We are enjoying another lovely late summer day here is Vermont. Yesterday was forecast to be warm and dry, yet was punctuated by drenching rain. Still, there was plenty of time to be outdoors and many people were out and about, especially in the evening. In the afternoon a small songbird flew onto the porch, perched at the former site of the robin nest, and sang.This was a difficult weekend in our country with our profound polarization being fed on all sides. Obscured by incessant inflammatory rhetoric are the real problems we face, including the disaffection of many of our young people, accelerating climate change, extreme social and income inequality, and persistent foreign and domestic terrorism. Each of these challenges threatens to amplify the others, while our politicians seem incapable of recognizing how these seemingly divergent problems are actually mutually reinforcing.
There is something profoundly abstract and distancing about our collective dissociation from the suffering and desperation of others, including those young people who are attracted to neo-Nazi ideas. Failures of empathy abound, and I am sure I am as guilty of them as the next person; there is much finger pointing and very little listening to the very real concerns of the great many who are injured or abandoned by our society.
I was reminded last evening that Micro-aggressions, everyday insults and barbs, abound, when I attended a concert of Elizabethan music at a local church. I walked around the side of the building to the disability entrance only to discover the door locked. I was left with a difficult decision, either climb a dozen steep steps to the sanctuary or forgo the concert; I decided to climb. When I entered the sanctuary I discussed the problem with the person taking tickets who told me that the door only opens from the inside and there was no one available to operate it. This omission of convenience essentially prohibited many persons with mobility challenges from attending the concert. Predictably, I paid a heavy physical and emotional price for my choice.
While painful, such moments also offer themselves as vehicles for laughter and I greatly enjoy humor that pokes fun at our culture’s innumerable micro-aggressions. As a result I am saddened by the passing today of Godfrey Cambridge. I will miss his succinct, profoundly humanizing attacks on their prevalence in daily life. I was introduced to his humor while in high school and found it transformative; I remain deeply grateful to him and wish more people knew his work.
In an opposing vein, I want to acknowledge the passing today of Jerry Lewis, who is receiving accolades for raising great sums of money for disability causes. Unfortunately there has been little criticism of his consistent mocking of those of us with disabilities, especially persons with spasticity, beginning with us Polio survivors. Let’s remember that Lewis made a lucrative career from degrading persons with disability, and teaching others to mock us as well. Even when he was raising funds for disabled causes, he did so by making us objects of disgust and pity, usually completely erasing our stories of resilience and courage.
It is healing to laugh, especially at ourselves. The best clowns are sacred beings because they point the way to Mystery while encouraging us to have empathy and compassion for ourselves and all others. If we are to find our collective way through this time of danger and upheaval, if we are to weave a sustainable dream, we must discover ways to actually listen to one anther’s concerns and take responsibility for the harm we cause each another. Gentle, pointed humor can help.