Yup, it’s settled, Albert’s the Best Guy Ever. I had quite the scene with him yesterday. I popped over to say goodbye — I’d decided I really wanted to bike out to the mountains, where I’m drafting this — and as I was strolling around his study, I noticed a very slick pair of pistols on his gunrack.
“Can I borrow a gun for my trip?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, “as long as you’re willing to pick up some ammunition yourself; I just keep them up there for show.” I took one down, and he continued, “I’ve had such nasty surprises even thinking I was being careful with them that I don’t touch the darn things anymore.”
That sounded like a story, I said. He went on: “I was staying for a few months with a friend on his farm, and I had a pair of pistols with me I kept around, unloaded — it just helped me sleep easier. One day, some rainy afternoon, I was sitting around bored, and I don’t know why, I just suddenly started thinking, ‘We might get robbed, we might need the guns, what if —’ you get the idea. I cleaned and loaded them and went to the bathroom; right then, two of our friends came in, and the guy started trying to impress the girl or scare her, and God knows how, the safety came off and he shot her in the hand at point blank range and shattered her thumb. And then I had to deal with all the fallout and help pay for her surgery… Since then I leave all my guns unloaded. Kind of makes you wonder why we even bother being careful! If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Although —”
Now, you know, I love this guy, but when he gets to his “ALTHOUGH”s — I mean, isn’t it obvious that any general statement has exceptions? But this guy is so scrupulous! that when he feels like he’s said something hasty, or over-general, or half-true — then he can’t stop qualifying and rephrasing and re-re-analyzing until in the end there’s nothing left at all. And this time he went wayyyy down the rabbit hole; eventually I tuned him out, my mind started wandering, and I made this ‘kill me now’ gesture, putting the muzzle of the gun against my forehead over my right eye.
“Hey!” said Albert, snatching the gun away from me, “What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s not loaded,” I said.
“Even so, what’s wrong with you?” he shot back impatiently. “I can’t imagine how anyone could be stupid enough to shoot himself. It makes me sick just thinking about it.”
“You people!” I exclaimed. “You can’t talk about anything without being all, ‘that’s stupid, that’s smart, that’s good, that’s bad’! And what does that even mean? Have you actually gone and dug up all the details of the situation? can you actually explain what led up to it, why it happened, why it had to happen? Maybe if you had, you wouldn’t be so quick to judge.”
“Come on,” said Albert, “you have to admit some actions are wrong no matter why you do them.”
I shrugged and said, sure. — “But, Albert,” I went on, “there are exceptions to that too. It’s true that stealing is a crime; but if a man ends up having to steal to keep himself and his family from starving to death, does he deserve punishment, or sympathy? Who’d throw the first stone against the husband who kills his cheating wife and her slimy lover in his righteous fury? Or against the girl who surrenders in a transcendent moment to the irresistible pull of desire? Even our cold, heartless legal system feels for cases like those and goes easy on them.”
“That’s a whole different situation,” Albert answered, “because the thought there is that, if the defendant was swept away by passion, he’s lost the power of rational thought, so he gets treated as if he’d been drunk or crazy.”
“Oh, you reasonable people!” I exclaimed, smiling. “ ‘Passion’! ‘Drunk’! ‘Crazy’! You stand there so detached, so void of sympathy, you proper people! You snicker at the drunks, you turn away from the crazies, you walk on by like the priest and thank God like the Pharisee that he didn’t make you like one of them. I’ve been drunk more than once, my passions have always been a little crazy, and I don’t regret either one: because over time I’ve realized all the great men who’ve ever accomplished anything extraordinary or impossible-seeming have always been called crazy or drunk by people who didn’t understand.
“But even just in the day-to-day, it’s unbearable, anytime anyone does anything free-spirited, or principled, or unexpected, someone has to say, ‘That guy’s drunk!’ ‘He’s stupid!’ You should be ashamed, you stuffy people, you starched shirts! You should be ashamed!”
“Oh please, you’re just riffing now,” said Albert, “you always make such a big deal out of everything, and anyway this time you’re definitely wrong, because you’re comparing suicide, which is what we were actually talking about, with great accomplishments — when really’s it’s just being weak, and that’s all there is to it. Because obviously it’s easier to die than to actually deal with the difficult things in your life.”
