Pretend that I am right; that our every thought and action is determined by the unalterable laws of cause and effect; that we are like so many rocks being tossed about as they roll down a hillside.
Peggy returned from settling her mother’s estate in Mississippi with a collection of family photos. Among those photos were school pictures from the 1940s of Peggy’s aunt for whom Peggy was named.
When she was in her forties, Aunt Peggy shot herself while lying in her bathtub. Her family came home to find her helpless with a collapsed lung. She recovered.
Aunt Peggy soon shot herself again. This time, she was left a quadriplegic. Several years later, she died.
Had I been a boy in her school, I would have tried to date Aunt Peggy. I know this because I like the way her eyes look in those old photos—mischievous, sensual, flirtatious—qualities irresistible to young males... Would you want to know how you will die?
I look at Aunt Peggy’s old photos, so filled with promise and life, and I wonder what she would have said had an angel offered her a vision of her final years? Among all possible lives, hers would have been among those that might be described as purest hell.
I knew her before she shot herself, but having moved to Oregon, I never visited her afterwards. It would have meant a long trip and, knowing something about her life, I had no thought that she would talk to me openly.
Her family blamed Peggy’s husband for her attempts at suicide. It’s easier to blame someone, anyone, other than your daughter or sister, I suppose. But if I am right, she had no choice. She never, from the foundation of the universe, had any choice. Would it have mattered? Unless we were able to know where our choices would lead, the freedom to make different choices would be of questionable benefit. I’ll give you an example.
A local man was a professional bodybuilder. He wasn’t among those who are pumped up on steroids, but a man who was sincerely devoted to healthy living. One day, a squirrel ran into the spokes of his bicycle. When he woke up in the hospital, he was informed that he was now a quadriplegic, and that he might never be able to live without a respirator. He insisted that the respirator be removed; it was, and he died.
Two people on opposite routes reach the same end; the one who never wanted to die chose death, while the one who longed for death continued to eat, and by eating, to live. I can make no sense of this, and if I am right, there is no sense to be made, because neither really got to choose. Their paths were determined from the foundation of the universe.
I’ll tell you something that I have learned about suffering. Suffering admits no visitors. No matter how much you want to be understood, you cannot; or at least, I cannot; or at least, I feel that I cannot. This is mostly bad, but it is not altogether bad. Sometimes during the day, I will be thinking about the hours I lie awake hurting, and there will come to me a certain nostalgia, an almost glad anticipation of the coming night. Yet I would not for the space of a heartbeat choose to suffer. It is another irony to see some poorly defined good in that which I wish with my whole heart to avoid.
What is this good?
The recognition that I am thrown back upon myself to survive such nights. I subsist on hope for a better future, it is true, but I cannot help but think I would want to survive even if I knew I would suffer equally every night for the rest of my life. I cannot explain this except to say that suffering brings the possibility of redemption. But what is redemption? Redemption is freedom from appearances. Redemption is to know reality at its worst, yet to still love reality. Or so it comes to me. Maybe I am insufferably pollyannish; I suspect I am.
I knew a man who lived across the street from another man whose wife died. No one saw the bereaved for weeks after the funeral, so they finally broke into his house. He was there, in his chair, still dressed in the clothes that he wore to the funeral. He had sat, and he had urinated, and he had defecated, and he had eventually died.
If Peggy were to die, I would know suffering. I often think to myself that my situation is bad, but I know that it is merely a stubbed toe compared to her death. The sun can revive or burn. Suffering can strengthen or destroy. There are no guarantees. There is no rationale. There is no benefic plan. There is only death after life, but not, so far as I can see, life after death. When the boulder reaches the bottom, it stays at the bottom.
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