Friday, January 26, 2007

The Odyssey

For several years at the seminary, every time I heard a professor mention theodicy, I immediately made a mental pun on that famous Homerian epic, The Odyssey, and laughed uncontrollably, thereby causing the entire, stony-faced class to wonder if I was (A) mildly unhinged or (B) heartless. I could argue that I am neither, but you have read enough of this blog to discern that I am, if not mildly, then completely unhinged. I’m fairly certain this punny association is a function of self-protection—that my mind’s poor attempts at humor are in an effort to distract me from painful thoughts. I have pretty low comedic standards normally (I laugh regularly at Annie’s jokes), but I resort to hyena-levels of hysteria when under duress. Poor Annie had been subject to my black humor since we met. She quickly learned that “your momma” jokes ended in shocked silence when I deadpanned a morbid response (or, in Annie’s case, uprorious laughter because we both have the same sick sense of humor). I write all this information, of course, to distract from the actual task at hand, which is to address what’s going on behind the scenes here at Jewbiquitous. Effectively, I am making an awkward comment to stave off silence. My father would be so proud.

Annie posted Tuesday that, having suffered an enormous personal loss, we would not be posting for a while. I’ve spent the last several days formulating and discarding several responses, but none seemed adequate to deal with the enormity of this week’s events. At first, I wrote an obit-style illustration of the Queen of the World, the woman who has left such a huge void in our lives. But when the Queen of Words penned her real obit, the one published in the Times, its accuracy and eloquence made me realize that my own words were inadequate and thereby inappropriate. The Queen of the World would not have wanted me to describe her or eulogize her on this blog. She would have wanted me to struggle aloud with the theological issues that loss raises, she would have wanted me to reflect on death ritual, she would have encouraged me to be baldly honest and wholly myself. That last part, I will try to do here, the rest I will save for another day.

The Queen of the World always hinted that I was not bold enough on this blog, that there was something dishonest about hiding myself behind “objective” analysis, behind third-person pronouns, behind a formality that effectively distanced me from all of you. She seemed most pleased with my writing when she could read gashes of me on the screen. I think it’s because she was incapable of not being completely present in every moment. She exuded charisma and confidence and I cannot imagine her hiding, ever. Or needing to. She told me to put myself out there; so here I go.

So much of dealing with her death is to convince myself that it’s real. It’s so hard to concretize negative space, all the more so when it would be far easier to pretend that she is not really gone, but has merely left her desk for a moment or decided to take an extended stay in Paris. It is so comforting to imagine that she is simply not around today, but will surely walk through the door tomorrow; to look into an empty office, at the back of a leather chair, and imagine that the wheels will swivel of their own accord and I will be staring into a warm and open face, a face surprised by my relief. In my mind’s eye, she will walk into this room and gaze at me with jet black eyes and with two fingers move her hair from her face, so that she can tell me what exciting thing we’re doing next. I keep waiting for her to come in here and tell me what to do next.

For years after my mom died, I fully expected to discover that some mistake had been made, that someone else had died and the body been misidentified. I know I am not alone in this delusion. I’ve spoken with enough people who’ve lost people (not to be confused with Streisand’s “People Who Love People;” I don’t think we consider ourselves “the luckiest people in the world”) to discern that it’s human nature to endlessly hope, even when all hope should logically fade. And so Monday, when we waited breathlessly for news, I fully expected the miraculous to occur, against all my knowledge of medical science, against all reason, against even the cold, hard news we received as the day ended. Had you known her, you, too, would have expected the impossible, even when it was too late. She was a woman whose presence exceeded her physical stature, who was already larger than life while alive. Perhaps that’s why my attempt at eulogy failed: how do you steer clear from hyperbole when it’s the truth?

Be patient with me; I’m going to get philosophical for a moment. I don’t mean to distance you by abstracting the issue from my personal reaction, but I need to work out a thought process before continuing to pour my soul into this post.

