Friday, February 7, 2014

on examinations.

i admit this came to me after the untimely death of philip seymour hoffman this week. while it wasn't surprising in comparison to say, heath ledger - i had known hoffman was a heroin addict - it was, of course, still saddening. as it is when anyone dies. he was a father. a partner. a friend. he had talent. he had the opportunity to have an astounding life - and for a great while, he did. but his death made me think about his various roles, his acting. he was really quite good at capturing the whole of a human being - taking ordinary days or thoughts or words and revealing their complexity. as we age, our lives become much more monotonous. we don't fall in love nearly as often. we don't suffer from a broken heart nearly as often. we can't travel as much, experience the thrill of a new place. the things that for so long we thought were life - we defined as what it meant to be alive - these immeasurable highs and lows that made us so aware of ourselves, our lives, fade away. we have commutes, and cubicles, trips to the grocery store, delayed flights. it is true, we still have highs and lows - the birth of a child, the death of a parent - but they are fewer, and farther spread apart. the days in between are filled with much more of the same. no new teachers, new classes, new places to live, new apartments to move into, new road trips. routine sets in. we think we are no longer truly alive. we think life is passing us by. and so. we have our crisis.
socrates warned us, thousands of years ago, of a truth that still holds today - the unexamined life is not worth living. we think the human race has evolved and changed and gotten better, but at the end of the day we still have the same needs as the ancient greeks. we still must heed the same warnings. if you go through years upon years of your life thinking that it is just a routine, that love has faded, that you're not feeling alive, as defined, or in comparison, to your earlier, heady years, that you're going through the motions, you would be wrong. as we get older, it's just that it doesn't come as easy. life makes us work for it. we have to peer deeper into the everyday to see the excitement of love and passion. we must be brave enough to sit with our failures, however small, and look them in the face - know them, understand them, let them remind us that we are inadequate. we have to work to feel alive. we have to examine our lives. because the midlife crisis will eventually lead to more routine - new loves will become old, fast cars will break down, a baby at 50 will feel different than the one you had at 30. you ended up having life all along, right there, fully in your hands. but you didn't take the time to examine it, to know it, to discover it. you wanted it be easy, like it was when you were 20. when it all just came in a rush to you, when you didn't have to seek it out. you forgot the advice, thousands of years old, that is still true today. and that's what hoffman, i felt, did so well. he seemed to know how complicated we already were; he could look into his characters and see layers, upon layers, upon layers, and bring it to the screen or stage. he knew that every man is a complexity of good and evil - and even if his character didn't take the time to suss it out in their life, he would do it for them. so this post, apologies for the lengthy introduction, is an examination, brought about by cherishing hoffman's ability to do this with seemingly every role, big and small, that he played.
it is hard to remember the first time you feel a new emotion. most happen when you are too young to make memories, or at least store them in a place in which you can recall them. i believe the first emotion a newborn feels is anger, even selfishness, and sadness - you are cold, you are hungry, you want someone to fix it. and almost immediately after that you feel comfort, you feel love, you feel empathy. in your parents arms you are warmed, you are fed, you are cherished, you are taken care of. you are taught that after your own selfishness, you posses the ability to care for and love others, to make them feel better. you are taught that others will do it for you, too. those first 20, 30 seconds of human life sum up so neatly, so perfectly, the complexity of what it is to be a human being. i could think about those first few moments for hours and wonder about their effect, their meaning, but i won't here. so, as the days and years go on from that first moment, we begin to feel and become aware of our own emotions. sadly, though, we can't truly remember the first time we felt them. we know sadness and happiness, we feel love for our parents, we know joy. there is one i set aside, however. one that i think, or i am, capable of acknowledging. it is the first time i felt grief.
