Companion Pain

When I was a teenager, it was something of a joke in my family that my mother absolutely refused to see anything other than a happy movie. She said that she’d seen enough doom and gloom – she often referenced some hideously depressing film my father had taken her to in their youth, “Night and Fog” or something by Bergman, I can’t remember – and she felt there was no longer any need for her to subject herself to such agony.

At the time, I was immersed – nay, wallowing — in the great abundance of human tragedy: the American Indian genocide, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those are only the beginning. I didn’t understand how my mother could so blithely choose to ignore these realities and I felt rather scornful and superior to her stubborn turning away from the truth about humans.

Well, I understand it now, and I also know it’s much more complicated than what I saw then as choosing to stay ignorant. How can a mother in her 40s (she was then, I am now) not have a deep understanding of humanity’s failings? These depthless tragedies become utterly personal when you first hold your baby in your arms – I had to stop reading the newspaper when I had a newborn to avoid coming across stories involving the death and destruction of families and the incredible wash of despair that would come over me, imagining my own family similarly affected. I had to be careful what books I read – a sudden death of a child, say, by choking on a marble (thanks a lot, Lorrie Moore!) could send me into a desperate spin.

The other day, I was complaining about this or that ache in my aging body, and my Beau said matter-of-factly that she thinks when one reaches a certain age, there are just companion pains that you have to settle in and deal with. That’s the way I feel about the state of the world, the history of humanity, the obscene way humans have and do treat each other. I am not stupid nor am I ignorant; I am exquisitely aware of the suffering going on to humans just like me all over the world, all of the time. It is my companion pain, and I have to live with it. But, like my mom, I have found that if I actively seek out depictions of it, I will become too depressed to carry on, when carrying on is just exactly what I have to do.

How ironic, then, that just as I wish to withdraw from active contemplation of human tragedy, my boys and students are at a time of their lives when these are the things that they must learn about. In the past few months, Owen has read (and asked me to read) a book about Jews in Denmark during World War II (Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), Seth is reading a book for school parents have also been encouraged to read, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins about a Japanese diplomat’s family in North Korea during World War II, and my student, Shin, is reading, also for school, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig, a memoir of the author’s girlhood exiled from her privileged Polish life to Siberia, during (you guessed it) World War II. They’re children’s books, so they are perhaps less detailed than they might be, but lord have mercy, they’re still incredibly tragic.

Yesterday at work, I was looking at The Endless Steppe while Shin was working on another homework assignment, writing an African folk tale. I came to a really sad part and sighed; he looked up at me and I asked, practically in tears, “Why are people so mean to each other, Shin?” “Be quiet, I’m writing!” he replied cheerfully, making me laugh. Because really, there is no answer to that question, at least as far as I know. Or rather, the answer is so complicated and deep that you just have to keep marching along, doing the best you can, and hoping for the best. Not ignoring the companion pain, but not letting it stop you from doing your work, which for me, includes teaching kids (my own and also my students) about that other, quite miraculous part of human beings, the part that performs miracles, the part that radiates love and peace. For me, that means writing, trying to be a good mom, a good daughter, a good wife, a good friend. And with that I will leave you. I have to go back and read about the Siberian winter, and marvel at the courage and ingenuity with which Esther’s family gets through it all.

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Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 3:38 PM  Leave a Comment  

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