Stiller’s reaction to Fingarette’s video and my comments in this blog’s previous post have cleared up something of a mystery for me about Thoreau that has troubled me for the longest time. You can search his vast oeuvre in vain for any comment (as far as I am aware, anyway) about life’s meaninglessness even during times of great personal tragedy—the death of his dear brother and his own decline and death from TB. I used to wonder how that could be. Was he stonewalling, oblivious, or what? He was obviously too smart not to have been aware of the subject.
And while the custom of the day seems to have been not to display deep personal feelings in public including by way of the written word, Stiller’s comments show what must have been really going on. It was almost a nonissue because, for him, meaninglessness was simply a metaphysical fact of existence—again, in Stiller’s example, like gravity.
However, as foreign to my sensibilities as this outlook is, I should have known it was valid from seeing how my wife dealt with the prospect and reality her death during a two year struggle with cancer that can only be characterized as heroic. Except for one—and only one—time did she ever utter anything close to a “woe is me” note of despair, and even that one instance was more about disappointment verging on anger rather than lament. It’s not that she didn’t feel sad as much as recognize that she had simply been dealt a bad hand. She chose to play it out the best she could rather than throw in her cards.
It nearly broke her heart to have to give up teaching high school math and the students she loved, but during the time she had left, she took up quilting, assembled a cookbook of all her recipes, tutored math, and organized all the photos of our family we’d accumulated over our 34 years of marriage. About a year into her illness rounds of successful chemo allowed a respite in which she helped in planning our daughter Jennifer’s wedding with typical mother-of-the-bride pride and energy. Until a week before her passing she was actively engaged in planning a family vacation to the North Carolina shore. Even during her very last days, as the cancer finally overtook her and she slipped into a coma, she complained only about the considerable pain, never her fate. She was a hero to me, our three kids, and, really, to everyone who knew her in any depth.
I write in such detail to show that how we feel about life and death can be about more than the cold objective facts of physical existence, but affect us personally and have an outsized impact on how we view the topic of meaning. I don’t think it’s wholly unreasonable to view our inevitable end with something stronger than disappointment or philosophical detachment. Characterizing it as “horror” might be excessive, I admit, but, still, I maintain it is extremely hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you know that the next step could well be off the edge of a cliff! Is intrinsic meaning sufficient to sustain us and if not, what do we do about it? This is the conundrum my essay (previously posted on this blog) was in large part about and what Fingarette struggled with during his decline …
As I conclude these comments I cannot help but feel dissatisfied—with the facts and how I naturally seem to react to them and mistakenly assumed everyone else does as well. I somehow thought my wife Jan’s strength of outlook was an aberration. Putting two and two together in terms of Thoreau’s likely and Stiller’s actual take, I see it is not.
I think what I’m saying is that it’s not that I don’t accept the universe’s indifference to human concerns as much as I don’t like it. It’s a visceral sort of thing that seems almost beyond reason. I don’t like not being in full control and, even more, I don’t like appearing illogical and weak. Perhaps this dissonance is as much of a metaphysical fact of human existence as gravity and magnetism are of physical existence and is just something we have to live (and die) with. The best of us seem to be able to do it with more grace than others.