Author Rebecca Solnit wrote in Hope in the Dark,
“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”
In this quote, this painfully perceptive writer captures the honest human experience of being alive during a year like 2020. She also captures my honest experience of being alive right now.
Being alive is accepting the duality of existence. Artist Maira Kalman said,
“We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”
This, of course, reminds me of one of my favorite theatrical lines of all time, written by Samuel Beckett, from his play Waiting for Godot:
“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
The existential reversal in this character is so quick, so seamless that he is only given a comma as punctuation. These two extremes exist in the same sentence. That’s no accident on the writer’s part.
Do we go so quickly from despair to resolve, and how much of that is...normal? How do we survive it, knowing the other side is coming and, although it is the polar opposite of our current state it is visible and intimate as if separated only by a thin gauze?
Grief is constant compromise. Grief is moving forward when a pure, innocent child inside of you is yelling and objecting. You, in pure form: a child, at the front of the picket line. Of course you object. Going on without Daddy goes against every moral fiber in your being; everything you’ve been taught about who you are and what the world is. You haven’t learned anything yet about the gray pauses a still afternoon will bring. You can’t imagine the mornings that are thick and unforgiving like blocks of ice. You haven’t a minute to give to nostalgia that promises to pin meaning on pain only to hand you sobriety once again.
The child learns to compromise. The child learns that the only way to be ‘pure’ is not live. So, to live, to go on and to put one foot in front of the other in the wake of loss is to accept compromise as an intrinsic part of your daily experience.
How do we accept that compromise, though, without letting it...compromise us? How do we accept that tragedy compromises us yet not surrender everything in defeat?
In other words, when are we victim and when do we have agency? If that child had to be told to stop picketing, how can we re-learn that our actions matter?
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote,
“Tragedy asks us... to walk a delicate line. We are to acknowledge that life’s miseries strike deep, striking to the heart of human agency itself. And yet we are also to insist that they do not remove humanity, that the capacity for goodness remains when all else has been removed.”
Compromise is not just moving forward after loss. Compromise is holding two things in your hand at once - your life, and someone else’s loss of life. Your existence, and the terrible desire to object to its conditions. Understanding the insidious invisible roots of trauma, planted in one’s life at no fault of their own, and letting that be the very fuel to keep going. Knowing unending pain and setting out to soothe it in others. Knowing there is no Balm in Gilead, and sensing that is why you must become it.