The Hidden Pain Of Others

A few years ago, as I walked down the street that I live on in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, toward my home and my waiting family, past a row of restaurants and coffee shops with their happy and contented consumers, I spied a pair of friends and neighbors of ours. They were sitting outside a local eatery, waiting for their wood-fired oven pizza to be brought out to them. The husband sipped on his wine while his wife chatted on the phone, smiling and laughing as her conversation ensued. I stopped and stared for a second, wondering whether I should stop by and throw out a quick hello and make some small talk. I moved on; they looked busy and preoccupied, enjoying their meal, each other’s company, and the fine late summer weather. They looked, for all anyone could tell, happy and prosperous and content. Elegant glasses of white wine; outdoor seating at a not-cheap restaurant; they looked exactly like the people who were supposed to be living in my neighborhood: Brooklyn thirty-somethings, successful and intelligent, well-educated, with adequate privilege and comfort underwriting their lives.

But I was in the possession of some knowledge about my friends that complicated the sunny picture above. For a few months prior to this spotting, they had lost their only child, their daughter, a toddler scarcely two years old, killed by a piece of falling masonry from the eighth floor of a building in Manhattan. It was the worst parental nightmare of all: the loss of a young child to a freak accident, one that you could have done nothing about. It had devastated them with grief and regret and anger in ways that I could scarcely comprehend, and yet, here they were, seemingly oblivious to this fact of their own lives. They would so easily have been the targets of envy at the moment I espied them: good-looking, happy, content, well-fed, prosperous enough for leisure and good cuisine and wine, connected with friends and family, savoring life’s gustatory pleasures. Someone might have congratulated them on their good fortune: “You guys have got it all!” But they didn’t. They were like all of us, who don’t have it all.

It was time, obviously, to relearn some old lessons. We imagine all too easily, that others are happier than they are (the chief cause of our unhappiness, as Montesquieu famously said.) We wear masks all the time; we are brave, more resilient than we imagine; the surfaces that are presented to us, and that we present to others, in our daily lives and social interactions, offer the barest hint of what lurks beneath; we should never presume too much about the happiness that we find exposed to us–for it sits alongside a great deal else–anxiety, fear, grief, self-hatred–in those interiors that we have no access to. Every life when viewed from the inside, as George Orwell said, is but a series of small failures; viewed from the outside, we are prone to imagining that life as enjoying the fortunes that passed us by. The truth lies elsewhere.

Vale Rohin Kushwaha (1999-2019)

The diseases which afflict the young are particularly fearsome; they take the soaring bird in flight, bringing home the indifference of this world to our fates and fortunes vividly. Rohin Kushwaha, who passed away last week on Friday, January 11th, was not yet twenty years old; he had but completed a year of studies beyond high school, commencing that learning that seemed destined to bring his undeniable and visible talents fully to fruition. His intellectual ambition was vast, speaking of a vision and a scale not normally associated with one so young: he studied computer science and dreamed about writing a different kind of video game, complex, based on rich narratives with complicated characters; he would bring his own novels and stories to life with the games he wrote. He had completed work on one novel and had begun work on another; he was talented and prolific and organized and hard working, the perfect artist. He was comfortable with both science and literature, with both technique and emotion, a marriage he worked to realize in himself and his writing. In school, besides the usual complement of classes and activities, he played tennis and guitar; he made many loyal friends, a cohort bound by shared interests and talents. At home, he mentored his many cousins with patience and affection; he sparred affectionately with his doting and loving parents and sister, who were well aware they had a gem on their hands.  He was quiet and determined, impatient with the social niceties that forced him into predetermined patterns of behavior; he wanted to be his own person.

That he certainly was. He lived his brief life on his own terms with dignity and fortitude, qualities especially on display once his formidable foe, a glioblastoma multiforme stage IV tumor in his brain, was diagnosed. He bore his many onerous treatments with patience and good humor; he trusted his caretakers, his parents and his sister, would do right by him. They did; they fought as hard as they could, with him, for him.  He underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, electrode-based treatments, and cannabis tinctures; they were all of limited efficacy. He observed the effects of these treatments on himself (and those around him) quietly; he was well aware, at some important level, of what was underway and what its almost unfathomable consequences were. As the end approached, and as his body gave way, he remained strong and calm and collected; his strength reassured those around him.

When he finally passed away last week, a merciful deliverance from his discomfort, he was mourned deeply by his family and friends all of whom gathered with his parents and sister to reassure them of their love, to reminisce about a life that was too short, and yet that touched so many, in so many ways, with so much love and intelligence. I will miss you Rohin, you were a great kid, one of the best, and I looked forward to talking more with you as you went along on your own adventure in this world. You won’t be forgotten. With all my love, Samir Chacha.

Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.

Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

The Mixed Pleasures Of Attending Our Own Memorial Service

Wanting to attend our own funerals, our own memorial services, is a fantasy with a long and distinguished pedigree. (As is the associated fantasy of wanting to read our own obituaries.) With good reason. If things have worked out well, many of our friends and family members will be there, hopefully all well-dressed. Importantly, we will be the focus of attention, the center-show, at most times. Some folks will occasionally deign to speak to each other on topics that do not directly pertain to us, but we will at least feature front and center in any formal addresses delivered from the podium of choice. Perhaps there will be photographs of us, all showcasing our ‘best sides’ and our best memories; an artful act of editing that will show our lives in the best possible way, constructing a narrative that will suggest all went well, we only made friends, we always looked happy, we went to wonderful places, we ate great food, we did great work–you get the picture (literally.)

And then there is the matter of the eulogies. Ah, what sweet joy. To hear our friends speak glowingly and tearfully about us, to hear them recount tales and anecdotes in which we come off so well, in which even our faults are beautifully incorporated into a larger picture of goodness–who would want to forego such an opportunity? Some of our creative friends might even have produced several drafts of the eulogies they deliver, thus ensuring a carefully crafted final product that will do the most justice to a description of our lives and our virtues. If the logistical details have been sorted out, there will be good food and drink, and once the effects of those kick in, and some of the tears have been wiped away, there will be, among your friends, much merriment and conviviality. We might even hear more stories about ourselves; more clever punch lines that we delivered on many a memorable occasion in the past. It will be the kind of party we often wanted to throw, but were never quite able to pull off; it was too hard to get everyone together in one place. Now, we don’t even have to clean up.

But we should be careful to not tarry too long and we should slip away as the service and the after-party winds down. For we might notice, much as we did as the attendees gathered and talked among themselves as the services kicked off, that our friends and families have lives that will persist and continue even after our deaths; once the service is over, and as dispersals take place in the parking lot and lobby, we will begin to fade ever so imperceptibly from view. The world awaits; we had our turn on the stage, exit left directions have been issued, and now we must depart. To delay our departure will only be to receive further evidence of what we fear most of all: our erasure from this world. Other forms of existence await us hopefully: perhaps as memories and continuing influences in the lives of those we loved. Those will have to do for now. (And ever?)

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.