One learns to live with pain and sadness. I ran across someone on campus the other day; his wife has seriously advanced dementia. They married relatively recently, when she was already sick. They had been an item on and off for years (decades?), but when she got sick he did the “honorable thing” (his words) and married her. They had a few good years. Now she’s a ghost of her former self. My friend’s wife used to be an extremely prominent and fabulously brilliant scholar. I used her work in my dissertation. I was thrilled she taught at the university to which I was moving. She retired soon after I arrived. I never got to meet her pre-dementia, except in her books.
My friend, who is still a young man of 50 or so, is living this experience with the sadness and bereavement it deserves. He is also a buoyant guy, and he’s hanging in tough. I wish I could be closer to them but I don’t have the emotional and physical resources to do more than the occasional email and a good listen on the rare occasions when we run into each other. Some time ago I would have tortured myself over this inability. I’m slowly making peace with the fact that I am far from omnipotent.
In my condo association a woman has been made the official community scapegoat. This woman is someone who seems to have been born to be the designated punching bag of any community in which someone has to be sacrificed to the gods of collective rage. I like her. She’s exceptionally kind. Yet, we had some seriously difficult times in the past because she has a very loose sense of personal space and for a while would invade my life in all sorts of ways that were very painful to me. There was no malice. Need, if anything; and I have nothing, not an iota of judgment against need. But I was in a precarious space too, beset by my own needs, and it was way too much for me (it still is). It took us a few years (years!) to negotiate safe zones. We have it down now. We can be on each other’s side and know it, while respecting each other’s need for quiet and space. Honestly, it’s taken tears to get here. For months, maybe more, her constant turning up at the door drove me to despair. I’m glad, though, that I hung in there, held on to her and to me, found a way to be her friend without sacrificing my health. I feel elation at this victory. Yeah, I feel elation.
She told me the other day that she gets incessant hate mail. She told me that people turn off the garden hose while she’s using it, just for the hell of it. She told me (I was shocked) that she washed three new pairs of canvas sneakers in the common laundry room and someone threw away all the left shoes. I couldn’t believe people in this seemingly “decent” place would do such a thing. (My husband always says: when I am tempted to do something less than kind, I think of how I would behave on the last train out of Prague). I wonder if this blood-lust is simply the result of insecure domineering people’s smelling weakness. But I can be angry at these people only so much. Hatred is its own form of torture. As in the other case, the case of my very alone friend and his dying wife, I relinquish my omnipotence. I am learning.
Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, which I am teaching now, is a declaration of war. It is, in fact, a tremendously strong and vulnerable book about what it means for a radical lesbian feminist activist to get a mastectomy. The way in which she examines herself and considers the implications of illness, amputation and mortality from the point of view of someone whose ideology is an integral part of her life (Audre Lorde was an activist before she was anything else) is admirable and powerful and inspiring. Occasionally, though, there are passages that give me pause. I can’t find any of them now, so I’ll quote from memory (I may fix this some time later): If I can stare this much fear/pain in the face, there is nothing they will ever be able to do to me.
Audre Lorde is a great poet and she doesn’t take pain and terror lightly. In fact, in The Cancer Journals she exposes her pain and terror with merciless vulnerability and courage. But the fact is, there is no pain or terror the suffering of which makes us invulnerable to future injury. Or, maybe, there is no pain or terror the overcoming of which makes future pain and terror less painful and terrifying. Or, maybe, it is possible that the overcoming of some ordeals may make people very strong in the face of future ordeals, but this is true of so few people, they are statistically insignificant.
I’m sticking out for pain and terror here, because they are the substance of my life and the lives of so many. As a culture, we cultivate relentlessly the fiction of invulnerability. Even a radical Black feminist lesbian can indulge a little in this fantasy. I don’t begrudge it to her. God knows her heart and mind are big enough to contain the fantasy and still be full of depth, light, and wisdom. But me, I don’t want to. I want to leave room, in the world, for those whom pain and terror do not make stronger. They are many. We are many. Pain and terror carve the flesh of the soul and sometimes reduce people to shells and husks. These people are not losers. They are our wonderful wounded brothers. They are champions.
There is no right way to confront tragedy. There is only compassion, mutual support, interdipendence, humility. Let us never be our brothers’ and sisters’ judges. Let us never be our own judges. I am learning to relinquish omnipotence. It’s a really good thing.