Sunday we had the privilege of watching our son Evan graduate from the University of Washington. We were there mostly for those five seconds his name would be called and he would walk across the stage. For the other 3+ hours, we hoped for something that would make it a little easier to sit there.
We got it in the form of a commencement address by noted author, poet, and screenwriter Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian. Someone should add comedian to that triad of adjectives. He brought a perfect mix of serious and funny to that hot crowded gym.
He began by noting the paradox of celebrating and being joyful in light of the mass murder of 49 young men in Orlando the day before. It really is the great paradox of life. Tragedy and joy occur simultaneously, parallel to each other in our world. Do we focus on grief or focus on joy? Many us feel like we are betraying one when choosing the other. He said it felt wrong to choose joy in the face of such tragedy.
The answer to the dilemma came from his 14-year old son. “Isn’t this a college graduation?” he asked. “Then you must choose joy, Dad. You must choose joy today.” There truly is a time for every purpose under heaven.
The lens we look through must be big enough to include both. We have to be able to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. Our time spent in grief must, at some point, match our time spent in joy or we get unbalanced. Lack of balance throws us off and makes us walk with a limp.
Sherman told a story of needing to go through brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. When he finally woke up after surgery, he saw everyone standing around him, including the head of surgery, an eastern Indian doctor. His first thought was to tell his doctor an “inappropriate joke.”
“I bet it’s the first time an Indian ever scalped an Indian.” No one even cracked a smile. He thought maybe something was seriously wrong with him. His wife came over to him and gently leaned down. He panicked over what she was going to tell him. “Sherman, you’ve told that joke 11 times,” she said. Ah, he thought, the power of a good anesthetic drug!
He said the point is that everyone needs a good editor. Go ahead and tell an inappropriate joke if that keeps your sense of humor alive. But only tell it once. Keep someone in your corner who will edit you if need be. Make sure your sense of humor equals your sense of grief. Grieve when you must, but chase the joy that’s all around you the other times. Chase the joy. Whenever possible, chase the joy.
I got some valuable instruction at a college graduation yesterday. And some much needed laughter for my saddened soul.