RFKMLKThis morning I read Richard Cohen’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Intolerable Cruelty. Putting my confirmation bias on the table, I’ll say up front that a number of Cohen views are also my own. They resonate deep within. You’ll find no interest here on my part to engage others on Trump’s virtues or lack thereof. To be clear, I believe Donald Trump to be a rogue, megalomaniacal narcissist, who possesses the resources (read: butt load of cash) to feed his psychoses in front of the masses. I have (hopefully) a much less developed narcissistic megalomania in me, and, coupled with (definitely) less capital, my damage can be mitigated in this world. Trump is emotionally nuclear, and the implications for a Presidency of similar description are quite clear.

What really struck me in the piece was this paragraph,

Trump has his charms. But he’s a towel-snapper — a rich kid who has always had it easy. He has never had the character-building setbacks that sometimes season the callow — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polio or Robert F. Kennedy’s loss of his brother John, for instance. These are the sorts of things that reduce the rich to the powerlessness of the poor. Trump has none of that. He lives in a pre-Copernican world of his own. The sun revolves around him.

It made me think that Trump has either chosen to appear unaffected by suffering in his life — we all have it in one form or another — or, he was shaped by it in a way that both handicaps him and gives him personal force. I get that, and see similar leanings on both counts in myself. This surely must explain at least some of DJT’s appeal. He touches on topics and feelings that come from an unproductive or stunted response to suffering. But RFK…

Somewhere in my transformation from a robotic follower of all things conservative to striving to be a critical, independent thinker, I rediscovered the recorded speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. This one in particular:

This is an example of what Cohen wrote about. RFK used wisdom gained from torturous, dripping pain to help give productive focus to the suffering of his listeners. Months later, RFK was killed, it would seem, because his own torrential suffering gave him hope that political and economic systems could be shaped to put shoulder to the anguish of others. That was too threatening to the view of the American Dream, of American Culture, of perhaps American Exceptionalism that was held by some in his day.

Not so with Trump. He foments base-level responses to pain in his audiences. He may occasionally touch on something true or real (“even a broken clock…”), but his manner in doing so, and his end game, is to ride anger, bigotry, fear, and anti-intellectualism straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Someone once said that if you have all compassion and no truth, you are half way there. But, if you have all truth and no compassion, you are less than nowhere. So, it follows that care for others sets the table for straight talk. In Kennedy’s speech, he spoke extremely difficult things to a crowd of mostly Black Americans, difficult even more so because he was White. He was able to do so because the insufferable droplets of pain upon his own heart produced not only wisdom, but also deep compassion. All these years later, it is still beautiful to observe.

I want a candidate who has much more RFK in them than DJT. I always will.

Greeting Death Like An Old Friend

harry-potter-the-deathly-hallows-could-have-turned-out-so-differently-if-j-k-rowling-634691Today in my inveterate Facebook scrolling, I came across an interview with Maurice Sendak, by NPR’s Terry Gross. It was his last such interview. He had this unique marriage of sadness at the loss that death inevitably brings to the living, with a seeming lack of fear of it for himself. He was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife, yet felt sure that he would see his brother who preceded him in death. I appreciate and respect the dichotomy. We are not all a smooth system of beliefs. It also made me think of my own experience.

When I was four years old, my mother sat me on her lap to tell her that one of her older brothers, my Uncle Billy, had died. I cried, asked questions, and my mom helped me as best she could. It was some good parenting on my mom’s part. Uncle Billy, only in his early 40’s, was the life of the party, and a hard working, loving father and husband. My little soul didn’t understand why this would happen, and couldn’t begin to comprehend the grief that I would witness in the coming days. The hushed sadness that attends the wake of a life taken too soon. The gut level weeping of my beautiful Aunt Peggy that screamed out in rage against her brother’s death. Little did I know that my family knew death already, in ways that I still struggle to wrap my head around.

In the early 1960’s, my Mom’s two younger brothers, Tommy and Barney, were working together on the Hoboken Police Force. In a traffic stop that turned into an attempt to apprehend a car thief and recover a stolen vehicle, Tommy fired his weapon to try and disable the vehicle, but instead accidentally struck Barney in the head as he dove out of the way of the oncoming car. Barney died. Tommy was never the same – how could he be? Death came too soon.

I grew up only knowing one grandparent, as my mother’s mother had died while I was in utero, my father’s mother in the late 1940’s, and my father’s father while I was a baby, struck by a hit and run driver. None of them made it past their late 60’s.  My mother’s father, the one living grandparent I knew, died when I was nine. Death came too soon.

One year and three months after my Grandpa’s death, the news came that my own father had been killed in an accident at work. He was a month shy of his 53rd birthday. To say that my relationship with him was difficult would be a serious understatement, yet the sense of loss and life change to a ten year old was profound. The smells and sounds of that day are forever burned in my memory, along with the absolute gaping sense that death came too soon. It was uninvited.

As the youngest of ten children, many in my extended family were quite old – great aunts and uncles, distant cousins, their near circle of friends. When they died — their deaths seemed to occur in rapid fashion — most had lived full lives, and the pain of loss was different. Present, yes, though somehow muted, like sad music played softly in an adjoining room. Death seemed in those cases somewhat more well mannered. Then came Cheryl.

