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Kayla Mueller: Reflections on a Luminous Life

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Tuesday, 17th February ,2015

“The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength.  Please be patient, give your pain to God.  I know you would want me to remain strong.  That is exactly what I am doing.  Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I+by God’s will we will be together soon.”

                                                Kayla Jean Mueller (August 14,1988- February 6,2015)


What were you doing when you were 26 years old?  Where were you living?  What were you yearning for?  Were you alone or in a relationship?  How did you think of the world? How was the world at the time?

When I was 26 years old, I finished medical school and began my first year as an ObGyn resident.  I was working so hard, sometimes 36 hours straight.  I don’t remember having time to read the daily newspapers or to watch the news.  My world evolved between the brief time at home and the long hours on Labor and Delivery suite or in the operating rooms.  I was living the selfish life of someone who was working on a future lucrative career, the one which gets the most respect from society.

I didn’t volunteer for any organization.  I didn’t have time.  I used the weekends I was not working to rest and get ready for another long week of work.  I don’t remember much of the world around me then.  I am sure, however, that it was not as chaotic as it is now.  Nobody heard at the time about the Islamic State.  There was no beheading or burning of captured prisoners.  The world when I was 26, as usual, was not completely peaceful, but the intensity was not like what we are facing now.  We are clearly witnessing the world of good and evil, seeing Kayla’s smile and reading her moving words released by her family, then hearing of another beheading, this time of 21 Christians by the Islamic State. 

Scott Simon of NPR put together a segment on Kayla’s letter, and got so many comments from the listeners.  Some thought Kayla was foolish and playing a martyr with her volunteer activities in the most dangerous part of the world right now, while others mourned her as a courageous and selfless human being whose life was cut short by a group of barbarians.  

Kayla had an impressive record as a humanitarian activist, considering she was only 26 when she died.  She volunteered for various organizations in India, Israel, Africa, at home in Arizona.  She volunteered at a summer camp in Israel helping the African refugees, accompanied Palestinian families and children to school in the International Solitary movement, served in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for troubled youth, cared for the needy in the Food For Life organization in Vrindavan, India.  She led two silent walks and volunteered for three years in the Save Darfur Coalition, and helped Syrian refugees in Turkey in Support for Life, an international aid organization.  These are just a few of numerous humanitarian aids Kayla had worked for in her brief life.  She was the millennial of the world.

I am not going to venture into religion to try to explain Kayla’s death.  It is always nonsense, in my opinion, to think of someone like Kayla’s life as predetermined by some master plan.  No God, especially an omnipotent and an utmost loving and caring one, in my opinion, would allow a child with such purity, such good intentions, to lose 18 months of her young life living among evil, then to lose her life for good.  He wouldn’t teach Kayla any good lesson through this, nor would he give me more faith in his omnipotent ability to run a world with justice and love.  

A long discussion about religions might irritate many of my very religious friends or family members, but I simply do not believe in a punishing God, one who would send you to a horrendous death if you don’t believe in his teaching.  It would not explain why horrendous things happen to good people with great faith.  Kayla believed strongly in her God, until the end, and she still died in such horrible way.  As a caring and loving parent, I hope my child will carve a path leading him to safety and joy.  If I can design a path for him to follow, it would not be one where he would suffer greatly, physically and emotionally, before he perishes.  We are on this earth, with our own free will, to design the life we would like to become.  

We are given a finite amount of time to learn about who we are, to create our purpose of existence to make it a meaningful one for us.  About the only lesson I accept from Kayla’s fate is recognition of the stark contrast between good and evil.  Her love and devotion to those who suffer,versus the insanity of the blood thirsty ISIS militants, shines light on humanity.  It’s like watching a beautiful rainbow after a storm.  The grayer the sky, the more beautiful the rainbow.  

Kayla, like all of us, carved her own path.  She lived, she loved, she died.  Her love might not have been for a husband she will never have the chance to marry, for the children she will never have.  Her love for humanity, however, had led her to areas where she witnessed suffering, life and death, love and loss, courage and triumph of all those she was helping.  She witnessed their lives as if they were her own.  She experienced so much more than most others of her age (like me at 26), who are too busy pursuing their own future and dreams of living a good, full life.  As Sartre once stated, we are responsible for our actions.  We create our image of being a hero or a villain by our own action.  At the end, in that final act, as our game is up, the world will determine who we are, by our action.   

Kayla was among the rare heros, especially at such young age.  Her life was cut short, but she still left behind a long lasting effect on the world.  A meaningful life does not depend on how long we live, but how we lived it.  Maybe the prison guards to whom Kayla taught crafts fondly thought of her when they heard of or witnessed her death.  Maybe she changed some of them by showing her humanity.  Maybe she taught them, in her compassionate, courageous and gentle way, what humanity meant.  Maybe she did not die in vain as some people have expressed.  It was not a waste of a life.  The world needs more young people like Kayla, as they may lead the world to have fewer ISIS militants or followers.  The contrast between good and evil, taught by Kayla, was so clear.  Who would want to be on the side of evil, if they understand the true meaning of good and evil? 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

                                              Martin Luther King Jr.

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