As we gathered on a cold day at a small Catholic church near Flint, Mich., the words “drugs … overdose … death” kept swirling around in my head. The phrase “she was an addict” was knocking around in there, too, as though it was supposed to define my younger sister Kelly’s life. Kelly, the eighth of 11 siblings, died suddenly and tragically last month. She was buried the day before Thanksgiving in near-frozen Michigan dirt, leaving behind three young and beautiful children searching for answers and her family and friends groping for explanations.
When we were packing up her belongings from her rental house, my older brother Pat leaned into me and said, “Hey, Matt, you know they found a Christmas list, in the pocket of the pajamas she died in, of presents she wanted to buy her kids.”
In our political culture, it’s common—even encouraged—to default to the sound bite and quick headline to define each other and explain the world around us. It’s something that I, unfortunately, do very easily at times in political discussions. It’s something I used to be paid to do when I ran campaigns for Republicans as well as Democrats. The quick analysis, the succinct message point. Make it short, make it memorable, and make it stick. We now have politicians in both parties, not to mention pundits on cable news and advocacy platforms such as Fox News and MSNBC, who revel in the easy sound bite, no matter how trite, whether it’s about President Obama, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, or tea party activists.
Does this worship of the simple, the brief, and the direct get us any closer to the truth? Or does it take us further away from it?
The food in the refrigerator was still fresh, and notes were posted on the door to remind her of the things she needed to do, amid pictures her kids had drawn for her.
My sister’s rental place was littered with signs of a more complicated truth than the one obscured by the easy headline. She had 24-hour Alcoholics Anonymous coins lying all over her house, on tables and in dishes. These coins are given out at meetings to mark a day of sobriety, and she attended meetings all the time. She had weights in the living room for her workouts. She always wanted to stay in shape. Religious, spiritual, and poetry books were scattered about with freshly underlined passages on faith, hope, and love. The food in the refrigerator was still fresh, and notes were posted on the door to remind her of the things she needed to do, amid pictures her kids had drawn for her. The movie The Bucket List was near her DVD player. She had either just watched it or was about to. It’s a wonderful film about preparing for death and enjoying life in the meantime.
And, of course, the Christmas list in her pocket. A piece of paper that reflected her love of her kids and the hope and joy that comes with giving.
No, President Obama isn’t a socialist. He isn’t trying to ruin the country, and he doesn’t hate America. Sarah Palin isn’t a dimwit without anything valuable to say or contribute to the country. Republicans aren’t all greedy and corporate stooges. Democrats aren’t all Big Government liberals and against capitalism. The news media (generally) aren’t a tool of the Left or the Right. And my sister wasn’t an uncaring addict who overdosed on a cold day in Michigan.
As we walk through life and deal with one another, we need to keep in mind that truth is not in the headline or the pithy sound bite but deeper in the hearts and souls of each of us—and in the good intentions that most of us carry with us every day, whether we’re bagging groceries, cleaning offices, defending our country, or negotiating a tax compromise.
Diving down to those depths, rather than just snorkeling in the shallows, might give us the bends. But it also might tell us a little more about each other and ourselves.
And maybe it would be good to consider the possibility that each of us, even on our bad days, is walking around with a Christmas list in our pocket.
This article appears in the December 18, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.