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Posted at 6:11 PM ET, 01/13/2011

Discomfort with comfort

By Ezra Klein

For me, the one really false note in the president's speech last night came when he said, "If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today." It was ... cheap, somehow. More like what you tell children when a pet dies than what you tell adults when a child dies. Or maybe it wasn't. I haven't had to talk to many parents in that situation. But Michael Chabon had the same reaction:

I tried to imagine how I would feel if, having, God forbid, lost my precious daughter, born three months and ten days before Christina Taylor-Green, somebody offered this charming, tidy, corny vignette to me by way of consolation. I mean, come on! There is no heaven, man. The brunt, the ache and the truth of a child's death is that he or she will never jump in rain puddles again. That joy was taken from her, and along with it ours in the pleasure of all that splashing. Heaven is pure wishfulness, an imaginary solution to the insoluble problem of the contingency and injustice of life.

This reminded me of the single hardest thing I've read about the shooting in Tucson, the piece that made me angriest. It's a 2007 New York Times “Vows” column about the marriage of Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly. This is the part I can't get out of my head:

They began a long-distance phone and e-mail friendship during which she would sometimes coach him on dating other women. (“Call her the next day to say thanks, even if you didn’t have a great time,” she once said.)

Gabrielle Giffords is a real person. She's been on bad dates. She's wondered why men didn't call her back. She has slightly old-fashioned ideas about courtship. She isn't just a symbol of democracy or civility or senseless violence.

It seems like the job of the writer in these situations is to search for some meaning, or try to counsel calm, or try to rationally analyze the various ways the country is reacting to the tragedy. But that's not how I feel. The shooting was awful and it makes me sick to my stomach whenever I think about it for too long and nothing will put it right and it's not like human beings have suddenly paid off their cosmic debt: More bad things will happen to good people in the future.

Good things will happen too, of course. But I don't see any rain puddles. Only cold, hard rain. And there's a part of me that feels it's disrespectful to the victims not to admit that. But it doesn't really seem like saying it is part of my job, or like it adds any real value. There's a comfort in reading calm analysis of something, in feeling like you understand it, and maybe have learned a bit from it. But perhaps that's as cheap as rain puddles.

By Ezra Klein  | January 13, 2011; 6:11 PM ET
 
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Comments

*****But I don't see any rain puddles. Only cold, blinding rain. And there's a part of me that feels it's disrespectful to the victims not to admit that.*****

Huh? "Admit" what, Ezra? What are you talking about? Obama is a believing Christian, and belief in an afterlife -- in heaven -- is a fundamental tenant of Christianity. Who knows, maybe Obama in his heart of hearts believes it's all BS -- I can't read his inner thoughts any more than anybody else can. But the simplest way to judge his words is to assume that, like millions of other people, Obama is a believer, and was offering these sentiments of hope in good faith.

Posted by: Jasper999 | January 13, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, to most Americans, as some would call "real Americans," and not the Left Coast liberals like you and me, this is comforting.

Posted by: will12 | January 13, 2011 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Hmm, it would've felt cheap to me if it hadn't been preceded by a long enumeration of all the things she was doing - her interest in student government, her desire to be the first woman in the majors, her love of dancing, the wishes people had for her in the Faces of Hope book, her dedication to charity, etc etc... after each and every single one of these things, I heard - as I'm sure many did - the implicit, "And she will never do these things again. She will never have a chance to fulfill those hopes of well wishers."

Then the rain puddles line. I feel like he dwelt on the joyful life that was snuffed out quite enough before giving the schmooze. It's an empty consolation to many perhaps, but the hard fact of the matter is that's the best consolation that can be given - there is nothing, nothing that can replace what was lost, or relieve anyone's grief. Best to imagine her someplace as the happy, playful child she was - forever.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | January 13, 2011 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm a liberal and do not believe in heaven in any way (it's not even a part of the teachings of my--somewhat lapsed--religious background ). But give me a break. I thought it was a poetic invocation that was meant to comfort by suggesting that (whether you believe in a literal heaven or not) the innocent spirit of this child lives on in our hearts.

What did you want him to say? ... Christina always liked to jump in puddles, but you know what? She'll never jump in a puddle ever again. Because she's dead. That would be really peachy keen, wouldn't it.

I'm really pretty mystified by this type of nitpicking. You don't need to believe in heaven to appreciate the image of a child's memory being immortalized.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | January 13, 2011 6:45 PM | Report abuse

The rain puddles come from a picture book of 9/11 children, in which Christine appears. I can't find the exact reference at the moment, but apparently there are pictures of 50 children born that day, including Christine, and that among the things the children liked to do was jumping in rain puddles. So it is not a random, corny image, but one the parents and friends would get immediately.

