The Way Things Are

by W.D. Ehrhart

Back in the May 20th issue of the Gazette, readers may remember an essay of mine called “Woe Is Me!” I began by cataloguing a litany of disasters and lunacies that leave me feeling hopeless about the future of this country and the planet. But then I spent a wonderful day with some friends of mine reminding me that there are indeed still many good things in this world, and lots to be grateful for.

Which is certainly true. The world is full of sad stories, but none of them are mine. And for some people, life is better now than it ever has been. One example: just yesterday, I marched with my Veterans for Peace chapter in the Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade. And while homophobia still exists, gay people are mostly no longer treated as criminals or mental patients.

But just four days after my essay ran in the Gazette, an 18-year-old murdered 19 elementary school children and two teachers, and wounded 17 others, with a military-style assault rifle while heavily armed police stood around with their thumbs up their asses for an hour and a half as the slaughter went on within feet of them. So much for good guys with guns.

And the response to this latest madness is as predictable as the tides. Politicians and pundits who think the 2nd Amendment was chiseled in stone by God’s hand will argue that it’s not a “gun problem,” but only a mental health problem (while slashing funding for public health programs), and the solution is to arm teachers.

Politicians and pundits who advocate more stringent gun controls will once again call for banning assault rifles and instituting universal background checks, limiting the capacity of magazines, and other half-assed measures.

Everyone will fly flags at half-mast for a few days, and offer up prayers for the souls of the dead and pleas for divine intervention. And then the discussion will fade away again until the next massacre. And nothing will change. Absolutely nothing.

How the hell am I supposed to console myself—or anyone else—by pointing out that there is still a lot of good in the world; that flowers are still beautiful; that I have not (yet) been a victim of the rampant gun violence in this country; that regardless of the Supreme Court or state laws, I will never need an abortion; that my child is far beyond school age, so why should I care about school boards that believe Critical Race Theory isn’t just history, period, but rather some colossal lie cooked up by trolls who hate America; that I will be long dead before the full impact of global warming kicks in?

Honestly, I don’t know what to do or where to turn or how to move forward. Maybe this is just what happens to old men who know they are nearing the end of their lives. You look back and you realize that nothing much has really changed since you were a young man, that human nature is what it is, and there is really not much difference between the lunacy of the Spanish Inquisition and the lunacy of the National Rifle Association, and you are only a little man in a very big universe with very little power to influence anything, and you can either accept that or not, but you can’t change it.

Well, I’m trying to accept it. I’m trying to stuff my ego into the tiny box where it belongs, to remember that I am not nearly as important as I’ve spent my life believing, to embrace the reality that I can only take care of my side of the street, that my only real option is to choose to do “the next right thing,” however small or insignificant that might be, and to keep trying to do the next right thing for as long as I have the power to make the choice.

A few years ago, a friend of mine posted lines from a Leonard Cohen song, “The wilderness is gathering all its children back again,” something like that, and challenged his poet-friends to turn it into a poem. I came up with this:

What It Is Worth

for Doug Rawlings

A team of misfits, yes, I guess

that pretty well describes us,

thinking we could find a home,

build a world that we could live in,

one that everyone could live in

peacefully. How we doing so far?

Not so good? As you say, “Ah, well.”

Cuchulain couldn’t defeat the sea,

but that didn’t stop him from trying.

The wilderness may well be calling

her children back; I wouldn’t know

about that. I only know we’ve done

what we can; we can look at ourselves

in the mirror and not be ashamed.

Maybe a little foolish for being

naïve enough to think we could

make a difference, even after

all these years of failing to register

even a blip on this lunatic world.

But I’d rather live with that

than live with knowing I did nothing

to try to fix the mess we’re all of us in.

— From Wolves in Winter, Between Shadows Press, 2021.

Some days I find myself believing the effort has been worth it, even in failure. Some days, I feel very foolish indeed.


W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.

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