Yesterday I thought I saw a former student walking towards me on 14th Street. I felt a grin spread across my face and nearly called out to say hello. And then I remembered.
That student passed away earlier this year. She was shot.
The stranger came closer and I realized they hardly resembled each other. I turned my head away. No one looks too long in New York.
Early last week my mum called to tell me that a dear friend of my sister’s had died. Drug overdose.
I was on the train home when she called and I had nothing to say. After staring out the window in silence for a few stops without seeing any of the stations, I called a friend and asked for help. He told me, There’s nothing to say.
On Friday, I had a conversation with a student, a rabbi’s son, about what happens when God isn’t there or isn’t listening. This child is suffering and doesn’t know why God can’t hear him. He suggested that maybe God has grown too old, too frail, and is now incapable of doing all that God used to do to intervene in the lives of everyday people and propel the world towards a higher plan. My student mentioned that he thought people who believe in God are less likely to commit suicide than people who don’t. Why? I asked. Because even if you can’t live for yourself, you can live for God, he explained. Statistically, I think he’s right, but I said a few words about mental health and the importance of medication for fixing a sick brain, just like medication fixes a sick body. You mean depression? he asked. I nodded. Yeah, he said, I know about that.
My student asked what I thought about a God who doesn’t listen, and I told him I no longer believe in anything I can’t prove. What about air? he asked. You can’t prove that you breathe air. I cupped my hand in front of my mouth, took an audible breath, and blew into it. Yes, I said, I can.
I asked my student how it felt to think that God really isn’t listening, really isn’t anywhere, and really can’t do anything at all. He wasn’t ready to go there. That’s okay. In times of suffering, it’s helpful to think that someone or something is watching and cares.
This I know because I’ve been there.
What makes you good at what you do? my therapist asked once.
I don’t like the self-promotion part of having a career.
I think that kids just want to be treated like people. I think a lot of adults lose sight of that and I try really hard not to.
Last summer, I read an article on one of my favorite blogs about The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. Shortly thereafter, I read the novel and recommended it to everyone who asked for a good book. I’ve yet to see a more moving portrayal about what it means to live and to love.
The article contains a quote that has been saved on my GoogleKeep ever since. de Botton says,
My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways – and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.
That’s what I’ve been reminded of this week. That we’re all fragile, that life is fragile. That we’re all holding ourselves together to get from one day to the next and that allowing others to simply be, to breathe freely and deeply, is perhaps the greatest act of compassion we can perform for one another. An act in which we merely stand by the sides of those we love, holding their hands when they need it and letting them go when they don’t.
We are all these incredibly fragile beings. This acknowledgment should give us permission to err, to be forgiven, and to grow, both together and apart, as friends, partners, lovers, and just as people.
We are all doing the best that we can. Knowing this means going easy with one another, as de Botton suggests. Understanding and accepting others for who and what they are then comes from a place of genuine care and concern for well-being. It means meeting individuals where they are, not where we think they should be.
You act like there’s no one left
Alive in the whole city
Well maybe the end is upon you
And what then?
Here, repeat after me
It goes, I won’t stop loving
I won’t stop loving
You don’t have to be perfect
You don’t have to play well
You don’t have to fix everything
All by yourself
Now don’t laugh ’cause I just might be
The soft curve in your hardline
-“Hardliners,” Holcombe Waller
Whoever you are, whatever you need, I will go easy on you. You’re safe here.