Yesterday was my 30th birthday. It was a good one by any standard of birthday goodness, but especially by the measure of December-in-New-England birthdays. Neither weather nor flu nor holiday bustle cramped my ability to connect with people I care about in some genuinely lovely ways, and I felt spoiled rotten and enveloped by love all day long. For me, personally, it was a very good day, but…
December 16, 2014 was not a good day. It will be remembered by history, in fact, as a #BlackDay, because in Peshawar, 141 innocent people, 132 of them children, were slaughtered.
What possible justification for this pointless violence could be beggars the imagination. And in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the strangulation of Eric Warner by officers sworn to uphold public safety and the failure of grand juries to indict either of the officers responsible for their deaths in order to allow full trials to sort out what happened in each case, it’s clear to me that America has plenty to hang her head in shame for as well.
My news feeds are full of horror and injustice. If you buy the premise of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, things are better than they were (at least in terms of percentages of populations): humans are less violent than they once were and continue to be less violent. I am persuaded by his argument, but the fact that, by percentages, we’re less bloodthirsty than our ancestors does nothing to comfort the grieving families of Michael Brown or Eric Warner or any of the 141 victims in Peshawar. We have further to go. Much, much further.
And here’s the thing: we are capable of being better. So here’s the transformative lie that I’m going to tell, not to sweep the horrors under the carpet and not to forget our unforgivable sins for an instant, but to give us all a truth to aspire to: we are defined by the beauty and good we bring to the world.
So let’s consider other 16ths of December that have brought better things to the world.
1770: Ludwig van Beethoven was born. I would wager that even those of you who aren’t fans of classical music still recognize his name and probably hum certain of his melodies absentmindedly from time to time because his influence in western culture lingers on. And let’s talk about the drive to create beauty in adversity: Beethoven composed this beloved piece (and many others) after he had lost his hearing.
1775: Jane Austen was born. Austen is the master of the insult so refined that the victim would be apt to thank her for the compliment before realizing the intent. This knack for subversive humor is what makes me love her work: her social commentary was presented via the sort of romance novels popular for her day, and while one might not see anything quite resembling modern feminism in her plots, her commentary on both class and the ludicrous necessity of marriage for women to get by was and is an important voice in favor of a change we’re still working through. Also: she’s funny.
1866: Wassily Wasilyevich Kandinsky was born. Kandinsky turned his back on a career as an attorney to pursue art. He left Russia to be free to practice art without the restrictions of communism-turned-fascist. He was one of the earliest artists to work with purely abstract forms.
And let’s not forget Margaret Mead (1901), Arthur C. Clarke (1917), or Quentin Blake (1932), to name just a few fascinating people who were born on December 16th and made a positive, memorable impact on the world.
And then, the events…Charlie Chaplin signed with Keystone to start his beloved film career (1913). “Vortex” by Noel Coward (another Dec. 16 birthday, for that matter) premiered in London (1924). Gemini 6 returns to Earth and Pioneer 6 is launched into orbit (1965). The insanely long version of “American Pie” we all collectively know enough parts of to sing the entire thing if we’re in a large enough group was released (1971).
I won’t lie. In looking for these events, I found a much longer list of tragedies and acts of violence. We are primed, I guess, to focus on the worst we have to offer as far as the histories are concerned. It’s understandable. We need to confront the violence and gross failures of justice to create change. But there is beauty and thoughtfulness and laughter and kindness to be had from humanity too and, I believe, as we fight for a better world, we must not think that art and science and kindness are anything less than our best weapons: if we want a better world, we need to be better ourselves. I believe that peace will come from cleverness and compassion, not the barrel of a gun. I believe that our best hope is to work harder at creating a world that understands on a gut level what a joy life can be when we are unutterably lovely to one another.
So…I have no answer, no solution, no explanation, no excuse for Peshawar, but while we slog forward, I will be doing my best to be kind and to add pleasant things to the world in hopes that it will, if nothing else, provide some small signal amplification for the reminder of what we have it in us to be.