Half a Life, contrasted with the stridency of positive thinking
--Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Today I met a woman who believes. Angel cards, affirmations, being positive, visualizing the exact number of the weight/wealth/world you want and making it so by sticking it to something, anything, where you can see it. I was polite, but I mentioned that I'd seen those ideas used as weapons to blame others for their shortcomings. Privately, I was thinking my usual thoughts about religious dogmatism that pushes for stridency and obliterates nuance. Her response was a perfect example of what lies beneath "positive thinking," and that was to trash-talk her sister who has a chronic illness and "bad luck." "Do you wake up thinking something bad will happen today? Well, there you go." This healthy woman justified her faith in the positive by blaming her sister's health on her negative thinking, as though a bad thought were a toxic bomb just waiting to explode. It's both judgmental and simplistic, wiping out all need for nuance, ambivalence, or simple compassion for those who are in pain.
The interaction made me think of the memoir I just finished reading by highly acclaimed author Darin Strauss, called Half a Life. It is the opposite of this. It is a tour through the world of emotional nuance in the face of devastation, a personal and unvarnished look at confusion and pain. Darin describes a life of striving to be good enough in the face of a horrific accident in which, when he was 18, a girl swerved her bike in front of his car and died from the impact. He works his way to "I killed her" by the end of the book. But it's a perfect example of one of those horrible, negative, hurtful, difficult things that happens not because someone thinks the wrong thought in the morning, but instead because cars exist and bikes exist and sometimes, more often than we'd like, they collide unpredictably.
The memoir starts with a chronology of what happened, the accident, the numbness, the high-schooler's performance of grief, all written with a crisp self-consciousness that makes this accurate. It's unfakeable, this depth of clarity. "I've come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn't properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That's what shock is." (p. 17) He writes his memories from within the shut-down of shock. Life goes on, he goes abroad to study, and the parents of the dead girl file a vengeful lawsuit, all the more pointless because it was declared a no-fault accident by multiple eyewitnesses. But Darin doesn't know this, because he's still blaming himself, an act of contrition and of the self-centeredness of the young. He hopes the trial will end it, declaring him innocent or guilty once and for all, but then the trial is canceled. He muddles along, as we all do.
If we're honest, if we look closely enough, we all have some cause for guilt and remorse. It may not be something as extreme as this accident, but there's something there. As Strauss writes: "I think we all build superstructures in our heads, catwalks and trestles that lead us from the acceptance of our own responsibility to the cool mechanics of the factory, where things are an interlocking mess, where everybody's pretty much unaccountable. To be alive is to find a way to blame someone else." (p. 110)
The worst moments come when he describes a date gone horribly wrong. At a movie, Darin's extreme stress kicks in at a depiction of an accidental death from car accident. His date is not compassionate, and instead blames him for being dramatic. "How can you even go on living?" she asks. He wonders: "Who was this person[...] did she kick puppies for fun?" (p. 140) To his credit, he backs away. She follows with a phone call, and he just says "all right." Good for him. That's no kind of date to have, no kind of person to have in one's life. That's the negative crazy worth running, not walking but running, away from. That's toxic, that blame. It's no way to spend a life, harboring those voices, internally or otherwise.
The memoir ends with the kind of happy ending that is possible to believe in, one built of a solid partner and their children together and a long stretch of therapy. But even in this, Strauss doesn't overplay the positive, seeing life for what it is. Books like this make me grateful for not only the realists but also for those who are unflinchingly willing to see nuance, contradiction, and complexity. This is a poetically written memoir, and so I have more quotes than usual. This book reminds me what it is to survive anything that is or feels life-threatening. The accidents that shape us.
A few more favorite quotes:
In the United States, some two thousand drivers a year survive "dart-outs." And these drivers are more likely to get laid out by post-traumatic stress syndrome than are those who are irrefutably to blame in fatal accidents. No one knows why. Probably the brain prefers a sturdy error to fixate on. It's hard to learn so viscerally that the questions of guilt and worth are managed with indifference, by nasty chance. (p. 127)
My ideas, my language, support me in the face of disastrous horror over and over. --Harold Brodkey (quoted on p. 143)
Ten year later, talking about it remained a crackling horror. Probably, just by acting weird, I'd shown myself stained by the blemish of it. Whatever private anxieties we endure are, of course, never really private. Our own dissembling behavior guarantees their eternal, public return. (p. 164)
In fiction classes [...] you find that epiphany has a pretty high rate of occurrence. It's a story, it's tidy. At the end, the hero finds himself standing under just the right tree, reaches up without quite meaning to, and plucks down just the right fruit. / But when you tell your own story honestly, that epiphany thing is rare: there is no walk, there is no fated grab. You try every fruit, or forget there even are trees and wander from forest to forest, losing sight of any destination. The only changes are emergencies or blessings: when you wake up, notice the surroundings, then fall back, and wander more. And if you're lucky you end up walking again through a life where you're never called on to do too much noticing. (p. 173)
(describing Complicated Grief Disorder:) And this decisive suffering--which lasts and lasts, and offers "no redemptive value"--has been given a name, to distinguish it from what used to be called sorrow: Complicated Grief Disorder. (p. 185)
That's the meter you come up with, as you approach forty. If your relationship fills you with a sense of luck, you've chosen well. (p. 188)
Things don't go away. They become you. There is no end [...]. But we keep making our way, as we have to. We're all pretty much able to deal even with the worst that life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult. I think that's the whole of the answer. We make our way, and effort and time give us cushion and dignity. And as we age, we're riding higher in the saddle, seeing more terrain. (p. 203)
The accident has formed me. I can no more discard it than I can discard having grown into adulthood. But I am grown now. And because I am, I can say no. I can say no to the hectoring, blistery hurt. I can say to myself: It's all right to take in the winter beach and grass smells, and crackle back across the sand of the road, and smile at the faces you love. (p. 205)