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Clarity Brought by Pain


Boston. -- For once, we are in it together.

Never mind all the America watchers who say this is not a country but a giant centrifuge. On Sunday the center held in a state fairground in Oklahoma.

Never mind all the analysts who insist that our nation is subdividing into the lowest common denominator, splitting into units of one. This week, we shared an expression of sorrow as wide as a continent.

The common wisdom is that Americans hold too little in common. We are said to be isolated inside our homes, communicating with disembodied strangers along the Internet. We are told that civic life has disintegrated. Why, even when we bowl, it's no longer in leagues: We bowl alone.

Maybe so. But we mourn together. We line up to give blood together. We arrive by the thousands to simply be together at a memorial service. And yes, we sit in front of the television set -- a set of 100 options -- watching the same service together.

What was it that Governor Keating said? "If anybody thinks that Americans are mostly mean and selfish, they ought to come to Oklahoma."

Well, this year, many of us have felt a shock wave of meanness, an icy breath of selfishness across the land. The polarizing rhetoric of our political life has convinced us that we are poles apart. But with the guts blown out of a building and the heart

torn out of a city, with terrorism and teddy bears, Americans turned to each other as automatically, as naturally, as they can turn on each other.

At an evening press conference the day before the bombing, Bill Clinton seemed more like a candidate, a man defending his own "relevance." By the end of the weekend, he was welcomed as the president of one nation, indivisible -- surely indivisible by the hate carried in a truckload of incendiary fertilizer.

Just a week ago, a cottage industry of O.J. analysts, justifying the coverage, said we were only united by this media circus. After Oklahoma, the bickering among jurors in a murder trial seemed like the shameless whining of spoiled brats.

For far more than a year, the drumbeat of anti-government

rhetoric banged out its monotone rage at faceless bureaucrats -- the government -- with their hands in our pockets. But as bodies were brought out of the Alfred P. Murrah building, the drumbeat become a sad roll call of mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, parents, neighbors. And worst of all, the children.

I find no silver lining to paint on the edges of this bleak week of mourning. No disaster is worth the shared sense of community that comes in its wake. But it does come.

Counselors talk about stages of grief and maybe a country has them too. We are drawn together by a searing sense of vulnerability. We are transformed the way the teddy bears carried by mourners are transformed -- from an icon of childhood security to a symbol of adult helplessness.

Our perspective shifts as radically as a strobe light circling a room. Pain brings clarity with it. It illuminates the pettiness of our everyday complaints. We see things so intensely that eventually we have to squint.

Sooner or later, the teddy bear will become a teddy bear again. The parents holding their children so tightly today -- anguished just imagining their loss -- will be annoyed at them again for spilling food on the floor or dawdling on their way to school. Even a survivor of the blast will be cursed by a citizen put on hold, mumbling into the phone about "the government." And someone will talk, cynically, about the half-life of sympathy, the shelf life of unity in our society.

But today it's worth remembering that the impulses that bring us together are no less natural than the forces that separate us. We are a porridge of possibilities shaped by our world.

It takes hundreds of people to construct an office building and only a couple to blow it up. It takes thousands of people to create a sense of community, and only a handful to destroy it. The easiest thing in the world to make is noise.

On Sunday the president, not a partisan but a president, talked on "60 Minutes" about all the angry voices in our country: "I do want to say to the American people, though, we should all be careful about the kind of language we use and the kind of incendiary talk we have."

As we go about our business, the business of mourning and the business of justice, keep this one small piece of togetherness alive. A plea to lower the angry voices. A memory of how sadness sounds. As quiet as a house without children.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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