Thursday, February 10, 2011

Still Just Stuff

My best friend's son finished his first round of radiation and chemo yesterday: he's been going 5 days a week for 6 weeks, for a total of 31 treatments. 


My friend and I were talking the other night about how he has refused to do anything about his hair.  It's falling out in patches, it was cut into a reverse-mohawk last fall for the surgery, and it's getting long in some spots.

As she put it, "It looks like he has the mange.  People try not to stare.  Children just plain stare."

And he couldn't care less.  He doesn't want the long parts cut because they're "keeping his head warm in that spot."  He doesn't want to wear a hat either, though.

As I told my friend, "If he doesn't care, then none of us sure as hell should."

She told me about an odd trend.  When people see him, they can tell immediately what has happened to him--if they're not sure about what's specifically wrong with him, they can still form a pretty good guess. 

If they ask him outright, he'll tell them: "I have brain cancer."

Oddly enough, if they're in a store, they'll frequently offer to buy him something.  Everyone gives him things: money, gift cards, Legos, toys, candy.  It hasn't stopped when Christmas ended.

I've thought a lot about this.  At first, I thought it was an understandable gesture: people feel helpless, so they want to do something, anything.

As the trend has continued, though, I've become a bit more skeptical about it.  While I don't question the goodness of everyone's intentions, I'm not sure I really like the gesture, ultimately.

In Albert Camus' The Plague, one of the pivotal scenes of the novel revolves around the death of a child.  When the city of Oran is quarantined because of an outbreak of bubonic plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux is forced to make numerous difficult decisions (to put it mildly).

As Rieux and the other citizens and doctors in Oran struggle against the mounting death-toll, they decide to try out a potential vaccine.  The Mayor grants them permission to test it on his eight-year-old son, who is already dying of the plague.

The vaccine doesn't work, and the child dies in agony.  All the treatment essentially does, in the end, is prolong his suffering.

As the child dies, Rieux, his friend Jean Tarrou, the Mayor and the priest, Father Paneloux, watch helplessly.  Prior to this point, Father Paneloux has repeatedly and sanctimoniously suggested that the plague is an act of God, designed to punish the citizens for their sinfulness.

After witnessing the boy's death, Rieux asks Father Paneloux if he still believes that the plague is an act of God, designed to punish the sinful.  When he preaches his next sermon, Paneloux addresses the problem that the undeserved suffering of an innocent child poses for people of faith:  in that moment, they must either believe everything or deny everything.

The suffering of a child allows for no half-measures in an individual's existential understanding.

Paneloux can offer no solution, of course.  He simply encourages everyone, believers and non-believers alike, to do everything in their power to fight the plague. 

Even though we can never know positively which is correct--faith or disbelief--the struggle against suffering always has inherent meaning and value.

But nowhere in The Plague is it suggested that the problem of a suffering child can (or should) be assuaged by offering to buy him toys and candy.

Which isn't to say that a suffering child shouldn't have toys and candy.  But what disturbs me about all of the offers to buy him things (some of them from total strangers), all of the gift-cards, and the many, many presents, is that these gestures seem to me to be designed to help the givers feel better about what is happening to him.

And we shouldn't ever feel better--or even okay--about that.  That's the struggle: to take the full measure of what human suffering means.   

I think the gift-givers want to avoid feeling the full emotional impact of our collective helplessness in the face of a child's suffering.  I can't blame them.

One woman told me, "Well, I believe all things come from God."  I smiled politely and said, "Okay..." (after all, she had brought us all scalloped potatoes and ham for supper), but I mentally added, "I don't." 

She then said, "I believe God will take care of all of this, if we just pray hard enough."  Again, I smiled politely and mentally added, "I don't, Father Paneloux."

I think it's not always supposed to be about finding a way to make yourself feel better. 

Some questions are just plain painful to consider.  The fact that there is no answer to them makes it even worse.

We need to feel that.  Which isn't to say we wallow in despair or accept or even glorify our own helplessness.  But to look away, to existentially swerve, to try to drown the situation in pleasantries and pleasant things--like gifts and prayers and Legos--while understandable, is... well, simply the wrong answer to a very serious and ultimately unanswerable question, in my opinion.

Who am I to say that someone else's pain is too much for me to bear, simply because I can't find a reason for it? 

I think of the words spoken by Virginia Woolf's character in the film, "The Hours": "To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is."

Since I found out this news, I can't count how many times I've imagined simply driving my car into the middle of a big, empty field, so that I can sit and pound the steering wheel and wail.

Ever since he died, I've developed a habit of talking to my dad when I have a problem I need to think through, so that he can help me figure out what I should do.

The other night, I found myself asking him, "Why is this happening to us?   If you know, please tell me.  I know you would help me if you could."

And then I picked up the phone and called my friend and said, "Hey.  How are you?"

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."