This week has been ironic in that I haven’t written much because I’ve had too much to say. Of the things on my mind, rather than comment about the elections or the Fed’s Magical Money Making Machine (or MMMM™), I thought I would mention something more personal.
There are few television programs that my family and I enjoy on a regular basis, but one of them is Storm Chasers on the Discovery Channel. The business of tracking tornadoes has always been interesting to me and to my wife, as well, and for the last few years we have enjoyed following the exploits of Sean Casey and his tank-like Tornado Intercept Vehicle and Reed Timmer and his exuberant and sometimes careless zeal. While the tornado chases are exciting, like any decent “reality television” (those three words define a very large programming universe) the personal dynamics are a real part of the show. Concerning Casey, an element of personal drama comes into play when considering that he has spent around half-a-million dollars on his equipment and countless months away from his wife chasing his dream as much as he chases storms: the desire to create an IMAX movie that features footage inside the heart of a twister. In Timmer’s case, watching the development of a young man with talent and potential but also with a need to learn the lessons that make men into leaders has also made for great television.
For Sean Casey we knew that one of his challenges (at least, in the way the show is edited, and there is always that element to be considered) was recognizing the need to let go a bit and to trust the team he had put together. He used the talents of 30-year-old meteorologist Matt Hughes to help get him as close as possible to tornadoes, but he constantly second guessed Matt. Part of that was due to his understanding of what an IMAX film would require as opposed to simply an “intercept” but, as he said in interviews, a large part was the fact that this was his investment, his “family’s future,” as he said. And consequently, he found it hard to let go of some of the decision-making, causing him to miss many great opportunities while simultaneously frustrating his support team, including Matt. Young Mr. Hughes commented often about how he could get Sean to the tornado and get the shots he wanted if he would just let him.
Well, as this week’s episode showed, the moment came, and Sean gave Matt full control of where to go, what to chase, when to stop. And, sure enough, on that particular chase, Matt Hughes succeeds in spades, planting Sean and his giant armored vehicle smack dab into the center of a tornado. Watching the mixture of terror and exhilaration on the faces of the Matt and the team inside the vehicle as they sat looking out the windows surrounded by winds near 200mph was thrilling, and a reward for the viewer as much as for the storm chasers. Well, perhaps not “as much,” but it was satisfying. In one moment, you got to watch as several men experienced a dream come true. You felt a great deal of gratification concerning Sean, who not only got a great IMAX shot but who (hopefully) learned that by trusting the team that he had, himself, assembled, he would have a better chance of succeeding. And concerning Matt, you had the opportunity to watch a young man who had made bold claims really come through when it counted and be rewarded — not just in the satisfaction that comes from success and being tested and coming through but also in getting to experience a unique event and experience the majesty and power of the Creation in a way that few people have ever known. What a perfect day for young Matt Hughes.
But as much as you enjoy that moment, it comes twinged with sadness as the viewer is aware that Matt Hughes died days later.
The very weekend after that climactic chase and unprecedented success, Mr. Hughes’ family said that he attempted suicide. The results were damaging enough that he died of the results a week later, leaving behind a wife and two sons.
My wife and I made the mistake of watching the program from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. and then trying to go to sleep afterwards. But I couldn’t. I would lay there with ear pressed between my head and my pillow, notice my pulse, and think to myself, “What a horrible resting heart rate. I bet my arteries are clogged. I’ve got to get my blood pressure checked. Etc.” Then I would flop and turn fitfully — nothing seemed comfortable, but I knew that the discomfort was all in my head. The juxtaposition of that climactic moment of worldly success and the knowledge of such an end so close together was too disconcerting, too demanding that I process and deal with it in some way.
Actually, the fact that the death was due to suicide was tactfully not mentioned on the show, though it has since been written about by one of his friends and colleagues and has been admitted by his family. So that night, it was pure issues of mortality that mentally arm-wrestled with me for hours. Since learning more details, the contrast grew into sharper focus and added details to my meditation.
The events, themselves, happened this summer during storm chasing season, but with the airing of the episode this week I would imagine that the family is reliving many of those events in their minds. Consequently, as small as the readership of this blog is, there are still some thoughts I just can’t bring myself to say right now in a public forum, in deference to them and to what questions they may be asking themselves. I think of that wife and two boys, as well as the other family members left behind who loved him, and my heart just breaks.
But, of more importance to us, what questions should we be asking ourselves when faced with such examples? There is a reason that the seventh law of success is one of the seven, for instance — the one that affects all the others. Am I keeping that one in mind? Is there anyone I know who seems to have things all together on the outside but who may be in desperate need on the inside? Do I really live with the the recognition that today may be my last — not in a debilitating way, but in terms of the priorities I set? The knowledge that you probably won’t die today, but, at the same time, you just might should have an impact on our lives. Does it? As busy as I can be, does my life reflect an understanding of those things that are of fundamental importance in the eyes of God, as in Micah 6:8? Do I recognize that taking care of my health isn’t a matter of being selfish — not even just a matter of respecting the temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) — but is directly tied to the second great commandment, to love my neighbor as myself (Matt. 22:39), given that my five closest neighbors, my wife and children, depend on me?
Sorry to write today on what may generally be considered a morbid topic, but there is a reason that Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 7:2, “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart.” There’s nothing wrong with a great time now and then, as Solomon admits in chapter 5 and verses 18-20. But sometimes we need to spend some time at the house of mourning, meditating on reminders of mortality, to ensure that our lives are ultimately focused on those things of eternal value.
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(For those interested, the Discovery Channel Storm Chasers website currently has a dedication to Matt Hughes up, and video clips are available there of his last chase.)