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“Out of the Night That Covers Me/ Black as The Pit from Pole to Pole…”
(Invictus by William Ernest Henley)
The coronavirus pandemic is raging worldwide, and people are asked to care for one another more than for their entertainments and even their jobs. Some ignore the frightening situation as though by denial they can make it go away. Some complain. Some serve the less fortunate. And some are ready to shoot their neighbors. These are strange, ugly/beautiful times. The ragged underbelly of humankind is exposed.
Since we have more than enough doomsayers and hate-mongers throwing extra darkness into the night, let’s consider a more positive direction. Nietzsche wrote something like, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Few would argue that we learn and grow more from difficult experiences than we do from happy times. I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that so many great authors lived miserable lives. Recently, I watched the 2018 film Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the punch line from a famous cartoon. The story is based on the memoir of cartoonist John Callahan, infamous for his black humor about disease and disability that some described as offensive.
An adopted child who struggled to reconcile himself to the fact that his birth mother had abandoned him, Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix) slid downward, wallowing in alcoholism that contributed indirectly to his being a victim in a horrific car crash with a drunk friend (played by Jack Black). An outsider would assume that Callahan’s injuries that left him a quadriplegic were the darkest curse possible. Instead, Callahan eventually decided he wanted to live and to do that, he would have to get sober. As he battled his addiction with the help of a support group and a mentor played by Jonah Hill, he gradually came to realize the realities of his life. After he managed to improve his condition enough to be a paraplegic, he drew cartoons holding one hand over the other, forcing his Sharpie to complete his drawings.
Callahan’s tragedy shortened his life (he died at 59 from complications following surgery), but it also provided fodder for him to bloom—to speak for others with disabilities who were weary of being misrepresented as less normal human beings. Poor health prevented him from completing a degree in counseling. The dark forces of his life had buoyed him. His life had been far more fulfilling than that of the physically “normal” friend who had caused the accident. With Callahan in mind, we can ask ourselves what we and/or the aching Earth can learn from this pandemic. Whether or not we survive intact, when we reach the other side of the pandemic, will we have learned to live with more intention, carefully choosing where we want to expend our energies? Will we have noticed the huge sigh of relief with which the Earth thanked us for a brief respite? Will we have noticed the end result of hate and fear and selfishness versus the acts of courage that ennobled so many? Will each of us be a tiny bit more independent, more aware, more resourceful than we were before? Will we want to finish reciting the first stanza of Henley’s poem: “I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul.”