Posted by: mikeshort1 | January 13, 2011 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I should have added to my comments above: There were many children (children of Christina's age) listening to the speech last night as well. Her classmates, her cousins, young people all over America who are probably pretty frightened and traumatized by the thought that someone of their age, someone perfectly "good," like themselves, was killed and suddenly gone. Children think about death a lot. I believe the puddle remarks were spoken to console these young minds. Now, perhaps you believe these kids are better off with the "There is no Santa Claus" treatment, because after all, that is true. But they will intuit in due time on their own that there is no Santa Claus. And they will also come on their own, as they grow older, to hold an opinion about whether there is or isn't a heaven. But in the meantime, I think anything the President can do to address children affected by this tragedy, in terms they can understand, is a good thing.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | January 13, 2011 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Agree with other posters, but also wanted to say I'm tired of the nitpicking of things like the event last night. The crowd was too loud, the blessing went on too long, Obama wasn't perfect. Let's criticize the big stuff and let the small stuff fly. There's not enough time in the day for the important stuff.

Posted by: Justwondering14 | January 13, 2011 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Jews don't believe in heaven. We get it.

Thing is, Ezra, that 9 year-old did. So too do her adult parents, and so do a majority of the adults and (many) children who listened to Obama's speech last night.

Isn't it enough that the WP and the NYT (but not the LA Times) printed MUCH more closely cropped photos of that little girl than of the other 5 murder victims on their front pages this week, apparently to avoid showing the cross hanging around the neck of the mother behind her?

The little girl in that photo had just recently made her First Communion and was just as proud of that as of joining her school's student council, according to reports, but somehow it's off-limits to embrace that part of her life and of her family's and community's lives.

You're a smart guy, Ezra, and I'm a big fan of yours. We have similar backgrounds, and I agree with nearly all of your political views.

But most of America is Christian, and -- contrary to the opinion of many in America's most elite academies, coastal cities and places of work (all of which I inhabit), that's not a bad thing. It's just a thing, worthy of acceptance.

Posted by: paul65 | January 13, 2011 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I normally like your commentary but your comment was a pretty cheap, minor nitpick. Really not one of your best.

I'm an atheist but I've suffered grief from the loss of loved ones and it is so hard not to wish so so hard for the chance to see them again. To wish so hard that a heaven or a rainbow bridge could be there.

Isn't it possible to empathize with the grief and heartbreak instead of standing off to the side throwing stones?

Posted by: etfmaven | January 13, 2011 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Real quotes from my life during the past 2 or 3 years, with interesting emphemisms in all caps:

"Oakland? Isn't Oakland kind of ETHNIC?" (spoken by a rich and WASPy Stanford law grad in reference to people of a different skin color)

"Everyone's closed today. Oh, a Vietnamese salon? Yeah, you could try one, but my regulars say they're REALLY DIRTY." (spoken by a white Texas nail salon owner in reference to people of a different nationality)

"St. Joseph's? Yeah, I could deliver your baby there. It's just that ALL THOSE CROSSES make me a little uncomfortable." (spoken by a Jewish OB/GYN in reference to people of a different religion)

Posted by: paul65 | January 13, 2011 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Hey Paul65,

Jews believe in Heaven, too!

Posted by: will12 | January 13, 2011 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - love your work but to me this post felt a bit disrespectful. If your post was what you thought was your best contribution to the grieving family, then it's fine. But if it is more an outburst of your own grief and not meant as an offering to them, then you should stay silent.

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | January 13, 2011 8:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm a huge fan of yours Ezra, but I have to concur with the general distaste for this post which is expressed by previous commenters. Michael Chabon may believe that "there is no Heaven, man," but the important thing to keep in mind is that Christina and her parents do/did believe in the idea of Heaven. Thus, for her parents, the image of Christina jumping in puddles in Heaven is not "corny." Rather, I think they will find the image quite comforting.

Indeed, as they drive home tonight after the burial of their daughter, I imagine that instead of thinking about the image of her coffin being lowered into the ground, they are going to instead try to visualize her jumping happily in puddles in Heaven.

Posted by: cullenvolvo9 | January 13, 2011 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

I thought it was a nice post, and very human of you. You were very frank about your emotions and I appreciate that.

Sometimes, I think you miss things because you don't have kids. I certainly would have agreed with you seven years ago. However, things do change when you have kids. This is one of them.

You see, the best thing about a kid under the age of about 11 is that they truly do take complete, unadulterated joy in simple things. And if you lose a beautiful, bright, as-yet-uncomplicated child in such an awful way, the hope that somehow, somewhere, she is experiencing childlike joy at this moment, really is comforting.

I do think being a parent makes us vulnerable to schmaltz (sp?). But in this one moment, I think it was OK.


