August 1, 2012

No laughing matter

As Albert Brooks tweeted last week, “Sometimes the news overwhelms your desire to joke about it.” And there have been a lot of news stories lately that have put me off my jokes.

Into a world on the brink of economic and environmental collapse comes news of a string of local murders, a university’s football program brought to its knees by a pedophile coach, and a deranged student shooting up a Colorado movie theater.

It’s enough to make you want to crawl into the fetal position, listen to a Ray Lamontagne marathon and cry for a week or two.

Some people believe that everything happens for a reason. I am not one of those people. And some people believe that unspeakable acts can have a net positive result by inspiring a greater good in the long run. I am also not, generally speaking, one of those people. At this writing, it’s too early to say exactly what I believe about James Holmes and Jerry Sandusky, but I’m pretty sure their actions were preventable by a society that chooses, far too often, to look the other way.

Yes, the NRA’s argument that the Second Amendment extends to assault weapons has more holes than a person shot with one. We’re trying to build a “well-regulated militia” that can compete with our own government (which has tanks and drones and nukes, mind you). We’re in an arms race with ourselves!

And yes, leaders like John Yarmuth should be commended for standing up to the gun lobby and its profitable, bloodthirsty corporate motives.

And yes, people who excuse college coaches for any and all obscene transgressions should ask themselves where it ends.

I’ve articulated my grievances with Big Guns and Big Sports in this space before and dug out from under the avalanche of hate mail that followed. But in this summer of tragedy, I’ve got no rant in me — only heartbreak.

Most of the people who were shot in Aurora were in their 20s, a time in life that is full of hope, excitement and the optimistic notion that a midnight movie is a place you can go without getting gunned down in a military-style rampage.

My own son and daughter are in their 20s and they and their friends are also trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. Like all parents, I thought first of my kids. I would like to reassure them that it’s the price we pay to live in an open society. That everything is OK.

But it’s not OK. We are in many ways abandoning their generation. We let the robber barons leave too many young adults unemployed or under-employed and hopeless and in despair. We look the other way while mountaintops disappear, food becomes toxic, sexual deviants molest children, war comes to our megaplexes, and while high-definition war games and 900 channels of TV violence distract us from our own dismal failure to form a peaceful and just society.

My heart breaks for those people who lost their lives and for those families whose lives are forever changed. And yet on we go in America, doing the same things and expecting different results.

But when current events get cynical, the cynical can get compassionate. And so I’ve been trying to fight back with kindness. Even if it’s mostly an illusion, you can sometimes offset the world’s harshness with some kind words here, some extra patience there and a few compliments tossed in. You can help mend others’ wounds with hugs (but — and I cannot stress this enough — only after confirming beyond a shadow of a doubt that they want you to hug them).

So instead of pausing for a moment of silence and then cracking jokes about gun nuts, child rapists and sports culture run amok, I made modest donations to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and The Center for Women and Families. These were selfish acts, not generous ones. And they felt better than gallows humor, even though they are mostly symbolic drops in the bucket against the mighty financial prowess of the NRA and Big Sports. But in some small way I’m trying to say to the victims’ parents: My kids are OK. I’m so sorry yours aren’t.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca tweeted in 58 AD, “He that does good to another does good also to himself.”

Let’s meet back here in two weeks. I hope we can laugh again then.