Facebook is the equivalent of talking by the water-cooler for those who work at home (or agoraphobes): type in your password to see what people are talking about. And so that’s how I know that a lot of you apparently like talking about terrible things.
“You’ve GOT to read this” was the basic gist of the eight or nine wall postings and forwards I received of Emily Rapp’s well-written piece in the New York Times. In the piece, Rapp told the story of being a “dragon mother” – that is, a mother of a fatally ill son with Tay-Sachs whose time on this earth is limited to a handful of years at best. As parents, we all know that no amount of time would be enough, and in knowing that, Rapp’s family’s fate is even more horrifically cruel.
After seeing the fifth Facebook post, I read Rapp’s piece and felt sick. It made my stomach turn with pity and fear, two emotions that I admit find singularly unpleasant. I don’t like feeling pity because I can’t shake the feeling that it implies that I somehow, even implicitly, deem myself “better” than they are, or more fortunate. There is an element of condescension, I find, in pity, but even more so in our ability to exit from the situation we pity with such ease compared to those who are suffering. It’s like watching a TV show about famine and then turning it off, saying, “That’s awful” and going out to meet your friends for dinner. And to finish reading this piece and hug my healthy baby tighter, as though to say, “I appreciate you more after having seen someone else’s suffering.” That felt cruel, somehow, to me.
I am not better than this woman – if anything, I am worse in so many ways — but I am indescribably more fortunate. I savor my children’s faces each morning I am with them, but do so doubly because it is not “normal” for me. Thanks to my divorce, our “normal” is different from other families. I don’t get to spend every birthday or every vacation with my boys.
And yet, despite or perhaps because of my sorrow at the seesaw of custody and my boys leaving and coming, leaving and coming, I savor them more perhaps than I would have otherwise. I was blessed with an unexpected daughter from an unexpected second marriage, and because of knowing the vast emptiness I had faced without her, I savor her more than perhaps I would have otherwise. I am proprietary about all of their time. I don’t want to waste any of it.
But there is no analogy whatsoever between my situation and Rapp’s. Like everything living in the world, we are on a tightrope, mortality reaching up beneath us on either side. But, thank God, without illness, I have the luxury of holding my children and walking across as though there were nothing beneath us. So how do I stop feeling like a tragedy voyeur?
Not everything has a moral. We grasp at threads of narrative cohesion in our lives, trying to make sense out of things that sometimes don’t. It does not make sense that children are born with a horrible fatal illness. It does not make sense that people would fly a plane into a building. We choose for these things not to make sense in our world.
But in the meantime, the only sense I can find is that we live in a world where we can share our stories with one another and perhaps become better people for doing so. In truly listening to one another, we can become more understanding and more empathetic. Because of having more love, we can, if we choose to, become more ourselves.
I logged into Emily’s blog and was stunned not only by her writing, but by that of the people who reached out to her with concern, love and affection after the New York Times piece. That blooming of goodness, like flowers bursting from dank mud, I realized – THAT was the lesson and moral I craved. “Thank you for reminding us that we will all lose each other, if not equally soon then equally surely. Nothing else I’ve ever read has made me feel so urgently the need to practice absurd, pitiless, fire-breathing loving kindness,” one person wrote. Amen.
We live in a world, I learned, where a stranger can reach out to another person via the Internet and type the words, “Staggering how brave we can become. The best in us breaks forth.” And we are blessed to live in a world where we can read these words, and shiver, and have our worlds and ourselves grow as a result.