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Turd Ferguson and the Philosophy of Hope

Remembering Norm Macdonald (1959-2021).
Saban Community Clinic's 50th Anniversary Dinner Gala

In his introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan, Michael Oakeshott speculates as to what makes one a philosopher. It’s not knowledge one accumulates, says Oakeshott. It is, rather, a perspective, a disposition with which one is born. As he says:

Philosophy springs from a certain bent of mind which, though different in character, is as much a natural gift as an aptitude for mathematics or a genius for music. Philosophical speculation requires so little in the way of a knowledge of the world and is, in comparison with some other intellectual pursuits, so independent of book-learning, that the gift is apt to manifest itself early in life.

These words came to my mind this week as I reflected upon the life, and untimely death, of Norm Macdonald. Norm’s path to becoming one of the most respected stand-up comedians of his generation was unlikely. Born into poverty in rural Canada, Norm suffered from debilitating social anxiety until a definitive moment redirected the course of his life, as Norm’s sui generis gift manifested itself.

One day, Norm’s father asked him to walk a family friend to the store. The man was blind and asked Norm to describe the road and trees and sky to him as they walked. Norm recounts that this exercise—of naming and describing creation—took him outside of himself, thus alleviating his anxiety. From then on, Norm was an observer and describer of the world.

To be sure, Norm’s take was distinct. He had what Oakeshott called the “natural gift” of a bent mind. He saw a homeless man with a dog and considered the experience from the vantage point of the pet—“this is the longest walk ever!” Whether he was behind the Weekend Update anchor desk, a microphone, or his Twitter account, Norm invited us to see the world from his idiosyncratic perspective.

The line between philosophy and comedy is already thin, and Norm blurred it further. His quasi-memoir, Based on a True Story, is as funny as you’d expect if you’re a casual fan, and as profound as you’d expect if you’re an avid devotee of Norm’s work. There, Norm interprets his gambling addiction as a quest for hope:

Most people would think it’s the wins that keep the gambler going, but any gambler knows that this is not true. As you place your chips on the craps table, you feel anxiety and impatience. When the red dice hit the green felt with a thunk and you’re declared the winner and the chips are pushed toward you, you feel relief. And relief is fine, but hardly what a man would give the whole rest of his life to gain. It has to be something else and the best I’ve come up with is this: It is a particular moment. A magic moment that occurs after the placing of a bet and before the result of that bet. It is after the red dice are thrown but before they lie still on the green felt where they fall. It is when the dice are in the air, and as long as they are there, time stops. As long as the red dice are in the air, the gambler has hope. And hope is a wonderful thing to be addicted to.

For many, comedy is a cynical exercise of enumerating the irrational absurdities of life. Not so for Norm, as he said: “Smart man says nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.” He went out of his way to see and name the miraculous beauty of creation. Norm was to Christianity what Woody Allen is to atheism. He didn’t talk about the world for a living out of resentment or anger, but out of love and boyish curiosity. It was as if we were the blind man and he was taking us all on a walk, careful to describe the normal, mundane objects around us in such a way that we could see the world afresh.

“The Enlightenment turned us away from truth and toward a darkling weakening horizon, sad and grey to see,” tweeted Norm, “The afterglow of Christianity is near gone now, and a stygian silence lurks in wait.” Norm Macdonald lived in an enchanted cosmos—bright in color, teaming with life. Norm saw differently, and therefore more, than secular man. His eyes didn’t just look at brute objects, but through them, seeing the internal coherence and grandeur of nature.

Norm remained, to the end, a man of hope. Peter Kreeft calls hope “a kind of prophetic intuition that beneath all appearances and all apparent injustices, reality is just, is good, and has to be good, in the end.” He goes on to say that to have hope is “a kind of almost mystical intuition, a seeing. It’s a judgment, an assertion.”

The man who gave us Turd Ferguson was born with the eyes of a philosopher, a mystical intuition to see as Oakeshott thought Thomas Hobbes saw. By faith, Norm Macdonald’s eyes were fixed on hope as he fell asleep, and when he awoke those same eyes beheld hope’s substance.

Dustin Messer is pastor for Faith Formation at All Saints Dallas in Dallas, TX. Before completing his doctorate at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary. He was a fall 2020 Constitutional Fellow at The American Conservative.