OLYMPICS BRING OUT THE BEST OF OUR WORLDS

ATLANTA — You take an idea. Get everyone in the world together, in one place, at one time, under one flag, for one cause. It is preposterous. It is unfathomable. But you circle it and you study it and you begin to chip away, like a sculptor on a mountain of granite.

And soon others join in, and others help out, and the word spreads and the work grows and soon it is more than one person chipping away, it is hundreds, then thousands, a shared dream that nobody thinks is so crazy anymore. The distances shrink, the mountain gets smaller, the impossible becomes possible, it begins to take shape.

And next thing you know, the music swells, the fireworks explode into a summer sky, and the gates are opened to a parade of nations, in coats and dresses and shawls and hats and robes and skirts and caftans and turbans — the entire world is in one place.

You take an idea.

The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games on Friday night were enough to make you shiver. Not because of the majesty of the music, or the coordination of the thousands of dancers, acrobats, musicians, cheerleaders, clompers, stompers and pickup trucks. Not because of the giant silk screens that silhouetted the figures of athletes representing the ancient Greeks, not because of the trumpeters blowing the Olympic fanfare, or Gladys Knight belting out a soulful rendition of “Georgia.”

It wasn’t the innocent faces of Atlanta schoolchildren as they raced along the floor of the Olympic Stadium, dressed in white costumes, creating, from above, the vision of a giant dove flapping its wings. It wasn’t the gospel group that sang “Welcome to the World” or the hundreds of Atlanta volunteers who spelled out a message that was beamed to the world: “HOW Y’ALL DOIN!”

What made you shiver — what made even the most cynical of viewers drop the emotion, just for a moment — was the proof, the undeniable evidence, that all this was possible, that for no other reason than to play together for a few weeks, in peace and celebration, the world could be as one.

You take an idea. Tragedy off Long Island

Then you take another idea. That people are expendable. That death is just a side effect. That lives do not matter. That killing is OK.

And so, even as the Olympic ceremonies played out under warm Southern skies, divers searched the murky waters north off Long Island, searching for bodies, searching for charred wreckage, searching for answers to why a TWA plane fell from the sky just 31 minutes into its trip from New York to Paris.

And what made you shiver here was the notion that perhaps someone did this on purpose, that someone planted a bomb or — even more incredibly — shot something from the surface and blew the plane from the sky. While none of this was confirmed, the ideas were being investigated, the evidence being examined by FBI and bomb terrorism experts, and the fact that it was even possible, the fact that things like this had happened before, was enough to scare you out of your skin.

You take the two ideas. How could one world have produced both? How could one part of the planet think it was time to come together and play, while another part thought it was time to kill? The meaning of life

The answer is what a wise man I once knew called “the tension of opposites.” It is how the same chord can be played right-side-up and upside-down. It is how an Honduran boxer can march around the Olympic Stadium holding his country’s flag as if it were the greatest honor a man could achieve, and two minutes later, basketball big mouth Charles Barkley embarrassed his country by telling a TV camera how he’s ready to punch a foreign opponent if it means winning.

It is how Serbs and Croats can agree to unite in an Olympic arena, even as they war against each other in their homelands.

It is how someone here will steal a wallet from a stranger’s pocket, and in the same hour, someone else will take money from his pocket and give it to a homeless stranger.

What do you do with all these mixed signals? How can you determine which world is really ours?

You can’t. This is your only option: to see the world as half-full or half-empty. To remember the images of dead bodies being pulled from bomb wreckage in Oklahoma City, Saudi Arabia, and who knows, maybe Long Island, a vision of the horrible, and say this is who we are, or to focus instead on a planet’s worth of athletes in one stadium on one summer night, a vision of the possible. This is who we are, too.

The tension of opposites. You take an idea, and you run with it. Which way you run will determine the future.

Mitch Albom’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” can be heard weekdays, 4-6 p.m., on WJR-AM (760). Guests this week will include Bob Woodward, Lyle Lovett and Olympians from Atlanta.

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