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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Keep Going When Everything Sucks and You're All Alone, Anyway?

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Ship, The Endurance

Lately I've been given an opportunity to examine, up close and personal, the age-old question, Why keeping going when everything sucks and you are all alone, anyway?

People who get cancer diagnoses will often say, "I knew I had to stay alive for my children … spouse … parents … my work … "

For whom do spinsters stay alive? I don't have any cats.

I've been remembering a reaction I had to a Holocaust memoir I read some years back.

The author of this particular Holocaust memoir was not in a camp, but bouncing around Europe, joining resistance groups, escaping by the skin of her teeth, hoping for papers to Palestine, hopes not working out. She – this woman on the page – despaired. As I was reading, I found myself insisting, with a furious urgency, "Don't do it. You and I will never meet. But if you can get through this without offing yourself, you will have won a victory for the good side, and for me." Though things never got any better, and even her life after the war turned out pretty sucky, she didn't give in to her despair, she did go on, and somehow, I felt strengthened, nourished, and vindicated.

I've never met this woman. I can't even remember her name or the name of her memoir. Obviously it was not one of the famous Holocaust memoirs. She can never know that I read her book.

But I had this sense, while reading her story, that her story and my story were different chapters in the same, big story. That by living through the crap she lived through, she advanced, not just her own life, but the human story.

This inkling is obviously not rational, not grounded in material reality. Material reality tells us that we are only connected by our senses. We can only be connected to those we hear, see, smell, touch, or taste. I can be inspired by the survivor's story, but the human story is not advanced in any way. Similarly, as I struggle alone, I'm not contributing to anyone else's struggle. The Dark Side – whatever it is – is not lessened when some anonymous nobody, unseen by any witness, unrecorded by any scribe, not televised by any reality show – decides to take up the burden of another, lousy day, and to smile, and to be kind.

Darwin tells us that we support players on our own genetic team. We urge on people who look like us because we want our own DNA to win food, territory, money, power.

But when it comes to life story, to people struggling against darkness, we humans support across gene pools, across great distances. We urge on even complete strangers: Don't quit. Don't give up. Hang on one more day. We say this to strangers; we say this even to people whom we know well enough not to like.

Certainly people do this while reading news accounts and non-fiction books. And we do this with the internet, too. Hang on. One more day. Don't give up. You are worth something.

We do this to be nice. But the urgency that people exhibit when encouraging others defies mere niceness.

When I was reading that Holocaust memoir and urging on the author, I was not being nice. The author could never know my desire that she kept going.

I think we do believe, somehow, that all we humans are on the same team, and that we do face a common enemy – Satan or Death or Evil or the lack of enlightenment or whatever you want to call it. And that one of our tools in this struggle is story – my life story, your life story. And when we live out our life stories with faith, hope, and love, we advance, not just our own lives, our own stories, but the whole team. That when some anonymous person somewhere on planet earth is brave, that makes it easier for me to be brave.

I think we think this because I've seen, so many times, people who otherwise might seem blasé or callous go out of their way to encourage strangers wrestling with despair. They weren't just being nice. They were urging others on with an urgency that said, "Your decision matters to me. If you face your problems with courage and determination, it will enrich my life."

If nothing else, that human urge to urge each other on, even if we are strangers to each other, defies the conviction of aloneness, of "It doesn't matter what I do because I am alone." Just by being human, we are not alone. We are characters in each other's stories. And we may be writing a communal story.

What a team member does matters to the rest of the team. In this case, anyway, isolation really is an illusion.


  1. Magdalena PaśnikowskaSeptember 25, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    Perfectly put. I have nothing to add.

  2. Beautifully put: we are advancing not just our story, but the human story. Bravo, Danusha!

    (a small objection: please stop using the demeaning word "spinster." You are an extraordinary single woman, and it's time to update your language in recognition of that fact -- about yourself and many other wonderful single women. That, too, would be advancing the human story.)

  3. Ladies, thank you very much for reading and commenting.

    Oriana, I don't have a problem with the word "spinster."

  4. Thanks for a powerful and meaningful reading experience. Danusha, I pray God succors and heals you in every fibre of your body and being.

  5. I haven't read one of your posts in a while, and now I regret it. This is a great post. As a future doctor (hopefully) the whole divide between what can be clearly diagnosed with senses and machines and what is not yet (or possibly ever) visible to our small human minds is something that I have always been firmly aware of.I believe in the value that people's struggles have on other people and its just nice to see someone crystallize in writing what one has always thought.

  6. Thank you for taking on this subject matter so eloquently. Living alone in the world can, for some begin to etch away at our very humanity. I was questioning yet again what on earth my drive could be for today. This beautiful story helped me to get up and join my brothers and sisters for another day of the good fight.
    Thanks for your wonderful insight.

  7. Jon W thank you very much for commenting and God bless you on rejoining your brothers and sisters in the good fight!