On the BIG QUESTION, “WHY?” When we all have to die…

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REFLECTIONS ON “WHY? THE FICTIONS OF LIFE AND DEATH” BY JAMES WOOD

Wood is one of our finest literary critics, whose book How Fiction Works deserves to become a classic.  I was struck by his recent essay in The New Yorker (12-9-2013), which grabs you right off with his recent presence at the funeral of a 44-year-old man he did not know.  The deceased, brother of a close friend, was cut down in his fun-loving prime by a fluke illness, leaving behind a wife and children.  This spurs Wood to ask the Big Question: If we all have to die, for what purpose do we live, when most of us will soon be forgotten?

Wood confides that he lost his faith as a boy, when his parents could not explain why God let people die, like the single mother of his playmates who got cancer, or why some are born with mental and physical handicaps, suffer fatal freak accidents, and so on.  He writes that in his youth, to conceal his atheism—along with swearing, drinking, and listening to Led Zeppelin—he began to lie.  He began searching through novels for answers that religion refused to divulge.  Fiction seemed more honest because it “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows it is a true lie,” and “is always a matter of belief—for readers to validate and confirm.”

What was dangerous and troublesome in religion to Wood was “the very fabric of fiction,” “a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data.”  Wonderfully put.  Who has not hopped onto the magic carpet of literature to be transported to distant climes and into the heads of characters so unlike—or shockingly like—ourselves?

Anyone paying attention to how they pay attention would agree that great novels are so full of their own life that, while reading them, our own mortality is momentarily banished.  In Wood’s terms, “Death will roar back, but not yet, not now.”  Except that a few great novels are filled with death and dying in ways that may help not a few readers cope with it better.  Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one.  The dying Ilyich, alone with his thoughts, reluctantly begins to review his ungratifying life from a previously disdained perspective—how little he has valued love in his striving for worldly status.

Most moving about Ilyich’s story, he seems entirely real.  This leads to where I differ from Wood’s choice of fiction as our best vehicle to convey what is dangerous and troublesome to religion and to any sort of received value or belief.  If we knew that this failed bureaucrat Ilyich was a real person who tried to work his way up the career ladder as we have, wouldn’t we take his moment of truth more seriously?  Lifelike fiction or real plodding human experience?  Not that we don’t love fine art, but—really.

There’s a reason so many Christians cling to the faith Wood found unsatisfying.  One reason, perhaps the biggest, is that Jesus, being born human and living among real people, had street cred.  There’s a kind of writing–not fiction, much as we love it–that carries the same credibility.

Wood overlooks something essential when claiming that novels perform “what God vouchsafes to us in Psalm 121: ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.”  Fiction preserves some of the history of our imagination, and much of what we imagine is based on real experience.  But fiction is also—and for some, most importantly—a means to travel beyond the borders of daily existence, to escape the finitude of the doors, rooms and routines we pass in and out of.  It’s just that some of us don’t always seek escape.  We want to face, to get help facing, whatever reality throws at us.

Woods overlooks the kind of writing that deals with the actual passages of our life, nonfiction.  Memoir, autobiography, personal journals and letters, to some extent biography.  In theological terms, the Lord’s promise to preserve our goings and comings is carried out partly by those created in His/Her image.  Even for nonbelievers, that instrumentality, the attempt to preserve and give meaning to our goings and comings, may be why nonfiction writing, especially memoir, has overtaken novels in popularity.

Memoirs are now written and published even by unfamous people whose lives do not make the history books or tabloids.  They are written and read for reasons that grapple with the Big Why of Woods’ essay, in non-imaginary realms, where readers realize that truth being stranger than fiction can be very entertaining.

Market research shows that memoir readers search for life stories that bear upon their own struggles and questions.  One of the strongest motivators for people to write about the darkest moments of their lives, strangely enough, is not self-promotion but to give others hope that they can survive their own particular shocks and horrors.

