Written by Sam Buckland, Graphic by Sophie Levy.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, late into March, a strange thing happened. People who, before, never cared to question their paths in life now began to speak openly, with a bit of fear in their eyes, about “the meaning of life.”
Of course, there’s nothing like a global social and health crisis to throw a bone to existential anguish. As the weeks added up, there was no avoiding the fact that the world was fragile, or that what we wanted – that desire, in short – was crafted around an invisible, stable set of social and political arrangements that, now, were neither invisible nor stable.
And often it takes something serious, like a pandemic, to interrupt the flow of normal life, to make visible what has been lost in the bargain. Careers seem less important. The endless accumulation of wealth loses its luster. The goals that once occupied our minds look strange and unusable, like antiques from a former world. For death – facing death, seeing death – shakes the distance there is in normal life between you and your own end of life, or of those you love. It shines a light, bright or weak, onto the absolutely frightening fact that life is precarious.
But it didn’t last, the anguish at least. And it faded fast. Those who could returned to their old schedules, their old interests. They narrowed their already narrow points of view and fled to their islands of emotion, which radiate inwards from the suburbs. And why is that? If there was one event that could coerce us to reshape our lives into more meaningful and purposeful ones, it would be a pandemic that has spared no one. But, for most, it hasn’t, and it won’t.
I once was a decent Little League baseball player, who loved to help parents run the scoreboards when other teams were playing. The parents who helped out were run-of-the-mill ambitious “professionals,” boring out of their minds and deadened by an obvious grief encircling him, which had metastasized over the years. Yet they were totally, and hilariously, engrossed with themselves. They thought that they – with expensive credentials and expensive diplomas, and upward careers and savings that they drained into new cleats and $200 bats for their children as a thinly veiled financial measure of social status – were the pinnacles of success. They thought that they had lives worth looking up to.
One Saturday afternoon, I went upstairs to the scorebox with two other nine- or ten-year-old kids my age. A recently divorced doctor, whose son was playing, came up to watch over us. He seemed exhausted, probably rightfully so, of us, of our energy, of children in general, and he didn’t mind showing it.
I don’t remember the details of the game – it was baseball of all sports – but there must’ve been strikes and balls, and bad calls and good calls. And families simply enjoying the sun (to stall the nightmare of being at home), and parent-coaches teaching children the value of hard-work (by tossing their own children out of the game for playing poorly), as well as one in particular who treated his prodigious pitcher-of-a-son as a financial investment that he hoped to profit off of. Which was all normal. Years later, as a precocious twelve-year old, I’d volunteer to umpire for a season. Once I made a call that enraged one of the parent-coaches. When I was at the supermarket later that afternoon, I ran into him and his eight-year old son, still in uniform, where he, a forty-year old man, publicly berated me for it.
That afternoon, we’d been announcing the batters coming up to the plate, playing two-second clips of their walk-up music, watching the strike count for the scoreboard. Maybe eating Dodger Dogs. Maybe eating funnel cake, or unsalted fries, or (for those with more liberal parents) drinking cokes. It was the first-term Bush-era, barely pre-Iraq. The small vices weren’t worth the time.
And, as it goes, there was another consequential judgment at the end of this game. A strikeout should’ve been called a walk, or a walk should’ve been called the third strike. But right there and then, the game ended, and after it did, with the coaches yelling at each other in a joint display of sanity, one of the other kids next to me asked the recently divorced doctor what had happened to make the coaches so irate. He didn’t understand the argument on the field.
The umpire called that last pitch a strike, but they think it should’ve been called a ball.
Why are they screaming at him?
Because now the game’s over.
But isn’t that the umpire’s job?
So why are they getting mad at him for doing his job? That doesn’t really sound fair.
Life isn’t fair. That’s just the way it is.
That’s how I imagine the conversation went – it’s been a long time -- apart from the last line. I still can see the recently divorced doctor, wearing dark sunglasses and looking out at the baseball field – where umpires were treated like ‘the help’ by surgeons and corporate lawyers earning unconscionable salaries; where impressionable children were being slowly molded into irresponsible teenagers in order to be irresponsible adults – deciding right then and there to teach the invaluable lesson that life isn’t fair. And what an insight it was. What imaginative thought. Who among us couldn’t help but feel honored to have been given the unvarnished Truth from a Man of Experience. So soon after, when we found our own parents, we all headed back home, changed.
When Michel de Montaigne published “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” in 1580, he had retired from public political life. Only six years earlier he fled Bordeaux, by horseback, as the bubonic plague reached his Chateau’s gates. His collection, Essais – from which we have the essay, translating into ‘to test,’ or ‘to examine’ – comes out of the solitude and fear of that period. I came across it one night in April, with the experience of social isolation still settling in.
Some think that there is life and then there is death. They are two polar opposites. The goal of life is to have more of it, they think, because death is a unique bad, and life a unique good. But that contrast didn’t make much sense to Montaigne. Living is dying. Each successive moment of life is another on the path towards death, and, as Montaigne knew, “Some have lived long and lived little.” Life is not a useful vessel for collecting pleasures and throwing out pains; but the world around us, now as much as then, would like to make you think so.
Moreover, death is a fact of our life. There’s no denying it. It’s a frightening thing, and it should be. For one, because it’s the final moment of those you care about and love. When you lose someone you love, you lost part of yourself. But it’s also frightening from the point of view of the living, for the reason that facing death, confronting it, would invalidate many of the desires and aspirations you have. So many of us live shallow, untethered lives, full of wants that are, honestly, ridiculous. How devastating it must be to take that in.
If you ever do. What concerned Montaigne is that it’s much simpler to flee from facing your own death. Especially in the transition from childhood, where your life feels eternal, to adulthood, where it does not, fear can creep in and become overwhelmingly palpable. And that’s a dangerous thing. Fear and fright are not feelings that you want to hide under the rug. They only grow when forced into invisibility.