Posted by: Dollared | January 13, 2011 8:34 PM | Report abuse

I don't know that there's much possibility of comfort for a while -- perhaps appreciation of attempts to comfort and of gestures of kindness, but no real comfort.

From a different context,


Funeral Blues


Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)

Posted by: bdballard | January 13, 2011 8:50 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with many of the commenters that you are nitpicking and beside you should go back and read this part in his speech.....

"Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles."


If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

Posted by: Jalenth | January 13, 2011 9:16 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with most of the commenters above. This post was offputting, even a bit upsetting. I'm an atheist, and a father of a young girl too. Something about the way the president brought us through Christina's life, gave it context and a larger meaning, made that final comment about the rain puddles was incredibly cathartic for me. I wanted so badly to weep the whole time, but kept fighting it off so I could pay attention to the message I knew was so important--and "rain puddles" was President Obama giving me permission to finally let it go and feel the loss as a simple, unburdened, fellow human. A day later I'm still more affected by this speech than any other I've ever heard.

Posted by: RAR21 | January 13, 2011 9:39 PM | Report abuse

our beloved president....

father of two magnificent daughters...
speaking with a full heart,
holding the hand of his precious wife....
with a look of grieving, when he embraced her.
visibly moved.
not weeping, but staying strong for the rest of us....
leaving a gentle thought,
that a young girl would find a place in heaven,
to do the things she loved to do in her very brief life, on earth.
and even that, gets ripped apart.
even in his least guarded, most emotional moments...
as a father of two daughters,
a truly devoted father,
a truly devoted husband,
with a strong and deeply human and loving wife,
at his side....
president of the united states,
and friend and admirer of gabrielle giffords....
he still cannot escape relentless criticism.

i was deeply moved by president obama.
i appreciate what he says, and who he is....

millions of us listened to him yesterday,
and were moved with gratitude and appreciation.
may G-d bless president obama,
and his beautiful family.

Posted by: jkaren | January 13, 2011 9:50 PM | Report abuse

I agree with most of the other comments. I'm normally a big fan of Mr. Klein and read his blog daily, but I was annoyed and even offended by his characterization of Obama's sentiment as false and cheap. I thought it was touching and perfectly appropriate and sincere.

Posted by: kluhman | January 13, 2011 9:57 PM | Report abuse

You should watch the video of the Meredith Viera interview with John Green, for guidance on this. He is such a noble man, and so deeply religious. What he expressed first was not grief, but gratitude to God for the nine years his family had with their daughter. Among the things he said was that ours is a free and open society, and as such there is the risk every day that something like this will happen. But he would prefer that risk to what he referred to as "the other", meaning I guess a closed and authoritarian society. This man has suffered as much, or more, than anyone else involved in this, not to speak of the rest of us who are observers. It's unseemly for Michael Chabon and others to jump in here with their speculation about the imaginary loss of their own children and how they would react.

Posted by: truck1 | January 13, 2011 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Something about the speeches and the whole event was just off. There was way too much Jesus- did they forget Giffords was not Christian? There was way too much cheering, whistling, and applauding. I'm really sad about this whole thing, and found no reason at all for the tone of this event.

I have two young daughters. If they die before me, no amount of pretending they are dancing in rain puddles in heaven is going to help. I'm with Klein and Chabon on this one.

Posted by: staticvars | January 13, 2011 11:42 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - I admire your work but I respectfully disagree with your comment regarding mud puddles in heaven. I believe in heaven and as a mother and a grandmother, I found that particular comment from the President the most comforting of all - it brought tears of joy to my eyes. I have never lost a child but I have lost other loved ones and it consoles me to know that they are with their creator in a beautiful place called heaven and I trust that God has prepared a home for them which may include rain puddles for children!

Posted by: JMM6 | January 14, 2011 1:43 AM | Report abuse

"For me, the one really false note in the president's speech last night came when he said, "If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today." "

I would say this is a false note only if the President doesn't believe it himself.

I have always found this to be the best eulogy I've ever heard from a politician:

"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

- Ted Kennedy eulogy for Robert Kennedy delivered 8 June 1968

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ekennedytributetorfk.html

Posted by: jnc4p | January 14, 2011 9:19 AM | Report abuse

Not to pile on, and generally I am great fan of this blog, but I found Ezra's post on this topic very disrespectful and, frankly, ignorant. The President and Christina Taylor Green and her family (like me) are all Christians. We believe in heaven. We believe that is where Jesus Christ went to when he ascended from off the cross. If they had faith and tried to live right, despite their sins, we believe that is where are departed loved ones are now, in heaven with Jesus and puddles. Given what we know about that little girl, as a Chrisitan, I absolutely believe that is where she is now. Fine if Ezra and Mr. Chabon don't believe that. That is their right, but it's wrong to accuse others of schmaltz and being disingenuous if their Christian faith teaches them to believe that.