I was this close to breaking the conversation off there; because nothing sends me up the wall faster than when someone comes along with some meaningless platitude when I’m speaking from the heart. But I took a deep breath, and answered him, a little tensely, “You think it’s being weak? Albert, please, appearances can be deceiving. If a people is groaning under the oppressive yoke of a tyrant, is it being weak when they finally rise up and break their chains? Or when a man, horrified that a car has rolled over his son, lifts it right off the ground, which he could never have done calmly; or when someone’s fighting for his life, and in his desperation takes down six opponents — are they being weak? And, Albert, if that kind of push is being strong, why should an extreme version be the opposite?”
Albert looked at me and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really don’t see how any of those examples are relevant here.”
“That’s totally possible,” I said, “people are always telling me my thought process can get pretty rambly sometimes. Okay — then let’s see if we can find some other way of understanding what might be going on in someone’s head when they decide that being alive, as great as that is, is more than they can take. Because it’s not fair for us to talk about this unless we approach it with some sympathy.
“The human self,” I continued, “has its limits: it can only bear happiness, sadness, or pain up to a certain point, and it breaks down as soon as that point is passed. So this really has nothing to do with whether someone’s weak or strong, right? It’s about whether they can take the amount of pain that they’re feeling, and that could be physical or psychological; so I think it’s just as strange to say, ‘That man is a coward for killing himself’, as it would be inappropriate to call someone a coward for dying of a malignant tumor.”
“Sophistry! Pure sophistry!” Albert exclaimed.
“Not really,” I replied. “I mean, think about how chronic illness works: someone’s health is under so much pressure that they get weaker and weaker and their whole system falls apart so much that finally the body can’t repair itself anymore, and there’s no way of turning things around to get them healthy again.
“Cool. Now let’s think about the mind. Say there’s this person, going along in his typical courses of thought, with things making impressions on him like they do, ideas taking root in him, until finally some cancerous emotion spreads through his whole mental faculty and breaks him down.
“What’s your detached, reasonable person going to do now when he sees him like this? What’s he going to say to him? There’s nothing he can do — no more than a healthy person standing by a sickbed can channel his health into the sick man.”
Albert still thought I was overgeneralizing. I reminded him of of a girl in the news recently who was found dead in a river, and went over her story for him again:
“She was a normal, quiet girl who grew up in the sheltered little bubble of home and school, with no real concept of happiness beyond hanging out with her friends at the mall in her one nice outfit she’d pieced together, maybe going to a school dance once in a while, and going on for hours and hours with her best friend about gossip and drama.
“Suddenly, she starts to feel this fire inside her, these inner drives, and guys are flirting with her, which just amps things up further, and everything she used to like starts seeming so boring — until, finally, she meets a guy she’s drawn to, irresistibly, by this feeling she’s never felt before, she wraps all her hopes around him, forgets everything else, she can’t hear or see or feel anything but him, The One, all she wants is him, The One. She doesn’t play hard to get, she knows what she wants and she’s going for it, she wants to be his, she wants to fuse with him forever and find the happiness she’s been missing, everything she ever wanted, all at once. Whispered promises seal the deal, stolen kisses drive her wild — and she is gone; she’s floating in a haze of anticipation, she’s cranked all the way up. Finally she reaches out to take her dreams in her arms — and her crush dumps her.
“Stunned, semi-conscious, she’s standing at a cliff; everywhere she looks is darkness, no way out, no hope, no clue! because HE’S gone… the only one who made her feel real. She can’t see her whole life still ahead of her, or all the people who could take his place, she feels alone and totally abandoned, — and, blind, pushed into a corner by the agony in her heart, she jumps, to smother her pain under the all-encompassing blanket of death.
“See, Albert, so many people have stories just like that! and I mean, isn’t that a case of illness? The self can’t find its way out of the maze of convoluted contradictory forces, and the person has to die.
“And screw anyone who’d look at that and say, ‘Stupid girl! If she’d only waited, if she’d just given it time, she’d have gotten over it, she’d have found someone new to comfort her before she knew it.’ That’s just like saying, ‘What an idiot, dying of cancer! If he’d only waited until his body recovered, until his immune system kicked in, and his symptoms had died down — everything would have been fine, and he’d still be alive!’”
Albert, who still couldn’t see the connection, said a bunch of things, including: I’d only been talking about one silly girl; but how a smart person, who wasn’t so sheltered, who’d seen more of the world, could be excused for that sort of thing, that he didn’t understand.
“Albert,” I exclaimed, “people are people, and being smart or whatever doesn’t really come up when your passions are raging and pushing you to the limits of your humanity. And on top of that — Some other time,” I said, and grabbed my bag. eugh my heart was so full… and we split up, without either of us really getting where the other was coming from. Like people hardly ever do in this world.