for the Donnybrook lads
“I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I feel like I just lead a quiet life of desperation.”
There were three of us in the car, driving the half-hour between the inn where a mutual friend was to be married and another friend’s house. Three of us were in that particular car, but a cohort of nine of us were there for the occasion — nine of the eleven men who lived together for the last two years of college. Most of us had lived in the house — called the Donnybrook — for two full years, while a few had done one-year stints. Generally speaking, though, we rounded up: if you lived in the Donnybrook, we pretty much just said that you were part of the whole grand two-year enterprise, myth being altogether more important than history, especially with us:
“Were you there when we burned that couch?”
“Of course you were! It was awesome, wasn’t it?”
But I digress.
“A quiet life of desperation.” I thought I knew better than most what that meant (I struggled with what shrinks call “major depression” throughout college, especially towards the end). I granted that someone else probably knew what those particular words meant when they were put together into a sentence — in a literal, grammatical way, that is. But (I thought) when most people use that phrase, they’re most likely using it somewhat poetically, perhaps hyperbolically. Because I knew what desperation was, and, well…they couldn’t possibly. Because they weren’t me.
This, of course, is absurd.
To be honest, I didn’t think all of foregoing thoughts in toto; no, I just was hit with a small wave of incredulity, raising my eyebrows in the privacy of the back seat as that small wave crested — a somewhat involuntary response of which I am now ashamed.
See, I didn’t have to think all those thoughts — indeed, in thinking them, I likely would have realized their arrogance and falsity. Instead my incredulity filled in for thoughtfulness quite smartly, as it so often does. In place of compassion, I blithely, almost unconsciously substituted, “Yeah, right” — in my head, to myself, cowardly-like.
However, I did realize the arrogance and falsity of these thoughts when I thought them — out loud, to person three from that car ride, several days later.
I related that I “couldn’t believe” that our friend had said what he said. Even as I related my disbelief, though, I realized how perverse it was: “I can’t believe” can easily mean “I was astonished to hear this true thing which I had not previously known,” yet it can just as easily mean, well, “Yeah, right” — a laconic quip issuing forth from the mouth of an egoist. As I was saying it, I realized that the friend to whom I said it…did…not…share my perspective. He did not find it implausible that our friend had actually meant what he said, that he actually did lead a “quiet life of desperation.” I immediately realized this, and sort of hoped that he would attribute a different meaning (the former, if you recall it) to my words than the one that I had intended (the latter — I’ve said it twice, now).
He sort of did, and I sort of backpedaled: “Yeah, I guess it just goes to show that you…don’t necessarily know what’s going on with everyone else,” I offered, platitudinously. “Everyone could be fighting a battle that you’re unaware of.”
Which, of course, is true. I had always accepted that this was true. You know, in the subjunctive mood: “Every person you know could be fighting a battle that you’re unaware of.” But by believing this, I never had to assume that everyone I knew was fighting a battle — just that they could be. Thus, I didn’t feel obligated to be charitable — either actively, or by listening with simple credulity — towards each person I met (to say nothing of my dearest friends), because they were fighting a battle. Period. No, I could hold my charity close to the vest. You know, in check. I think, though, that charity held in check is, you know…not charity.
It’s worse, though: it’s not that I failed to recognize a requirement (i.e., obligation) — far from feeling obligated, if I think about it, I didn’t even want to be charitable. Not if someone was about to creep onto my rarefied territory of “how miserable I’ve been.” In such a case I would (and, lamentably, will again, I’m sure, dammit) defend the uniqueness of my suffering in all of its shitty glory. I’m going to wait for your lips to stop moving so I can remind you of my four-wisdom-tooth-tale. Because I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man. I think my liver is diseased, etc.
This combination of failure and refusal to believe others when they relate their experiences of suffering is a deadly form of pride. It is a denial of the personhood of one’s neighbor, for it is nothing less than the refusal to look upon him as a Thou, and not merely an It or an Other. But then if he is not a Thou to me, then I am not an I.
We are all made of dust, yet for some reason I have been able to disbelieve my friend and brother when he says that he, too, tastes the bitterness of our mortal frame in his mouth, when he says that he’s aware of that thing which all men can’t not know, which I have tried to regard as privileged knowledge. Mine. My own. My precious.
Why? Because hell is exclusive. It’s the ultimate hipster bar. There’s only room enough for the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. Because although its gates can only be opened from the outside, they are locked from the inside by its sole occupant. Sartre said, infamously, “Hell is other people.” Well, I think hell is just…yourself. Actualized.
Are we not all made from the same motes of bitter dust? Does not Holy Scripture say that no temptation, including the temptation to succumb to despair, overtakes anyman but that which is common to all men?
We are. It does.
So much for exclusivity. And it’s a good thing, too.