August 14, 2005

May I show an affirming flame?

I did a good thing once. It might, on reflection, be the only good thing I've ever managed to do: the only good thing of real substance that I've ever managed to do.

I used to think it would be otherwise. I was very clear about it: my life had purpose, and that purpose was to do good. But it never happened quite like that. It never happened anything like that. Of course: whatever it is, if it matters that you should do it, it will matter to someone else that you should not. And, at the same time, if it is up to you to act, it is either because nobody else will do so or because nobody else believes they should. When you are young, you ask why no-one else can see that something must be done. So, if you are anything, you try to do something yourself. But after you have failed, failed enough times, you end up thinking, as a reflex, as a habit: if everybody else can see what I can see, there has to be a reason why they leave it as it is. And chances are there is no reason, save that it be hard. But being hard is a most convincing argument. You cannot spend your whole life trying to break rocks.

So the harder it is to do what's right, the less rewarding it will be to persevere in trying - and even if you do, the more ambiguous will be the outcome. The more unclear it will be that there is any such thing as outcomes, that there is any point - other than death, when it will be too late - where you can blow a whistle, call "time" and ask your contribution to be measured and found good. So the less sure you can ever be that anything was achieved: the less sure you can ever be that anything ever is achieved. You cannot just do good. Sometimes I think you cannot really do good at all. But I did a good thing once. Even if it was the only good thing I've ever done.

It was four years ago, or more like four years and a half. It was in Newcastle, where I lived for a few months in a house in High Heaton, a shortish bus ride, or a slightly longer walk. Along the coast road from the city centre. If you chose to walk, you'd cross Jesmond Vale by walking across Armstrong Bridge, with Jesmond Dene visible to you on your left and the trees of Armstrong Park below you on your right.

It was a shared house (from which, as it happened, I was later evicted in dramatic circumstances) in which I spent the second "half" of my extended year at college. I was finishing the library qualification which I had aborted, through illness, halfway through the previous academic year. Having managed to survive the months that followed I returned to Newcastle: in the first place, to try and finish my Masters and in the second place, while I did so, to try and hold myself together.

In the end - if, as I say, there are "ends" - I managed both, if only for the want of rational alternatives. If only because having lived through the alternatives, I was exhausted by them, too exhausted to be able to think about exhaustion. When I used to run cross-country, when I was at school, I would keep going and keep going until I had crossed the line: it was only when I stopped, collapsing on the grass bank a few yards beyond the finish, that I had the time to notice that I couldn't possibly go on.

So it was, when I was back in Newcastle. There was a line - the completion of the course - and while I was running towards it there was nothing I could do but keep on running. (After that, there were other lines - a job, finding a home, and others small and large, so that the moment to stop running never came, and I am running still.) So it was, when I was back in Newcastle.

But it wasn't quite like that. I was aware that it was possible to stop. I thought about it. I thought about what it meant, and what it meant to be in possession of that knowledge. From experience comes knowledge, and from combining, wisdom: but the most important wisdom you can have is gained from knowledge and experience that other people do not want to have. To have returned from places where people do not want to go, that brings a wisdom that they cannot have, even if it springs from knowledge that you do not want.

I kept on running: I kept on walking up the road from Newcastle, across the bridge and up to a shared house in High Heaton. Soon after moving in, when the other tenant was evicted for assault, I had it on my own for a week or two. But after that, other tenants came and went, and there were always at least two of us in the house. I rowed with some, got on with others, more of the former than the latter. Where possible I tried to avoid them, to pretend that they weren't there, and sometimes they did much the same, and as quietly as we were able, we mutually kept ourselves to ourselves. Sometimes, there was quiet. There was peace, even if there was not peace of mind. There was quiet enough to hear the disquiet of others.

One evening, in the quiet, I heard sobbing. Not desperate sobbing, uncontrollable, with gulps and gasps of breath and howls. (I had cried enough, myself, in the previous couple of years, that I could practically distinguish and identify tears and the noises that accompany them in much the same way as a biologist distinguishes a subspecies. It was my specialist subject. I considered myself an authority.) It was coming from L's room, L being maybe fifteen years younger than me and generally as quiet as the sobs themselves. I do not think we had ever talked, before then: it may be that the sobs were the first that I had ever heard from her.

I listened to them, as I came out of my room. They were not loud, they were not wrenching, curdled sobs, but they were deep and they were not temporary. It was the way one cries when one is used to crying, when one cries regularly as if observing prayer, as an involuntary duty. One cries, without drawing attention to oneself, one finishes, and at another time, it starts again. It is, at least, a most unobtrusive way to cry. In its unobtrusiveness lies in danger, because it is so easy to overlook. It is so easy not to hear. It is just as easy to hear, and to stay silent, and for good reason, too, because there is nothing you can say to make it stop. Because, you tell yourself, whoever is crying wants to be left alone. And so they do: the two things in their life that they want most of all are to be left alone, and not to be left alone. You hear their tears, they hear your footfall. They hear you stop, you hear them carry on. It is, after all the quietest of noises. You were not meant to hear. They do not stop: they hear you carry on.

But, knowing how deceptive was that quiet, knowing how heavy a burden came from so light a noise, knowing what that quiet meant, I stopped. I called out to L. I did not ask whether she was all right, to which she could only have given the absolving answer that she was, allowing me to go about my business. You cannot ask a question that insists upon a lie. Instead, I told her the only thing I could that was of any help. I told her that when she was ready, I would be downstairs for her to talk to. So I went downstairs, and presently, when she was ready, she came down too, and talked.

