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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Tragedy and heroism’s painful link

The remains of teacher Scott Beigel, left, are

The remains of teacher Scott Beigel, left, are carried after a service in Boca Raton, Florida on Sunday. Beigel, left, was a schoolteacher and coach. Credit: The Miami Herald via AP / Charles Trainor Jr.

Scott Beigel, who grew up in Dix Hills and became a hero in Parkland, Florida, was laid to rest Sunday.

Beigel, a 35-year-old history teacher and cross-country coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was one of 17 people killed in last week’s school shooting. He died, witnesses say, as he tried to lock a classroom door to protect the students inside.

Last week’s massacre gave us many heroes among faculty and students, dead and alive. And as they do after every truly devastating event, battles began to brew between believers and unbelievers as soon as the story of the shootings broke.

“Why are you promising to send prayers to a God that would let such a thing happen?” the atheists demand to know of the believers, on Facebook and Twitter, and even in person. “If you think it’s God that saved the survivors, doesn’t that mean that same God killed the sufferers?”

I don’t know anything about God. No one does. Believers or unbelievers, regardless of what they’ve read, from the words of the Bible to the ruminations of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are guessing. But without taking a side, I’ll say to the atheists and agnostics that there is a reason a loving God could allow or even cause such devastating occurrences.

With or without an active God, what the world provides all of us every day is the opportunity to live so nobly, so kindly, so bravely and so generously that our lives themselves become works of glory. And the chance to shine is most evident when nature or an act of human violence threatens lives and health and hearts.

And it is not illogical to believe God would allow such great tragedies to occur, or even plant the seed of them, to create opportunities for men and women to become their greatest, most amazing selves.

Without Hitler, there can be no Oskar Schindler or Nicholas Winton, going to unimaginable lengths to save hundreds or thousands of Jews from the Nazis. What happened to Anne Frank in a concentration camp was pure evil. But what happened when people decided to risk their lives to hide and feed the Frank family is a thing of extraordinary beauty. That was a shining, glorious decision.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 cost thousands of lives, and brought examples of courage and sacrifice so extraordinary, at Ground Zero and on Flight 93, that they enrich our lives beyond measure.

We saw the interdependence of tragedy and heroism when Beigel and others risked and lost their lives to save others in Florida last week. We saw it when a Charleston, South Carolina, community begged us to come together in love, and forgave the deranged racist who shot nine of their own to death after they’d welcomed him.

We could all be saints today; there is nothing to stop us. We could spread kindness, not anger. We could put helping others first. We could be brave enough to love and sacrifice, and ban fear. We can’t be perfect. But we could strive to make our lives works of goodness, whether disaster befalls us or not.

To believe a just God allows or even causes tragedy, you have to believe that in the end, all the pain is given succor, all the wounds healed. Otherwise it cannot add up.

And a lot of people can’t make it add up regardless.

I don’t know. But we see people respond to heartbreak with feats so loving and courageous that they seem nearly supernatural. Tragedies, like the blacksmith’s fire, do forge heroes whose lives inspire us all. I have no idea whether it has anything to do with God, or whether God has anything to do with it.

But I pray it does.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.