I was a young teenager when I learned that my friend Cheryl and her boyfriend, Bob, were killed in a car accident. An elderly gentleman had become disoriented, gotten on a major highway heading against traffic, and struck Cheryl and Bob head on. Cheryl was not my best friend, but was she was a light. She filled a room with her joy, as if she had been given an extra serving of whatever it is that makes us human. Death was so rude, so selfish, so callous – it invited itself to a party that should have gone on for sixty or seventy more years.

Somehow, that blow was like a hammer to a stake in my living heart, deadening it, while at the same time making me more keenly aware of the life that remained. I sat in the dust of a philosophical crossroads for many years after that, allowing death to shape me. And shape me, it did, though not in the usual way.

In my late teens, I re-heard the story of Jesus. He was a good and beautiful human, whose only crime was showing others clearly what death had wrought for millenia. He invited people to Cheryl’s party, a vibrant and vivacious romp through life which, though spotted with pain and suffering, was to be spent in community, where no one needed to be left alone to contemplate their mortality. Jesus’ reward for his transforming life was death. He angered the death eaters of his day, the soul-sucking dementors who sapped life from others to pad their own. They had death on speed dial, and Jesus made their fingers itchy.

Now, I am a man of Christian faith, though I live and believe it imperfectly. Unlike Jesus, I have invited proverbial death into the lives of those near me at times, over which I mourn. Yet, it is the perspective of Jesus that has instructed me best. I’ve come to see that death brings life. He saw his own death as a door that would lead to the healing of the world. The kingdom in which many of us inherently hope, would rush in, that death would be sent home with a copy of Emily Post, and the ache of unfulfilled longings salved.

It would be better if Cheryl never died. If my loving and doting aunts and uncles were still here, life would be fuller and richer. My grandpa was so special – he should still be with us. Even my unhappy, angry dad, it would have been better for him not to have died. Uncle Barney and Uncle Tommy should still be here (Tommy died at 48). Uncle Billy? No question. His wife and five children would have been so much better off had he remained. Even Maurice Sendak – our lives would have so much more whimsey in them if he were still writing. But, in the end, I would never have written this had he not passed. And if writing this helps one person see death differently, following the model of Jesus, a new door has been opened because of it.

The Incomprehensible Nature of Suffering


“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” – Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms)

I was in the 5th grade. He lived with Pam Dawber. LIVED! My jealousy knew no bounds, but I liked him, too. He may have been the only dude — be it a dude from a planet named Ork — that I would have trusted Mindy with.  Mindy was MAJOR TV crush material.

Suffering really makes no sense. If you are the type who will now reel off quotes that tidily sum up the meaning of suffering, don’t. I will cut you. Go hang out with Matt Walsh, that odd little internet troll who has a habit of being as harsh and insensitive as possible about topics that require precisely the opposite. I will cut him, too.  (Not really.  I don’t cut people.)

Robin Williams suffered from depression and addiction, and he lived an amazing life with that darkness as his constant companion.  I know that darkness, because I suffer from depression, too.  I don’t know Robin Williams’ depression exactly, but I know it enough.

If you have ever suffered from depression, or suffer under it now:

You know what it’s like not be able to physically move because of the emotional pain inside you.  

You have hidden from the most basic responsibilities, because they seemed huge and frightening.  

There has been a time you shut the emotional door, and possible a physical one, on everyone in your life.

You have felt small, insignificant, useless, and as helpless as possible.

You know what it’s like to see yourself as a burden to even those closest and dearest to you.

You’ve experienced well-meaning, but wrongheaded people, who have hurt you in your pain.

And you may have contemplated deeply what the world would be like without you.

At first glance, you might think that Matt Walsh is just a ballsy blogger who stirs up a bit of trouble with his controversial take on cultural events, trends, and issues particular to the Christian church. As his latest blog about Robin Williams and depression proves, though, this is not the case. He writes for those who already agree with him. What he posts is misguided. It’s damaging. It is too near the events to not hurt those involved.  And it patronizes those who are fighting for their lives.

I don’t really want to bash him personally, because I truly don’t believe that people are all good or all bad, or categorically one thing. We are all an amazing amalgam of mended bone and broken soul, joyful love and filthy habits.  So I will say simply that in this instance, Matt Walsh has missed the mark, spoken when he should have listened, lectured when he should have sympathized, and feigned empathy in ignorance, or perhaps to validate his argument. I find it particularly distasteful, at best.

Here is the truth. In the midst of suffering, particularly suffering that seems to originate from inside yourself, the last thing you need is someone to poke their head into your prison cell and say, “Never give up the fight.  There is always hope.” I never needed that when I suffered, and I wanted punch the people who said those things square in the face.  What I needed was someone to enter my prison cell, sit down next to me, and, when I was ready, walk through my pain with me.

Don’t speak. Listen. Don’t lecture. Sympathize. Don’t pretend to understand. Enter in. That’s what suffering people need.