Tag Archives: Death

People In the Way

It’s good to see that Jane Catherine Lotter’s obituary in the Seattle Times has gone “viral” — whatever that is supposed to mean anymore. I suppose if something in the culture — a meme, a song, a fad or a bit of slang — manages to reach me, it must have pretty wide circulation: I don’t keep up.

Lotter wrote it herself, as she was slowly dying, noting that “one of the few advantages of having Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary.” She faced death with humor, courage and grace.

I was especially struck by what Lotter had to say to her children, Tessa and Riley. “May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.” I’ve certainly come across the thought before; I suppose we all have. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and don’t come to obituaries looking for poetic or philosophical originality. Besides, it’s more interesting to reflect on the reasons why the thought has stayed with me over the past few days.

First, because I have been trying to get a big new project together, and I always struggle when starting a new project to take the little steps that will get me to the big place I see in the distance. When I am struck by an idea, excited by a project, or even when the first words of a piece of writing come to me, I can easily forget that eureka is just the start of the journey. I am impatient and I want to rush ahead; I look for shortcuts, end up taking detours and don’t take in the sights because I am so focused on where I think I am heading. And since I never end up exactly where I first intend to go, I would learn a lot more if I would allow myself to experience the trip.

It gets worse than that. Every difficulty I encounter seems like some kind of grand injustice the universe, or some evil deceiver, has visited upon me. Every time I stumble or fail to make progress — which is more often than I care to admit — I risk falling into the trap of blaming myself, thinking I have betrayed myself, or just feeling sorry for myself because I am up against insurmountable odds. When others don’t see things my way or express doubts, or don’t sufficiently rally to the idea in which I have fully invested my ego and imagination, or simply say they don’t get it, whatever it may be, they can become my persecutors and enemies, even though their intentions may have been friendly.

I am exaggerating (a little) to make a point: the emotion that takes over at such moments is powerful and undeniable. At root, I suspect, these feelings stem from a sense of vulnerability: new ideas, new plans, new projects — all make you newly vulnerable, because they are disorienting and will more likely than not fail.

The pursuit of an idea, a plan or a path entails great moral risk, especially when we come up against others. Just consider how often you hear, or how often you think, that people are in the way. It’s hard not to feel this way, at some point, if you live in New York City. I’m heading down the stairs to the subway platform, and someone in front of me is moving slowly, lumbering, limping, tired, breathing heavily, grunting, dragging a granny cart or leading a toddler down the stairs, cute little step by adorable little step by sweet little step. I can hear the train coming into the station. Not the train: my train. Get out of my way! On the sidewalk, badly dressed, slow-witted tourists, sweating and bloated with their deep-fried lunch, walk four and five across, gawking and without any sense of direction. Single file! Don’t know how to merge at the Holland Tunnel? Honk! People line up six, twelve, twenty-four deep at checkouts, taxi stands, restaurants — nearly everywhere you go. End of the line.

So in our rush, in our huff, when we are inspired, wired and just plain tired, we reduce people to inanimate objects or obstacles in our way. That puts us in the same moral ballpark as seeing people as means to our ends, instruments of our will — the outrage is that they are not mere extensions of our will — but it’s a little more sociopathic and depraved. People in the way need to be shoved aside, eliminated or made to disappear. They are not human beings but mere blocks; they might as well be sawhorses, sandbags or Jersey barriers — and it’s all the more irritating that they are not cast from concrete and set down by government order; they are alive, with all the appearances and behaviors of intelligent humanity, and yet they are very much in the way.

Sometimes we say that people are in the way when they are not even there, in front of us; they are in the way because they are obstinate, or don’t see things our way, or because they are creating difficulties of one kind or another. This is the more interesting case, and it involves risk of a different magnitude. For starters, it’s a strange abuse of language to talk about these people being “in the way” when there is no way apparent — no road, no staircase, no sidewalk or path. We speak as if there is a single orientation in the world — as if there were a way, the way, my way, as if the right way for all people were established by one person’s willing it. My way or the highway. Why doesn’t she get with the program? “The way” even has a whiff of providence about it, as if it reflected some higher order, and echoes of messianic religious vocabulary.

It also suggests we know where we are going — which of course we do not. And this is perhaps the greatest risk we run: to think that we know the path before we have traveled it, and that we have secured our ends simply because we have set out toward them. Stephen Covey advised highly effective people to start with the outcome they want to achieve, but the more important lesson is that you are most likely to achieve something other than what you set out to do. That’s a basic truth about human action, and a pretty good reason to set your sights on something other than being highly effective. This is especially so if you think of yourself as a leader. The leader who cannot or will not admit his vulnerability and uncertainty about the best way forward will probably just end up getting in everybody’s way.

