last way after the war is over.
There is also the obvious physical toll. In the first 7 years of the war in Iraq, 4,200 soldiers died, and over 31,000 were wounded in action. The death rate was around 10% of deployed soldiers (Goldberg, 2010). Suicide is killing many soldiers during their time oversees, but also after they return. The suicide rate is 50% higher among veterans than the population average for their demographic (Zarembo, 2015). Let’s go back to that 31,000 wounded statistic for a second. To have wounded status, I mean a permanent injury that impedes them in some way. It’s often significant. These are healthy, fit young men and women. Many of them were star athletes. Many of them will never walk again. I came across this sobering picture from an article I was reading yesterday.
These are veterans of the War in Iraq waiting their turn at a physiotherapy clinic. This particular man featured in this image was once a confident, able bodied young man, who has now been reduced to having nubs for legs, and barely being able to move his severely burnt hands.
Even more troubling, is the lack of support and care that veterans get. 1 in 10 veterans do not have any healthcare coverage (Kliff, 2012). 16% of homeless people in United States are veterans (United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2010). Chances are, there are homeless people that you walk by every week without paying any attention to, who gave up their own lives so that you could live yours in peace. And many who are employed have difficulty pursuing a meaningful career afterwards due to their health problems.
Sunday Serendipity: Hot Dogs with Heroes
I live right beside the United States Air Force Academy. I often enjoy sitting outside watching the planes, and sometimes the cadets parachuting from them. Today after church, I had the pleasure of spending time with some cadets from the Academy. I didn’t originally know that they were joining us for lunch, but when I saw them walk up to the door of my house, I got very excited. I was literally in the middle of writing this article, just finishing up the “Life Debt” section. I was like a kid in a candy store. I thought to myself, “Alright, David, don’t freak them out. Just be casual, ask them a few questions here and there, not too excited.” Within minutes, I was flustering them with questions, “What inspired you to serve in the armed forces?”, “What dreams do you have after graduation?”, “What opportunities do you see in a military career?”… and so on.
Adrienne was a stocky, well built young lady. She shook my hand with a fierce grip. Yet, despite her strong appearance, her voice was soft and feminine. Throughout our conversation, I found out she had recently won a boxing championship. “State championship?” I asked. She smiled bashfully, “National, actually”. “Like, for college level?” “Ummm…no, like every level”. I realized I was talking to the best female boxer in United States. As you may know, I am adamantly against fighting as a public spectacle. It’s just hurting people for fun, while idiot rednecks cheer in the crowd of drunkards and low-lifes. But military boxing is different. Military boxing is training young American heroes to be tough, agile, quick thinking, terrorist killing machines. They learn to take hits, fight through pain, and persevere; all necessary qualities for soldiers to have.
Jake must have been 6 foot 8 and 250 lbs. Despite his massive size, he was more brains than bronze. He had just chosen his major going into his sophomore year: aeronautical engineering. Cameron was quiet, kind, and very intelligent. She is concerned about international development, and hopes to be deployed into oversees aids missions in Africa. Her major is foreign affairs. And lastly, Michael was the most confident and social of the bunch. He studies behavioral science in hopes of helping to treat soldiers suffering mental health issues during and after their service.
Although I told them that I greatly appreciate their service, they have no concept of the magnitude of my immense appreciation and admiration. They were wonderful young people, which is what makes me so concerned. Do they know the harsh realities awaiting them? In ten years from now, will Jake end up in a wheelchair? Will Cameron suffer PTSD? Will Adrienne suffer concussion induced brain damage? Will Michael be homeless? Chances are, at least one of them will succumb to a harrowing fate as a result of their service. The question that I face is: what can I do to make things better for these young heroes, who give up so much for the people of America?
Highway of Heroes
Canada didn’t get involved with the mess in Iraq, fortunately. However, we did provide military support along with the Americans in Afghanistan. 159 Canadians soldiers have lost their lives serving their country since 2002. Every time one would die, they would be brought in a coffin from the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ontario, to the coroner’s office in Toronto, Ontario, via Highway 401. Canadian patriots would go to the overpasses above the highway, waving Canada flags in honor of the fallen soldiers. In August of 2007, the highway was designated the “Highway of Heroes”.