“If you do not first lighten yourself and your soul of the weight of your burdens, moving about will only increase their pressure on you, as a ship’s cargo is less troublesome when lashed in place,” Montaigne said.
To see what Montaigne saw is to see the divorced doctor as running from his death. It’s to see someone whose broken marriage – an institution built on the vow of ‘till death do us part’ – had forced him to stare at the finiteness of life, of his life, and he wasn’t prepared for that. So the divorced doctor had taken an extended his vacation. He went into work, took enough care of his children, completed his household responsibilities, showed up at the baseball field to keep score, but apart from that was something of a zombie. He wasn’t living; he didn’t want to be.
And there’s no shame in that. We’ve all been there. His grief was real, and in thinking back on it, was too common. So many adults drown in melancholy, sometimes of their own doing and sometimes not. Melancholy is a product of pain, of loss. It’s the denial of that pain, of that loss; the attempt to escape knowing how much you yourself have lost when someone you loved is no longer around. Which, of course, only brings about more pain. Pain turns into rage, and rage turns inwards, where it tragically stays or slowly loses its steam and turns into a deep, heavy grief. What a terrible burden that is.
Inevitably it seems, at some point during adolescence, you’ll come across existentialism. The schools already have deadened your love of learning and capacity for creativity, with the bluntest of instruments. And the world awaiting you – maybe of a career and a square office, of following the strict, unwritten codes of social expectation – is terrifying. It’s completely impoverished of meaning. So you feel liberated by the existentialist disdain of bureaucratic life and of the various systems that perpetuate it. You’re on the threshold of adulthood yourself, terrified of, but also craving, the freedom to choose who you are, to ‘become someone,’ to violently obliterate those futures and identities that your parents and teachers have stamped on you for years and years, seemingly energized by the tune of your protests. And yet the world won’t accommodate that. It won’t accommodate you.
The years pass, and you are drained of life, and it can appear as if drifting into a sea of solitude is as natural as the curvature of the earth. Or as if the emotional isolation raining down from craven mechanisms of governance is just what it’s like and should be like to grow up. Alienation sets in. Then it hardens. And you see a separation, a ravine, form between you and your feelings. Your feelings appear to you as foreigners, travelers who are here for the night, and your body as an emptied house that functions only to provide temporary lodging for them.
In the wake of that, you refuse to be alone with yourself, like BoJack Horseman does; or, already immobilized by the weight of your grief, you hope for something, or someone, to liberate you from the responsibility of choosing what to do and how to live. But both delay the redemption you seek.
Repairing that separation can feel impossible. No one has the time for it. It’s agonizing enough having to hear your own inner voice berate you, having to see your own mirror image dismissively stare back at you. So no need to push at the wound. And the pain is comfortable, manageable. Your grief is familiar and smooth, part of the fabric of the world. Some nights that might seem better than the alternative.
“Most people don’t grow up,” said Maya Angelou. “It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older…but they don’t grow up.” Somewhere inside you, you have to want it, which is not so easy to do, or locate.
I’ve sometimes thought that whether you flee death or face it – that is, whether you grow up – depends on forgiveness. There are so few among us who are prepared to forgive ourselves for the things we’ve done, or haven’t done, to make a relationship work; for the time we didn’t spend with those we’ve lost, choosing instead to see friends who still are around, or going out to bars and clubs that still are around, or travelling, or watching copious amount of television. It’s difficult to ask others for forgiveness. Now imagine asking yourself.
But maybe we ask forgiveness to do too much. Maybe forgiveness can’t do what we need it to do.
“The messiah comes not on the last day, but on the very last day,” Kafka wrote. We are the kinds of creatures who hope to be forgiven in the eyes of others only after forgiveness could help us reshape our lives. And we don’t even want to be forgiven, but to use forgiveness to escape the burden of, every single day, living with ourselves. For some, a global crisis still can’t overcome that deep of a fracture.
And why should it? Forgiveness is a palliative, not a cure.
Isn’t it strange that the thing that can force us to better our lives is also the thing that causes irreparable pain; the thing that can give us the courage to shape ourselves into, once and for all, people, is also the thing that damages our ability to live full lives in the first place. It’s a bit deranged that we need to experience pain before renegotiating how we affect others.
The same issue can be framed like this. When you look back on the life you’ve lived, you’ll mark the moments of crisis – a parent’s passing, for instance; or the end of a loving relationship; or a global pandemic – as the episodes that formed you into the person you are now. But looking into the future, when those formative episodes were on the horizon, you sought to prevent their pain and damage. And there’s a tension there. Why would you seek to prevent those episodes that allow you to step into yourself? Or rather, why would the episodes that allow you to step into yourself be the same ones that you sought to prevent from happening?
But the truth is it’s the wrong framing. It’s not the right way to think about it. Our lives are too connected to view pain as individual. Of course, you’d want to prevent those you love from experiencing pain. They are part of your life. You are part of theirs. Losing them is to lose a part of you too. Losing anyone, however distant their connection, is a loss to you, however small. And your loss is their loss. But the possibility for loss brings the possibility for gain, for connection and love. That’s the vexing quality of all relationships.
More than that, part of what it is to grow up, and not just grow older, is to brace the inevitable gap in point of view between lived experience and the detached memories we have of it; between the fractured choices we make in the present and the coherence we discover (or force) when we narrate our pasts backwards. Alienation can widen that gap. But reflection can close it, or, if not close it, then give it a home. You never erase the pain of a loss – and why would you want to – although that pain doesn’t always have to feel so foreign. It can become your pain: your heartbreak and your grief.
No one’s beyond forgiveness for taking a long sleep from life.
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