Thursday, January 24, 2008

The sadness

I always wind up regretting it when I don’t race over to read Lee’s weekly post at Perfume Posse. If I wait a day or two, as I did this week, I invariably find he’s said something thoughtful or clever (or both), and I am too late to the party to comment. I’m especially sorry I missed his essay on the 22nd, because we seem to be in the same state of mourning for the world. My bloviation below is a sort of indirect reply to him, so before you read me, click over to his sweet essay at the Posse.

Like Lee, I was having a perfectly lovely day last Saturday. I went for a nice hike in the morning, indulged in a little shopping, and then late in the day I drove up to Nashville to hear Dave and his friends perform at an art gallery downtown. Dave was happy with the way things went, and I got brownie points for showing up (I often don’t, lazy and reclusive spouse that I am.) I drove home safely and went to bed. That was it—pretty much your run-of-the-mill day for a spoiled American female.

Unfortunately, as I was trying to wallow in my privilege, little tragedies kept revealing themselves to me. It was a very cold afternoon, and as I drove to Dave’s gig I saw a pair of homeless men huddled up against the wall of a warehouse. The men weren’t even in a doorway, they were just sitting on the uncovered sidewalk, completely exposed to the weather. The thin blankets they were trying to stay under kept blowing around in the wind. Night was coming, and they didn’t look like they were going anywhere. What misery.

When I got to the arcade that houses the gallery, Dave was standing out on the second floor balcony watching a hawk that had gotten trapped inside. It had come in chasing pigeons and couldn’t make its way out again. He said it had been flying into the ceiling, confused by the skylights, but by the time I got there it had perched somewhere out of sight. Since it was a city dwelling hawk, I thought there was some chance it might escape, but Dave was doubtful. It was panicked and disoriented, and even sturdy hawks don’t last long in that state. Odds were good that it had doomed itself in its effort to survive.

After the performance I went home by myself, and happened to drive past one of the parks where I walk. The road isn’t well lit there, so I couldn’t initially see why the traffic was slowing ahead of me. Then the headlights revealed a carcass and a lot of blood in the road. I assumed it was a deer, but as I passed it I got a glimpse of a furry haunch. It was a large dog, a golden retriever I think, undoubtedly someone’s pet. I wondered if it had gone astray during a park outing, and maybe its owners were back home making “lost dog” signs in hopes of finding it. When I passed that way again early the next morning the dog was gone, but the wash of blood across the asphalt remained.

All week I’ve been thinking about the ordinary suffering I kept seeing on Saturday. I understand exactly what Lee means about the horrific imagery that assaults us, and the sadness he feels at our jaded response, but it’s the mundane death and pain that seems to pull me under. It’s not that I’m indifferent to mass violence, war carried out in my name, etc. For me, the huge atrocities are just the most visible manifestations of suffering that is constant, omnipresent.

Right this moment, I know terrible things are happening. Not just in Iraq or Congo, but within miles of where I sit: a child is being beaten, a woman is being raped, someone is dying a painful death. A thousand lesser tragedies like the ones I saw on Saturday are happening, too. They always are, every minute of every day. Like most semi-sane people, I block that fact out of my mind so I can get through my life, but there are times it won’t be denied, and it just fills me with paralyzing grief.

To act against suffering, of course, is helpful, right and necessary. By all means, we should do what we are able to do, I don’t mean to discount the value of that at all. But it has to be done in the knowledge that it can never be enough, and it’s no remedy for the grief. On the contrary, how can it do anything but make grief more acute?

The only way I know to deal with the sadness is to accept it as my current portion of suffering. Someday life may—surely will—dole out a much bigger slice of pain. If I try to turn away from the hurt I feel today, I just set myself up to be blindsided. Awareness, agonizing though it may be, is a gift. It’s the only preparation we get for the unhappy ending that awaits us all.

The Abbey in the Oakwood, Caspar David Friedrich, 1809-1810, via Web Gallery of Art.


chayaruchama said...

There's no escaping, no turning a blind eye.

My, M-
You've got the world weary blues, bad.
Sending you my love.

Anonymous said...

The strange thing is, sweetheart, you're exactly right. In 2005, when I nearly snuffed it, I was calm, content, unworried. Perhaps it's right to feel the pain of others because it does make you less frantic about you're own... Who knows. Maybe the morphine helped!

Perfumeshrine said...

First of all, what a thoughtful post...

I agree with you there is so much grief and suffering right under own noses. And I am much afraid that the little things we do to help out when we can are only a little balm on our nagging consience for not opting for the grand scheme, to revolutionize the world.
But like I always say to my kin, these things cannot be done from my expensive couch...and I am guilty as charged...

Love the painting by CDF!! (I'm so darn predictable)

Juvy Santos said...


Anonymous said...

What seems all the more puzzling is that in the midst of all the suffering Bittergrace is writing wonderful essays and for every Hitler there's a Mozart. It's the same old problem of evil that no one has been able to reconcile.

Maybe it's just the nature of things. Yesterday I watched one of our cats tormenting a little vole in our manure pile. He wasn't killing him (yet), just torturing him with fear. There seemed an implacable malice and evil involved, but I shook my head and let the cat have his fun. I wish now I hadn't.

Anonymous said...


BitterGrace said...

Well, I have to say thanks to all of you for slogging your way through that wallow! Maybe I need some morphine--or just a joint and a glass of champagne ;-)

Bozo, you are so kind. I know how you feel about the cat, but of course there's really no malice there. I think that's really the stumper about all this--how rarely actual malicious intent is involved. Sometimes the evil is apparent, but if you think about those incidents I witnessed on Saturday, there was no active desire to harm involved-- callousness, of course, esp. in the case of the homeless guys, but no act of violence.

Mary said...

Hugs, hugs, hugs, and more massively caring hugs to you, darling.

BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Mary. I do wail a bit, but knowing there are remarkable people like all of you keeps me well away from the edge.