August of 2013 was my last post. Where was I? I’ll begin to answer that by telling you where I was this morning. It’s like amnesia therapy; tell us what you did this morning and maybe you can work your way back to cogency. That may be asking too much of a blog, but I’ll try.
This morning, I decided to drive the one hour to just east of Lawrence, Kansas, to pick asparagus at John and Karen Pendleton’s farm. This is not a new career venture as a seasonal agricultural laborer. The Pendletons have a farm where you go out in the fields and pick what is available, paying for what you return to the barn carrying. Other than ticks. No charge for them. I retrieved both green and purple varieties of asparagus, and speckled trout lettuce, much beloved of Jackson Pollack, I would guess.
I went out there alone, and that’s where the real story begins. I’ve tried to get any number of friends to go with me, and the urgency in my requests always hinged upon how brief the asparagus growing season was, and how heavenly the flavor of freshly-snapped spears would be. But everyone is busier than I, and now I am beginning to understand that fact is a part of the meaning of retirement. It’s not that I don’t like or even function well in solitude, but it’s not the way my life is optimized. It was a nice morning. Yuja Wang played her sexy little fingers off on the car’s CD player both coming and going, and I even got to flirt with a young mother and her two children picking in the field close to me. Pleasant enough. But pleasant enough doesn’t cut it. I haven’t more or less taken care of myself this long just to be minimally alive. I want to thrive, and extensive, cold, impersonal solitude is that. It’s just maintaining vital signs, itself a misnomer.
So that’s where I was this winter; maintaining vital signs and feeling as unvital as it is possible to feel. One might think that the mere whisper of the topic of suicide would send some of you to report me to the mental health police, and the rest to plan an immediate intervention. I’ll risk that. Of course, I’m not thinking of suicide, and I know that because I have thought about suicide. “Thinking of” suicide I take to mean contemplating the act itself and making it a genuine possibility at some point; “thinking about” suicide I take to mean analyzing and evaluating the act from the widest possible viewpoints. I have been doing the latter this winter, and writing about it now is partially prompted by the fact that my father would have been 99 this month, and that he hanged himself in June of 1975.
My thoughts on this matter have been greatly influenced by the most recent writings of philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. I have taught a course dedicated entirely to those works for several years at my college, but next week I will turn in the final grades for the final iteration of that wonderful experience. His writings, especially in “Reasons of Love,” describe and work through meaning in life and how it is found and cultivated. His view, and I think he is right about this, is that love gives meaning to life more than any other component; love turns mere living into thriving. And a crucial element of love must be self-love, a love of what Kant seemed to disparagingly term “the dear self.” But love, whether of one’s dear self or of something else in one’s landscape, is not a matter of emotional response, or rational analysis, or even moral commitment. It is a matter of the will. In philosophical terms, it is volitional.
So, in thinking about life and its meaning for me, and its inevitable end, whether hastened or natural, I focused more on what it is like to will one’s end before its time, and whether that was a kind of continuity of willing life, or somehow contrary to it and antithetical. And seen that way, the latter answer seems stunningly correct. If willing is an integral part of the process of loving, then willing an end to living is also willing an end to loving. I am far, far from ready to do something like that now.
But the trap, I believe, at least for most successful suicides, is that they think of suicide before they think about suicide. Perhaps my father was that way. He ministered so lovingly and tirelessly to others for so much of his life that he never prepared himself to be in the straits that he guided others out of. And suicide was a taboo subject in that era, especially in religious atmospheres. Maybe it still is. If you don’t work your way around the conceptual and volitional issues concerning you own life, and its end, you may succumb to personal or emotional pressures and consider and act on suicide before understanding it more completely. I was gratified that I could find some of the best advice about death from the author from whom I found some of the best advice about life, and love.
Though my personal life is a shambles of bad choices and mismatches, that’s not all there is to love. I was reminded of that last night on the deck around 7:00, as the sun slid behind trees in the west, the temperature fell into the 70s, and most sounds were muted and utterly normal. A basketball dribbled hesitantly around the corner. Children playing peaceably. Birds coming in for their last meal before sunset. An indolent breeze hardly troubling the newly-sprouted leaves on the maples. As I said recently, I am a wealthy man. Were a woman I loved softly nestling one of my hands in hers as I sat there, I would be wealthier still. But her absence does not impoverish me enough to make the rest of it meaningless.
That’s where I was. It was not a pleasant place, but it was a productive place. And, in the words of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful song, “I’m Still Here!”