Saturday, November 3, 2012


Dig the moment, whatever it is, and be grateful? Isn't that a little glib, Michael? What if in that moment you're freezing and unable to use the toilet or take a shower because you've lost power from a monster storm for almost a week now? Or suffering from the consequences of a wildfire, or earthquake, or tornado, or flood or mudslide or tsunami...?

Or what if you lost a home or worse a loved one or, God forbid, a child? How the hell do you dig that moment and be grateful, you schmuck?!

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking these questions in response to the post I wrote before falling asleep last night. I haven't suffered through most of the things I mention in those questions so who am I to be so glib with my hipster New Age philosophy?

There is no way a person who has suffered great personal loss can't help feeling angry and hurt and even vengeful and victimized among other negative feelings.  At least that's the way I've felt. My old friend Hubert Selby Jr. ("Cubby" to his friends) used to say life is just a series of decisions and we make those decisions either based on fear or love. When I'd argue with him that there's more than just that, like what about hate and anger and etc. he'd say those are just forms that fear takes.

Over a period of years as I aged and Cubby and I spent more and more time together, I came to accept what I had originally taken for an oversimplification, because my experience proved it to be true. And this perspective helped me through some pretty rough spots. Not that I didn't initially react to many of them with anger, my usual reflex when hurt, but the more years that went by (and the more stuff that hurt seemed to accumulate) the more useful his perspective became to me.

So that when spouses and partners and friends and family left me either by choice or by circumstance or I suffered other personal losses (of the five siblings who made it to adulthood I only have one left, for instance, and my parents have been gone for many decades, and some vital parts of me have been removed as well in recent years) I was able to either immediately, or eventually, accept that these losses weren't being done to me, they were just happening as they always do, and will, to one extent or another.

I am hugely grateful that I have had power throughout this last week, and that I have a car that I could get far enough in to be able to get gas and without too long a wait, and that I was able to stay warm and use the facilities, as they used to say, without problems. And my heart goes out to those who have to deal with the hardships caused by Sandy, especially those who've lost their homes and even their loved ones.

I can't say what I would do in those circumstances. My guess is I'd be deeply depressed and angry and even vengeful, toward what I don't know but I'd find something: politicians, God, neighbors, myself most likely for making bad choices, etc. But I know from recent years' experience that I would be able to return to some kind of equanimity before too long by reminding myself that I have no control over weather, nature, other people for the most part, the past, etc. and would give up the notion that this is somehow personal, like the universe is picking specifically on ME, and that randomness and impermanence is the natural state of the universe, at least most of it as I have experienced it.

And I also know from experience that the path to happiness is gratitude. If I can be grateful, even force myself to be, I will feel better. I have many times said "Thank you God" or "Thank you universe" with a sneer and as sarcastic a tone as I can create while throwing both middle fingers in the air, and despite that attitude felt just a tiny bit better having voiced even sarcastic bitter phony gratitude. It's some kind of antidote to despair and the fear that despair comes from, as well as to anger and vengeance and hatred and scorn and all the other things that I thought sustained me in my youth when I was hurt by someone or something.

Anyway, sorry to go on, and I know, or assume maybe, that there is no consolation for some losses for some people. And I have been exceptionally lucky in this latest natural catastrophe so I shouldn't be talking about this maybe, but nonetheless, in my own crises I have experienced at times amazing serenity by simply accepting reality, that is, digging the moment whatever it is and being grateful, no matter what. Even if it took me many moments to get to that.

And obviously for a lot of people that is their response as well, which is why many without power have expressed gratitude that they still have homes and their loved ones, and many who lost homes express gratitude for still having their lives and loved ones. Though for those who have lost loved ones it is the most difficult, I imagine, to feel any kind of gratitude.

Yet there is the cliched, but still real, consolation that those who are gone no longer have to deal with pain and disappointment and all the seemingly negative consequences of being alive, so that our pain over their loss is really for ourselves for not having them anymore in our lives, especially children, whose futures we imagine would have been bright and here for us to share and enjoy and be happy and grateful for. Though we know from reality that may not have been the case.

I knew Chris Reeves a little, met him a few times, had dinner with him once, all before his accident. I'm sure he had his bad moments, even days or weeks, but from everything I heard and saw he had an amazingly positive attitude. You could say it may have been easier for him with such a devoted wife and the resources for the best care etc. And that's true, but I suspect we all know folks whose circumstances are a lot less comfortable and yet have survived excruciating circumstances with grace and little or no bitterness because they have found some kind of acceptance of their reality and something to be grateful for despite their circumstances.

I guess what this is all about is my own desire to be of service to those in need and in dire conditions or suffering terrible losses, to try and bring some relief emotionally at least, no matter how small or fleeting. I know for many of us who have faced death the most direct and immediate consequence emotionally was to realize that in the end the only thing that matters is love, and the only thing that gets in the way of that is fear, in any of the forms it takes.

[PS: Which in no way implies that sadness isn't the natural response to loss of any kind, particularly loved ones. Anyone who's read Selby's novels knows that sadness was at the core of his aesthetic for most of his life and fear the basis for most of his characters' actions. It was almost ironic that he brought the light of compassion and all kinds of love into the lives of so many of his friends and acquaintances and taught us how to cope through his simple summations of his philosophy and yet wrote such dark novels. Which is why we were so close I think. Sadness was the emotion I most often short circuited with anger. I still have that tendency, as anyone who knows me knows, but the gift Cubby gave me is the ability to see that anger for what it is and address it by summoning up whatever kind of gratitude I can muster, even the fake kind, because, as I said above, even when sarcastic and angry and phony expressing gratitude still works even if only a little. And for those of us who have suffered, as all humans do from time to time if not continually, even just a few seconds of relief is something to be grateful for. And once you start that gratitude train moving, it becomes harder and harder to derail. Okay Michael, enough already.]


JenW said...

Thank you for this post Michael. No power yet, a bit chilly, and nearing E on the gas tank. Just drove to my sister's for some quick laundry. Last night I cooked spag and meatballs for neighbors, by candlelight, & it tasted better than ever as we gathered around a cozy fire (thanks to the brilliant craftsmanship of my bricklayer father) and we listened to Bruce, Sting and others via my portable radio. I am absolutely grateful for everything and at the same time broken hearted for the many people who have suffered tremendous loss due to Sandy. Your words are comforting and wise and I am happy for you. "Digging every moment" & "being able to be of service to those in need" is a beautiful prayer for all.

Anonymous said...

So wonderful to hear your words. I, too, agree that life is a series of decisions and that gratitude is the key to one's happiness, and that love is all that matters. Even coming to these conclusions about life and happiness are decisions we make as to how we want to get through our day. It's not easy to get to this point when tragedy hits, but it's all we have really if we want to ride the peace train. We have so little control in life, but as Victor Frankel says, we do have control over how we want to respond to any given situation. Hoping that many more will come to dig their moments in life like you do.

Jamie Rose said...

Love this Lals. And love you.