Viewpoints: Bill Cosby: An ‘Amazing Grace’
Published: November 4, 2004
Bill Cosby’s recent appearance in Atlanta reminded me of an experience I had at one of his comedy concerts over a year ago. It had been a long time since I had laughed so hard. Yet Cosby simply did what he has always done. He talked about the simple, ordinary things of life—pushing them just a little to the edge. The laughs came as we caught the reflection of our own silliness or absurdities. No obscenities, no vulgarities. Just funny, funny, funny. He had me in tears from laughing so hard but also from something more. The experience of that Cosby concert was for me something that I can only describe as, surprisingly, “being blessed.”
The man wrapped a theater full of people into a big embrace. Or perhaps a better image is of him clasping each of us by the shoulders and taking us on a tour of some of the stuff of our everyday lives. Come on, he was saying, poking our noses right into our quirks, foibles and messes, always gently and with love. In a very short time he was wringing smiles, giggles, guffaws and belly laughs out of us. In the process he lifted our drooping spirits, and before we knew it, we were more than just walking along, we had actually recovered a modicum of energy, trust and hope. Most likely people were quite unaware of it, but there is no doubt that there were new surges of “yes to life” energy flowing from previously dozing parts of us. And Lord knows, something so good can only be of its nature, “blessed.”
Yet this “awakening” experience is wrought by a man who has been traumatically wounded in life. Bill Cosby has had to deal with the senseless murder of a beloved, full-of-promise, young son. The ordinary “stuff” of his life, out of which he has always woven his routines, was shattered, turned into dark breath-stopping pain, when that son was shot one night on the roadside. After that, could the “stuff” of life ever serve as a life-source for comedy routines again? Was the well poisoned beyond saving? Obviously, no. And that is why, in the midst of so much laughter, I sat there in awe. The singular beauty of this man and what he incarnates during an ordinary comedy concert moved me to tears.
I wanted to embrace him and, with tears running down my face, proclaim before everyone, “Do you realize what we are witnessing in the presence of this man? Here, here, before us, is the soul and source of the power of our survival. Here, if we look through the eyes of our faith-words, ceasing to use them simply as spiritual jargon, if we peel those words back till they once again actually radiate lived experience, then we can understand what is happening at this comedy concert.”
At that privileged moment, we were descendants of a man who has taken seriously God’s proposal, “I have set before you life and death … choose life then, that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19). At that privileged moment, we were supping on the fruits supplied by one who harvested the Paschal Mystery, that constant rhythm of Good Friday turning into Easter, and he has not ceased inviting others to the banquet.
In the midst of the laughter, that eye of faith clicked open within me, and I was looking at a man who, in the horrid pain of loss, had been tempted to draw shut the curtains of the house of his life, to close his eyes and not look for and see the light side anymore. The tempter whispered, “Let darkness win, let there be no sense to any of it, let it go, who cares? Keep numb, let the rock roll in place, it’s just a stone end.”
But it was bright and clear before my eyes and in my ears that the tempter didn’t win. No, because the man up there, Bill Cosby, did not give up nor give in. His capacity to care and to love would not let anything, not even the murder of a beloved son, destroy his God-given gift to find humor in our lives and share it. And it is with this talent that he fulfills what is undoubtedly his “mission” in life—to help us all find perspective and breathing space, or make some sense of the nonsense that often surrounds us. He helps us counteract, ward off and survive whatever threatens and attacks life, and thus helps us affirm, love and celebrate life. The man up there was helping us roll the rock away from our tomb days. The man up there sparking light was scattering dark days and nights with dawns rejoicing; consciously or unconsciously, he was helping us realize that our Good Fridays can and are transformable into mini-Easters. Sound like heavy duty for a comedian? But that’s how God works—where and how we least expect. We just tune in to it, catch it, all too rarely.
And what was happening that night is so closely connected to what is happening in our world today. What Cosby manages to accomplish goes beyond anything the world of power or money can possibly offer to heal or resolve the shattering devastation that 9/11 wrought. Military might, strategies and war declarations, wrapped in a tragically insouciant “devil-may-care-at-what-and-whose-cost” attitude, have not helped us survive well as humans. The yellow, amber and red security alerts have not helped but rather have layered us in a world of fear and paranoia. It has become like a plastic bag to be worn over our heads, “Don’t breathe folks—everything is lethal to your life.”
But this wonderful, ever so real man comes before us, dressed in a sweat suit, and for a couple hours says, “Breathe, yes, that’s right, breathe. We’re here to live—not to give up on life nor to give in to fear or bitterness. And you know what? Laughter helps us breathe. Laughter opens things up way, way down there, somewhere, and something as strong as the walls of Jericho comes tumbling down.” Some have called laughter an echo of God’s life within us. The French writer George Bernanos wrote that the gift of laughter was “the infallible sign of his presence.” We, of all creatures, are the only ones who laugh. Praise the one who leads us there and brings it forth from us.
I compare some parts of the show to the Heimlich maneuver, causing a whooping burst of laughter, helping us to spit out some of the cynicism, some of the “whatever” attitudes we adopt when we feel so helpless, some of the “leave-me-alone-I-don’t-need-to-be-involved” defense postures we freeze ourselves into. And that cathartic burst of laughter works like a miracle. We share the moment. Look at each other. Nod our heads in a conspiracy of recognized kindred delight. Strangers no more. No, that fuzzy, grey-haired man up there gave us an epiphany. We are a family! And it’s only as such that we can survive. God knew of what He spoke when He said, “It is not good for a human person to be alone.”
Cosby created tidal waves of laughter, momentarily keeping us afloat over myriad sharp-edged life events that want to cut our spirits into bits and pieces or diminish us beyond recognition. But if we seize the moment, surrender ourselves to it, those waves give us breathing time and spaces. Those waves can carry us to other shores where we can sense a new dawn pushing against the darkness, a new beginning rolling away what seemed like a stone end. Floating or being carried on those waves, over and over again, during a Cosby performance, I once again touched in me what Cosby has, and what God has put in each of us—the power of “resilience”—the power and capacity of a love that does not cease to say “yes” to life. Maybe a more classical name is “grace.” Not bad for a comedy act.
At the end of the show, as I walked away I began humming. And when I paid attention, I realized I was humming… “Amazing Grace.” Thank you, Mr. Cosby.
Father Gene Barrette is a La Salette missionary and parochial vicar at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna. He can be contacted at email@example.com.