WINTER IN THE HOUSE OF JOB
This winter has been especially cold. Sarah’s touched on it a little. I’ve been avoiding it, but it may be time to confront the grief. It is also my hope that a new year will bring better news, or at least, less of this kind of relentless bad.
I don’t deal well with tragedy, whether it’s (God forbid) mine or (God forbid) the tragedies of others. But, even as I’m not wholly comfortable personalizing the tragedies that are not authentically my own, I feel them acutely. And as deep as my pain goes, it feels insincere, like I’m glomming onto the grief of others to illuminate my own issues with my mortality. And believe me, there are issues, which I have no wish to confront, but which I acknowledge are inevitably part of any person’s future:
How best to seize the day (and the night) without rampant repercussions.
How to live life knowing that every action may pose a risk.
How to open one’s heart to love when such an opening increases vulnerability.
How to conceive of the transience of human presence.
How to understand that there’s an unknown expiration date.
How to accept that there are limitations to our impact and to the reach of our dreams.
How to grasp the brevity of a single lifespan and the emptiness created by its loss.
The assault has seemed relentless, almost epic in sweep, nearly epidemic in frequency. And the irony is striking: in a season of spiritual and physical darkness, nations turn to festivals of light to illuminate the world. And our faith in light, at every turn, like candles, is extinguished. There is grief, globally and locally.
Is there something broken? Has there been a hairline fracture within the system? Is there a cause? Because without a cause, there cannot be a cure.
In every instance, there was rage. When it’s bad, it feels like my face and brain were ablaze, not with hope’s light, but with indignation’s ire. (My English major’s brain screams: Rage! Rage! Against the dying of the light.) There has to be anger! Some of the grief-stricken are comforted by words from clergy, mostly, that God takes the people God loves most. But many others are beyond the Bible’s, or even language’s ability to comfort.
After the rage, there is something else. There is a continued resentment at the injustice of it all—youth, potential, hope—abruptly terminated. There is humility, hopelessness and helplessness. There is a bewildered bereftness, a dazed look of grief-as-disbelief, followed by realization and emotional disintegration. It is a small, still voice after the storm, but one that offers no comfort.
II-WHAT IT’S ABOUT
When it’s someone you loved, it’s about internalizing that you’ve lost their smile, their laugh and their wisdom. It’s about understanding that there’s no understanding. It’s about leaning on faith to support you, and feeling it crumble beneath your weight.
When it’s someone you don’t know, the grief is still there, but it’s about realizing that the only way that name will ever become a person to you is through the people he or she touched. It’s attending a memorial service for someone you didn’t know, because you know her husband, but not well enough to be able to offer any words of comfort. It’s about feeling that you don’t belong there, among the legitimate mourners. It’s about feeling, in the midst of your sadness, that you’re a pretender, feigning grief for someone you never knew, just because he or she was loved by others, or worse, as if your attendance will exempt you from attending a service for someone you know well. It's about feeling so stricken by vicarious grief that you worry about your ability to deal with anything less remote, more personal. It’s thinking, there but for the grace of God go I, that people are interchangeable and that no one can predict what’s coming.
It’s about feeling like there’s no reason, or logic, or reward for good behavior. It’s about the futility of human action. It’s about feeling like there’s a criminal out there, targeting potential in indiscernible patterns, and that you and yours could be next. It’s about feeling the responsibility of living every moment to its fullest, and realizing that that’s inherently impossible.
III—SHADOWS OF SIXTEEN
When I look at his picture, I see a face I haven’t seen in eighteen years. We were sixteen then. He wasn’t a close friend. But his smile, in the picture accompanying the obit, is the same. You don’t see his journey. His inner demons hide within his foundation, like emotional termites. The text tells the story of a musician, a performer, an artist. A creative kindred. (Out, out brief candle. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more."--Macbeth.)
Life is like a passing shadow, many say, invoking it as comforting simile. We may choose to see it as a respite, a shade from the sun. But in the aftermath of grief, the truth hits us, and we understand. Life is us, plus a passing shadow. The shadow is the dark reflection of our vitality—featureless, ever-shifting in shape, mute to all expression. When it stops, it stops. (Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.)
Whether or not we stop for Death, the journey always ends. (“Fin,” as the French film’s final frame might read.) Mortal coils are by definition meant to be shuffled off; generations pass as people and as shadows.
Many of us believe in an afterlife, not because we have any proof, but because the alternative is too frightening. We need to believe that if Life is but a passing shadow, that what comes after is not. That Life has a life beyond life, that a person’s impact can be felt beyond his or her own mortality. That we’re not just carbon-based organisms, shuffling like more complex paramecia. That we can create meaning in this world and add perspective to the lives of people we’ve never met. That we imprint our essence on every person we meet, through every moment or smile we have shared. It doesn’t always feel true. In fact, most of the time, trying to believe this feels like I’m living a huge lie. But there’s no other way to cope with the sadness.
For the living who have lost, and this includes us all, faith is a refuge. Whether we believe it entirely, or whether we reject it in toto, we run to faith or to our faith in its absence, to explain away our sadness or give our grief a cause.
My strongest faith is in my words. "Broken" was my word. It came from my gut, from a paucity of verbiage apt to describe how much things were just not working. If the aphorism holds in its inverse, if there is, out there, some sort of broken thing, we should fix it. Let's stop using aerosol products to save the ozone layer. Let's get our scientists to the lab to cure cancer. Let's get city engineers to configure a subway that goes from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side. But these fractures are sneakier than most. They are often indiscernible until they’re fatal. No way to know what’s broken—let alone, how to fix it. We go through the motions, trying to abstractly make the world a better place, when it often seems that the crevasse is too wide to be caulked.
V—THE ROAD AHEAD
This decade is supposed to be my generation’s thriving time. We produce in every definition: we number our successes in presentations, artistic performances, books and articles. If we’re lucky enough, we hook up with someone else who’s productive and produce progeny. We grieve for the lost, for those who will never have our chances in this world. But to mire ourselves in the tragic damages the future.
Maybe the solution is in sometimes allowing ourselves to be transported, away from current circumstance, “to glide out of time, and forget all the tormented present.” Perhaps by not living in the past and forgetting the torment of present, we can fix our gaze on what the future might look like. Maybe the only solution is to continue. If humor is tragedy plus time, maybe so is progress.
Our path in life is the furthest thing from smooth. There’s no magic pill to re-enable normalcy, or cement to pave the road. Instead, the only thing that is certain for humanity is our constant struggle, with our natural environment, with other people, with our conflicting senses of self in a confusing world. Faith in something can make living easier. But inevitably, any faith—whether it is in words, or war, or love, or religion—will be tested, pushed, challenged. The road ahead is our only option.
If we are not strongly rooted to friends or family, and invested in our own futures, some of us will fall. We have to wish for strong companions to hold our hands along the way, who help us when we stumble, who support us as we try to right ourselves, and who serve as our faith when faith itself falters. We have to pray that we find the strength in ourselves to continue on a brambled path.
We can conquer that road in the usual way: one step at a time.
…of the one I knew: Moshe Lifshen, 1970-2004
…and the ones whose impact I felt through my friends: C.B., Joel, Riva, and Sam
...and the ones who populated the landscape of my youth, and united our families in friendship: Ron and Ken.
Zikhronam livrakhah. May their memories be for a blessing.