For someone who never lived in the Third World or did a day of military service, I saw a lot of death as a young man, much of it traumatic. I didn’t think much about it then, partly because I did see it so often and they’re called defense mechanisms for a reason. But I also saw a lot of bad shit that didn’t end up with someone dying, although in some of those cases people were left so physically, psychologically or spiritually miserable afterward that today they wish it had, and in still other cases the survivors were so hideously damaged that perhaps they may as well have died for all the good they could do themselves or anyone else afterward. I don’t know. I would no more look down on the sense of satisfaction that a nurse’s aide derives from washing a patient’s feet than I would on the sense of satisfaction that Jesus derived from doing the same for the disciples.
It was the experiences of those people that taught me how utterly, completely fatuous is the notion that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s not that I think suicide is a solution (although I’ll entertain the argument that in a very few cases involving painful, incurable, terminal disease, perhaps it is). It’s that we glibly accept the notion that all problems are temporary, even when the notion comes from trained professionals who ought to, and probably do, know better. But no. Some scars are permanent, some wounds will ache every morning you see the sun come up, and and some problems will be with you the rest of your days, whether those days number a handful or thousands. And yet we tell ourselves this lie about suicide because we know from research that it’s not depression per se or anxiety per se or physical pain per se that leads people to kill themselves. What leads them to kill themselves is the belief that whatever is bothering them will never change. And the truth is that sometimes it never will.
And so, as in so many movie scenes and bad hands that real life deals us, the only question that matters becomes: What are you going to do? Not “What CAN you do?” But what are you going to do? Some days, the answer is as simple as, “I’m going to pull my bare feet out from under the bed covers and put them on the floor. And then we’ll see.” I’ve had days like that. I had one this morning.
I am deep into middle age now. Just before I turned 6, Jon Carroll’s friend Jean Steager died. And this is some of what Carroll, one of the few longtime U.S. columnists who hasn’t more or less completely succumbed to hackdom, said as he thought about Jean Steager 30 years after she died:
She was riding in a car on a stretch of Route 17 near Scotts Valley. The road was slick with rain. There was no median barrier back then, just a double yellow line.
A truck crossed over and hit her car. The only virtue that anybody could find in her death was that it was immediate. …
She wanted to go to Europe; I remember that. First her doctorate; then the trip to Greece. She had it all planned. …
What I could remember about her was the neat rows she had set down for her life, the lines on the graph paper that stretched in pleasing geometry well into the future.
I doubt that she was thinking, when she turned her head and saw the truck coming, “Well, there goes that trip to Greece.” But I thought that, later. I thought that the overlooked corollary to “it’s never too late” is “it’s never too early.”
I suppose I am bringing tidings of subversive cheer; I suppose I am suggesting that you consider a change. Quit your job if you hate it. Go on. I know these are hard times, and people fall off the edge, but God is passing out brain tumors too, and you might as well take the plunge. The plunge is all we’ve got.
When you’re young you think that life stretches out indefinitely and you can take this crap for another decade. And the lesson of Jeanne Steager is, No, you bloody well can’t. Life is of varying lengths, and actuarial tables are only averages, and sometimes you gotta close your eyes and jump. Even if it’s scary; especially if it’s scary. …
The jump is easier for some of us than for others. Would it be presumptuous to suggest that those for whom it is easy have an even greater obligation to do so? And would it be prophetic to suggest that if they did the world would be a better place? Only God knows, and the only thing God has ever said to me is brief and 2,000 years old and (for all our organized religion) now held in such wide disdain that its relevance to each new day’s headlines seems as tenuous as a spider’s web in hurricane season, as insubstantial as a valid fact or bit of logic in a season of lucrative lying and epidemic, sociopathic madness.
And yet, along with our hurricanes, we still have spiders. Along with our epidemic, sociopathic madness, we still have, I think, a few people highlighting valid facts, exercising bulletproof logic, using great power, whether found, learned or earned, for great responsibility. And maybe that’s all we need. How many resurrections did it take to change the world forever? And while my foot on the cold bedroom floor tomorrow morning won’t start the next one, what about yours? Or yours? Or yours?