On a hot Sunday afternoon, I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating watermelon and reading a magazine, absorbed in a review of a book about a doctor who was badly hurt climbing a mountain, almost losing his leg.
The book, A Leg To Stand On by Oliver Sacks, is a meditation on what it means to be a seriously injured patient from the viewpoint of a doctor. By turns afraid, despondent, bewildered by his treatment, appalled by the insensitivity of his own physician, Sacks eventually overcomes his depression and regains considerable use of his leg. What struck me was the author’s ability to take something valuable from his experience:
“I felt that a profound crisis had occurred in my life and that from now on, I would be profoundly and permanently transformed. . . . I would see life, all being, as the most precious of gifts.”
This is, of course, an ambitious resolve. I’m wary of declarations that begin “from now on,” having broken so many of them myself. Still, I found the depth of Sacks’s gratitude moving: to be humble in the face of change, thankful for life itself, is what we all strive for, isn’t it? But how hard it is to be thankful, really thankful — not only for what life takes from us but, even more perplexingly, for what we’re given. Have I ever cherished anything so much as after I’ve lost it — my health, someone else’s familiar presence, the predictable, slightly boring drive to work in a car that predictably started? How come I need to put on the dark glasses of misfortune to be able to look directly at life’s gifts?
This is what I was thinking as I put aside the magazine and carried a bowl full of watermelon rinds out to the compost pile. It was a beautiful, sultry day, the air thick, the ground wet and spongy after a heavy rain. I’d eaten too much watermelon — I always do — but my step still felt light and sure, my legs, both legs thank God, wonderfully strong. I don’t climb mountains; running is my ritual, challenging me physically and buoying me emotionally. How I love, even when I hate, my morning run! The image of Oliver Sacks, lying at the bottom of a cliff, his left leg twisted grotesquely beneath him, his body in such pain as he’d “never, ever known,” sent a little chill through me, a comforting shiver of gratitude.
Yet, I thought, as I tossed the rinds on the compost pile and headed back to the house, this kind of gratitude — comparing myself to someone less fortunate — had a dull Sunday ring to it. Was it any less mawkish than the telethons that trivialize suffering in precisely the same way that travel posters trivialize beauty, by turning life into a compelling image, an ad, a lie? What do we know, anyway, about another’s suffering, except that it is unique and thus not very compelling unless we know the person intimately. And even then, what do we really know? Do we want to know? Or do we want, instead, to glimpse someone else’s misery as if it were a circus mirror crudely distorting our own self-image, merely so we can say, “Thank God that’s not me.”
Even the simple reminder to “count your blessings” can be self-serving when it’s preached by a parent or a teacher or a President. Be thankful for what you have, we’re told, instead of questioning someone else’s fairness or sincerity or wisdom. It’s the oldest ploy to keep the slaves in line, whether they’re wives or kids or cotton-pickers under a blazing sun. Be thankful for the little things, because someone else has got the big ones under lock and key.
And so my thoughts drifted, carrying me farther and farther from Oliver Sacks and his simple gratitude, as I arrived back at the house, absentmindedly reached for the door, and jammed my big toe against the stairs.
My yelp was pure animal before it turned into obscene rage. I knew I was being reminded of something, but I didn’t know what, and, as my toe was still throbbing, I didn’t much care. Hadn’t I already thanked God for my two good legs? Was I supposed to thank Him for the goddamned stairs?
By the next day, I’d forgotten about the incident, as well as about Oliver Sacks and my meandering thoughts. I was back at my desk, extravagantly busy, too preoccupied to be thinking about gratitude; indeed I was too preoccupied to think. (Mostly, I think when I write, which may be why I write. To come out from behind myself, to explain who I am so that I’m hearing it too, is useful. I learn something — but only so much. The words are always masks, behind which we breathe darkly — like life itself, always disguised, speaking to us in the language of events, of “things” that “happen to us.” And when we look behind the mask of events, we’re always surprised.)
That night, I hurt my leg again.
I was warming up for karate. I’d started taking the class to deal with my fear of being beaten up, but I learned that the martial arts aren’t merely about fighting, and I continue for other reasons — to experience the power that comes from focused attention; to endure the discipline of practicing the same movement over and over, repetition after boring repetition, until I get it right; to make it through the rigorous hour-and-a-half workout with trembling muscles and a heaving chest and a mind a little clearer than when I came in. My body, called out of semi-retirement, is still aghast at what’s asked of it, and once or twice has gone on strike, setting up a picket line I couldn’t ignore. So now I make sure to stretch before we start.
