by Risa Mason-Cohen

English actress Natasha Richardson was only 45 when she suffered a devastating brain injury resulting from what appeared to be a minor fall during a beginners ski lesson, leaving behind a husband and two sons. A client of mine lost her closest lifelong friend to a drunken driving accident only seconds after they said goodnight at a mutual friend’s house party. A man in North Charleston woke suddenly to the smell of smoke and was forced to throw his beloved dog from a third floor apartment building in the hope of saving the animal’s life. A woman looked on with horror and disbelief as her gentle Maltese puppy was mauled to death by a pit bull on a sunny afternoon at a local dog park. A plane crashed in Buffalo, New York killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. Another plane bound for Charlotte, North Carolina suffered a bird strike and landed in the Hudson River where all 155 people on board miraculously emerged relatively unscathed.

These are the freaky twists of fate that cause many folks to take pause and reflect on the fragility of life and the fleeting nature of our time here. Life’s unforeseen tragedies cause us to reevaluate our priorities and shift our perspectives. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is it that some folks are spared the grief while others are not? The randomness of life is striking. Like the vastness of the universe or the miracle of life, it is nearly impossible to wrap the human mind around the conundrum of fate/destiny versus accidental mishap. A particular chain of events and circumstances must unfold in such a precise manner for these types of rare tragedies to strike. What if Natasha Richardson had skipped her ski lesson that day, or planned a vacation around a tropical island rather than a ski resort? What if the Pilot of the US Air flight, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, had crumbled under pressure or made a slightly different decision? What were the chances of the Maltese and the Pit Bull landing in the exact same doggie park on the exact same day, at the exact same time, and crossing paths at the same exact moment? What if my client’s lifelong friend had made a wiser choice to call a taxi rather than drive under the influence of alcohol? Were these extreme misfortunes always destined to occur or mere happenstance?

Whether tragic losses or life saving miracles, these types of events tend to shift the way we look at life- albeit only temporarily – until we forget about them again, at least for a while. Life as we know it can change irreversibly in a New York minute. Every moment counts and we must embrace our time here. We can control outcomes, but only to a point. We must find a way to strike a balance between opposing forces- self limiting fear and ignorant, reckless abandon. Think about 9/11 and the excruciating losses suffered on that fateful day. So much grief and pain, and yet, even amidst the wreckage, new bonds were formed and new lives were shaped. There is order in chaos, and a new sun will always rise beyond even the darkest of nights.

When I was a child my mother took me to see a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I was deeply moved by the Farewell to Earth Monologue spoken by one of the characters known as Emily Webb. After dying in childbirth, Emily attempts to return to the world of the living and looks back on a day in her life as if watching a movie. Before returning to her grave she speaks these very passionate and soulful words: “Let’s really look at one another! It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”

Emily’s famous monologue captures the true essence of humankind’s greatest liability- our tendency to take for granted the beauty of the present moment, the fragility of life and the fleeting nature of time. It is so tempting to succumb to the belief that what is here right now will last forever.

Our most cherished memories are often so marvelously uncomplicated. Our halcyon days and golden moments consist of such simple things. When I was a child I ran barefoot with the neighborhood children on a balmy summer night catching fireflies in a jar. Back then it was easy and natural to realize such truths. The irony of life is how most of us tend to forget these lessons as we grow, only to remember them again in the twilight of our lives with a pang of nostalgia and a twinge of longing. Emily wanted to return to earth, this time with her eyes wide open. Are you walking through life with your eyes open or closed? When we summon our most cherished memories, we should learn from the lessons they teach us. The most magnificent moments in life are often so plain and simple- the warmth of the sun or an ocean breeze. Grab those moments and hold them tight. We never can know what tomorrow will bring.

Risa Mason-Cohen is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Charleston, S.C. and a regular columnist/travel writer with the Charleston Mercury. She specializes in coaching people towards inner peace and fulfillment by teaching them how to live, dream and thrive. You may contact her for individual or group coaching, or public speaking engagements at 843-769-0444, or

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