Thursday, August 25, 2011

Community and Tragedy

This piece was published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette a few days ago. 

Death possesses an unnatural ability of devouring positivity while, at the same time, pulling people toward one another. The sense of community one feels while attending a funeral — brothers and sisters of a town, a church, a family joining together to mourn — sears through the soul like lasers slicing rock. And as those present weep waterfalls of despair, strength gathers, and it gloriously lifts them into neighborly salvation.

I recently attended the funeral of a fallen son of my town. I had not known him too well, but his family had been close to ours for some time. Thus, I felt compelled to attend for three reasons: out of love, respect, and obligation. And his death — he was only 23, a year older than me — slammed me with a powerful shock.

My senses tingled with trepidation and gloom as I bore witness to the above. Colleagues consoled. Families hugged. Friends supported. The priest spoke a mellifluent lament on the darkness of death. He implored those in attendance to reflect on the joyous moments now at rest in the past. Again, community coalesced from whence pain had reigned.

Seeing members of the crowd comfort one another moved my heart. I started to see the beautiful amidst all the agony.

A woman read a letter the deceased had penned to his parents and sisters a year or two ago. In it, he discussed the radiance he felt in connecting to his new compatriots — the military. He had found his purpose. No banality and monotony for the sake of monetary means here. No, this letter told the story of a man who had found the life he needed to be living. For once, he said, he could be proud of himself.

A penetrating pang ran through the congregation. This had touched souls.

The pallbearers gingerly lifted the casket and carried it to the door. People proudly held flags high and waved them to and fro as the cantors solemnly sang “God Bless America.” Then, all who had come to say goodbye began to disperse, some to cars that would carry them to the cemetery. Others left to fulfill different obligations.

As I left, I continued to reflect on the proceedings. Why, I wondered, must it take tragedy to bring about community? Shouldn’t we be neighborly to others at all times? To me, such questions described the integral nature of our country. We exist together, and we can do nothing alone.

We live in such an isolated age. Gone are the days when friends would saunter to doorsteps and ring bells. Communication involves typing and staring. Voices stay silent as telephones gather dust — unless, of course, one uses them to text.

I continued to consider the same questions, except now I viewed them in a global context. I thought of Norway. Many in the West ignore history and place. It would not be absurd to think that some may never have heard of Norway before terror struck. This distressed me. How can one be expected to fully engage the past and future without knowledge of nations and peoples? Years ago, it would be unfounded to assume people knew nothing of the world. Grandfathers surely would scold children and demand them to study.

We will not exist for much longer if we continue to be so selfishly alone. We will not care for our neighbor, as we will never look up from the ubiquitous screen. Serious need will go unnoticed. Pixar understands this plight. “Wall-E,” the studio’s critically acclaimed film from 2008, depicted obese, hedonistic individuals who floated around on hover bikes. They ordered things from the screens on these vehicles to gussy up. Their heads permanently craned downward. Until prods pulled them from their virtual traps, they had noticed no one else around them.

This, too, could be our fate if we allow it to be so. But we must act before such a nefarious future transpires.

We must shut off the television and send Snooki and friends away. No longer can we allow the pull of such vapid programming to keep us alone. We must close the laptops and stop playing “Angry Birds.” We must let the iPod batteries drain and step outside to soak in the sun and the stars.

We can be active citizens once more and lend our fellow brothers and sisters a helping hand when they call for it — a return to attitudes that we once held dear.

Such is the aim of community.

During the funeral, a friend from high school sat next to me. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and we enjoyed catching up.

As we parted ways, he said, “Hopefully, we’ll see each other soon — under different circumstances, that is.”

I agreed.

And this is a lesson for us all.

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