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.
August 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
I remember you and no, I didn’t have to look at your name tag to cheat (or I did).
Wow, haven’t seen you in a long time.
Where are you living now?
What are you doing?
How many kids? Grandkids? I have one.
It really has been a long time.
Very nice to see you.
Time to move on.
It wasn’t so much as a reunion as it was a perverse form of sincere speed dating. You really had a connection with these people many years ago and the thrill of being remembered, acknowledged and smiled at, created an immediate and pleasurable sense of belonging. It was surprisingly powerful and it was the hope for these types of experiences that brought me back to the unfamiliar halls of what is now known as Davis High School. The evening provided countless such experiences.
The pleasurable was countered with the realization that for whatever reason one or two of my classmates had de-friended me on FaceBook for — I’m supposing — my perceived offenses in expressing my ambivalence towards the reunion. If meeting people I hadn’t seen in 30 years for 30 seconds made me briefly feel really good, the rejection on FaceBook, was the equivalent negative reaction.
The rejection pain makes me realize that I have undoubtedly committed countless acts of hypocrisy. I rejected people throughout the evening. I recognized it as soon as the evening was done and it was too late to do anything about it. If I didn’t engage you, didn’t talk to you, didn’t acknowledge you and it hurt your feelings, I’m sorry. You really want to talk to me send me an email and I won’t bite. This is my version of a plea for forgiveness for both the knowing and the unknowing assaults I’ve committed on social connection.
Acceptance into a social group is critical for human survival and we are all hard wired to want to belong. The desire to belong is so strong and the negative emotional responses of not belonging are so painful, that we do whatever we can to eliminate the potentiality of rejection. This can take the form of rejecting first, avoidance or collapsing into the clique we remember as “safe”.
I watched as people I knew fell back into the same groups as high school. Maybe they’ve maintained those relationships, probably not, but those social connections, even after 30 years, have weathered time. Think about who you spent most of your time with during the reunion. It was with those former friends who provided you with the most safety and comfort. Maybe the reunion was a nice reminder of a time when you had a group of friends who kept you safe from outside social rejection.
The desire to create a social group in which there was perceived safety manifest itself in the oddly placed prayer that launched dinner. The retreat to the predominant religious culture surely felt safe and comforting to the majority believers. But religion of this sort may comfort the majority, but when bringing back together a secular high school class, the prayer ran counter to its intended purpose, a divisive, rather than inclusive act. For something whose purported goal is to create a community of one heart, one mind and one soul, religion is a poor tool. Compassion and empathy are much better tools if they are employed.
Aging was another theme of the evening, which is probably inevitable, since all of us are being faced with the specter of mortality, at the very least in our parents. Bringing up mortality creates all sorts of unanticipated emotional responses. Yet, we will all die. All we have is our current lives, less 48 years.
Of those 48 years, each person carries memories that are as unique to them as the person themselves. Throughout the night I was reminded of events, circumstances and classmates of which I had no recollection. Did those things really happen? Probably. I had the reverse thing happen to me when I would recall something about another person and they had no recollection of the event. These memory gaps were the more subtle rejections of the evening, “This was important to me, but not to you — ouch.” And I daresay they were prevalent. Given the lapse of time, they were probably more prevalent than having two memories collide head-on on the same event.
So none of us remember anything the same from 30 years ago. We cling to the groups that make us feel the safest against the onslaught of time. We overdose on the saccharine sweet reconnection and acceptance, trying our best to ignore the aftertaste that lets you know that everything is just a little off kilter.
The act of reconnecting ironically turned into a reminder of how disconnected we have all become.
Now, Myron Casdorph told me that I was — and this was last night, and I’ve already forgotten, just imagine what 30 years did to me — grumpy, crabby or some similar epithet. He was joking and I was laughing and in a way it was true — I am a little darker than most in my outlook. The dark outlook for me illuminates those things that are truly giving off light. Myron exuded the light and life of someone doing what they love and completely comfortable in his own skin. I saw a lot of that last night. Those were the people who inspired me the most because they seemed to have their life figured out. They were real, genuine and most importantly, themselves. To all of you who gave me that glimpse — thank you. Makes me a little less crabby and a little less grumpy and a lot less dark.
A life has a trajectory and its propulsive force. Like the space shuttle, we launched into our adult lives in 1981. Several have experienced spectacular explosions and screw ups, while others have headed straight, never wavering, laser guided towards an intended goal. My life, as with many others I’m sure, has felt more like a Lagoon ride gone off the rails.
Ultimately, the best thing the reunion gave to me was perspective on my current life, causing me to examine where I am heading and what is driving me. Having my wife with me at the reunion provided that connection and base to my real world existence, throughout the fantastical, brief and surreal reunions. The reunion came to a crashing close for me when real life text messages from children began pouring in. I walked out of the halls of Davis High and remembered the feeling 30 years ago after graduation when I walked out of the school in the same general geographic vicinity, wondering where my life was going. I had no idea, I felt scared, lost and giddy with the excitement of the unknown.
Last night, I walked out the high school doors again, but my step was more sure. My wife sat waiting for me on a concrete abutment in the light of the full moon. I took her hand and we walked to our car. I realized that I know what drives my life. I realized that about the best you can do with life’s controls is point them in a general direction and (to utilize a cliche because it works) hang on for dear life. No longer, lost, scared or directionless, I was again giddy with excitement of heading into the unknown as I walked out the doors of my high school.