We assume our parents will live forever. Or, maybe, we know death exists but we are unable to comprehend its closeness. In our youth we fail to realize that the people around us suffer. Our self-centeredness keeps us trapped in a identity indifferent to the needs of others outside our personal gain. It’s not until our friend presses a gun against their head. A friend is shot robbing a home. Or playmates in elementary get prison sentences 3x their age. One day we receive a call that our father failed to wake up. In these moments we realize a world is happening outside us. Joan Didion On Temporality guides us to remembering that one must act with knowledge that life is short.
We forget that we depend on so many people for nourishment, guidance, and sustenance. It’s not until they are unable to pick up the phone. When my father passed it wasn’t the burial. My weeping brother. Or my confused sister that destroyed me, but when a year passed and my father stayed in the ground. It seemed nature was playing a cruel prank. And my father would get another chance, but forever he remains planted into the ground. It took death to help me understand eternity is forever. Joan Didion reflects on our youthful blindness saying:
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies” is a line, from the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, when I was in fact a child and nobody died. Illness, in that kingdom where I and most people I knew lingered long past childhood, proved self-limiting. Fever of unknown etiology signaled only the indulgence of a week in bed. Chest pains, investigated, revealed hypochondria.
As we plan our lives we forget to call our grandmothers. We forget to spend time with our sisters, walk without our phones, and, ultimately, forget to live. Even though we may suffer, and hope for a time where our suffering is explicitly purposeful, and doesn’t require the subtle intuitions and constant recognition of our emotions; however, this time will never come. For everyone is experiencing life, and shall experience it forever and ever, it is not until we develop a deep rooted recognition that our brother contains everything we do we will be released from our cynicism.
The next funeral is unpredictable, but our culture has a way of making us believe we are the only ones suffering. “You’ll see when your grown”, our parents would say, and I would sigh, uncomprehending, that life would attempt to shrink us, that we would be in a constant battle with mediocrity, and every moment would be a fight for our potential against the dreary life waiting on us. I’ve learned, God I only hope I’ve really learned, that life has never been easy for anyone, but every decision is a declaration for the people we aim to become.
One must learn through an effortful consistency that discovering our peace requires a willingness to release our cynicism and cling to idealism that provides faith. Our schedules are packed, our money is low, our dreams are high, and love is going through its many transformations, but death is inevitable. Love must be practiced. We have a tendency to forget that people are dying all around us, and soon we will share the same fate, but Joan Didion encouraged us to understand saying:
As time passed it occurred to many of us that our benign experience was less than general, that we had been to date blessed or charmed or plain lucky, players on a good roll, but by that time we were busy: caught up in days that seemed too full, too various, too crowded with friends and obligations and children, dinner parties and deadlines, commitments and over commitments.
I believed that days would be too full forever, too crowded with friends there was no time to see. By way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong. I had failed to imagine, I had not understood. Here was the way it was going to be: I would be around for Henry’s funeral, but he was not going to be around for mine.
At each stop she uncovers the mythic narratives that elude other observers: Didion tells us about the fantasies the media construct around crime victims and presidential candidates; she gives us new interpretations of the stories of Nancy Reagan and Patty Hearst; she charts America’s rollercoaster ride through evanescent booms and hard times that won’t go away.
A bracing amalgam of skepticism and sympathy, After Henry is further proof of Joan Didion’s infallible radar for the true spirit of our age. Continue reading Alain De Botton On the Importance of Relationships.