First, this. Though I do not share the author’s faith, I appreciate his comments, including the idiosyncratic one: I too deeply regretted choosing, in the rush of attending to the needs of others at the time, cremation for my son. As they say on the ‘tubes, your mileage may vary.
I had an interesting experience the other day. A reader of this blog who saw (and I think, only saw) the Jack White post, accused me of wallowing (actually the word he used was “enjoying”). And this is importantly wrong. First, the death of a child, especially a child one has come to know over the years as a person, but for whom so much unfulfilled potential remained, is simply utterly different from not only every other form of human suffering, but from every other form of grief. There was a moment very early after the death that I confronted the possibility of self-pity, of conceiving of myself as some sort of tragic figure, and I rejected it not out of courage or strength, but out of a flash of insight that it was precisely that same feeling that must have dominated my son’s thoughts toward the end, and which killed him.
I like quoting movies, so let me paraphrase just about the most entertaining B-film I know. “Sadness not important. Only life important.” I knew that then and I know that now.
The other thing I heard, besides ignorance, in this critic, was resentment. It is a common human failing for people who are dissatisfied with their lives to feel the need to blame others, and when that proves impossible because others literally have nothing to do with one’s suffering, one can always say “you think you’ve got it bad; look at my life.”
Now this is interesting because I don’t feel this way at all, and I have enough information about the critic (from a mutual friend) to know that actually the very things he would complain about in his life are not nearly as dreadful as things I’ve experienced (actually, they are things I’ve also experienced, mostly related to divorce). And this brings to mind another epiphany that Tristan’s death induced which has stuck with me.
We are, most of us, and I was, for most of my life, profoundly narcissistic. Other people mattered, of course, but I seldom really entered into the reality of their otherness. And as whatever it was in me that collapsed with his death collapsed, so did the narcissism. This is clearly connected to the eschewing of self-pity as toxic. It is only when you really are past caring how the little drama of your little life will go that you can really fully grasp that other people are as important in their own way as you are.
I don’t always remember this, but I try. It’s not compassion exactly, but something underneath compassion which renders it possible and distinguishes it from pity: the awareness that the other is also aware, struggles, wants, hopes to make something of their life, hopes for a slice of significance for themselves. And you can see this so much more clearly when you don’t have to make time for it when you’re done with striving to be something important yourself. Because all that is behind you.
Now this might sound to some people like some sort of psychic self-annihilation, but it is anything but. Attention can now be fully focused, not just on other people when that seems appropriate, but on all sorts of other things, and in a way this makes all those other things infinitely more fascinating, infinitely more enjoyable. When your attention is focused primarily on how you will make your own life significant, everything else in this vast and amazing world acquires the false appearance of being profoundly boring. But in reality, it is you that are profoundly boring.
And what I don’t have, for the most part, is resentment. Why should I? If you feel resentment, you still have hope, the last of Pandora’s evils, hope that your specialness could still come to the attention of the cosmos, if only They hadn’t robbed you of it. These, surprisingly enough, are the feelings of someone who simply hasn’t suffered enough, who hasn’t had the dross and dreck of what so often goes wrong in human souls burned away in a cleansing fire. Nothing and no one is special, or else everything and everyone is, or else strange and isolated fragments of the world shine their specialness at unexpected moments and then disappear. I don’t know. All I know is that if you think you deserve and are deprived of cosmic, death-defying importance, you are in hell. Let it go.