Life and death. Death and life.
Like the lyric from that saccharine song, Love and Marriage: “You can’t have one without the other.”
I think the clowns would agree.
My wife and I and a few other couples went to the circus recently, which is not something we normally do, but we were offered free tickets by Bill-the-Hand-Holder, who is called that because he holds his wife’s hand way too much, making it really hard for the rest of us non-affectionate husbands.
Our whole row, except for my daughter who had joined us, was made up of 50-somethings, while sitting all around us were families with children, both big and small. The age difference didn’t matter though as we all gasped, and occasionally shrieked, in unison, as trapeze artists swung on thin ropes four stories above us, as the lion tamer stuck his head in the mouths of tigers and lions, as a dozen motorbikes spun round and round in the steel sphere, and as acrobats jumped through hoops of fire.
I had been to the circus when I was a child. After that, over the years, my circus-viewing was an occasional special on TV. So I was familiar with the format and all the players. Lots of action, lots of colors, lots of noise, lots of gasps. Nothing too complicated there.
But for some reason on this particular night it dawned on me what it was about circuses that made them so popular. Maybe it was because I had not been to a “live” circus in decades. Maybe it was because the gullible child had grown into a pessimistic adult. Maybe it was just because I was in a bad mood that night for what is now some unknown reason. Whatever the answer, I saw the circus in a whole new light.
I turned to my daughter who was sitting to my left, just as one of the clowns slid a two-foot long saber down his throat, and asked her, “Do you know what all these circus acts are doing?”
“No,” I said. “They are cheating death.”
“Think about it. Every single thing done on that circus floor involves someone escaping death. That’s what we are celebrating—them not dying.”
My daughter’s brow furrowed.
I helped her along: “The trapeze artists not falling, the lion tamer not getting eaten, the motorcyclists not colliding in the steel ball …”
My daughter was quiet for a few seconds. Then she frowned.
“Oh my God,” she said excitedly, “you’re right.”
On cue, we both turned to look at all the children sitting around us with big smiles on their faces. They were bouncing up and down in their seats and clapping their hands in glee. Smiling just as big were their parents, happy they could bring their sons and daughters to a place filled with so much happiness.
I turned to my right to talk to my friend, Happy-John, who is called that because he is always in a good mood and smiling. He was smiling when I started telling him my observation about how we were watching people cheat death under the guise of family entertainment, but he too was frowning by the time I finished.
“You know,” said Happy-John, “you really know how to ruin a good time. Can’t you just enjoy the show?”
“Not now,” I said.
I’m sure if I had asked some of the parents there that night why they had brought their impressionable little ones to the circus, they too would have said it was so their children could have fun because the circus is, “just so entertaining!”
“Watching people almost die is entertaining?”
“Your kids are laughing and clapping because people in colorful costumes are cheating death. Don’t you think that’s a little macabre?”