KAIROS AND CRISIS
By CHRISTOPHER MARTIN
Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.
My son, who just turned 3, loves R.E.M. Like me, he’s especially fond of material from the band’s early years. The first R.E.M. song I ever played for him was “Driver 8,” from Fables of the Reconstruction, thinking he’d appreciate its train references and folksy arrangement. He did. For a couple weeks thereafter, it was all he wanted to hear, though soon he became equally fascinated with a handful of songs from Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant. (He might just be the only 3-year-old in the world, for instance, who knows all the lyrics to “Swan Swan H.”)
We’ve only recently gotten to Out of Time, which, though nearly 25 years old, my son refers to as “the new R.E.M.” His captivation with that album started when he heard “Belong,” but it wasn’t too long before he became enamored with the track right before it: the infamous “Shiny Happy People.” Now every time we get in the car, that’s the song he requests. It’s his new “Driver 8”—worse, really. At least “Driver 8” is a great song. I’ve made some desperate reaches for Green and Automatic for the People because of this, but—while my son appreciates certain moments in both these albums—we can’t get past Out of Time and the song that Michael Stipe himself has said he hates. It’s on a maddening loop, to say the least, both in the CD player and in my head.
Despite the song’s irritating saccharinity, which is only amplified by its catchiness, my son’s love for it is a grace to my life. My daughter’s love for it is, too. In fact, she’s the reason I’m writing about it now. She just turned 18 months old, and so my son’s obsession with “Shiny Happy People” has coincided with my daughter’s seemingly overnight recognition of music and her comprehension and use of new vocabulary, of phrases that her mother and I didn’t deliberately teach her—phrases, incidentally, like “happy people.” She’s almost always in the car when that song’s playing, and she’s even started asking for it herself. “Happy people! Happy, happy!” she’ll say from her car seat in her newfound toddler voice, and there’s really no profound, unsentimental way to describe it: It’s pretty much the cutest thing in the world.
She did this in the car the other day, when it was just her and me, and the moment was almost epiphanic. “Happy, happy,” she said as I was getting her out of her car seat, hoisting her over the console and onto my lap. “Happy people!”
Things have been difficult lately, to say the least. Some old fears have come back to trouble my family and me, and sometimes I feel like they’re prevailing. I worry for my children daily. I worry for my wife. I worry for myself. And these specific worries, unassailable as they seem, account for only a small part of the vast worry that afflicts the world, a worry that I try to bear inasmuch as I am able but that of course no person can bear fully.
This worry manifests in depression, yes, but it is not the thing itself. Despite being a stigmatized and misunderstood state, depression may at times be nothing more than a sign that one is awake to—that one cares about, that one feels—the greater worry of the world. The worry of the world, which does not recognize the individual human face, pervades the mass and is in fact defined by the mass. Mass incarceration, mass killings, mass warfare, mass ecocide (literally the killing of home), mass violence of all kinds: All these things are legion. To try to bear them is to be overrun.
Yet they cannot be ignored, though broken bones come as the price for caring. I’ve tried to care as much as I can, in my daily living and in my writing; I hope this blog is, or at least will be, some evidence of the latter. I hope that my involvement with organizations like One For Ten, which is working to shed light on the injustices of the death penalty, is evidence of the latter, too, though I can scarcely read or hear about a death penalty case—such as that of Sabrina Butler—without feeling physically sick and spiritually impoverished. And the death penalty, of course, is not all. I know that there is no limit to such wounding as the mass can inflict. I care for and I have been broken by much more. Why care at all, then?
I have no perfect answer, but only a sign in the memory of a little girl I dearly and desperately love saying “Happy, happy people” in my lap in the car. Knowing no grandiose meanings, she was only mimicking a song which, to her, equates to the sound of the human voice, the words of her brother and the music he loves.
This brought to mind Thomas Merton and his “Fourth and Walnut epiphany,” a vision he had in a seedy part of Louisville, “in the center of the shopping district,” where, in his words, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
Standing at the street corner, he sees separation is a myth, that everyone—everyone—belongs to God. Recalling the moment, he writes:
I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people they are all walking around shining like the sun.
It is hard enough to see that we are all walking around shining when my daughter utters “happy, happy people” against the realization that many people, myself included, are incredibly burdened and sad; it is nearly impossible to see it all the time. Yet we are shining, the beloved and the stranger the same. There are times my daughter will take me by the hand and everything dissolves into the light of a country I can only by prompting remember, which is the only country she knows.
New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin lives his wife and their children in the northwest Georgia piedmont, where he studies creative writing at Kennesaw State University and edits the online journal Flycatcher. Chris is author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, such as Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Drafthorse, Poecology, Ruminate Magazine and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia. He is currently the featured poet at Town Creek Poetry.