Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Saved for something better

In the early pages of Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard describes two dramatic events, one a deadly steamship collision in Long Island Sound and the other a young man working on a canal boat who falls overboard after everyone else has gone to sleep. That young man is James A. Garfield, whose flailing arms find a rope, to which he clings and uses to climb back onto the boat. Later he discovers the rope was never actually tied to anything on the boat. He wrote later, "I did not believe that God had paid any attention to me on my own account but I thought He had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canaling." In 1880, Garfield was elected president of the United States.

As for that steamship collusion, also in 1880 involving the Stonington and the Narragansett, many people died or were seriously burned by the resulting fire. One who survived was a man named Charles Guiteau, who believed, writes Millard, "the tragedy was simply further proof that he was one of God's chosen few." He believed he was "chosen by God for a task of tremendous importance." Within a few months, Guiteau assassinated James A Garfield.

Guiteau was insane. Garfield may have been among the most intelligent men to hold the presidency. Have not most of us believed, rationally or not, we were among the chosen few? We can smoke and not get cancer, drive too fast and neither crash nor get stopped by troopers. We will, if not live forever, at least live longer than anyone else. Perhaps this is what enabled young men to charge the D-Day beaches. It may even be what encourages gamblers to bet against the odds.

Yet I cannot help wondering if each one of us is not meant for something better, if we are each not, in some way, special. Perhaps both Garfield and Guiteau really were saved for a reason, and perhaps assassination was not that reason.

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