Boorish And Natasha

My dear friend and mentor Claudia von Canon used to tell a story about a memorial service she attended for a university colleague where someone — I can’t remember exactly who — had the bad manners and poor form to begin her eulogy for the dearly departed with the pronoun “I,” and continued in this first-person vein, telling stories about herself in which the great man figured only as a minor character.

I was reminded of this story this morning just as I was on the verge of committing the same clumsy, self-serving move: I was going to write, by way of introduction, I never knew Natasha Richardson. I saw her and heard her speak only once, at a fundraiser last year for Amfar, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Her father, Tony Richardson, had died of AIDS in 1991, and Ms. Richardson had dedicated herself to raising money for research. She was a member of Amfar’s board.

Nearly everybody at this gala event seemed to be either rich or a celebrity of one kind or another. These were the days before the Lehman collapse and before Bernard Madoff absconded with half the fortune of half the Upper East side, or at least before half the Upper East Side knew he had. There was still lots of money floating around New York, so the event drew a good crowd; and later in the evening, during the fundraising auction, I watched people make bids of fifteen-, twenty-, and thirty- thousand dollars in the same carefree, casual manner you or I might bid fifteen or twenty or thirty dollars. For this crowd, it was good fun for a good cause.

I’d been invited as a courtesy. Natasha Richardson’s brief talk preceded and introduced a short film I’d made — a promotional film about Amfar’s work fighting HIV/AIDS around the world. But I was clearly out of my element. I don’t usually party with the rich at black tie events, and I am woefully (or, to be honest, happily) ignorant of celebrity culture. I don’t recognize celebrities when I see them on TV or in magazines or on the street here in New York, and even when I recognize a celebrity’s name, I usually can’t put a face to it. I’m not sure I would have recognized the celebrity of Natasha Richardson or any of the other stars and starlets who were at the Amfar benefit that night if the paparazzi had not gathered around them.

For instance, I saw one especially unhappy looking teenage girl, who seemed to be bored with the speeches and the entertainment in the way teenagers are bored with everything; and I felt a little sorry for her, a rich kid dragged by her parents, I assumed, to this fancy adult occasion, until I was told that she was one of the Olsen Twins. That made me look at her in a different light. But to this day, I must confess, I still don’t really know who the Olsen Twins are. They are either on a television program or they play music. Or maybe both – or neither. I haven’t bothered to find out.

My ignorance of celebrity names and faces and my impatience with television make it difficult for me to participate in certain conversations, but I would rather suffer the handicap than the remedy. It’s especially difficult for me to participate in the kind of conversation the major media are now having about Natasha Richardson – the prying news about her family’s grief, the solemn-faced tributes by news anchors, the variations ad nauseam on her tragic, accidental death. I just don’t feel connected. Princess Di left me cold as well.

I wonder at the feelings people attach or bring to these events; I tell myself that mourning over the great and rich and famous is really a way of mourning for other things, other losses – the way life can end suddenly, just by accident, the passing of goodness from the world; sic transit gloria mundi. Or maybe people feel they really know these celebrities who flicker at them from the television screen in the living room.

I realize, of course, that to someone of Claudia’s refined sensibilities, sitting down to write in the first person about my indifference to the passing of a celebrity, or my ignorance of celebrity on the occasion of a celebrity’s death, would probably appear boorish. And to get at the point in this roundabout way – telling the story she would rather have me not tell by telling the story of how she would rather not have me tell it – would no doubt appear worse than boorish. And I understand that most people will agree with that view, or write me off as hopelessly self-involved or insensitive and uncaring.

But I take some refuge in the observation that sitting down to write about Natasha Richardson in the first person brought Claudia’s story of bad form at the MIT memorial back to me, and helped me remember her. I never really had a chance to mourn her when she died, in 2002, after a long bout with cancer. (Nothing accidental about that.) I never wrote a eulogy for her. Her daughter Susanna organized a memorial service, in Massachusetts, a few months after she died. On the day, torrential rains flooded out I-95, and I was persuaded to turn back: we probably wouldn’t have made it to Cambridge in time for the service anyway.

It strikes me that Claudia would have agreed, in any case, with St. Augustine, who advanced the opinion (in The City of God and On the Care to be Given for the Dead ) that funerals are for the living, not the dead. For the latter, God has already provided. The question, in my reading of Augustine, really becomes what we, the living, do in this secular world to honor the dead or to remember them.

Mourning, in this view, can be a political or politically fraught act. When goodness passes from the world, there is always more goodness to be done in the name of the goodness that is gone.

So a good way, maybe the best way to honor Natasha Richardson is probably not to weep in front of the television as a soft-focus montage plays, but to make a donation to Amfar. It seems especially urgent to support research and a scientific approach to HIV/AIDS at a moment when Pope Benedict XVI is advancing the view that condom distribution is not an effective way to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.

If you want to have some fun with it, make your contribution not in your own name, but on behalf of a third person: Joseph Ratzinger. After all, it’s not exactly good form to claim, or pride oneself on, one’s own charitable deeds.