Friday, June 30, 2017

Grief, good and otherwise, part 1

I kept seeing her. Every time I went to put up one of my fliers, I would see the one of her. In the photo she looks like a teenager, but she’s not—she’s 26, and not an undergrad but a visiting scholar. Maybe it’s because she’s Chinese—people are always pointing out how youthful Asians look, my own mother’s family no exception (there’s a photo of my mother at 50 you wouldn’t even believe). In any case, she’s young and smart and pretty and seems like a nice person, at least from what you could imagine based on a single picture, but I have no idea because I don’t know her and because she’s missing. Her picture is everywhere in this county, even while she seems to be nowhere.

Of course a person can’t be nowhere. Lost isn’t nonexistent, but that hardly matters. Someone who used to be a part of your life but isn’t any more might as well be in an alternate universe, the one filled with the vast legions of things that, despite lacking a corporeal existence, still manage to pierce their way into this universe, sharply, and hard, and when that happens you are helpless, crying so violently you can barely see the road you’ve been driving back and forth on, looking for a sign.

This blog has become my way of trying to find the positives in life—with the emphasis on my way. In case you just tuned in, I tend to have a rather strong knee-jerk reaction against optimism. If something gives me hope, I’m automatically suspicious of it. Why should life go the way I want it just because I want it that way? Positive aphorisms fill me with contempt that frequently spills over into volcanic rage. If you want to get punched in the neck, just say everything happens for a reason. Don’t get me wrong, positive thinking can be very helpful, and it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than negative thinking. Believe it or not, I do not enjoy being miserable. The thing is, terrible things happen to everyone on earth, and all the positivity in the world cannot necessarily either prevent them or turn them into something beneficial. What is the benefit of a young woman being kidnapped? Perhaps there will be increased campus safety initiatives to make sure this never happens again, but the immediate situation is unchanged. She’s missing, and the people who love her are going through hell.

I never wanted to write a post about grief. Not because I was in denial about it, not because I thought I could avoid it, but because I didn’t think there was anything useful to be said. Something that was a part of your life, something you loved, is gone. What more is there to say? I have never been enthralled by the “spectacle of grief,” as media scholars might call it. I do not want to view photos of anguished faces, hands over eyes, heads bowed, bodies trembling, no matter how moving these images may be. Grief is a powerful emotion and powerful emotions are fascinating to human beings, but to what end? It troubles me to see grief manipulated into something else, like anger or hatred. Grief, I believe, is a private, personal thing.

Except that it isn’t. Nothing seems private and personal any more, in an era when if there isn’t a post or a selfie or a tweet, or if there is but nobody “likes” it, it didn’t happen. Moreover, and more importantly, grief has never really been a private concept. Every culture that has ever existed has ways of dealing with mourning, with personal loss, and they frequently involve sharing it with others. The rituals and ceremonies are meant to help ease the burden, to take a person who is rendered helpless with sorrow and give them actions to do, a direction to take. Some sorrows are so huge—that young woman is, after all, someone’s child, and probably always will be a child to them no matter her age—the mourner cannot reasonably be expected to get over them, but at least they can keep from being filled only with emptiness, with missingness, going forward.

So I ended up sort of writing about grief after all, because the fliers I was putting up were about our dog, who is missing, too. She’s a dog, not a young woman, and she’s quite old; realistically she might only have another year. The last I saw her she looked happy in the way only a dog can be, frolicking around the field, wandering after interesting smells, enjoying a lovely day. I am not comforted by this, not yet. I guess I’m still hoping I won’t need to be comforted at all.

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