I don't remember most of what she said, and not just because of the passage of time. I remember that she said that she was desperate, that she had tried to kill herself three times in the year gone past. I remember too that she said that every time she walked over Armstrong Bridge, she wanted to throw herself off. I remember that. But most of it, I have forgotten. Most of it was not important: the details were not important, or it was only important to listen to them, rather than to grapple with them and try to put them right. Look at it another way, that is what people tell you when you are desperate, as L was desperate, and the effect of that is generally to make that desperation worse. Because you can't, you cannot simply see things differently, and if you could you would not be sobbing in your room and wishing that either you, or the world about you, would permanently stop.

You cannot simply see things differently because desperation is not a function of the way you look at things. You do not add up your feelings like arithmetic and come to an answer that means desperation. You have your feelings. If you could simply control them or instruct them to be otherwise, does anybody think, dear God, does anybody think for a single minute that you would not have made them otherwise a thousand times?

But they do. Apparently they do. And you have to tell them that it isn't so, and have them disbelieve you, and you have to do that over and again. And you have to do that every time and it makes your desperation worse, far worse: because either you are sane and everyone is mad, or everyone else is sane and you are mad. Either way, you are on your own, and desperation is the knowledge of being on your own.

I knew that. That was the wisdom gained from knowledge of forbidden, fearful places. That was the precious, dreadful thing I knew, that other people did not know. Knowing that, I knew not to put L through the repeated torture of telling her that it wasn't so bad, really, if only she'd look at it another way. I knew that the very opposite was true. That it was so bad, that it was bad whichever way she looked at it. That it was bad enough to cripple and destroy her: and that to tell her otherwise could only intensify that process.

But I knew something else as well. Knowledge, on its own, is purposeless. It is merely a pile, stored up to serve and illustrate our own conceit. That is something I learned at Oxford, where knowledge served mostly to allow the holders of that knowledge to claim superiority over the fellow human beings. Knowledge must serve: knowledge must serve humanity. For knowledge to be wisdom, knowledge must be shared. Knowledge says, dominus illuminatio mea, but wisdom replies, we must love one another or die.

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

No-one exists alone. No-one, and no-one can. That much is knowledge. To make somebody who feels abandoned, feel they do not exist alone, to know how that is done - that much is wisdom. So I said to L, said it because it was right to say it, but said it also because it was true, that she did not, in fact, want to throw herself off the bridge. She did not, in fact, want to die, because if she did, she would have done so. The only thing stopping her throwing herself off Armstrong Bridge was that there was something stopping her, and that thing was that - however weak the impulse, however desperate and last-ditch and doomed the struggle, she wanted to live. What made her so desperate was very her desperation to live. You do not want to die, I said. That is why you feel the way you do.

Had it been a lie, its effect would not have lasted long, not long beyond the ending of our conversation. But because it was true, it lasted longer. It wasn't an appeal for her to change her perspective. It was an attempt to have her understand what her perspective was. It was the opposite of self-deception - it was self-knowledge, wisdom, therefore of the most important kind.

We must love one another or die. And as it turned out, L did not die. I had to look after her a little, in the following weeks, making sure she ate, when she was unable to want to eat, making sure, a couple of times, that I cooked more than enough for myself so that I could quietly, unobtrusively fill a plate for her as well. It was the most practical of knowledge. Nobody feels so bad when they have a hot meal inside them.

I don't suppose the sobbing stopped at once, or for a while, or easily. Or will ever stop for L entirely. But, just as I got through, and survived, and moved on, so did L. She survived. She started to live. I helped to make that life. Beleaguered by the same negation and despair, I helped to make that life.

She lives in Holland now. She, and another life within her, another life tonight. Some weeks ago, L emailed me to say that she was pregnant: on Friday I called her and when we spoke, for the first time in four years, she said that the birth was likely to be on Sunday, which day it is today. New life, within the life I think I helped to save. She said, as she could only say, that it would change everything in her life, forever, and I said it surely would. Another life would be hers, would depend on hers, and every thought and movement in her life from now on would be with that other life in mind. I said, too, that this would give her life not only change but meaning. A sense of worth that she had never had before. Nothing can makes us feel worth, more than the feeling that another life depends on ours. We must love one another or die.

I have tried so hard, in my life, to feel worth, and tried to feel that worth by trying to do good, to do what I thought was right. My experience is that you cannot feel worth that way. All you feel is confusion, disappointment and the alienation from your fellows that comes from strife and argument. But one time, I think that I succeeded in doing good, one time at least. I feel like Tom Joad, seeing the mother and her child at the end of The Grapes of Wrath: here, at least, amid all the hopelessness, in new life there is hope. New hope that grew out of hope extended, hope that grew out of a hand extended in a room in High Heaton more than four years ago. I have, if only once, done good. May I show an affirming flame?


At August 16, 2005 10:16 am, Anonymous CP said...

I once tried to help an old lady across a road. She fell down the kerb and had to go to hospital.
It is not easy to put oneself on the line and offer to help sometimes due to a fear of making the situation worse.
An acquaintance once gave me her number to get in contact. I never rang and then I heard she had committed suicide.
I will never know if a call to her would have changed the sequence of events in her life.
L was lucky you were there.
Don't forget to coo over the baby pictures.
That eviction of yours sounds interesting if you want to share it!

At September 01, 2005 9:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At October 25, 2005 12:53 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is an absolutely beautiful piece of writing, Justin.

At February 08, 2006 9:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across this while googling for something else: a serendipitous blessing. I was really moved by your story.
A small housekeeping note. The link from "we must love..." is dead.

At February 09, 2006 9:35 am, Blogger ejh said...

It is replaced.

At December 13, 2008 11:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This still makes me cry. 'L' x


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