Shoulders exist to look back over. We can’t help ourselves. Ghosts — those who are absent — hang out behind, in blighted corners of the mind. Oh, they might be with someone else or in purgatory, but they are just as surely gone in either case. Not forgotten, but gone.
Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light; from the sadness of the ending to your recovery.
We hope to scrape off the sticky relationship-residue, caustic to the soul. We search for a satisfying explanation of why things ended. You want to know what happened, bottom to top, left to right, inside out.
One fights to squeeze understanding out of the wet cloth of the past. It seems impossible to reach what is behind you. Your arms are too short, your shoulders resist. Hard as you try, no feat of strength lifts the fog or warms the clinging chill of loneliness. Nor does total comprehension come to you. It feels as though sadness or anger shall follow you all the days of your life, and certainly preoccupation with the way things died. Perhaps the objective side of you knows otherwise, but you are hip-deep in the subjective. A future will only be visible when “night-gloom and damp” are burned off by dawn. It seems infinitely far away: an event that is in front of you while you are twisting your body to look at what is receding.
Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light. Yes, I am repeating myself.
We begin by trying to figure out why he left or why he cheated or why he wasn’t satisfied. Or why we weren’t satisfied when we “should” have been. We despise our mistakes and our stupidity. Guilt wracks us even if there is no reason for self-blame. We speculate for hours and nights and weeks: why did he criticize and judge us or vice versa? Why didn’t we say something when we could have, before the lights of love or friendship went out?
Why didn’t he tell us? Should we have read his mind?
Why did he embarrass us or we humiliate him? Why, despite everything we did to please him, were we “not enough?”
How did it happen and might it have been otherwise? The “what ifs” are inescapable. What if we had done more or less? Spent more time or less? Smiled less or more? Set limits more or less? Been affectionate more or less? Been more diplomatic? Not given up so soon?
Remember, I am beside you on the walk.
It feels unique. Crucifixion is personal: singled out on a planet of seven billion. The world goes its indifferent way to the right and we are left, the fetid road kill of a random act of cosmic unkindness.
Wallace Stegner knew our pain. His 1967 novel, All the Live Little Things, reveals the topography of the dark night of the soul. His character, Joe Allston, has seen too much, sustained too many losses. A sixty-something married man living in the ’60s, his self-deadening fortifications against pain are penetrated by two emotional gophers who burrow under his Spartan guard: a young man who reminds him of his dead son and a young woman named Marian, full of ebullient life.
Marian accepts the world and does not judge or complain. “Live! Suffer! Enjoy! Wake up!” She is irrepressibly at one with the natural world as it is — with the terrible and wonderful consequences for her personally. She knows weeds and flowers are entangled, and to poison all the weeds of life will just as surely kill the flowers they surround. The platonic, but tender relationship between Joe and Marian opens Allston, nibbles away, and strips him bare, permitting fatherly affection for this young mother. Her glow warms him and he cannot prevent his guard from dropping, his soul from becoming vulnerable. She stimulates a new state of his being: the joy, pleasure-pain of experience, but also the exquisite awfulness love always exposes us to: the terror of loss he tried to bury by not allowing anything to matter too much.
Joe describes himself:
I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of the flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer.
If you are struggling with loss you will find a soul mate in this haunted intellectual. Take solace in hearing another’s voice capture your feelings. His is a life bathed in loss, struggle, and resentment. The generation gap between himself and the “flower children” of the ’60s leaves him caustic. He has been at endless war with the creatures and weeds that would undermine his garden. He is the parent you are or you had — the one who judges and cannot surrender.
Joe is cursed by his thought process: he does not let an event pass without reflection and close inspection. Allston’s struggle is, like all of ours, unique but universal. He thinks we expect too much of life. Each one of us demands permanence where none exists. We pave over our heart’s driveway, hoping no pain will penetrate the concrete slabs, no cracks will ever form. One seeks relationships for lasting assurance and discovers the seeds of their endings present in their beginnings. Jobs start and end. Children joyfully explode into our world, only to leave for their own. The championship crown is for this season only. Next year someone else will wear the laurels.
Human lives — all lives — are in transit, so best to realize that every worldly destination is temporary. If one can, at least occasionally, “get” this, then you will make the most of life and its passing beauties. Yes, you will still stare over your shoulder and struggle with all the questions about what happened and what you might have done. The look back is both unavoidable and required to liberate yourself from what you’ve lost. The passage of time does the rest of the healing.
You can visit this psychological “yesterday,” but don’t stay, lest your backward glance prevent you from escaping the fog of grief and moving through to whatever the new day will offer.
Remember, we never get all the answers. Even if we were able to question the long departed, like Odysseus in the Underworld, the answers received might or might not satisfy, in part because the departed don’t know themselves: both their answers and their self-knowledge are imperfect.
After a while, the questions matter less. There is solace in this. Other people, other causes, laughter and loveliness can enrich you, reducing the need for the scoring key to yesterday’s test.
Your twisted neck wearies of its unnatural position. “Face forward,” wisdom whispers. “The race is in front, not behind. Life goes on. Comfort exists in what is still possible. Joy may yet be yours.”
The photo is called Looking Back. It is the work of Bill Nicholls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.