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.

Philosophy As ‘Ways Of Seeing Things’

In Confessions of a Philosopher (Random House, 1997, pp. 399-400) Bryan Magee writes:

[T]he most important things great philosophers have to give us are to be got at not by analysing the logic of their arguments or their use of concepts but by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying….”Is reality illuminated for me if I look at it in the light of X’s explanation of it?”….For the most part philosophy is about different ways of looking at things: its purpose is not so much of knowledge as of understanding. An original philosopher is saying to us in effect: “You will find you will understand things better if you look at them this way.”….in this respect philosophy can be like art….the result is an enhanced perception and understanding of my own world, my own experience, an enrichment of my vision….What one gets from a philosophy consists largely not of true propositions but, more important than that, ways of looking at things, ways of seeing things.

I’ve made note here and elsewhere–in an interview with 3AM Magazine–of my original motivations for studying philosophy. The latter spoke to philosophy’s therapeutic function. The former, more explicitly in line with Magee’s claim above, spoke to the ‘special elevated vision’ the philosophical attitude seemed to promise: I would see the world in a whole new light once I had become a philosopher. But of course, that is what philosophy’s therapeutic function amounted to as well–at least as I understood it. For what I hoped for and desired more than anything else via the study of philosophy was that it would convince me that the world I lived in, a world then tainted by my grief and anxiety and sorrowful remembrance, could be viewed anew, and thus transformed, made into one that I could go on living in with purpose and desire and striving. My state of mind then did not permit such a perspective: all was shadow and murk. For philosophy did not just promise to elevate me above the fray, to look down from an Olympian height (in the way that the two paragraphs I quoted from John David Mabbott in the post linked above had seemed to.) That promise still contained within it a hint of remoteness: perhaps I would have to separate myself from the mundane world to enjoy such a ‘superior’ perspective. But the promise to see things anew, to see ‘reality in the light of what it is saying’ was a trifle more ambitious and humble and human all at once: I would walk these same streets, among the same people, see the same sun rise every day on this world with all its ugliness and beauty, and yet, none of it would be the ‘same,’ because I would be a philosopher.

These original conceptions of philosophy carried a hint of the poetic, the artistic, the religious, and the scientific to me; and despite my immersion in technical analytic philosophy in graduate school, they never quite left me. Every attempt to straitjacket it into only one of those categories was, at some important level in my  mind, a failure to understand philosophy’s promise, a betrayal I could never sign up for.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

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.

Chaucer’s Knight As Stoic Philosopher

In How to Read and Why (Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 281), Harold Bloom invokes ‘The Knight’s Tale‘ from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and writes:

The Knight sums up Chaucer’s ironic ethos in one grim couplet:

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene
For al day meeteth men at unset stevene

Bloom continues:

My friend the late Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson paraphrased this superbly:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

Among the most haunting passages in Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007)–which describes the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at home–are the ones on its very first page:

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

Didion writes that she considered editing the lines above so that they would read as follows:

Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what happened, I considered adding those words, ‘the ordinary instant.’ I saw immediately that there would be no need of adding the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the remarkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way from home work–happy, successful, health–and then, gone”….In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside.

Rare is the remarkable disaster that provides advance intimation; even the most drawn out of all deadly diseases begins with the most innocent signals–perhaps the test result obtained during a routine medical exam, perhaps the lump that makes its presence felt during a routine palpitation of the skin. All around us, misfortune stalks the unwary, even as we imagine it will pass us by today, and continue to do so in the future.If every day is the first of the rest of our lives–an inspirational homily we are only to happy to dish out to others–then it is an elementary deduction that one such day will be the last too. But this is an inference we are often unwilling to draw until it is time to have its grim conclusion forced upon us.

Chaucer’s Knight then, is bidding us be good Stoics, fully prepared, with a kind of sensitive indifference, for this world’s eventualities, not all of which bring glad tidings to our door. It is the oldest lesson of all, one which we are destined to have imparted to us again and again, for the facts about the nature of our existence that it brings to our attention are not easily accepted.

On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

Grieving For Others When ‘There Is Sobbing At Home’

In Koba The Dread (Vintage International, New York, 2003, pp. 258) Martin Amis includes in a footnote, a quote from Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn citing an alleged Russian proverb as follows:

Why grieve for others when there is sobbing at home?

The sentiment at the heart of this query about apparently misdirected grief may be summed up, roughly, as follows: we should reserve our expressions of sorrow for where they are most appropriately directed, at matters closer to heart and home. Our sympathy is scarce; there is much need for it here, close by; it is inappropriate and wasteful to direct it elsewhere. It might even be an expression of insincerity, of a certain kind of bad faith, evidence of a flaw in our affective responses to others: you do not have grief for those closest to you, but plenty for others? (This is certainly how the quote is deployed in Amis’ referring to a story told by Kingsley Amis in his Memoirs about how reports in Pravda about Joseph Stalin‘s complaints, “in person,” to the United Nations about the treatment of Greek communist prisoners at the end of the civil war evoked “hysterical laughter” among gulag prisoners; their state bore ample testimony to Stalin’s malignant hypocrisy.)

But we can offer a contestation of such a view of the act of grieving for others even as ‘there is sobbing at home.’ Perhaps we grieve for others precisely because we have born witness to such sobbing; perhaps we can direct our grief elsewhere because the grieving ‘at home’ has reminded us of the ubiquitousness of grief, that no one is immune to it, that sorrow comes to all, and leaves no one untouched. We might have once viewed the sorrow of others as a distant vision, a visitor unlikely to come knocking at our door; the ‘sobbing at home’ tells us that such smugness is unwarranted.

It might be too that we can grieve for others because we have participated in the sobbing at home and learned how to grieve. Perhaps our sobbing at home has made it possible for us to become more sympathetic and empathetic alike. Grieving might not be instinctive; we need to be inculcated in its ways and means, and what better venue for such education than our most intimate and personal of spaces?

I have made note here previously of the appropriateness of grieving over the passing of ‘perfect strangers,’ people–like celebrities and other public figures–with whom we did not enjoy a personal relationship; there our expressions of grief were evoked by the felt resonances of the occasion of someone’s passing with components of our own emotional make-up–“memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike.” I’d concluded then that “To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern.” That same conclusion holds true here too. We should, when we can, grieve for others even when there is sobbing at home.