Tragedy and joy in delicate balance. We all know the feeling.
A week ago, we flew to Allentown for the Bat Mitzvah of our niece. Our last trip had been for tragedy, as we traveled there on a moment’s notice for the funeral of our niece, the Bat Mitzvah’s sister, who succumbed to bulimia at the age of 19. Her body was so depleted of electrolytes that the impulses that regulate heart and brain simply ceased. She and her parents had taken every therapeutic step to intervene in her disease. It was not meant to be.
Perhaps it was serendipity, or perhaps just more raging chaos, but I mindlessly flipped through the channels in the motel on the eve of her funeral. In the nanosecond that it took to jump from C-SPAN to SpongeBob, my attention was riveted by the image of a young grunge, fingers deep down his throat, inducing himself to vomit into a fishbowl. Once, twice, then, with what seemed to be a gallon of water, he puked up a goldfish to the hoots of a gaggle of associate grunges. Then he held the fishbowl victoriously aloft, just as I remember Bobby Hull jubilantly hoisting the Stanley Cup skyward in the glory days of my beloved Blackhawks..
Here I watch some moron gain a moment’s celebrity with a gleeful upchuck, just as we poise ourselves to bury a gracious young woman who struggled with her adolescence, her relationships, the angst-laden lyrics that she sensitively composed, her prominence as a recording artist, the demons and insecurities that haunted her, despite her outward air self-assuredness and confidence.
I guess that I had never imagined self-induced vomiting as an art form and that its public display would sell enough commercials to make it a media event. Crude enough to offend public sensibilities, or so I had hoped, and crude beyond tolerance when your niece has just died of bulimia.
Change the channel, you say. No, this is not about boycotting advertisers, or making a ruckus on O’Reilly, or calling out the morality police, or even changing the channel. This is about self-imposed discretion. This is about how even people who push the envelope of outrageousness need to know that the pain inflicted by putting a laugh-track to tragedy demands self-restraint.
This is about having the decency to say, even in the freest of societies, “I know that I could go there, but my conscience will not allow it.” This is about how the final line of demarcation between human and beast is in the self-motivated human ability to say “no,” particularly to the allure of a prurient impulse.
So, go make fun of the outrageous, of human foibles, of bombastic politicians, of hypocrites who demand our adulation while betraying our trust. But, vomiting is not funny.
There is a market, I am sure, for comic routines about the Holocaust, dead babies, amputees, lynching, starving African children, the mentally and physically impaired (“RE-tards”), AIDS victims, anorexics, and a plethora of other human tragedies. Howard Stern knows that he can gain ratings by verbally jerking around a mentally-compromised guest.
Goldfish-vomiting reality TV, and comedians who make hay of dead-baby jokes, have every right to go there. But, their inability to stop of their own accord only bespeaks their cruelty and the receptiveness – or at least numbness – to the cruelty of the audiences that make them pop icons.
Nietzsche was a pretty gloomy guy, so perhaps he is not the most credible authority on comedy. Nonetheless, he observed, “A joke is the epigram on the death of a feeling.” We laugh at a man who slips on a banana peel and only later, if at all, do we inquire if he broke his neck.
Ask someone who has been there about the comedic quality of watching a baby die, or losing a brother to AIDS, or knowing that one’s mother was gassed by the Nazis, or nursing a limping child . . . or losing a niece, a daughter, a sister, to bulimia. No one wishes the same on you. Just a little empathy. A little common sense. A little self-control. A little resistance to schadenfreude and losing the love of one’s life.
“WILUDI” (Marc Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. You may find him at firstname.lastname@example.org.