When you read a Shakespearean tragedy, you know the end when you start the story: Everyone dies. If you’re surprised by this, you have a bad English teacher.
This haunts me, as you might have noticed. I want to know WHY?! it all has to go the way it does. I keep trying to write my way out of these questions, and from what I can tell, this is what most authors are trying to do: write their way out of something that haunts them, hoping maybe it will help someone else…or themselves. Meanwhile our writing comes from the chaos. We artistic types tend to be whirling dervishes of inconsistency and difficult relationships and fear and frustration. But we write to try to make sense out of some of that, and for a little while, it all feels organize-able.
I’ve had plenty of “aha’s” during my never-ending mental journey, and some of them prove to be more meaningful than others. Often, it feels like a two steps forward, two-and-a-half steps back affair. But the aha for this hour is this: The tragedy we’re afraid of, Shakespearean in proportions, has already happened. Or, to put it in Austin Powers parlance: “That train has sailed.”
For anyone with mental illness…for sure anyone with OCD…fear is the constant enemy. The WHATIF monster is as present as skin. And the whatif monster only knows a bunch of variations of the same tune – What if disaster strikes? Your child dies, you die, your parents die, you make a mistake that ruins everything in your life, you accidentally harm someone who’s completely innocent, etc.
Every single piece of psychological, philosophical, and even spiritual literature I’ve ever read has a lot to say about this issue – the disaster issue. After all, evil/pain/suffering comprise the fundamental questions and quandaries of life. Essentially, all philosophies and religions conclude that the only way you can find peace is to accept the reality of all the mysteries in life.
Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild, is my newest favorite philosopher. She’s not actually a philosopher but she’s very philosophical, mostly because she’s experienced a ton of pain. (What’s with that? Why can’t I be philosophical and pain-free? Damnit.) Strayed is not religious at all, so she, obviously, never resorts to the God-will-make-it-right answer when faced with a tragedy, which I appreciate greatly. And she writes far more vulnerably than I do. I’m still afraid everyone will reject me if I tell the whole truth, but Strayed certainly doesn’t seem to have that barrier in front of her, which I also love. I’m getting there.
Exhibit A of her radical honesty is shown in one of her essays when she talks openly about the sexual abuse she endured when her grandfather would babysit, regularly. And by referring to it as “sexual abuse,” I’m giving you the vague version; she doesn’t spare the details. Her conclusion about tragedies like her own is that sometimes all you can do is just look right at them and just stare – look them in the face, so to speak. Disaster is disaster, and all we can really do is stare at it dumbly and try to accept it, try to move on, and try to help those who are also impacted. The holes in the human conditions are very oddly shaped and far too huge to be filled up easily, if at all.
So here’s the thing we have to accept and make peace with if we’re going to be of much good around here: The crash we’re living in fear of has already happened. The disaster has already struck. The bad news has already been delivered. It’s called life as a human.
I really don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I actually think it’s an optimistic perspective. Here’s how the conversation in my head goes: “Okay, Tim, you’re already living in a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense of the word: Everyone dies at the end. So what now? How do you live in the light (darkness) of that? Maybe all you can do is get out of the smashed car and start looking around for other survivors who are fatally wounded but still ticking. You help them; you hold onto them for support; you hurt with them and maybe tell a few last ridiculous jokes just to laugh one more time; and you come to terms with what HAS ALREADY HAPPENED.”
Why did it happen? Whose fault was it? – Do those questions even matter now? Not much…it happened. There you have it.
Over the past few days this idea has been holding me up quite a bit: “The crash has already happened. Now what?” Every so often, my meditation practices come to mind and remind me to breathe into what is, no matter how much it might hurt at the moment. This even works with physical pain: If you breathe into it, it actually becomes more tolerable. Not pleasant, but not as consuming.
So I’ve been breathing into the fact that I’m about to go into a partial-hospitalization program for some extensive treatment. “Partial” means I don’t have to sleep there or remove my shoelaces when I go in so that I won’t hang myself with them…is that even possible when one weighs 200 pounds? But I’ll go all day long and experience various kinds of sessions that address different issues and strategies.
And I’m breathing into what’s happening right upstairs, about 30 feet away: My children are having the most absurd, childish sort of argument with each other, and as I just took the in-breath required to yell, “Stop being so fucking rude to each other, god dammit!”, I decided to just listen instead. Then I laughed because it’s hilarious to hear them mimic each other while trying to prove that the other one is at fault. Not hilarious in the this-is-pure-bliss kind of way, but hilarious in the this-is-so-just-the-way-life-is kind of way. And now, this second, the argument is flaring up again, and I’m just taking another deep breath and letting myself be the parent who is just too tired to deal with it. And I just laughed harder. And breathed again. I’ll deal with it next time, I suppose. As an old teacher friend told me, they’ll surely give me another chance to address this behavior.
And I’m breathing into how much I wish I was more sane and stable and letting myself be one very messy creature. From certain angles, my life feels like the one other people can look at and feel better about their own situations. From other angles, I’m still pretending I have a Leave it to Beaver life. But every time I crash yet again, I am more honest with my friends and family about how bad it really is. And there’s a lot of hope and peace in that brutal honesty. There’s the sense of being loved, too, even though my life isn’t too tidy of late.
And I’m breathing into the shame of having lost a job because of all this BUT ALSO the reassurance of having just been offered another teaching job that might well be just the right thing at the right time. It will provide a lot less money but a lot more flexibility, a trade-off I have to make right now. So, I’m breathing into the messiness of my career trajectory. I’m breathing into the comical beauty of the mess – the this-wasn’t-in-the-script moments that seem to have almost entirely replaced the “original script.”
And I’m breathing into the fact that there might just be some people who will actually always love me. ALWAYS. And that makes the mess and even the Shakespearean tragedy worth living in and through.
So, breathe…embrace the mess…get out of the car and help the survivors. And breathe again.
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