“Highway of Heroes” also happens to be, quite possibly, my favourite song in existence. Here is a link to the YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrkgV5bl7kQ
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade…And 140 Million Dollars
There’s simply no way I could write an article about self-sacrifice without mentioning Alexandra Scott. Her story is equally heartbreaking as it is inspiring. I will be giving a summary of her story in the following paragraphs, but for a more detailed story, I recommend you watch the following YouTube video. If you can watch it without crying, you are tougher than I am: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upmUrxmFSA0
Like most little girls, Alex Scott loved kittens, watching cartoons, and playing with friends. Unlike most little girls, however, Alex Scott had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive type of cancer, just two days before her first birthday. She was in and out of the hospital, suffering through countless surgeries and invasive procedures, and was subject to debilitating pain most days. When she was four years old, she decided to open up a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer. In a video interview, the mother begins talking about how she had been thinking about starting a fundraiser of some kind. Alex is quick to object, “No, mommy, this was my idea!”, to which the mother responds, “yes, yes it was”. Her lemonade stand inspired the community, and they ended up buying $2,000 worth of lemonade!
But Alex didn’t stop there. Even though her condition continued to get worse, she kept up the lemonade stand. News of Alex’s Lemonade Stand spread across America. Soon hundreds of lemonade stands were going up all over the country to raise money for cancer research. Alex was brought on as a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Today Show”. In her interview on the today show, she is close to skeletal, sitting in her wheelchair, and clearly in some level of discomfort. When asked what motivates her, she responded, “it makes me feel good that I’m helping people”. I have to admit I cried at that part. There is nothing to feel good about from her perspective, but because she serves others, despite her pain, she is able to feel good.
On August 1, 2004, Alex passed away peacefully in her home with her parents by her side, but not before raising more than one million dollars for cancer research. Since then, people all over America have been inspired to continue her cause. Instead of using lemonade stands for their own selfish gains, children started giving all of the money to cancer research instead! Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation has now raised over 140 million dollars! That’s by far the most profitable lemonade stand ever made, and has helped thousands of children struggling with cancer (Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, 2017).
I appreciate this picture a lot. Look at the cat’s face for a second. The cat is this pessimistic, angry little thing, and yet Alex smiles and wraps her arms around it. That’s the approach Alex took to life. She embraced it with a loving joy, that ultimately spread far beyond her, and into the hearts of millions of people. Except for this cat. I’m pretty sure he just stayed grumpy every day of his life.
In the video about Alex that I gave a link to, one guy commented, “this is why I do not want to have kids.” That genius comment is courtesy of “mr wolfs chanle 22”. But I understand the sentiment. Sometimes sad things happen when you have children. Is that a reason not to have them? For me personally, I would love to have a child like Alex Scott. Shortly after her death, her dad was interviewed, saying, “We just wanted her to be happy, have a great childhood, be successful in life…(fighting back tears)…she was successful.” (The story of Alex Scott, 2013).
That’s what I think success really is. It’s living a life that has meaning. We can see from soldiers who risk their lives to save us, that it carries incredible meaning for them and for the lives of all of the Americans who have a proper understanding of their sacrifice. Honoring them by meeting their basic needs through effective social programs is the least we can do. We also have an obligation to show them our respect and admiration, and do what we can to make America the best place possible, so that their sacrifice is for something truly worth sacrificing for.
In the case of Alex Scott, the strongest soldier of all came in the form of a little girl. Her positive attitude, determination, and tragic death have served to help thousands of kids like her. But Alex is not really any different from us. Whether you live to be 8 or 80, we all have limited time here on earth. No one would have benefited from Alex Scott if she had just given up and waited to die. It was her passion for helping others even when it offered no benefit to her that ultimately resulted in thousands of children benefiting.
Living for a greater purpose and holding others above yourself appears to be an integral part of living a life that has meaning. And in order to fulfill that, it will ultimately take sacrificing yourself for the benefit of others. This brings us to the first meaning of life: self-sacrifice.
If you would like to donate to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, here is a link to do so: https://www.alexslemonade.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=7
Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. (2017). Our mission and history. Retrieved from https://www.alexslemonade.org/about/our-mission-history
Atwan, A. (2006). The secret history of Al Qa’ida. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=ypICzykNXiAC&pg=PA221&lpg=PA221&dq=makkawi+strategy+2020&source=bl&ots=1iFik9U91G&sig=vF2xfwHZ76rhNWD74T2nSmonrdc&hl=en&ei=GJo7TOLyJYH88AbAu4GPBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CCMQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=makkawi%20strategy%202020&f=false
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Kliff, S. (2012). Five facts about veteran’s healthcare. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2012/11/12/five-facts-about-veterans-health-care/?utm_term=.340de9e035f3
Mendte, L. (2013). The story of Alex Scott. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upmUrxmFSA0
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Studwell, K. (2011). The criteria for mental health professionals trained to treat PTSD and TBI. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/military/critical-need.aspx
United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2010). Profile of sheltered homeless veterans for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/Homeless_Veterans_2009-2010.pdf
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Zarembo, A. (2015). Detailed study confirms high suicide rate among recent veterans. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-veteran-suicide-20150115-story.html