"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I Claim No Tears for Monsters, yet...

A Post Before I Celebrate Mother's Day

“For pleasures past I do not grieve,
Nor perils gathering near;
My greatest grief is that I leave
No thing that claims a tear.”

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, ll. 178-81
Many have passed away this week--some who deserved more mention than they received. But that is not what I mean to critique. It is fit that the death of a single monster draws our fascination, gives us pause, and causes our deeper nature to surface. We can learn from this. We might not. But we can.

Like millions, I listened as President Obama announced the death of a monster. Immediately I felt mixed emotions. It took days for me to hash out how I really felt. When I did, I summed up my reaction in a text message to a friend. She asked how my life was going. Here was my reply:

“Well, nothing too noteworthy. ...Got some good TV reception and started to watch CSI: Miami, but then something happened in the world y’know, and Horatio Caine got preempted for a speech that felt strangely like the ending of a good CSI episode.”
The police procedural is one of the most entertaining and simultaneously trite forms of storytelling. That is why we relish cop shows, even finding them comforting. We need to believe that tough cases can be solved and villains can be defeated.

Still, as I watched the President announce a monster’s demise, I did so with a seasoned admiration. He spoke as a proud American. Yet he spoke soberly, suggesting we had won a single round in an ongoing fight. He also spoke as one who knows what it means to order death. And so his speech, rich in somber nostalgia for 9/11, was darkened by the shadow of having employed reciprocal brutality.

Why does any person aspire to be president? Especially when one of the few guarantees of the job is that you will be called upon to order the killing of other humans. Why would anybody want such a position? Why would they seemingly thirst for it as candidates often do?

Perhaps it is a generic urge for power and success, a desire to be the center of attention. I have to think it is related to the same urge that led many college students to hustle over to the White House gates and hold a football-style pep rally. Waving uncouth signs and chanting trite cheers, they looked like fools to me. Only fools would revel after just hearing that our military had invaded a sovereign nuclear power and initiated hostilities with residents there.

I confess feeling a bit of pleasure after hearing the news, even as I considered how I had helped pay the wages of the warrior who put a bullet in the monster’s brain. But this monster was also a man, a husband (several times over), and a father whose son was close by. He was not an alien. In fact, down at the genetic level, he was almost indistinguishable from any other human. That ought to haunt us. Else we risk not learning from it.

I do not claim a tear for this fallen terrorist. I--we--have shed so many for our fellow humans he murdered. But I also draw a lesson from history. Heroic gun fights, and the barbaric celebrations that happen after, are not the cessation of anything except a few souls. Rather, these events comprise the eve of whatever comes next.

Today is Mother’s Day. Like many holidays, it gets me musing about the types of lives and events we tend to celebrate. Some are worthier than others. Hopefully, more and more, we will cultivate fascination for lives spent waging benevolence, instead of lives given over to the rhapsodizing of feuds. Such are the lives which can and should claim our tears when they cease.


  1. I've saved the Byron poem. That is beautiful. Excellent post!

  2. I'm glad you appreciated the post. By way of background, the poem excerpt above is actually part of a larger song that Childe Harold sings onboard a sailing vessel during the first night of his pilgrimage. His journey begins as an act of self-exile, hence the melancholy of the above verse.