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When Life Knocks You in the Nose

This is where it gets serious. Unexpected moments don't always end up so benign (though a sizzling hardball on the noggin can't be fun). Stop and consider a few recent moments: of students sitting in early-morning classes at Virginia Tech in April; of motorists and passengers crossing the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis last week.

Put yourselves in the shoes of 19-year-old Natasha Aeriel; her brother Terrance, 18; and their friends Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, also 20, as they sat in a Newark schoolyard last week.

They were listening to music and talking. Imagine being confronted by armed young men, as they were. Natasha was shot in the face. Terrance, Dashon and Iofemi were marched to a wall where they were lined up, forced to kneel and then executed. Natasha survived to tell about it.

Life's unexpected moments.

Consider the shock of train wrecks, disease outbreaks, Sept. 11.

And then there is this federal city, where control is our raison d'etre.

This town has convinced itself that with the right mission, goals, planning and -- oh, what's that word? -- strategies, it can have reasonable expectations of results. That's what officials tell themselves in U.S. government real estate stretching from Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom and across the Potomac to the Pentagon.

But Roth's experience tells us something else.

It lets us know that sometimes it takes a whack upside the head -- or in the nose -- to remind us who we are and what we're not; to remember that some things in life are simply not our call; that notwithstanding our smarts and means, we don't have the last word.

That even leading batters hit foul balls; that the best spy agencies can get it wrong; and that elected leaders aren't always right.

Think, too, of Alice Roth's moment in that August afternoon as a wake-up call, a reminder that life on Earth has its hard and unexpected knocks, that there is no way in which we can be protected from all hurt, harm or danger, and that misfortunes, large and small, come with the territory of living.

Roth didn't inspire the following thought, drawn from one of my favorite publications, "Forward Day by Day," but her experience calls it to mind: "Try living one full day as though you have been given some secret knowledge that it will be your last. Don't rush off to get your will in order. Just approach whatever has been scheduled for the day as though these will be your last encounters with the people you see. The experience may yield some habits of mind worth keeping."

And as Alice Roth might counsel as you journey through this vale of tears, don't forget to duck.

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