6/1/20: Distances

I took another walk today: a long one again. Today was, improbably, even more beautiful than yesterday: because usually the weather here follows the opposite arc: the first day of fine weather is the finest, and each subsequent day degrades from there; but instead these last three days moved in reverse, flowering into purer and purer beauty: yesterday and the day before there was some debris of clouds, but today the sky was faultless from end to end, and warmer too, but not too warm, and with one of those light breezes that move like water and feel like they’re made from the same blue aether as the sky.

I saw my dad in the neighborhood, and stopped to talk with him in his driveway. He stood in his barefeet on the driveway, warming evenly in the sunlight. He was eating Total cereal dry out of a bowl that said SLURP on the outside. He threw a flake to Frank, our family dog.

Our conversation was long and it devolved, in that unpleasant sudden way that sometimes happens, into an argument, or a low-key debate.

It started when I said I wanted to leave the country, live somewhere else. And he asked me to list specific ways in which my life would be better if I did that. And it dragged on from there, in such a way that I didn’t realize how long it had gone on, or really even grasp the tenor of the conversation or the stakes, until it was nearly over.

And all my anger, all the reams of resentment folded up like protein inside me, all the thousands of testimonials I’ve accrued about this utterly fucked country, for all the hours I’ve spent fantasizing about having debates with various people (including my dad) and conflagrating them in a curtain fire of righteous fury – all this evaporated, or turned too transparent to use, and I was inarguably inarticulate, loose, confused, scattered.

So it was a defeat, and I’m not even sure how it happened. He made no points, just asked questions, asked for facts and figures I didn’t have. He was utter curriculum, snapping so decisively to rails that have been laid in him for decades. I don’t know where or how the system managed to incorporate such an infallibly complete response program into people but the way he immediately rose to the defense of the structures of power and control was tragic and frightening, even if not unexpected.

In certain circumstances there’s an inevitable distance that builds up in people, a distance that amounts to a kind of complacency, an inner blindness. It can grow in lots of ways. A modicum of material comfort is the obvious way, but other things cause it too. Overmuch sorrow, tragedy, fretting, struggle can cause it. The people in control know these methods of inculcation, and use them all with cruel lancet accuracy. They’ll get you to learn the lesson, either by breaking you down or building you up (just enough).

This distance makes you illiterate in empathy. The suffering of others is a conversation happening in a tongue you don’t understand, and don’t care to learn. And you don’t see this illiteracy as a deficiency; in fact, you don’t see it all in yourself, and when others call on you for empathy, you see it as an imposition, a weakness, or a fantasy on their part, or an assault on your philosophy. Except you don’t have a philosophy, because no philosophy can exist solely in consideration of the self – and by the self I mean your entire situation: your house, your friends, your relatives. To draw the line between these things and everyone and everything else is to make a fatal demarcation that makes, genuinely, important parts within you die.

I don’t really know if those parts, once they die, are retrievable anymore. Maybe you can fabricate synthetic versions, approximations that perform the basic function with less efficiency. But one of the weirder, harder facts of my life – and particularly my life in the last year or so – has been recognizing these dead pieces in people that I know, people that I love. There are so many millions of shades of damage and I don’t know to what degree they’re responsible for these deaths inside them, how much of it was avoidable in any practical sense. I don’t know how I managed to not die in those ways, and I don’t know if there are other deaths in me anyway that I’ll always have to work around.

Every New Year I joked that the incoming year couldn’t worse than the previous. I made that joke at the beginning of 2020; I’m sure a lot of us did. But things are so much worse than I ever imagined they could get – but actually that’s not true: I did acknowledge things like COVID, like the racism and fascism pouring out everywhere tidally, could happen, but I never believed they would. It takes a certain kind of courage to give marrow to these fears. Even right now, as I write this, there’s another idea in my head, encroaching with evening-shadow fingers  – so dark that I can entertain it lightly, because I’ve given it no weight in my head for my own mental health (because we have to scrounge our comforts where we can) – that it very much can, and very well may, get much worse.

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