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As this column is being written they are still counting the bodies in Las Vegas. Two weeks prior we were performing the same task in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Before that it was the wrath of Irma, the missiles of North Korea and the growing stream of information about our sitting president’s team conspiracy with Russia to win an American election, all while that same president delighted in waging running battles against athletes, senators, embattled mayors in disaster zones and his own cabinet, via the superficial and impulsive use of Twitter.
Just before the Vegas shooting occurred, I finished bingeing the documentary miniseries “The Vietnam War.” The emotionally raw work of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick followed the timeline of my youth. As the last episode ended, I texted my three children and told them if they wanted to have a better understanding of the world in which their parents grew up, they should watch those 10 episodes.
My reaction to the agonizing images of the Vietnam era was an even greater recognition that I grew up in a time of utter chaos. A time when death and social disruption washed over every segment and aspect of our culture, all while hormones raged within. We were fighting a war in which we weren’t the heroes or winners, while at the same time watching the roles of race, gender, religion and politics in America evolve in a state of violent flux.
Oh, and hair. Hair was a big deal.
And while all of this was happening, our leaders were being killed, one after the other.
Lately, I’ve remarked to folks that this is the most confusing and frightening time I have witnessed in America since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those 13 days in 1962 were as fearful as it gets. I was only 9, but knew things were serious when my grandmother, who had lived through two world wars, turned to me after watching the news and asked me to kneel with her at the sofa and “pray for the world.”
Nothing captured the madness of those times like the Christmas break of my freshman year in high school. When holiday vacation began, the nuns were in habits and bore the names of obscure saints. The Mass was said in Latin by a priest who turned his back to you. And girls wore bras to school.
Upon a return to class in January of 1967, the nuns had lost their habits and changed their names to Sally. The priest had turned around and started speaking English. And the girls? They were wearing muslin blouses without uh … err … foundation garments.
Not since those times has our political discourse been so mean and divisive, our grip on civility so tenuous. Not since Vietnam has self-delusion and dishonesty been such a consistent part of the government mantra. And not since then have our leaders worked so hard to pull us apart rather than bring us together, for their venal gain.
So, what are we to do in a time of chaos? What is our recourse when every hour brings some new form of madness? Should we flee? Or, as my eldest said on the morning of the Vegas shootings, “I want to hide at the cabin forever.”
Well, the first thing we should do is lower the temperature among ourselves. We can be nice to each other, work to find things we have in common, rather than focus on what draws us apart and makes us snarl at each other like rabid jackals.
And maybe, if we can’t control the chaos of the world, we can at least tame our own lives. Surely that is a reflex we see. Never have yoga and meditation been more popular.
We can turn it off. One of the first things counselors tell patients with anxiety and depression is to stop watching the news. Good advice. Low music, a good book and a fire have provided a safe harbor for centuries.
And we can embrace the timeless values of our nation that counter chaos. Those things that have made us so strong for so long. Grace. Generosity of spirit. A belief in freedom for all. And gratitude mixed with courage in the face of those things that threaten the foundations of who we are.
And maybe we can pause for just a moment while counting bodies—to count our blessings.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.