Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pain and Suffering (the usual)

"Probitas laudatur et alget."--Juvenal Satires I 74
Virtue is praised, and it starves.

I've been in a dark, dark place for a while. Last Wednesday, before I found out that I had $88 to last until September 30th, I was faced with a choice: do I tell my first year students about 9/11 or not? If I do, then I'll have to go there. If I do not, then they may have no idea that their entire world was created out of an act of instinct rather than thought. As I have before, I chose to go. My thinking is that I may be the only person who lived through the two months that were "9/11" in New York City that these people will ever meet, and, if I do not tell them, they will never know.

I began, therefore, with the day. I have written about it before -- how the sky was more perfectly china plate blue than any sky I have ever seen in any place, how the temperature was the sort of chill that teases at one's senses like a lover, enticing and exhilarating at the same time, how the air was so clear that it was possible to see all the way from 90th street to the end of the island, how sparkles appeared on the painted steel lines, how sky scrapers popped one by one across the edge of the window frame on the #6 train. It was a day when even I wanted to play hookey, and I was a) new on the job, b) never skip. (I've taught with high fevers, with tubes running into my bile duct, and once while hungover.) I told them how a full house in the WTC would have meant up to 40,000 dead, so God (or random meterology) saved a lot of lives, because a whole ton of folks went in late.

I told them how, at 10:30, I went on my religious pilgrimage to the bodega for a bowtie donut and a cup of coffee. "You guys will learn that I am very religious," I said, "about lunch." I told them that I gazed down the vast hill and saw a snuffed candle and didn't know what I was seeing. I told them how we knew that we had orphans in front of us, that we were teaching children who had no parents, but we had to be cheerful and normal. Teachers whose own children worked in the towers had to show no signs of concern.

Then I told them about the young woman. I said that she was very attractive, and they seemed puzzled, so I had to add, "I'm a heterosexual man. I'm going to notice. You may think I'm old, but I'm not dead." I told them that she confirmed that people had jumped from the towers. She was filthy, and on 9/11 I silently upbraided her for it in my mind. I now know that it was the 120 mph dust cloud that made her dirty. She had said to me and another stranger, "I was in Liberty Plaza. I was where the bodies landed." I mentioned to the students that, all her life, she would have to deal with seeing people alive, falling, and then, in a fraction of a second, dead.

"What a jovial and a merry world would this be, may it please your worships,
but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief,
discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!"--Sterne
The people who saw 9/11 on their televisions received a different thing. They felt pain. We humans have only had movies and television a very, very short while, and we neither evolved nor were made with these technologies. If you see or hear a person get injured, you immediately wish to respond. This is human. Despite those people who say that we are all indifferent to one another and out to line our own pockets (shouldn't someone who says that be placed on a malarial island somewhere?), the fact is that we're pretty social. The sound of babies crying is used as a torture. We can't watch or hear another person get hurt without wanting to react to it, to make things better.

Out in America, and perhaps the world, people saw the planes hit the towers, heard the firemen calling for help, saw the towers fall, and then saw it all again and again and again. However, they could do nothing . . . nothing at all, to help. There was no "donate money here" button on the screen.

Television presenters are accustomed to narratives, to stories, and they told 9/11 through a narrative structure. Before the afternoon had come, they were saying who did it and going on to "Why do they hate us?" By the next day, the television news had a complete arc: "They hate us because of our freedom, and they struck us to take our freedom, and now the sleeping giant will get them for what they did."

When you feel pain and cannot respond, pain leads to frustration, and frustration leads to anger. People lined up to enlist in the armed forces. They were angry. W. Bush played on that anger. He might even have genuinely felt it for all I know. The fact is that watching a huge amount of pain delivered and being unable to anything to, about, or for the situation is going to make anyone angry. This is extremely potent stuff for the amygdala of anyone.

In New York City, however, we did not see it. Even the people who were at Liberty Plaza could not have seen it without incredibly bad luck. Had they seen one impact, they'd not have seen the other. Had they seen both, they'd not be standing there to see the collapses. Had they seen the collapses, they'd not have seen the ash and debris cloud. Instead, everyone heard the part that directly affected the individual. The people in New York City knew less about what was going on than the least attentive viewer in Hawaii.

Whatever we saw, heard, or felt, we responded. We had no choice but to respond. If we wished to, we could go down to the pile and volunteer, too. Many civilians volunteered on the first and second day. Even people in the outer boroughs, though, had to respond to the attack, because all had to get food. No trucks were allowed across the river. We had to get transportation. We had to find out if the people we knew were lost or had lost people.

Also, 9/11 never stopped for us. It played all night, each morning, all day, every day. The ash floated down for days. The smoke blew for over a month.

New Yorkers had an a) unrelenting, b) unexplainable, c) irreducible, d) meaningless and constant suffering. Pain makes you act. If a person has pain and cannot remedy it, the person feels anger. Suffering is otherwise. Suffering will not listen to anyone saying, "They hate us because of our freedoms." Aside from that statement being irrational, the statement is entirely non-ameliorative. No one and no thing is made better by understanding that someone hates us for freedom. If the fires burn today and will tomorrow, it does not matter. Furthermore, there is no "make them pay for this." Not only did "the evil men who did this" already "pay" for what they did (they were in the pile), but the fire would burn tomorrow just the same, whether some Afghanistani village were blown up or not.

Suffering is knowing that the air is harmful and that it will be that way for a month. It is seeing ash-covered bicycles being discovered long after the event. It is men with submachine guns suddenly showing up in the subway station to "reassure" us! Suffering teaches no lessons. Suffering has no meaning. Suffering is not sent or received.

Job is the greatest book about suffering ever written. Job does not learn anything, precisely. However, Job grows as a soul in the course of his suffering. You and I are not Job. At the apogee of his growth, Job is able to say, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." He is not happy with the giving or the taking, but rather saying that the power is God's and that God remains good irrespective of which act is involved or how it affects us. He is not, I think, saying what Leibnitz says -- that what is painful or bad to a human is good in the grand scheme of things -- but rather that however giving or taking treats the happiness of a person is incapable of lessening God's glory and goodness.

To arrive at a conclusion like that and not be a quietist or defeatist, to keep insisting that he will not confess a false sin, nor lose faith, Job's soul is truly great. There is no lesson, though. Had Job not reached that wisdom, the suffering would have been the same, and coming to the understanding doesn't make the boils drop off.

If you are punched in the arm, you will want to match aggression for aggression, but if you suffer, you won't think that more suffering will help. I think about a bomb or missile that blows up a building and kills four or five innocents but also kills the most lethal terrorist. The village will neither know nor care about the military value of killing this aggressor, but it will know suffering, as it has to have funerals, tend to orphaned children, live with seeing that flash of light and the flicker between life and death. It will have to repair a building, constantly aware that here was where this or that man died. This is why it was hard for those of us who went through 9/11 to agree with the Bush administration's need to go "get" the bad guys.

On the other hand, for those who felt the pain and frustration and, honestly, impotence, of seeing that much pain without redress, a vast act of aggression was on the cards. The nation's instinct was pushing, and that allowed for politicians with dark ambitions and black hearts to get passed unthinkable laws and to reverse America's position on human rights without a discussion, much less a vote, even less a judicial review.

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