I got a very heartfelt email over two weeks ago, expressing despair, sadness, morbidity - a whole slew of things I have spent many a night tossing and turning over myself. I've started a response a dozen times, at least. I want to reassure, but not with fantasy, with reality. I want to show that many of the things I have been railing about in the years I have been friends with this person are legs holding up the table of her woes presented in that email.
Mostly, I feel like expressing what needs to be expressed as a response is important, because the issues raised are central ones to me, which I have spent so much time thinking about/researching/blathering about.
I can't get my thoughts into words. This slowdown has been exacerbated by the untimeliness (at this point) of the response.
This morning, microwaving a cup of coffee, I had a spark of a train of thought that might lead to some answers.
L's roommate hung the photo "Kissing the War Goodbye" from the National Archives in the hallway outside the bathroom I noticed it yesterday, but only really spent time looking at it today:
Generally, such kitschy reproduced posters-in-a-frame piece would not spark a chain reaction in my thought processes. I've seen the print before, hopeless romanticism pressed tightly with relief and hope. Its mixed messages were certainly more poignant in the 40's then they are today, but that is what sparked the thought. There is a sense of contextual timelessness to the piece, but that edge only exists when you understand what led up to, and how the picture was taken.
This is a work of art, which evoked a reaction in me (positive or negative is yet to be fully sorted out). The artist may or may not have had intentions when taking the photograph, yet the work as it stands far eclipses whatever intent may have been existent on the photographer's part (unless, indeed, the photographer was shooting for the melange of hope and hardship, exuberance and sadness I blathered about above).
The nauseating part for me, is contemplating that aforementioned contextual understanding.
How many people had to die for that piece of art to be made? How many people have to sign up before it is a world war? How many of those people have to die before you start enlisting, rationing, patrolling, changing an entire generation's outlook on existence? How much loss needs to occur before a stylized snapshot of hope, lust, relief, and happiness can be the start of the scab of a generation torn by loss? How can the enormity of over 50 million dead be encapsulated in such a simple snapshot, of an act so basic to our species?
I have read a lot in the past two weeks. I read The Chronicles of Amber, The Secret Life of Bees, Promise of the Witch King, and Our Kind : Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going. I am in the middle of Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. As is usually the case when reading anthropology/biological history/sociology, I am baffled at the profundity and stupidity of our species. For those paying attention, two of those books are "crap" books. I try to read scifi/fantasy between weighty stuff so I don't sprain my brain. However, in both of these cases the "junk" books greatly contributed the the weight. I am at the end of a long road of literature-inspired thought, and trying to unburden before I bend my brain stem.
Would I rather there still be 50 million-odd people still floating around and not be able to see this picture? Yes, if only to spare so many the atrocity of wartime deaths, or the horrors of extermination. Perhaps the photographer would disagree.
However, the interlocking web of _my personal_ reality is completely dependent on the events which took place "over there". If not for the war, my father certainly would not be here, which means I would not be here. I feel that in lesser and greater currents, this truth holds to a great deal of the people I value on the face of the planet. Like the photograph, we are the byproduct of misery before. The impact that we leave behind can be prolific, middling, or nonexistent. The ramifications of that impact are rarely seen in one's own lifetime (except for the pioneering or the lucky).
The short answer to over contemplating one's mortality? Realize that you have no control over the present or the future. Life expectancy is a byproduct of a post-agrarian society. This sentiment is echoed by a conversation I was enmeshed in last night. When you realize how close you come to slipping over the line on a day-to-day, what may or may not be in a decade or two is a lot less "scary". Live for today, plan for tomorrow. Let next year sort itself out.
This is why despite my potential, I can't sell out for a high-end, mega revenue job. I can't abide spending 80 hours a week for 'x' years so that I can have 'y' by the time i get to 'z'. Economic formulas and reality sometimes line up, but those variables are by no means constants. I am unwilling to gamble what semblance of personal happiness is afforded to me as an individual in the hopes of potential long-term gains. Some people call me a coward for this. I see it more as conservative pragmatism.
The long answer involves a lot of reflection on who you are, not just as an individual, but as a link in a chain of events. Not only is each individual important from the perspective of biological impact on the rest of the species (and the specie's environment), but the number of undercurrents we each have the potential of spawning is nearly infinite. Assuming offhand that one or another person is worthless or, on the other hand, central or indispensable is to ignore the lessons of history, biology, and evolution (not just the science, but the effects).
The short answer to that email? Don't spend more time counting the days you might have left, then reminiscing over the days you have had. What you bring to the world is far greater than you think, regardless of whether or not you can see it. The scope of personal accomplishment can only be measured by one person, and trying to conform to other people's ideas or insights when it comes to personal accomplishment will only leave you frustrated.
I should figure out how I can write fortune cookies for a living.