Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's Tragic

"O Gertrude, Gertrude,
When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions."


Vic Chestnutt--"Sponge" (mp3)
Vic Chestnutt--"Where Were You" (mp3)

Sometimes the tragedies of the world become so overwhelming that I don't know what to do, don't what to think, don't know how to process. I mean, I'm just looking around right now, at photographs and videos, at maps, at a smattering of news stories, at email exchanges, even at distasteful jokes that are already surfacing, and I really cannot conceive of a single action that I should take. Checking in in that American, Internet way in Japan, in the Middle East, in South America, in Mexico, I am frozen.

It feels to me like the entire world is frozen. Okay, maybe not frozen, just wading through jello. Countries, even. Countries like ours know how to throw money, troops, resources, food, or pretty much anything else at a problem, but that's just it--we throw it. Much of the time, we throw whatever it is away. We seem to mobilize too slowly, too late. It doesn't get where it should go. It doesn't accomplish what it is supposed to.
Our country reminds me of the communication system that is much of the problem in the book (and film) Black Hawk Down. In trying to steer a convoy through Mogadishu to a helicopter crash site, an airplane flying overhead relays directions to a command helicopter flying beneath who then tells the lead vehicle in the convoy which way to turn. By the time the convoy gets the message, they have missed the turn they were supposed to make, make a later turn on command, and then get even more lost.

We are so wrapped up in the political ramifications of what we do that we cannot mobilize efficiently anywhere. You may think that I am referring to a particular, unnamed situation. I am not. I am merely staring on screens and phones at the latest round of tragedies.

A friend and I were sitting at lunch today, trying to work through our job frustrations and he asked me what we should do. I gave him the same answer that I gave a different friend at lunch yesterday: "We should do the best job that we can and then go home."

I know that is not particularly insightful or brilliant. I don't even know if I believe it.

But in this mini-society that we work in here, even if we could fix the problems that enter or affect our respective realms, there would still be so many beyond our grasp that I doubt that we would find much satisfaction from our small victories. We would either see each solution opening a new set of problems or we might look past the ones that affect us the most to the ones are even larger, even more systemic. Maybe I'm wrong. I also suspect it's pretty much the same everywhere. Maybe I'm wrong about that, too.

After two lunches like this, as kind of a half-joke, I sent my two lunch friends "The Serenity Prayer." You know how it goes:

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

It offers sound, if generalized, advice. Its opening statement is as powerful as it gets, were it only possible to know how to figure out the difference between those two parts of our lives. Certainly, wisdom worth asking for. That prayer, with its fixed gaze toward the next life, was to have been a nod to Billy's post yesterday as well.

But it got blocked from delivery by the school's firewall. "The Serenity Prayer." Blocked as spam.

I know that should be funny and ironic. But it hit me differently. It felt more like this layer of cyber-protection was yet another way that we are being controlled into inactivity, that the efforts to maintain what we have make us feel secure enough that we don't have to look outward. What was it about this innocuous poem that suggested to our technology that it was a threat?

Telling someone to do a good job and then go home is either wonderful, wise, if obvious, counsel or it is an extension of a kind of self-serving helplessness, a narcissistic defense. Tonight, I'm not sure which. Yes, I look around, locally and globally, and I don't know what to do. I go online and look at lists of what I can do, and they say nothing to me. Sending money, collecting t-shirts, offering prayers, wishing for regime change, begging for the disappearance of invisible, toxic clouds, all of that carries the same weightless futility. Tonight, I can only say to the world and its various peoples, I'm sorry for what is happening to you right now. I hope it gets better. That isn't much, I know.


troutking said...

Return of slugocide!

Billy said...

I somehow doubt that our grandparents struggled with this same sense of powerlessness. No TV. No Internet. They would have read about this several days after the fact in their local newspapers. They would not have seen all the mind-boggling video footage. They would not have felt so viscerally unhelpful.

So I guess I'm more perturbed that you don't seem to buy into the "Think Globally, Act Locally" mantra. When it comes to crises on national and global scales, I don't fret much over what I can or can't do. But when it comes to matters in my own home, in my workplace, in my church, in my town -- matters over which I could take risks and take stands -- I think those decisions should weigh on me and perhaps on occasion haunt me. And by "me" I mean "us."

Bob said...

Billy, I think the expression is "Drink Globally, Eat Locally."

Anonymous said...

I think the way to approach it is to actually do what you can do, but there is only so far you can go, you know. Bob, we can't just throw money at things, but if there is something asked for us to help with, and we can help it, then we should. And whats more important is that we talk about these things out loud, and we throw our thought support behind it, so that when these same things happen in our neck of the woods, when we actually can do something about it, that we do help and try to do something.