The natural response to tragedy is to focus on the issue of blame, on a multitude of levels. When the tragedy is sudden and unexpected, we immediately resort to personal blame because it (paradoxically) serves to comfort us. Death is chaos slipping in through the cracks of reality, revealing that the illusion of control that religion, government, and society has convinced us we grasp is entirely illusory. We blame ourselves so that we can imagine that we have control and that this incident was simply a matter of not trying hard enough, not holding on tightly enough, not paying enough attention. We become hyper-vigilant. We attempt to control everything. We do not want to lose control again and so we try to explain the inexplicable, try to rationalize the irrational. The idea that we don’t have control, that we couldn’t have stopped anything from happening, that we are free from blame, is more painful, sometimes, than the fact of the loss, itself. By focusing on theodicy, particularly the reward/punishment heuristic central to monotheism (not to mention the hubris of imagining that with the right behavior we control all of our outcomes and ward off bad events), we attempt to make sense of our world, but ultimately we will be unsatisfied by the answers we receive when we ask “Why?” No answer is satisfactory when the events are painful and illogical enough to drive us to ask that question. We only shout “why” to the universe when we cannot fathom a reason, when no reason exists.

Where does this thought process leave me? If I know that I cannot explain why this tragedy occurred or even take steps to prevent its reoccurrence, then where am I? In more senses than this, I am at a loss.

I never learn. Truly. I knew already that I couldn’t control anything; that loving people inevitably meant the pain of losing them. But to be honest, I didn’t have much of a choice. I would challenge anyone who met the Queen of the World to resist letting her into their life. I would say, “Meet the Queen of the World. Without reservation, she will open her heart, her mind, and her home to you. In the briefest of time, she will know and understand you and she will embrace you for whomever you are. She will see your strengths and weaknesses and she will guide you so that you resist the urge to rest on the former and deny the latter. She will be funny and honest and surprisingly disarming, considering that she is on her way to a meeting with a Supreme Court Justice. She will never make you feel small or insignificant. On the contrary, every moment that you spend with her, you will have her full, undivided attention and she will effortlessly convey to you that she is fully listening to every word you say and, really, some of your ideas are quite good. She will be stylish and classy and cooler at 54 than you are at 23 and she will do it with an ease and grace that pushes you to emulate, not envy, her.” Then I would say to you, “I challenge you not to care about this woman. And when she dies, I challenge you not to feel it as a wrenching pain in your gut, even though you’ve known her for a relatively short time.” And then I’d laugh at you because you’d feel as foolish and hurt as I do right now; and we’d go share a beer and a cry together.

I think that death puts all the pettiness of life into perspective. It serves as the ultimate lens through which to focus life. Optimism is neither an act boldly denying nor blindly ignoring the bad. Optimism is recognizing the inevitability of death and still getting out of bed in the morning. It is using mortality’s imminence as an advantage to more deeply feel life’s immanence. Death does not render life futile; but sometimes it renders it all too short.

So where do we go from here? We put our arguments and disagreements into perspective and we work tirelessly to make the lives of those we love a little better, a little happier because we will all be here together for so short a time. We never forget to say, “I love you,” even when we are fearful of being hurt. We attempt to leave the world a little bit brighter, even though it seems futile, even though it will all go bad the moment we take our hands off the reigns, and usually while we are still around to watch it go sour. With the stupidity that optimism and hope bring, we face each day as if we will not be hurt and we love as openly and powerfully and emphatically as possible. And if that means that we suffer, then we realize it’s worth it.

That's the Queen of the World's legacy; and I hope it's mine, too.


Anonymous said...

Thank you dear one. Thank you...

Smeliana said...

I'm lying on my couch crying for a woman I never met.

This is so beautiful and large and terrible. I'm just glad I'll get to hold you this evening. Thank you for your words. (And love.)

DK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DK said...

I wish I had known this person.

Lacking my hubby's cool moniker said...

How beautifully elegiac, my dear Harley. I too read this with tears in my eyes.

And yes, I also make that Illiad pun each and every single time I hear the word theodicy. Ah-ha, so that's we get along so well!!

Esther Kustanowitz said...

Even without a name ascribed to her, this is a moving tribute, as well as a relatable treatment of how bereft we are left by grief. Sorry for your loss. It sounds like you were lucky to have known her.