Readers, do me a favor. Fold your arms and don the surliest expression you can manage. Done? Good. Now you know what my last standup comedy audience looked like.
Mercifully, times like these don't happen often. However, when they do, it's excruciating. When faced with a surly crowd, I always fall back on the words of a long-time comic friend who once warned me to "never allow yourself to be defined by your audience." He went on to explain that it's inevitable to encounter the random angry, unstable person -- the person who wants to bring you down. But no matter what happens, "you can't let up and you can't shrink in fear. Just the opposite -- you have to stand straighter in defiance and keep on going."
While a great lesson in standup (and in life), his words were taken to a whole new level this week by the responses to the Boston Marathon bombing. The people of Boston didn't allow themselves to be defined by the actions of angry, unstable people bent on bringing them down. They didn't let up. And they didn't shrink in fear. They stood straighter in defiance and kept on going.
One of the most poignant images was highlighted in Thomas Friedman's recent New York Times op-ed. He noted that, in the video images taken immediately after the explosion, you could see people running toward the blast -- the ultimate act of courage and defiance.
"Let's schedule another Boston Marathon as soon as possible," he wrote. "We should make this one longer -- from Boston to the site of the World Trade Center to the Pentagon -- to remind ourselves ... we are not afraid."
Given the times in which we live, we need a lot of those reminders. Our world is filled with angry souls that want to bring us down, whether it be a bomber, the sender of poisonous letters, or a murderer with a gun. Sadly, while our law enforcement officers are working around the clock, our Congress seems more focused on political wrangling than on passing protective legislation for its citizens, and the results are devastating. It has been reported, for example, that since the Newton tragedy, an estimated 3,027 people have died in gun-related violence in the United States; more than the death toll from 9/11.
If Boston taught us anything this week, it's that we don't have time to be scared. Life is fleeting, and we no longer have the luxury of making assumptions about the future.
Take, for example, 26-year-old MIT police officer Sean Collier. A skier, he may have been planning a late-spring ski trip -- until he was gunned down late last Thursday on the MIT campus. Then there's 8-year-old Martin Richard, who probably planned to play Little League baseball later last week. But an explosion near the Marathon finish line took his life. A budding ballerina, Martin's little first-grade sister, Jane, may have planned to attend dance class. But the same explosion that killed her brother took her leg.
We don't know what tomorrow will bring, and, as Nelson Mandela said, life is too short to waste it "playing small." We cannot allow ourselves to be defined by the angry people of this world. We cannot let up. We cannot shrink in fear. The best thing -- the only thing -- we can do is to straighten up in defiance.
We can raise our voices to our government officials regarding laws and legislation that will protect our people. We can speak out when we see someone being treated with disrespect. We can straighten up in defiance when human beings are not treated equally -- and that includes making premature conclusions about who is responsible for a tragedy or offering uninformed, judgmental opinions about what, if any, particular group might be involved. (In comedy, that's called being a "hack.")
I pray that, in the future, our world will be free of the horrors we have witnessed this week. I hope this will be the last act of terrorism. We all know, however, that the odds are against us in that hope. In comedy and in life, there will always be people who want to bring us down. So all I can do is utter this humble prayer as a comedian, a minister, and a human being: when the crisis hits, when the angry person strikes, may God give us the courage to stay the course, to straighten up in defiance, and to always -- always -- run toward the blast.