April 24, 2015 § 4 Comments
A couple of my high school classmates have passed away in the last couple of months. Fifty-two isn’t old, but death drudges up from my rickety memory the Philip Roth quote from Everyman, “Old age isn’t a battle: old age is a massacre.” We are just beginning to see the first casualties on the front lines of mortality. Our bodies don’t work exactly like they used to.
I go to the gym for the ostensible purpose of staying healthy and staving off the inevitable. Yet today as I stacked the plates on the bench press for five reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the weight and reps felt more like an attempt myself into the deception that my body is not declining. The illusion of the gym dissipates quickly when I get to the office and start contorting my body and neck just to see the computer screen clearly, even with the cool, technologically blended tri-focals.
I read through the social media comments under my former classmates’ obituaries and it is hard not to wonder, “What in the hell (if anything) are they going to write about me when I’m dead?” (I will be dead, so I won’t care, but it would be nice if you were at least somewhat kind for my wife and children’s sake or if nothing was said at all.) Yet, every comment made by my former classmates was tinged with compassion and salted with a fear of mortality. Every commenter was searching, to the extent possible in the brevity of social media, for a sense of meaning for the deceased and for their own lives.
We are all tied into our own little subjective skulls that work valiantly to give meaning and purpose to the choices we make. One of my classmates apparently died of AIDS, judging from the obituary, the other was the prototypical Mormon housewife by the obituary references. Neither lifestyle protected them from death. The comments for Jay, the classmate who died of AIDS, were all statements of sadness and regret. The moral judgment was withheld;morality pales in the face of mortality. My classmates on FaceBook have gratefully evolved beyond the screaming fundamentalism of the Westboro Baptists. However, moral judgment withheld is still a sort of judgment.
The comments for Mary Ann, the Mormon housewife, morality appeared in comments that remarked on the fullness and richness of her life. This was a moral judgment. Morality, or more importantly a morality that supports the beliefs and life choices of the commenter, was a solace, a judgment on the life that it was meaningful. Mary Ann fit the narrative that we were fed that life has meaning if you are a full time mother, religious, and raise children to behave and be likewise responsible.
Despite the moral commentary, here is the thing that none of us really know. Who had the more fulfilled, moral life? Jay or Mary Ann? I don’t know. None of us can really know. We may use conjecture and speculate; but most of us weren’t in their lives and certainly weren’t in their skin. We have no idea if both, just one, or neither had happy fulfilling lives.
Jay grew up, as did all of us, through the AIDS crisis, although he lived through the crisis more viscerally than most of us. Jay was gay in a time when our society ostracized homosexuals. During all but a year of his life, Jay was unable to marry someone he fell in love with and wanted to make a life with. Jay grew up in a religious culture that has not been particularly friendly to homosexuals. Yet, with all those societal hardships, could Jay still have been happy? Of course he could have. We just don’t know.
From the account in the obituary, Mary Ann lived the life of the devout Mormon housewife, but we are equally lacking in any knowledge on how happy and fulfilling her life was. She lived all over the world, not in Utah, so much of her life was spent in the religious minority. Her lifestyle was as foreign to the places she lived as Utah would have been for Jay. Secular culture would have been in direct conflict with Mary Ann’s choice to be a mother and her religion’s treatment of women. The narrative of her religion told her she should be happy, but whether or not she was, I don’t know. Could she have been happy and lived a fulfilling life? Of course. Did she? I don’t know, nor do any of us.
We know get to face death on FaceBook, but rather than a simple “I’m sad” or “What a great life” comment, I found myself trying to make sense or mortality, an existential crisis induced by social media. My religious upbringing taught me that the worth of a solitary, single soul has great worth in the sight of God. This means in the eyes of the God I was taught, Jay and Mary Ann had equal value. This is more my own internal quest for some small truth I can hang on to in the face of impending death. What makes for a meaningful life?
We ask this question, too often in the face of death, when it is too late. Kind of a post-mortem on whether a life was meaningful. On the other hand, I know the seize the day philosophy, but that isn’t what I’m talking about either. Simply seizing the moment only provides meaning for the moment, not for the narrative arc of a life.
Really, the need to create meaning is at the heart of the human condition. Our consciousness demands that we create stories about our lives to give them meaning. The life must have meaning to keep us from despondency, and for our own sense of happiness and well-being. We structure narratives around our lives that say, “My life is meaningful because . . .” Otherwise, the ever present, looming reality of mortality would push us off the nihilistic cliff.
At moments like this, I always find my thoughts racing back to Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill for all eternity. He would get almost to the top and the rock would roll back down to the bottom and he would need to start over again. It was his hell, but it is the hell of existence and mortality. We push, we aspire, but we never can actually get to the end. We spring from the dust and to the dust we return. The rock keeps rolling back into place. The only solution out of this dilemma is to find
meaning out of the seemingly meaninglessness of pushing the rock of our life.
Thinking life is a fruitless act of rolling a rock up a hell isn’t going to make you popular at parties. It is a bleak template for existence. For many, religion provides a ready made template for a meaningful life. The comments on Mary Ann’s death showed that — ah, she lived up to the template, even though we have no knowledge of how her life actually was. For Jay, most of the condolences were sadness for the family — ah, he didn’t live up to the template, it must be very sad and hard for his family. Again, the default religious template was unconsciously applied to Jay’s life, but again, none of us actually know how his life was.
This is the problem with templates, whether it be a rolling rock or a religious ideology. Anyone who has tried to create a website using a template knows this. It can be very useful at times, very confining at times, and sometimes won’t allow you to do the things you have to or must do. Ultimately, meaning comes at the end of a story, not during it. Sort of like saying the meaning of a football or basketball game is determined by how well you play the second quarter.
So my search for meaning has brought me at last to the story, to the narrative. If our desire as humans is to find meaning from existence, a story with a beginning, a middle and a climax is the structure upon which to hang a life. I want to draft stories for Mary Ann and Jay that transcend the tragedy of dying in middle age. This is the story I will tell myself about both Jay and Mary Ann — stories of lives that sucked the marrow, were filled with joy and grief and that reconciled the inevitability of life with the things that brought them the most pleasure and joy. The stories may not be true in a factual sense, but in a quest to find solace, peace and continue on with life knowing I will die, the truest knowledge there is.
I know I have crafted a narrative for myself. I have a job that is focused on relieving financial strain on the debt stricken — think Robin Hood with the bankruptcy code instead of arrows. I have five children and a grandchild and I watch their life narratives with a mixture of pain, joy and astonishment. I occasionally write out my thoughts for others to read in the hopes that maybe, just maybe I bring a little solace or understanding to someone else. I married a novelist, painter and poet, JulieAnn Carter-Winward, after reading one of her books. In her, I found someone who could join me in writing a narrative of my own life, sans template. Writing a life narrative on a blank page is wonderfully challenging. I want a narrative that can’t be reduced to sound bites or comments on social media. I want a narrative that is richer and more full than that offered by any religious or secular template.
What does all this mean in the face of death? Not much. But in the face of life, how the story goes means everything. I hope the narrative stories of Jay and Mary Ann’s life provide solace to those who were close to them. And even more importantly, I hope that the narrative stories of the rest of my classmates are contain rich, varied and beautiful plots that continue to spin out in beautiful divergent lines from our shared classrooms over thirty years ago.