Thelonious Monk and the Vonnegut Brothers

This morning, I heard on the radio the story of Thelonious Monk, a young man who died, shot to death, in Baltimore. I know about him only because NPR ran a story this morning, and NPR ran the story this morning because Adam Marton happened to notice his name, and because he remembered that name. On January 5, Marton posted this on his Facebook account:

Thelonious Monk, 28, was one of Baltimore’s 344 homicide victims in 2015. Thelonious stole my car about a decade ago and while he was never charged with the crime, case search shows he was arrested dozens of times in his short life and spent time in a juvenile detention center. He fished my keys out of the night drop at Mr. Tire one summer night. It was barely an inconvenience, such is my life. Insurance covered a loaner and Brooke and I went on vacation, as planned. When I got my car back a few weeks later, Thelonious ha[d] installed a baby seat and a subwoofer and the car was strewn with job applications. It was and remains one of the most heartbreaking scenes of my life. Our lives crossed, however oddly and briefly, and I can’t help but think that Thelonious probably never had a chance. A chance to escape, a chance to succeed. The opportunities I have always enjoyed. I feel like maybe he was trying to use my car to make a break for it. I wish he had made it. Rest in peace, young man, I will never forget you.

We often talk abouit how “the system” is failing young men. No, actually, we talk about how “the system” is failing young black men. I couldn’t help but think, while listening to this story, that we have failed young black men. And through failing them, we have also failed young black women and young black children.

Some of you will brush this thought off like a mosquito. We haven’t failed anyone, you will think. Maube “the system” has, but certainly not us. Others will realize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement of the past few years arises out of evidence that we have, in fact, failed, and failed badly. But beating ourselves up over failing isn’t a way to stop failing—it reminds me of nothing so much as an old MAD routine comparing films about WWII made during, immediately after, and recently (i.e., the 1970s—told you it was an old article). As I recall, it described a post-war film as portraying German soldiers agonizing over putting Jews into the death camps, handing out dolls and candy, and talking about how they would devote their lives to humanitarian causes after the war. But they were still putting Jews into death camps.

If we do not change the world, that is exactly what we are doing. So what can we do that’s different?

Yesterday, I was in a webinar addressing what mediators can do before mediation sessions begin to prepare their parties (the world client is inapposite). The presenter cited something called “the miracle question”:

Suppose tonight while you’re asleep, a miracle happens and when you wake up in the morning the problem(s) you are experiencing have suddenly disappeared. How would you know that a miracle had happened? What would be different? What would you be doing, thinking, or believing differently about yourself that would indicate that a miracle occurred?

This approach dovetailed with my reading this morning the final few pages of Ginger Strand’s The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. It’s a book about how each of the brothers—one a gifted scientist, the other a gifted writer—found his way out of the growing war machine that has been American government, science, and industry since the end of World War II. It’s a book about ethics.

In her final pages, Strand refers to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:

The real hero of Cat’s Cradle is Bokonon, the prophet who admits that his wisdom is based on lies but whose invented religion gives human beings comfort. Like the Ghost Shirt Society in Player Piano and the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in The Sirens of Titan, Bokononism provides an alternative to the sterile technological belief in truth personified by Felix Hoenikker. It uses false myths and harmless lies—foma—to encourage humans to love one another, to acknowledge their connectedness, and to spend their short time on earth with grace and compassion.

In crafting the creed of Bokononism—for which he would finally, years later, be granted his anthropology degree from the University of Chicago—Kurt found perhaps his best embodiment of the truth he had learned all those years ago in The Brothers Karamazov: If God did not exist, human beings would have to invent him. And if that’s the case, why not invent a kind and loving God, a God who encourages us to find the sacred in nothing more, and nothing less, than our own human selves? (P. 229)

Let’s assume without deciding that such a God exists. Would such a God be pleased with what happened to Thelonious Monk, father, job-seeker, perhaps car thief? Would such a God be satisfied with us beating our breasts while consigning Thelonious and other young men to the dustbin of society?

Let us not imagine a different world only. Let us invent it. Let us enact it. Find hungry people and feed them. Find the homeless and give them shelter. Let us leave our fear behind. Let us, in the name of the kind and loving God whom we believe in (or whom we invent) help Thelonious to make a break for it.


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