Here’s the thing, from a cosmic perspective.  Memoir writers and their readers can be likened to a communion of not-necessarily-saints.  A vast community of people trying to understand the perplexities of their own lives by learning about others’.  A bottom-line benevolent support system, so to speak.

There’s a deep undergirding of care to the whole enterprise of writing about one’s life and reading about others’ lives.  It involves a quality of attention that searches for healing and insight, and looks for hidden connections.  Whether perceived as divine or secular, this attention is life-affirming and mysteriously influential.  Shakespeare could have spoken for self-exposing scribblers and their readers in his famous, slightly misquoted line, There is a divinity [not “destiny”] that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will.  (We translate ‘divinity’ loosely here as ‘that which increases understanding by means of quality attention.’)

Wood says fictional characters, even if they die, return to life when we reread their stories.  By contrast, he needn’t add, real people die and stay dead. But not if they write a memoir, fill a journal, or write letters that survive.

Memoir writers not only have to find a narrative structure for the portion of life they are trying to write about.  They must face the existential challenge of writing as truthfully as possible, even if it may offend people they care about or uncover shameful or humiliating details.  It is a soul-wrenching project—one that feels like we need an assist from God and/or the spirits of brilliant writers past.

Dredging up memories is the just the beginning.  Once you’ve written them down, you must put them in a some rational sequence, a narrative.  Enter the agonies of craft.  You cut, paste, supply names, dates and locations to episodes partially forgotten, and change names to protect the living.  Making a readable story requires playing God in your tiny written universe—deciding to cull extraordinary persons and intriguing sub-plots in favor of those that move your story forward.  Doing so requires that you constantly refocus and reevaluate what deserves your own and readers’ attention.

It is perhaps the ultimate human quest: how best to give voice and form to the truth of one’s own unique life.  Why?  Because we can.  Because once we’ve written something in our own voice, it is part of creation.  Possibly immortal.

Attention Lurking in the News, #2: On Grieving and Consoling

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Doubtless I am one of many readers surprised and moved by a guest commentator who appeared in Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed column the day after Christmas in the New York Times.  Dowd introduced Father Kevin O’Neil as a family friend and priest with a rare gift: the ability to “lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them.”  Given the devastating recent killings of innocent children, benevolent teachers and first-responders, it was an inspired decision by Dowd to pass the editorial baton to someone who could offer a “meditation” on what she refers to as our “tear-soaked Christmas.”

Father Kevin’s meditation is no lofty homily on why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people.  He claims to have nothing useful to say to the bereaved and the dying, nothing that would convince them of God’s all-encompassing power and wisdom when they are faced with senseless violence and death.

But he does have something useful to say.  Just not on those matters.

Though he cannot answer “Why?” let alone “Why, God?” he admits to staying with the dying and the bereaved, praying with them for hours to let them know they are not alone in their suffering and grief.  Sometimes he talks with them, sometimes he just shares their miserable silence.

Undignified as it seems, I dare to whisper: You can also bet he does not steal a few minutes to check his tweets, e-mails, or text messages.  What does that boil down to?

The highest quality attention, that’s all.  Just sitting with someone in pain.  No distractions.  Nothing much to say.  No brilliant insights.  No philosophical, theological, sociological, or psychological explanations.  Why is that so great?

Imagine you are a quantum of so-called “dark energy,” that invisible force that comprises most of the universe, far more than the physical matter (a mere 4%) in it.  Just being there for someone who’s grieving or otherwise suffering has the power to get them through a most difficult time.

Think back to those unclaimed babies in the far corner of the maternity ward, missing the one thing they needed to live.  (See Introduction/Welcome.)   We don’t have to be a gifted priest, let alone a religious person, to do the simple thing that sustains another.  All this priest did was to be fully present, without answers but with willingness to show up…suppressing any compulsion to multitask.

With or without belief in God, we might agree on a more basic truth, that attention is necessary for survival.  On the most essential level it is simply being there, giving someone our attention, no answers required.

And if quantum physics has any validity, we can be there for someone at a distance.