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Happy Days ... Not So Much

Nov 30, 2017

The late comedian Dick Gregory is noted for saying, “One of the things I keep learning is that the secret of being happy is doing things for other people.” Gregory admits to being a lifelong learner, a habit many Phi Kappa Phi members share.

I struggled with writing this column on the early October day we awoke to learn of the largest mass murder in American history, the horrific shooting of hundreds of people doing nothing more than enjoying a concert in Las Vegas.

The previous weeks had seen one natural disaster after another — hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria had lashed Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico with rain, wind, and flooding. Thousands of Americans were suddenly homeless, some temporarily, some undoubtedly long term.

And then came Las Vegas, the work not of nature but of a single individual with a personal arsenal of weapons. The motive for his actions died with the shooter, but speculation abounds, as we seem convinced that knowing why this man did what he did will somehow assuage our overwhelming grief.

As the day after the massacre unfolded, the media sought reactions, from witnesses, survivors, public officials and pundits. Descriptions of the scene were universally graphic, accounts shocking and grim, and victim counts unheard of even in modern warfare. It was not a day to focus on happiness, despite a deadline.

But as the day came to a close, the inability of commentators to offer solace was subsumed by stories of heroism and hope. Images of Nevadans lined up for blocks to donate blood, and of volunteers bringing food and water to those in line, brought a sense that people had not been rendered helpless or hopeless in the face of great tragedy.

In the aftermath of the worst actions humanity can unleash come some of humanity’s best. Strangers held the hands of the dying who fell next to them, bodies covered other bodies as shields, survivors rescued phones so desperate families could gain information about loved ones. People shared stories of fear, confusion, and loss. Medical personnel worked extended shifts, as one said, “just to stop the dying.” The repair work would come once victims stabilized.

In the light of day, as Americans woke to another Monday morning, the news from Las Vegas felt surreal before it finally sunk in — yet another mass murder, this one the largest in our history. Hadn’t we just learned of events in Orlando, San Bernardino, Aurora, Newtown, Columbine?

And as in each preceding horror, ordinary people joined hands and hearts in solidarity and shared revulsion, and went about doing good.

As they did in Puerto Rico, rescuing neighbors from flooded homes, sharing scarce food and water, clearing brush from roads. People helping people amid devastation that affected them all.

The mission statement of Phi Kappa Phi consists of two distinct statements. We tend to focus most of our attention on recognizing and promoting academic excellence, but the second part compels us to do something more: to engage the community of scholars in service to others.

I expect many of you have responded to the string of disasters in your own way, through donation or local action or other. I trust your engagement, like mine, your doing for other people, brought at least a hint of the happiness Dick Gregory suggests, a happiness that draws us out of despair, helplessness and loss. It likely also brought a glimpse happiness to those impacted by disaster.

Thank you, Phi Kappa Phi members, for your engagement in service to others. You’re making a difference. 


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