A final thought: sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? It should be noted that an equally dangerous joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.
The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.
…In either hand the hastening Angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain; then disappeared.
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
We need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.
I wanted to be the wise one, when you were wise, and the suffering one, when you suffered, because it seemed to me that if you took every good thing, there wouldn’t be enough to go around, and you’d take all the light in the room with you to the next, leaving only shadows behind while I was too afraid to go to sleep —
You were rewarded for being good. You got what you wanted: the embraces, the conflict to mold you, the people to turn you around in circles blindfolded ‘til you tripped, heavy-limbed, into the fragrant night and into choice, into right choices, choices that led you to more loving arms —
And I thought, if this is the price, can I pay it? Can’t I receive what I want by believing I’ve never had it? When I’ve asked for bread, I’ve had stones? — No. I was nourished in the wilderness by unfamiliar feasts.
Should I make the right choices and get what I need? Or the wrong ones to get what I want?
It gets dark so quickly in the winter. When the fire goes out, we fumble around in the yard, turning over chairs and empty flowerpots. We grasp hands of those we don’t know, take steps in disoriented directions, and hope for the best. There is a door somewhere leading to warmth. There is a glass of water half full by the bed, a lamp to cast golden light on the page.
There is possibility —
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.