now, you could argue that losing a prized stuffed animal (a traumatic experience i remember vividly), having a treat taken away from you or any smaller, little transgression can trigger grief in a small child. but i think that's just sadness, really. to me, at least. grief is something that stays with you, that conveys a real, deep loss, that permanently alters your soul. and so i believe i remember the first time i felt grief. i was in first grade. a girl at my church, in my grade, had leukemia. we were friendly, though not overly so, but were in the same religious education class. sometime, during the winter of that year, she died. and in the middle of class, at school, not church, i started crying. i couldn't stop - i was just crying and i didn't quite know why. i was deeply sad, i was scared, and i was worried. and i was crying and i couldn't stop and i was confused. we were coloring and i remember my teacher being flabbergasted, as i was unable to tell her what was wrong. my mom came to get me, she understood what the most likely cause was, explained to the teacher, and i went home. when i think about the first time i felt grief i think of the first time i lost someone close to me - my grandpa, at age 12 - but then i remember that day in first grade. and i think "oh, no, that was the first time. that was it." at the time, who knows what i would call it - probably just say i was sad. but i know now it was grief - it was more complex than sadness, and it stayed with me for a long time. i would look at her picture in the old church directory we kept around and i would cry - i'd wonder what happened to her soul, why it was her and not me, what her family was doing, if it hurt to die, if she was scared. i was very ill-prepared to think of any answers, as any first grader is, or even explain to myself what i was doing - it was the beginning of acquainting myself with grief.
since then i have had other losses. i know more about myself, about why certain things stay with me.
i know the loss of a young person is the most painful. the loss of potential is devastating. and it brings up the age-old human question - why? i know there is no answer, and i know we will never tire of asking it. i accept that. i allow it in, i give it space, and i know when i wake up tomorrow the question will have receded, at least for awhile.
i know that no matter what age you lose a parent, it is never easy. i have seen this, not experienced it, and i know that a part of everyone is never ready. and i tend to believe that losing a mom is worse than losing a dad. based on what i've seen, it is harder. it takes more of a toll. it makes you feel more alone.
i know that a broken heart causes grief. it can send you into a tailspin, consume you, become your life. every moment of every waking hour can just be a fight not to break down and cry. i know it is isolating. i know it stays for a long, long time. i know that you wake up one day, and suddenly, it is gone. i know it leaves a permanent scar.
sadly, i know grief gets worse, not better. that as time goes on your reactions are not as visceral - not as much crying, not as much moping. but the hole gets bigger, it gets deeper. the rawness goes away, only to create a much larger loss closer to your soul. i know it gets worse, the questions seem even more hopeless, feel more unanswered. that all the days and years that have gone by without that person in your life are what widens the hole, what makes you feel emptier. it doesn't get better, it gets worse. i know this.
i know that when it comes to grief over death i shoulder it alone. grief over heartache i can't help but share, and stew over, and rehash a million times. i am thankful i have friends who put up with it. i know when someone close to me dies i keep it to myself as much as i can. when my mom called to tell my my grandmother passed away suddenly, i left our bedroom, cried on the couch, away from brian, and never cried about it again. not at her funeral, her burial, her wake. i did not cry at any of my grandparents funerals. i consider it a weakness in myself to cry over those who led full lives. but only in myself, never in others. we are always harshest with ourselves. but i consider it selfish. as if emoting is a way to draw attention to myself, rather than the one who suffered, the one who died, and i won't allow it. it's as if i almost refuse to do it. i pinch the inside of my left hand to make myself stop if i begin to get upset. i have very little room for compassion for myself. i like this about myself, it is not a complaint.
i know i am not done yet. i haven't lost a spouse, a parent, an in-law, a child, a nephew, an aunt, an uncle. i know i have much more to learn about myself, still.
these are the things i know to be true. for me. from my experience. i thought long and hard about it, revisited old losses, as hard as that was, reviewed my strengths, my weaknesses, thought about what i have learned about myself and others since that winter day in first grade. i examined myself. i have left a lot out. i am, as the case would be, very much alive, cubicles and errands aside. i am sure you view, and feel, grief much differently. it is the beauty and mystery of all species on earth - inherently the same, vastly different. i wonder what your examination will find.


  1. Grief is such a strange, strong emotion. I was lucky (sort of?); I didn't really experience it until I was 18. But I can't tell if that made it worse or better. Or if the person it involved really made it hit home. Some losses have felt ok; losing Craig's grandmother felt less strong because she was old and lived a long life. Losing a middle-aged friend to cancer was worse because I felt there was so much more for him to give. I feel for PSH's family, and really anyone who faces this sort of emotion. It's rough. I think you expressed it quite well.

  2. I loved this post. I think it's important to often take a step back and say, "what is my life, and why am I living it??" Not that I do this enough. Thanks for this reminder. Also, grief is such a strange emotion, because it's almost bigger than all other emotions. It takes on a different form. I don't even know it too well.

    This was beautifully written, Colleen.


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