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Seek Out Some Scars

| Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Welles Crowther led a life that was, in many ways, remarkably similar to those led by a number of college students, including those here at Notre Dame. Growing up along the Hudson River in New York, he distinguished himself in the classroom and on a sports field. During this time, he became known for his habit of wearing a red bandana. He attended Boston College while playing lacrosse. After graduation, he returned to New York to work as an equities trader at Sandler O’Neill, a firm most Mendoza students will be familiar with, while debating whether his work from behind a desk was the best way for him to help others.

Thirteen years ago tomorrow, he awoke on a Tuesday morning and headed to work. Like so many others, Welles strolled into the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in ordinary fashion. Although he would not survive the day, his extraordinary actions ensured others would. His courage and willingness to help others — to do good — defined his final hours. In the days after Sept. 11, stories emerged of the man in the red bandana leading others to safety, returning over and over to help those behind. At the age of 24, Welles died while saving others.

Welles’ story has been well-publicized from ESPN to the New York Times, but there are many more stories still left untold. For nearly 3,000 Americans such as Welles, Sept. 11 proved to be their final day on Earth. For millions more, it forever altered their lives’ trajectories.

The day would alter the life of 26-year-old Jason Cunningham, an Air Force combat rescue man. Working to save the lives of the wounded atop a mountain in Afghanistan six months after Sept. 11, Cunningham was mortally wounded, embodying until the end his profession’s motto of “That Others May Live.”

Anne Smedinghoff was only 13 years old in 2001. After growing up in the Chicago suburbs, she joined the State Department’s Foreign Service, hoping to make a difference in the world. While stationed in Afghanistan, Anne set out on April 6 of last year to deliver books to a nearby school when an explosion ripped through her convoy, killing her and three others. She was 25.

These are the tales of three Americans, just barely older than us students, who gave their lives in the service of something greater.  Whether deliberate or as a result of the situations into which they were thrown, each answered the call to do good for others, ultimately sacrificing their own lives for the betterment of those around them.

There are thousands of similar stories.

While accepting Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 2008, Martin Sheen said, “The Irish tell the story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks to be let in, and Saint Peter says, ‘Of course. Show us your scars.’ The man said, ‘I have no scars.’ Saint Peter says, ‘What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”

Echoing Sheen’s speech, Notre Dame asks all of us what we would fight for. It is a core message of the University, and a core question in each of our lives. No matter where we look on a map, be it domestically or across the globe, there is good to be done.

There is room for this world to be better.

Scores are thirsty, and many more are hungry. Thousands die of diseases that could be treated in this day and age. Millions live in fear because of ignorance and hatred. We face a world in which, too often, the few are oppressed by the many. We face a world where women too often are treated as second class and where too many girls are denied the opportunity to go to school and live fully.

We all have the potential to address, at least in part, these challenges that face our collective humanity. We need people to serve in their communities and for their country. We need teachers and coaches and volunteers. Not all of these challenges require extreme sacrifice. Rather, they require merely our attention. Not all of these require us to fight or claw for what we know to be right. But some will.

Even when the solutions to these conflicts call for us to sacrifice, we should know these challenges are worth facing. We know they are worth facing because when children and adults alike are being gunned down in Rwanda or Iraq or Chicago, we all have a responsibility to protect them. We know they are worth facing because we refuse to yield to a world in which people are executed for their ethnicity or creed. We know they are worth facing because the costs of action are dwarfed by the costs of our negligent apathy.

The world is not always black and white, but neither is it always gray. There is good in this world, and it is worth serving; there is evil in this world, and it is worth fighting. And while we should be careful about allowing ourselves to pass judgment too easily, we also must guard against abandoning altogether our defense and service of what we know to be right.

The events that unfolded 13 years ago taught us as a nation and as humans about suffering and tragedy. But it also reminded us of the capacity we have when we work together toward something better and of the resilience that mandates we never accept evil as the norm.

In their lives and in their deaths, Welles, Jason and Anne gave all they had, thinking not of the costs but rather of the good they could do. They refused to stand by and allow what they knew to be worthy and noble to go unserved; they refused to sit still and allow evil to triumph. May we be so courageous as to do the same.

Be it in South Bend or South Sudan, the inner city or the developing world, find that which you know to be truly good. And don’t be afraid to get a few scars fighting for it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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