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Jesuit Father Michael Kelly is a media professional with 40 years of experience in writing and reporting, editing and publishing, TV and broadcast radio production in Asia and Australia. For 10 years he led Asia’s leading Church media organization - UCA News. Currently, he is the English language publisher of the respected Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica.
Jesuit Father Michael Kelly

Asia

Send in the clowns

We understand what Sinatra was hinting at: the clowns are already here and that's not too bad

Published: August 30, 2021 03:16 AM GMT

Updated: August 30, 2021 03:52 AM GMT

Send in the clowns

People from around Ohio including former military, active military, law enforcement and friends gather at Edison Middle School for a prayer service honoring fallen US Navy Corpsman Max Soviak on Aug. 29 in Berlin Heights. He was one of 13 US military personnel killed in last week's attack at Kabul airport. (Photo: AFP)

One of Frank Sinatra’s most memorable songs is Send in the Clowns. A Stephen Sondheim creation, its mood captures that sense of loss and nostalgia that can come to us after the overwhelming disappointment such as we witnessed in Kabul and the murder of innocents there at the hands of fanatics. Or it can come later in life when our bravado lapses and we put to one side the vanity of our invincibility just for a while.

But there is also the slight whisper of redemption in the song when Sinatra climaxes it with an invitation to “send in the clowns” to fill out the “circus” of our lives, only to wistfully wonder almost in self-mockery that “maybe they’re already here.”

Misgivings about human prospects all become a lot more significant to us after recent events in Afghanistan. At a very local, even individual, level, the same misgivings can assail us when our sense of derring-do is no longer strong enough to protect us from the sort of self-doubt that cripples our initiative, our perspective and even our sense of humor.

That happens in the isolation of a pandemic and the requirement to keep away from those who might be carrying the infection. It happens to us when at last we approach acceptance that we have failed in an endeavor which we started with all the best will in the world and believed was actually worthwhile.

Then we discover — and need to accept — that the endeavor was not virtuous at all, it had little chance of success and we have been part of the delusional escapism that construed the effort as not only desirable but also achievable.

“Send in the clowns” just to make the comic nature of the outcome obvious to everyone.

The whole world is the audience for the latest overreach — the US exit from Afghanistan and the feigning of surprise that it would come to this

The appreciation of the comic, at times circus-like, dimensions of much of what passes for “reality” remains a healthy corrective to the overreaching claims of reality.

The whole world is the audience for the latest overreach — the US exit from Afghanistan and the feigning of surprise that it would come to this when everyone who is literate and bothered to read the history of that sad country over the last 200 years could see that the US enterprise would end in tears, mostly for the Afghans.

It’s no comfort to recognize that the way things have worked out could have been anticipated by looking at the way things have ended on multiple occasions over the last 180 years for those with designs on taking over and controlling Afghanistan.

The first (1839-42) was the biggest military defeat in British history when the forces of the English-controlled East India Company invaded in 1839 with 5,000 English-led troops, with only one of those returning to tell the tale to the British governor general in Calcutta of how comprehensive their defeat was.

Since then, the Russians and the US have had to learn what an unforgiving enemy the people, climate and terrain of Afghanistan can be to any invader with designs on the country. And hence the observation as Sinatra’s sign off in the song — maybe the clowns are “already here.”

And what if they are? Is it a counsel of despair to entertain that thought? Should we dismiss all such dire considerations as the despondency that comes with condition of isolation, failure, even alienation?

Or should we approach it as the dark grace of desolation and follow a process of discernment to see it not as a way into self-annihilation but as the other side of consolation, renewal and resurrection? We can do that if we apply the simplest imprint of the discernment of Spirits.

In our lives and in any experience of failure and disappointment such as the Americans are experiencing in Kabul now, we need to begin by believing something more is happening and something more is going on than the swirl of our despondency. The energy of the Creator God is also at work and able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

If we start there in the midst of any experience, especially one where we have contributed to the failure, the next move is to wait alertly and listen attentively to anywhere the Spirit of light and joy and peace invites us to go. Then it’s a bit like following our way around a website: wait for and respond to the prompts, giving ourselves to the experience and just waiting to see where we end up.

The outcome of this way of surrender to God in the midst of whatever assails us is not to magically get us all and more than we could hope to do for ourselves. It is to be at peace because we become at peace with how things are, confident we can find the next constructive steps to take and become infinitely more than we could expect.

We understand what Sinatra was hinting at: the clowns are already here and that’s not too bad.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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