Humor has traditionally been a safe haven. But on January 7 in Paris, two masked men gunned down the editorial staff at the French satire publication, Charlie Hebdo. They killed the court jesters. A day later, in Salt Lake City, the troubadour was killed.
—by Greta Belanger deJong
“Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity,” wrote Joe Randazzo for MSNBC the next day. Randazzo is a former editor at The Onion, a US equivalent to Charlie Hebdo.
“Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.”
“The most positive act I can conceive of right now is to love some satire today,” I wrote in that week’s CATALYST Weekly Reader. “Appreciate our own Pat Bagley, cartoonist for the Salt Lake Tribune. Check in with The Onion. Watch Jon Stewart. Read Mark Twain. Bring out the old Monty Python skits. Love the silly and the brave. Learn to take a joke. It’s important to maintain respect for that capacity, even when it’s no laughing matter.”
* * *
A day later, in Salt Lake City, the troubadour was killed.
James Barker, a local musician who lived with a traumatic brain injury acquired while surfing in Panama, was approached as a vagrant and shot by a police officer a block away from the home he’d owned and lived in for the past decade.
Many who saw only the action-filled final moments from the bodycam film, as shown on several TV newscasts, thought the dude had it coming. Those who watched the full, unedited version, in which he agreed to go but refused to give his name saw a dozen ways this tragedy could have been averted.
Solutions are being discussed (see story, p. 6). What’s needed from all of us right now is compassion. I offer this exercise (from the book ReSurfacing: Techniques for Exploring Consciousness). Do it twice ~ once for James, and once for the police officer.
1. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for his life.
2. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his life.
3. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
4. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill his needs.
5. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: Just like me, this person is learning about life.
To the extent that we can grow compassion in ourselves, compassion will grow in our community and the world. There’s plenty of people to practice on. Time to get started.
* * *
I need to listen to my own words.
In mid-January, I hosted a going-away party for my stepdaughter Rachel, who is moving to China. It was a lively party, and in spite of periodic outdoor sound checks, a neighbor, citing the noise ordinance, reported us to the police.
This is a house of conviviality. Seeing a policeman on the front porch every other year has never been a threat, but rather a sign to wind things down. This year, the young man at the door was gruff. It was odd. I thanked him for his efforts and extended my hand. He looked at it, then turned away. “Get those people out of there,” he said.
This sounded rude. I felt insulted.
“Imagine if you were black,” my wise friend Monica said matter-of-factly when I recounted the incident. “You have no idea what he’s dealt with this week.”
Of course I had righteous justifications. But Monica was absolutely right. Whatever was eating that cop had nothing to do with me. This was my opportunity to practice some of that compassion I’d written about; to enlist the aid of the unseen forces.
The joke part came later in the week when I learned that, a few doors down the street, there had been a really raucous party that night. Who knows which one had been reported? Theirs may have been louder, but mine had more blinky lights and drew attention first, giving my rowdy neighbors time to quiet down.
I’m coming to the conclusion that earthly justice is an illusion. We do our best to communicate but there’s always another side, a bigger picture, a plot we don’t have a clue to. From court jesters to troubadors to those who threaten and those who protect, understanding is a noble goal, one worth striving toward. Compassion—putting ourselves in the other person’s proverbial shoes, even if we make up the story— is a pretty solid technique for getting there. Practice, practice.
Greta Belanger deJong is the founder, editor and publisher of CATALYST.