City Lights: 'Just remember, it's mostly good'

Once in a while, you hear a simple statement that lodges itself permanently in your way of thinking.

One of those, for me, came in a conversation I had with a high school friend who was savvy for his age on global politics. We had been talking about the usual headline-making woes: poverty, war, dictatorships and so on. At moments like that, it's often tempting to blurt out a defeated rhetorical question — why do we ever leave the house at all? What's the point of bringing children onto a planet like ours?

Instead, at one point, he took a breath and said, "Just remember, it's mostly good." Yes, the bad parts and bad people make the headlines, in part because they're out of the ordinary. But day for day, region by region, the good parts outweigh them.

You might have guessed that I'm writing this in response to the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, and no, I don't have anything new or insightful to say about them. Maybe the media is to blame, or maybe not; maybe we need fewer guns, or more guns, or stronger or weaker gun control. I have no answers to bring to the table here.

Instead, this column will just be about a moment — a good moment, on a day that no doubt was mostly good around the world.

On Aug. 9, my wife and I went to a candlelight vigil at UC Irvine for the victims of the Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin. About 50 people gathered by the flagpole at the administration building shortly after 7 p.m. for a moment of silence and a short prayer.

The ceremony lasted just a few minutes, and it was low-key and even amiable in nature; a pair of young men in turbans carried signs inviting visitors to have their photos taken with a Sikh. The organizers passed out tall white candles and offered a table full of literature on the Sikh religion. Some of the student leaders walked through the crowd, shaking hands and introducing themselves to strangers.

Since most of the prayers weren't in English, I only understood a part of the ceremony, but I think everyone there felt welcome. Holding candles in a group, congregating around any kind of flame, evokes a sense of community that probably goes back to prehistoric times: Here we are, collectively, keeping out the cold and the dark.

I was about to write that the worst of humanity always brings out the best in response. Maybe that isn't quite true. Maybe we just notice the good parts more when we need them most — or when an extreme event like the ones in Colorado and Wisconsin makes them stand out more by contrast. Whether or not a tragedy recently dominated the news, it's never hard to come by friendship, charity or tolerance.

The country singer Lucinda Williams wrote a gorgeous song once called "Sweet Old World," apparently addressed to a friend who committed suicide. In the lyrics, she rattles off all the things in life that the deceased is missing: "the sound of a midnight train," "the touch of fingertips" and so on.

Standing there by the flagpole at UCI, I could have added to Williams' list. Yes, midnight trains and touched fingertips are wonderful, and so are strangers with candles stooping to light others' candles. So is a crowd of multicolored faces gathered for a prayer not all of them can understand. So are "friends shaking hands" — here I am quoting song lyrics again, this time from Louis Armstrong.

The title of that song, of course, is "What a Wonderful World." And between all the shocking headlines, that's what it mostly is.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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