Trigger Warning for those struggling with suicidal ideation. If you are I urge you to call a friend and tell them how scared you are. The disorder will tell you not to: don’t listen to it. If you don’t have someone to call then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They help. I swear it.
It comes to the surface every so often. I’ll be strolling along, capturing or being captured by my inner verbal/pictorial dialogue, and there will be a resurgence from my balls to my guts to my chest to my thoughts–from emotional center to intellectual center—and I’ll think, “oh, that’s right, that’s how I feel. I feel like if I sat down now I’d never get up.”
This is my “Water.” In his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College David Foster Wallace, something of a hero to me, and also something of a warning story, starts off by telling the students a parable in which two young fish encounter an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” Wallace uses this story to demonstrate the idea that, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” He then goes on to say this is a banal platitude when stated as a sentence. My water (and if you read the commencement closely, Wallace’s water) is emotion. Unfortunately, every time I stop and wonder how the water feels I’m met by a disturbed thrill. It feels like the underside of bad. It feels like the shallow levels are bright and cheery and when the dark water inevitably bubbles up it reminds me that sometimes I’d rather not be living.
I don’t use that idea lightly. There is a dark streak in me that would rather have me not existing, not necessarily dead; just not existing. I like to think of that thing that keeps humans going as a kind of hum, maybe the warm hum of a machine or computer, the hum of a beehive or the hum of a river or the hum of an uncle as he sits a cold beer on the swinging porch as the sun sets, ready for rest. Nonetheless, a continual linking inside people that chains each moment to the next and keeps them contented between intensities. I see it my father as he contentedly sorts papers and types on the computer. I see it in my students in class when they sit quietly while I read a work sheet to present. I see it in my friends as they work day in and out at jobs I couldn’t. I do not see it in me. I don’t hear it in me. I’m afraid I don’t have it. In fact, I’m not sure I ever did.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things in life that keep me here. I love my family and friends and will fight tooth and nail to keep from hurting them more than I already have. I have bursts of excitement; moments of jouissance that leave me wanting to fill the nearest moleskin with notes or the closest stranger with ideas, but between those moments there often hangs a hollowness that seems to be, well, for now at least, my default state.
In one of the more moving (in an admittedly disturbing fashion) of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy he recounts a line from an old Greek myth, Silenus. In it King Midas is searching for Silenus, Dionysus’ companion. When Midas finally catches Silenus, Silenus turns to him and says, “Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.” I read this as a college freshman and felt soothed. Something dim and frustrated in me was named and gentle nuzzled in the tougher parts of Nietzsche’s writing. This also scared the living hell out of me because it brought a consistent feeling into full view. I remembered being 7 years old and wanted to ride my bike down the driveway into the stonewall at the bottom, and there was a Boy Scout Swiss army knife at 12 and again and again, I was shown in full the dangerous weight of my own internal hum. I knew there was something different in my basic self, or at least was convinced there was a difference.
But ironically, it was reading more Nietzsche that made me understand the flip side of my pessimistic self. In The Gay Science Nietzsche, ever the pessimism defines true grit and from this true passion when he writes:
The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
In my better moments I like to think I live this way, embracing eternal recurrence so that even the hum I don’t have is a moment of celebration just for being. I like to think the constant hurt makes sense due to some primordial philosophy. But maybe I keep going, not out of concerted effort, but because I do have that hum; it’s just set to a different frequency, lower and darker, inaudible like an elephant call, but there, stringing me together. I can’t really be sure.
There’s that old adage that you can’t really love someone else until you love yourself. I say fuck that. I can’t feel my own love but that isn’t going to stop me from loving others. It occurs to me that love might have a whole lot less to do with immediate sensation (though that’s a part of it) and a whole lot more with effort and connection, the willingness to enter the stream of someone else’s hum, to embrace them however they’re able to embrace. Maybe love is in the action of seeking to hold another whether that’s literally or figuratively. Maybe whether or not I feel it or believe it, and whether or not I cringe at the very word, love is a thing that reaches places I can’t, and brings me closer to others in a way I never thought I could be.
For now, that’s the goddamn tune I’m gonna hum.