The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living
A decade. One hundred and twenty months. Three thousand six hundred and fifty days. And so on. The pain of missing has diminished, except on the days when it has not. Those days have at least become less and less frequent.
Philosopher and Poet David Whyte says of loss. “…human life is full of so much loss and disappearance; half of our experience is mediated through loss and disappearance…One of the great spiritual achievements is simply to be here, in a way in which you’re not trying to turn away from the part of life which is saying goodbye.” Half of our experience is loss and disappearance; think about that for a moment. Pets, great grandparents, grandparents, spouses, friends, siblings, and yes, sometimes, unthinkably, even our children. Yet many of us grieve so poorly, or not at all at the time of loss. It snakes up behind us and strikes when we do not expect it, and we let a little bit of it out at a time. I wrote a few years back about my own struggle to grieve over at my other blog, the Impetuarian.
Should one talk about where *they* are on the memorial of a death? Is that the pinnacle of selfishness? Or is it part and parcel of rebuilding one’s shattered life, still in progress, after all these years? Is it a vital part of living, this examining one’s life, as Socrates implied?
We survivors always wonder if we could have done something differently when someone dies, I think. At least, I see it continually in my group of widows and widowers. It hurts. And just like any scenario, like when you say the wrong thing, or do something stupid, you revisit it repeatedly in your mind. At least some of us do. One of my daughters has inherited that from me. I used to think it was just overthinking when I did it. Maybe I am wrong about that.
I recently realized that the run up to my husband’s death evoked the same feelings I had when my children would get beaten by their dad, and they would call me to come get them and I would jump in the car and make my way there, and along the way there would be more phone calls, changes of mind, no we really don’t need the police, no it really isn’t that bad , no you really don’t need to come get me – and I would sit in a parking lot waiting, and waiting, my gut sick, chain-smoking – sometimes alone, sometimes with my oldest daughter who I had gained custody of and who lived with me. You know there is something bad going on, but you have no control over it.
I knew there was something wrong with my husband, too – but you can’t force an adult to the doctor. The one time I had him Baker Acted due to his announced intention of suicide and knife-wielding, they brought him back within 24 hours, fed him Burger King, and treated me the same way the cops involved with my children did. Dismissively.
Then I would see my girls on visitation, with their bruises and their slings for dislocated whatevers, feel the distance between me and them. I felt powerless and angry and sad and overwhelmed and nothing ever changed because I could not win in court – no money, and no schmoozing with lawyers and cops as he had done back then. Guilt, always the guilt.
I told my husband to go back to Atlanta about two months before he died, and get the help he needed physically and mentally, and I would wait for him as a faithful wife. I couldn’t live in the trauma-inducing environment we were back in, yet again. I paid all the bills so he could save money for a car of his own and an apartment. He could come see me whenever he wanted, if he wasn’t drinking, or I would go to him. He did not hurt me or yell at me or do any of those things. In fact, he was the most vulnerable I have ever seen him during those last few months – confessing, apologizing, loving. He was just killing himself with alcohol and I could not watch. We had been through this in 2001, when I divorced him as I could no longer put my children through it, or, myself. No violence at that time, either; that was way behind us in 1997 and had never occurred again. The divorce was ugly, maybe uglier than my first divorce. The State’s Attorney had to get involved, and it spread to my family members, and hurt them. Another helping of guilt and shame. And again those same feelings-powerlessness and anger and sadness and overwhelm and nothing ever changed.
Why go back then, three years later? It’s a very good question, and one I have asked time and time again of myself. Because he loved me, and I loved him and life without him was like a gaping hole I tried to fill with all the wrong things. It was not the same as with my first marriage, when I literally could have cared less if I ever saw him again. And he had stopped drinking – the magical fix-of-all-that-was-broken. Except that it didn’t last very long after we got married. When we were remarried and I quit my job, sold my house and left my children behind I had too much on the line and marriage meant something different to me this time – a commitment before YHVH. A vow. One I had never really made deep in my heart with anyone else. And no, sickness and health and all that jazz are not in the Torah. It is simply a vow to remain faithful to someone – period. You don’t have to live with them, you simply must remain faithful to them.
But he did not think I was coming back from our grandson’s birth. He did not understand that vow. I always had a personal red line and he wasn’t sure when it would snap into play even though I talked to him (or at him?) and told him the lines, where they were, and how not to cross them. He was an alcoholic, the lines got blurred and/or did not matter. I like alcohol, but I am not an alcoholic. It does not consume my thoughts, I don’t secret it into work, I don’t eye the clock as to when I can have the next drink. I don’t hide it or sneak it or lie about it. I grew up in an alcoholic home and I have family members who are both active and dry alcoholics. I lived with this highly functional alcoholic who held good jobs with lots of responsibility. It isn’t always easy to see, even when it is in your bones and part of the fabric of nearly your entire life.
What am I to learn about myself, when my partners have been both hard edged that broke me into a million pieces, and softness that also broke me into a million pieces? A therapist told me long ago that if a child grows up in chaos, that is the only way that they ever feel comfortable. I disagreed vehemently; but my life proves the point. I’ve also read a lot about ACES, and how trauma changes your physiological and neurological responses to life. I look at my girls and see what my life imprint has been on them and wonder if it can be undone. How can I teach them not to take on my mistakes?
If we are to examine our lives, but have this nagging loopy thing that causes us to revisit words, tones, actions, choices and so on into near absurdity, how do we master that without making everyone around us crazy, too? There is a passage in a book that made me laugh:
“The thing about living alone is that it gives you a lot of time to think. You don’t necessarily reach any conclusions, because wisdom is largely a function of intelligence and self-awareness, not time on your hands. But you do become very good at thinking yourself into endless loops of desperation in half the time it would take a normal person.” -Jonathan Tropper
This could be me. It could be why I have trouble sitting and thinking before leaping into something. Or it could be that I just don’t like sitting still unless I am reading; then I could become a lump someone might need to check on to see if still living.
Revisiting past choices is part of understanding who you are today, possibly discovering pitfalls via that 20/20 hindsight thing. So this is a memorial, to someone who made me feel special in a way no one else has, before or since. I’m still here, and I’m still putting one foot in front of the other. And for that love, that belief in me, which today still fuels me to continue moving forward, I say thank you. This shot from recently is in memory of you, the first photography subject we shared enthusiasm over way back in 2004.
PS. What are the pitfalls you run into when practicing introspection or self-examination and how have you dealt with them?