Someone new in the class asked if I wanted to do two-man stretching. I wasn’t sure what he meant but I said OK, which I immediately regretted. He had me stand against the wall and grasped one of my legs, instructing me, as he started to raise it, to tell him when to stop. When the muscles seemed fully extended, and started to burn, I motioned for him to let go, which he ignored; then I said, “Stop,” apparently without enough emphasis. He told me it “had to hurt” to do any good, and then pulled my leg higher. Since he’d had previous martial arts training, and since I didn’t want to seem like a sissy, and since he wasn’t listening anyway, I endured the pain a while longer, while the nerves along my muscles shouted insults to my brain and my brain searched frantically for a synonym for “stop.” Finally, I glowered at him and snarled, “That’s enough.” He smiied and let go and cheerily started in on my other leg.
I was dismayed that I was giving control of my body to someone I neither knew nor trusted, but I let him go on. Was I really more cowardly about being perceived as a coward than I was about the pain? How many indignities we suffer because of embarrassment — afraid to laugh, to cry, to fart, to ask what a word means, to tell someone we need to be held, to say leave me alone.
We got done with the leg raises, then sat spread-eagled across from each other, feet touching. He reached for my hands and started pulling me toward him, so as to stretch the muscles in my thigh. He pulled more, a little more. My sudden yell stunned both of us, sharp as the pain that tore through me. He let go immediately but the damage had been done: the tendon that ran the length of my thigh had been frayed like an old rope yanked on too hard. For the next few days, I walked with a limp: karate was out of the question, as was running, as was making love without stifling a cry every time I turned the wrong way.
I’d like to say that these experiences made me as grateful as Oliver Sacks, but they didn’t. Thinking about gratitude isn’t the same as feeling it; pulling myself up by my spiritual bootstraps has never worked. I know that in the deepest sense, suffering and grace and the same — which is to say, everything that disillusions us and causes us pain also frees us from illusion — but I rarely remember that when I’m suffering. There are moments when I’m thankful for everything I’ve been through, but they’re few and far between, like railway stations that loom out of the night on a long journey through darkness.
I can’t predict these moments; sometimes they’re evoked by great joys or great tragedies, sometimes by small ironies. Last March a friend — one of the more genuinely grateful people I know — gave me a gift of money for my birthday. I paused before spending it on a new pair of running shoes because he’s been in a wheelchair for the past twenty years and the irony was painful. On my first run with those shoes, I imagined I was running for both of us.
A week after hurting myself in karate, I was camping with my wife and children in the North Carolina mountains. It had started to rain just as we finished dinner and we were huddled in the tent. Norma was reading the children a bedtime story while I was curled up in the corner with a novel I wanted to finish.
The book, The Last Of The Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart, was a heart-wrenching saga of the Jews, part history and part fiction. (The title derives from the legend of the Just Men, indistinguishable from ordinary humans, but upon whom the suffering of the world reposes: “They are the hearts of the world multiplied and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.”) The book, which tells the story of Ernie Levy by beginning nearly one thousand years before his birth, ends with his death in the gas chamber — a scene of unbearable poignancy which bore down on me like a clamorous crowd, driven by grief too great to bear, sweeping me along in its shame and sorrows.
“His eyes still closed, he felt the press of the last parcels of flesh that the S.S. men were clubbing into the gas chamber now, and his eyes still closed, he knew that the lights had been extinguished on the living, on the hundreds of Jewish women suddenly shrieking in terror, on the old men whose prayers rose immediately and grew stronger, on the martyred children, who were rediscovering in their last agonies the fresh innocence of yesteryear’s agonies in a chorus of identical exclamations: “Mama! But I was a good boy! It’s dark! It’s dark!”
It had started raining harder. The tent was leaking, there was lightning nearby, and the children were frightened. I set the book down, comforted them, helplessly checked the tent’s seams, wondered how wet we’d get making a dash for the car and a motel.
“And when the first waves of Cyclon B gas billowed among the sweating bodies, drifting down toward the squirming carpet of children’s heads, Ernie freed himself from the girl’s mute embrace and leaned out into the darkness toward the children invisible even at his knees, and he shouted with all the gentleness and all the strength of his soul, ‘Breathe deeply, my lambs, and quickly.’ ”
And what I did, as I wept, was cheap and forgiveable — comparing the enormity of this suffering to our little drama, being thankful that all I had to worry about was the rain. But later that night, when the thunder woke me and I felt water dripping on my face, and heard the children crying, I’d forgotten about Ernie Levy, and all I was thankful for was that in a few hours the night would end.