When Huckleberry Finn completes his great autobiographical novel, he comments, “I am rotten glad of it.” This is the week that, if I read the internet and other media correctly, many of our fellow Americans feel the same way about the year 2020. They seem to imagine themselves emerging from a tidal race into the open sea; everything ahead will be smoother sailing. They anticipate eagerly the departure of the current executive, along with his pirate crew, cross their fingers for a victory in Georgia next week and feel cautiously confident that the coming year will see the defeat of the novel coronavirus and the lifting of social restrictions.
Some of that actually might happen. Wonders, it is said, never cease. But far too many of us, engaged and embroiled in this still-youthful republican experiment, clearly want more than our share of its benefits and are willing to push aside others, equally entitled, to get it. If that ethos dominates any society for very long, that society’s eventual end in confusion is certain.
Thus it’s a happy excitement to see the videos and read the stories of so many people, probably most of them volunteers, working long hours in food distribution lines and soup kitchens — some of them even outdoors in the cold, near tent villages of homeless people. It’s a counterpoint to the situation in Washington: What to my untrained eye appears to be a hornets’ nest that some boy has mischievously stirred up with a long stick — the difference being that the hornets, at least, have a common goal and our representatives (and employees) in Washington do not.
One leader, apparently, has promised that, if he remains in power, nothing the opposition proposes will even come to the floor, let alone a vote. This, presumably, is the fruit of 100 years of progress since W.B. Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The legacy of unquestioned white supremacy lives on — for now — and in its declining throes appears as ugly as it ever has. It’s easy to see why so many evangelicals are passionate about the prospect of the return of their savior.
About 20 years ago, my wife and her co-teacher of a Sunday school class invented a little boys’ game called “I Can Stop the Hurt.” It was beautifully simple. All the boys in the class — they were about 8 years old — stood in a circle, shoulder to shoulder. One boy began the game by punching the boy on his left on the shoulder. That boy passed it on, a little bit harder, and so it went all around the circle. You could tell it smarted.
“Now, all you have to do to stop the game,” the teacher told them, “is when it comes your turn, you just say, ‘I can stop the hurt,’ and don’t pass it on. And the game’ll be over.”
Well, that was dumb. These were little boys, raised on Wheaties and the anticipation of testosterone. That punch went round and round. Before long, you could tell by their faces and the glint of a few tears that it was really beginning to hurt. Still, there was no apparent end to it. But all at once, one of them took the risk of being branded a sissy — a tremendous risk among boys that age — and blurted, “I can stop the hurt!” The game was over. The relief on the faces around him was palpable and from that moment, he became the acknowledged, if tacit, leader of that class. Kids recognize courage at least as quickly as do the rest of us.
The coming weeks present a rare opportunity for the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of arms, with an almost obscene, ancient-Roman fear of insecurity and need for dominance, to see beyond its current divisiveness and social deterioration; to see beyond retribution; to exercise restraint rather than its overpowering might; to transcend what is and embrace the vision of what could be. Some of the best advice my young bride and I got, about 60 years ago, was from a beloved Italian aunt: “You kids fight too much about things that really don’t matter.”
If only somebody would choose to stop the hurt.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.