by Barry Edelson


When There is Nothing to Say,
Say Nothing

Strong wind, strong wind
Many dead, tonight it could be you
— Paul Simon, "Homeless"


On the morning after September 11, 2001, my wife and I left our home for a previously scheduled medical appointment. At the time, we were living on a busy, four-lane road, with no traffic light at the entrance to our development. As we waited to make a left turn, a man in an SUV approaching from the right stopped in the middle of the block to let us turn. It was unprecedented. In the shock of the moment, people were overwhelmed with humility and kindness. In the ensuing days, American flags sprouted from virtually every home, every building, every vehicle on the road. A sense of common humanity enveloped the country, and with it, the hope of an elusive national unity.

It didn't last.

The Tucson massacre on January 8 has once again evoked these feelings of hope and kindness within the context of unbearable sadness and mourning. A number of traumatic events in our history have had a similar effect, albeit temporarily: Pearl Harbor. The assassination of President Kennedy. Oklahoma City. It never lasts. Nonetheless, the desire to transcend the petty conflicts that mark our days must be very powerful if we forget each time how transient such moments always turn out to be. After this current bout of reflection passes, we will return to the way we were before, servants of our fears and prejudices. We will soon enough find reason to be angry or resentful towards those we so recently embraced, and to remember why we just don't like sharing the planet with certain other people.

There are occasions in our individual lives, and in the life of the nation, when one is prompted to say, "I just don't know what to say." When someone experiences a death of a close relative, for example, everyone takes a step back and gives that person a wide berth. We become tolerant of shortcomings that we normally find irksome. We see in their vulnerability something to be pitied rather than exploited. For a short while, we experience a shared humanity, realizing more keenly than usual that death comes to us all, and that when it is our turn to grieve we hope the same generosity will be extended to us. But what does one say or write to the bereaved that does not sound trite and useless? What do we say to one another to console ourselves on the injury to our nationhood? When words fail us at times like these, perhaps merely offering our presence and resisting the urge to be profound is the kindest thing that one can do.

It is a pitiful product of the digital age in which we find ourselves, for better or worse, that there are legions of individuals who profit from the dispensation of words, whose very livelihoods depend on their saying something about everything. There was a time in our history, not long ago, when we would have felt fortunate to listen just to the President, or our clergyman, or some other wise and authoritative person, and gratefully absorb his words as a means of clarifying our own troubled thoughts. Today, the President's words, however beautifully crafted and gently delivered, must compete with those of countless others who monopolize the soundwaves at every moment of every day. A week ago, six people were dead, including a nine-year-old girl, and a congresswoman was fighting for her life in the hospital, and all the chattering classes could manage were a few perfunctory words of sadness and condolence, followed by hours of finger-pointing and self-aggrandizement. The scripts could have been written in advance. Is it possible, a decade after September 11, that a descent into mayhem is no longer enough to distract politicians and pundits from their daily vitriol? Have we really and truly forgotten how to be silent in our sadness, to bow our heads and leave our opinions for another day? Shame on all of them for speaking at all when the moment so clearly called for quiet.

There are any number of issues that we could meaningfully debate in the aftermath of yet another horrific violent incident: the state of mental health care, gun control, ugly political rhetoric. However, to come to a better understanding of our human condition, perhaps we might benefit from asking ourselves why, if we are capable of behaving humanely at certain times, are we not capable of behaving humanely at all times? Why are we unable to treat every other person every day as if his or her mother just died? Why do we consistently reject our own moral convictions in favor of selfish advantage? What is it about the rest of our lives that is so compelling that we are unable to retain the feeling we have every Christmas eve, when our cares dissolve in the fading light, when we feel as though we could trust one another with our joys and sorrows, and the promise of charity seems tantalizingly within reach? Why is decency an anomaly in our lives and suspicion the norm, and not the other way around?

In her novel "Fugitive Pieces," Anne Michaels wrote, "There's nothing a man will not do to another and there is nothing a man will not do for another." We would profit from contemplating this duality in our natures, and considering what it would it take in our daily lives to tip the balance from cruelty to caring.

Enough. Too many words have already been wasted this week.

January 16, 2011


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