Unfinished Lives

From the keyboard of Surly 1

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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on February 23, 2014
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True freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

–David Foster Wallace

This story has been in draft form for months, because I have not known how to write it. Also because the subject is so sensitive, so personal, and remains filled with grief such that one fears to tread for fear of setting off a mine and injuring others. It has been percolating for months; so it is time.


Thomas A. L.

Thomas A. L., 18, of Virginia Beach, VA passed away Sunday, November 24, 2013. He graduated High School class of 2013, was a Computer Science major at a local university and enjoyed drawing, making animation videos, and classical music.

Left to cherish his memory are his parents, sister, brother, extended family, friends, colleagues etc, etc.

A memorial service will be held . . . and hundreds of people attended his memorial service.

His name was Thomas. He was the son of Contrary’s cousin. Thomas was tall, handsome, and by all accounts (I never met him), smart as a whip, quick witted, blessed by nature: brilliant enough to earn a full ride to a local university, an athlete, handsome enough that a local photographer recruited him for portraiture for his own portfolio. From those photographs, you see the features that distinguish Contrary’s family: the high cheekbones and strong eyes. (Somewhere in the central European part of Contrary’s family line The Hun stepped mightily, leaving behind generations of high cheekbones, elongated eyes, and in the males, bushy eyebrows that are the characteristic tell of the Mongol stepping on a bloodline. You would swear that some of Contrary’s brothers rode with Genghis Khan in a past life.)

Thomas was a star. He had all these gifts, and the ginger hair of the Irish. From outward appearances, he had everything going his way. And now he is dead.

One never knows what goes on behind closed doors. From as the story comes to me, the young man returned to the town where his father lives, went to the middle of the ball field in a public park, doused himself with flammables and set himself ablaze. Leaving behind a residue of grief, loss, guilt, anger, regret and the endless, unanswerable question, “Why?” which ultimately ends nowhere. Even now, months later, the loss remains.

I wrote some months ago about daughter’s friend Jonathan, who came to dinner at my house one evening. He was incredibly soft-spoken, such that I had to strain to hear him when he spoke. He was incredibly intelligent as well, and was the best man at a wedding that I photographed. And he too took his own life.

And then there is the young woman who lived in my neighborhood, a 15-year-old girl, all bright blonde hair and smiles. An honor roll student, long-distance runner, a Girl Scout, and a teacher’s assistant. Also dead by her own hand. The obituary mentioned depression. You cruise the news articles, and the comments afterward, and so many write about how the loss of their best friend, their son, their daughter, a wife. People start support groups, foundations and other well-intentioned efforts, but whatever good they do, it’s too late for the unfinished lives of the lost. The grief that pours out of these comments is overwhelming.

Some say time heals, I’m not so sure….he left an empty spot in our family that will never heal.


We look for answers. WebMD lists causes of depression that include physical or sexual or emotional abuse, interactions with medications, conflict, death or loss, substance abuse, illness, even social isolation and genetics. There are as many reasons as there are unfinished lives. There are no answers, but as the body count mounts many ask “what’s going on?”

These unfinished lives represent not only a staggering and unrecoverable loss for the families affected, but also to at least some extent, an indictment of a morally bankrupt way of life quickly skittering to its endgame.

We raise entire generation of people who interact with others via keypad. We go to great lengths to keep from engaging with one another in a meaningful way. Did we intend to create a society so inhuman, so impersonal that our best and brightest can no longer bear to be a part of it?

Came across the story of the making of this remarkable little piece in Adweek. (This is Water from Patrick Buckley on Vimeo.)

It’s been viewed a million times since last night alone and has single-handedly resurrected the voice of troubled literary genius David Foster Wallace, bringing his words to a global audience that might not even recognize his name. And it was all done without permission. “This Is Water,” a cinematic interpretation of Wallace’s bleak-yet-inspiring 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, has quickly become one of the week’s most passed-around videos. . .

Naturally, I wanted to know more about the author, David Foster Wallace, and how he came to give this remarkable talk at a commencement ceremony at Kenyon College. Then I learned he too is no longer returning phone calls.

Wallace was a novelist, short story writer, essayist and professor of English and creative writing. He was widely acclaimed for a 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which was critically acclaimed. From what is available from public sources, he apparently lost a battle with depression in 2008 and took his own life at home, leaving behind both a wife and an unfinished manuscript, The Pale King.

I loved the message in “This is Water,” as I am exactly the kind of person who needs to hear it most, probably three times a day. I marveled that a man capable of this level of insight and imagination could take his own life:

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

And this:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Wallace ended his life at 46, leaving behind a huge sense of loss for his unrealized potential, for the works that would go unwritten. He dies with his work incomplete and his legacy tantalizing, as pass those other precious young people whose lives pass much closer to the ambit of my own life, yet who remain as unknowable as this author.

The paradox is that over the last 50 years, we have reached an unprecedented apex in material well-being. Yet for all that, many suffer an existential despair that manifests itself via self harm and a loathing for living. Last year writer Tony Dokoupil published a story in Newsweek entitled, “The Suicide Epidemic.

Throughout the developed world, for example, self-harm is now the leading cause of death for people 15 to 49, surpassing all cancers and heart disease. That’s a dizzying change, a milestone that shows just how effective we are at fighting disease, and just how haunted we remain at the same time. Around the world, in 2010 self-harm took more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined, stealing more than 36 million years of healthy life across all ages. In advanced countries, only three diseases on the planet do more harm.

And this assumes we can even rely on the official data. Many researchers believe it’s a dramatic undercount, a function of fewer autopsies and more deaths by poison and pills, where intention is hard to detect. . . [one researcher] thinks the true rate is at least 30 percent higher, which would make suicide three times more common than murder.

What are we to make of the fact that the suicide rate for Americans 45 to 64 has jumped by more than 30% in the last decade? And suicides in the military has also escalated as well.

Doukoupil discusses Thomas Joiner’s theory of suicide in his article: Why do people die by suicide? Because they want to. Because they can.

The theory is explained in detail if you follow the link. Joyner has defined a “clearly delineated danger zone,” three overlapping conditions (represented by the Venn diagrams) that combine to create a dark night of the soul. At a time when the institutions that used to bind American society together have crumbled beyond recognition, we lear that belonging and community are important.

In a website and forum where most of our discussion goes to determine strategies for survival for ourselves, our families and community suicide strikes a discordant note. It doesn’t factor. And new generation faces less abundance, fewer jobs, lower wages relative to inflation, a state wholly captive to corporate interests, and no help coming. So much abundance at the end of the age of oil, and so little meaning. Little wonder young people feel alone.

For those raised in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, who internalized the teaching that suicide is a mortal sin and that all life is sacred, such thoughts are more foreign than the prospect of cross-dressing. But we live in a time when even the CDC has defined self harm as an epidemic. We draw our own conclusions, but one of them is inescapably that we have failed to leave our children a world worth inhabiting.

So we’d best get busy.


(If you are interested in knowing more about the life and work of David Foster Wallace and struggle to surpass “Infinite Jest,” read this fine New Yorker article, “The Unfinished.”)



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