Posted by: romulusj | January 14, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Liberals are truly just miserable people that milk a tragedy for all it's worth. Pretty much everything that has come out of a liberal commentators mouth regarding this tragedy is petty, shallow, and totally inappropriate. I'm an atheist and don't believe in heaven but what is Obama supposed to say at a memorial service. Those people's daughter were gunned down senselessly by some nut. Don't you think they've cried enough already. Do you have to slam any words of comfort for them just to validate your own personal belief system. I can't believe you need to be reminded of this but it's not all about you and your comfort Ezra. You people are sick.

Posted by: peterg73 | January 14, 2011 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Somewhere in my heart, somewhere in my mind's eye, there is a beautiful day and the sun has come out after a torrential rain, and somewhere in that day,a little girl is splashing in a puddle, watching the rainbows catch the light. It is a tremendous comfort to me and oh yeah, I'm an atheist.

Don't you get that people tell stories to manage tremendous pain just a little bit? Don't you? Humans wrote the Bible, humans hold out the wish that somehow everything reconciles in a peaceful,loving, just place.

Posted by: Maezeppa | January 14, 2011 10:14 AM | Report abuse

As an atheist who rather hopes the president is insincere about his religious faith, I cringed when I heard him speak the rain puddles line. But the next sentence partially changed my mind, because it expressed the real hopelessness of a loved one's death pretty well, and the rain puddles line set it up. "We who are left here on earth" can't do anything to change what happened. All we can do is, maybe, try to be more worthy of a wide-eyed child's spirit. The unspoken part is that that's no consolation at all, really. What he said is plenty blunt enough for a memorial service. She's dead forever; her family is alive, and bereft, grasping for what to do next, besides cry uncontrollably, catch their breath, sleep fitfully, and then start crying again.

The other reason the rain puddles line was not over the top -- as others have said -- was because it was meant for the girl's parents, other children, and other adults who believe in Heaven.

If anything rubbed me the wrong way, it was when he segued from summarizing Green's brief life to the electrifying announcement that Giffords had opened her eyes. I never felt worse for Green's parents than I did at that moment.

Posted by: brunoblumenfeld | January 14, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Enough other commenters have made my first point, that the vast majority of Americans believe in Heaven, that I don't need to add to that.

But given that fact, I too have problems with the "If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today" bit.

If there is a God, and if anything like the Christian conception of Heaven has any truth to it, we may still be ourselves there, but our afterlives won't be about the same things our lives have been about, any more than our adult years have been about the same things our time as children or teens were.

If Heaven exists, my late friend Herb isn't giving a woodworking clinic up in Heaven right now, and Christina isn't jumping in rain puddles.

Herb was in his 70s when he died, and I heard this kind of thing at his memorial service, so it isn't just about comforting children. I don't know *what* it's about, other than perhaps a failure to imagine that an afterlife is any more than this life minus the bad stuff.

Posted by: rt42 | January 14, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Yep, Ezra, where you made your mistake in this post was at the beginning, where you said, "For me ..." This part of Obama's speech wasn't directed at you, see?

Posted by: rjewett | January 14, 2011 1:03 PM | Report abuse

@peterg73, nice to see you demonizing "liberal" as "miserable" and "sick" people. You are part of the culture of hatred that has resulted in deadly violence against innocent people all over this country, and may have been a factor (nobody knows) in this tragedy. You should look in a mirror, buddy, and come to grips with your hatred.

Posted by: Dollared | January 14, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

No, YOU listen to how you talk, Dollared. Is that civil? Well, is it? You are adding to the culture of hatred that has produced all this. You are provoking others and attacking them. Peterg73 didn't go after you personally, did he???

Posted by: truck1 | January 14, 2011 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Wow, you're taking a swipe at the President because he tried to give some comfort and grief to the parents/friends of a murdered nine year old. That's cold man.

Actually, the amount of time the media has spent psychoanalyzing this speech has been troubling...did Conservatives like it, did Liberals, did it heal us...etc. etc.

I know your life is centered on politics and filtering all the kubuki dances that ensue with politicians but for the rest of us not every action of every waking moment is some gambit in the great political game.

Let it go. See it for what it was, a lovely comment meant to soothe for a brief moment what will be a lifetime of heartache and pain for her parents.

Posted by: RIRedinPA1 | January 15, 2011 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

It's beyond me why you feel it's necessary to complain about a moment that--as corny as it was--was clearly a moment aimed solely at comforting someone. Please stick to economics.

Posted by: nitpicker | January 15, 2011 6:05 PM | Report abuse

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