A few weeks ago I read a novel in one day. It was Gillian Flynn’s bestselling, “Gone, Girl”. It was basically the story of a crazy couple and I believe the reason I kept reading was that I wanted the craziness to stop. I remember feeling a sense of dissatisfaction at the end. There was nothing to grapple with, nothing to debate, nothing to reflect upon. It was like a roller coaster ride. You can’t wait to get on, you finally get on, and then after three minutes of screams and dips and dives you get off with a hoarse throat and a headache. You start to question why you thought it was such a good idea to wait in line for an hour in the sweltering heat just to get a headache and upset stomach. And then you wonder why you PAID to stand in line in the sweltering heat to get a headache and an upset stomach.
So after that thrill ride, I picked up a meatier book one morning while sitting in that magical reading room we all enter several times a day. You know the small room where one goes to truly be alone and release oneself. While in that room, I began reading Brian Greene’s “The Fabric of the Cosmos”. I made it about 50 pages in before I decided that I was not in the mood to continue on such a scientific path of life in the universe. However I was definitely fascinated with his opening in the book when he refers to having read Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” and contemplating the one philosophical question of suicide.
This is quoted directly from the first page of the book: “Whether or not the world has three dimensions or the mind nine or twelve categories comes afterward.” …..
Yes you can ponder this or analyze that till the cows come home, but the real question is whether all of your ponderings and analysis convince you that life is worth living.”
What a cool question I thought. I spent weeks calling up friends and having this discussion with them. What strikes me most is that this really is the ultimate “individual” question. It cannot be answered or controlled by “group think”, laws, ethics, religions, or families. It is a deeper question than appreciating the beauty of a rose or the sound of a baby laughing. It is a more provocative koan than asking about the sound of one hand clapping. It is the question placed in the hands of each and every individual self. There are no right or wrong answers. Life is harsh, messy and unpredictable. And in the midst of living it, the question looms as to if it is worth it to continue?
Yesterday I started reading, “Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud” by Peter Watson. In the first chapter he discusses the concept of mankind’s use of “ideas” before language. Before we could be guided, instructed or coerced in a direction by a group, how were ideas generated and shared and communicated between early mankind. If there was yet no language and no writing and no drawing mechanisms, how did tool making spread and skills improve and survival and hunting techniques pervade? So was this the start of a form of “group think” where one learns by watching another, and in order to achieve first survival, then harmony, then uniformity which ultimately leads to conformity? Often group think leads to some forms of irrational thinking and an inflated sense of self which can then turn against and try to demolish others outside of the group. And in the end, this leads to a loss of creativity, freedom, risk taking and invention.
A while back, someone asked me what had gotten me through some difficult times. My response for many years has been, “the middle passage”. This was my response long before reading Marcus Rediker’s brilliant book, “The Slave Ship” and Charles Johnson’s historical novel, “The Middle Passage”. Whenever I faced a period of darkness or sorrow, I would try to think about my not so distant ancestors who had survived the middle passage, the horrors of slavery, and had thereby allowed me to come into existence. Thinking about individuals being captured, shackled, marched from various points of the African continent to a ship, and then surviving the horrors of that voyage to an unknown destination is a mind blowing excursion. Realizing that they often did not share a common language, tribe, or culture, the only common denominator being the color of their skin, and had never seen a ship before, and yet they survived. So for every challenge I encounter I remember the middle passage and think I should learn to deal with whatever is in front of me. My perceived problems are minor in comparison.
However having battled the blues of depression throughout my life, I also acknowledge that when you are alone in the room with your depressed self, even the horrors of the middle passage and the triumphant survival of ancestors can appear to be a small path of hope through a haze of grayness. Sometimes the group think of society, ethics, religions, governments, families and cultures are all just clutter on the other side of the darkness. And then only by holding my hands up in the air and holding on, have I survived. In the end we all hold on to whatever works. There are no right and wrong answers.
I remember that when I was a little girl hiding under the bed because I was afraid of the thunder and lightening, my grandmother Roro held me and comforted me and told me that after the storm comes the sun. Years later as an adult, I cried on top of the bed because of the storms in my life, and my grandmother held me again. This time she told me that after the storm comes the sun, and then another storm. She explained that I had to be old enough to understand the true cycle of life. I miss Roro everyday. And I have her to thank each time I ride out a storm.
One of my favorite classes in college was one taught by the South African poet, Dennis Brutus. We read lots of illuminating and informative literature and poems in his class, but my favorite was one that he wrote, and 30 years later it still resonates with me because of it’s title and opening line. “Somehow we survive and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.”