Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Last Tuesday, the 22nd of February, my cousin J.’s body was found in a friend’s apartment in Brazil, Indiana. J. Had died from an apparent drug overdose. He was 26.

J. and I had lost touch in recent years. I come from a big family, and the way it usually goes is, you see each other at weddings and funerals. I was overseas for much of the nineties, and J. was struggling through school. He’d always had a tough time of it. He was the runt of the pack, a sensitive kid. In his teens he was a Holden Caulfield type. In families you take a lot for granted, and I always just assumed he would make it through all right. I know now I misjudged the depth of J.’s despair. We all did.

Despair is something everybody lives with, inseparable from our consciousness of mortality. It is part of what makes us human. In it are the seeds of both tragedy and hope. And yet, we seem to have lost the language to speak about it meaningfully. Now when we talk about what the philosopher Kierkagaard called “the sickness unto death”we speak in clinical terms. We isolate symptoms, search for causes, offer up a cure. In our mania for quantification we’ve come up with ways to measure despair, like the Porsolt Forced Swim Test (FST), which involves recording stress levels in drowning rats, or the multiple-choice Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) for drowning humans. Even the human condition falls under the rubric of inconveniences for which the pharmaceutical companies are constantly developing happy pills. But despite their best efforts suicide rates continue to rise, increasing 60% over the past 45 years, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA).

Certainly there are cases in which medication makes all the difference, but there is no pharmacological remedy for the sickness unto death, “the awful rowing toward God,” as Anne Sexton so poignantly put it. The human condition is terminal. How to go on living in the face of it? We all have our ways, but occasionally when one of us is lost, we find ourselves wondering how we might have planted that impossible seed of hope that lodges in the hardest of soil and grows in the blackest of nights.

The poet’s prescription? Matthew Arnold, in his poem Dover Beach offers this: “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another for the world which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...”

If there is solace at all in any of it, it’s that we’re all in it together. “Let us be true to one another.” The only remedy for this kind of pain, it seems, is the comfort of companionship along the road. Wherever it leads.

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