Driving home from the gym earlier this week, I switched on NPR to catch the top of the hour news headlines. The lead story was the continued devastation in Pakistan after weeks of flooding. This was followed by another dismal economic indicator – new housing starts, factory orders for big ticket items- I can’t remember which- as well as a rehashing of the previous day’s sinking Dow Jones. National news segued into local stories, which featured the arrest of an 18-year old thug for the rape and murder of a developmentally-disabled girl in a community north of Seattle and the arraignment of a 10-year old who accidentally shot himself during a botched robbery on a Seattle Metro bus. Four minutes of the world falling apart and the acid was churning in my empty stomach, making me nauseous with anxiety.
Later that morning, I opened my e-mail to a message from a friend and former colleague, informing me that a dear mutual friend in a city far away from us is dying. He has been ill for months and has not wanted anyone to know. He has weeks, perhaps a few months, to live. It is also a week when I learn that a darling friend is in agony over an adult child struggling desperately with an illness she may not be strong enough to overcome– an illness that is costing the family their life savings, their hope, and some degree of their sanity. The sense of helplessness I feel over flood victims on the other side of the world or the cancer eating away at a loved one or the disease consuming a friend’s child takes my breath away.
This same day I heard someone repeat an axiom I have always loathed because it is so cruel: “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” All due respect to Nietzsche, but this is utter bullshit. If I examine the litany of heartbreak and loss, of tough times and terrible ones, do I think I have emerged stronger because of these things that were largely, if not completely, beyond my control? No. Like most of the other 6.7 billion souls who share this planet, I just keep going. I haven’t “gotten over, gone beyond, moved on, risen above” or whatever euphemism is attached to leaving problems behind. I’m simply still here. For the most part, the problems remain, too; we’ve just learned to co-exist.
No, that which doesn’t kill us sticks around and leeches onto our hearts and worms into our brains, changing us by slow degrees, making us vulnerable, exposing our damaged bodies and our broken hearts to a fractured and distracted world. Yet we continue, we survive, many of us grow and flourish. It is we who deserve the credit for our strength (some may prefer to extend credit to the grace of a Higher Power)-not the circumstances which threatened to destroy us.
So, I turn off the radio to get relief from a suffering world. I pray for my dying friend, I call to offer love, we cry together knowing we’ll never see one another again. The second such phone call I’ve made this year. I pray for another friend’s strength and peace of heart and for the healing of her child. I try to shake the fear I feel at my vulnerability and to ignore the dread that drives through my gut like a rod of frozen steel of something else happening to my loved ones.
I thought today of Hamlet’s Act III soliloquy, which I read and reread this evening, astonished by its wisdom and relevance. Hamlet supposes the only reason we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and we bear the whips and scorns of time is that the alternatives – death and the dread of the afterlife – are torments worse than life.
These are the words of a desperate man or a medieval existentialist, depending upon your chosen literary interpretation. I’m neither desperate nor an existentialist nor do I fear an afterlife (okay, dying scares the shit out of me, I’ll give you that). But I believe that we brace ourselves against a thousand natural shocks because moments of joy make the periods of pain tolerable. I believe we’re wired to seek happiness and love and that we must be, because the alternative – not to be, is unbearable.
Hamlet also ponders the value of rising up against a sea of troubles, of the nobleness of fighting for a cause. For this, too, is the gift and the burden of humanity. We are built to seek out one another, to protect our communities and to care for the plight of strangers.
So, I turn on the radio again, because I am responsible for my awareness. I find joy in this morning’s rain, in a just-discovered song that lifts my heart, in the moment when my husband takes my hand, in the kneading of warm and silky dough, in the kind word from a customer, the shared laughter of a friend. I don’t know what else to do. I’m not stronger nor is it likely that I’m any wiser. I am being. Not being will have wait another day.
To be, or not to be (from Hamlet 3/1)
To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover'd country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. - Soft you now! The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remember'd.