Late one winter afternoon several years ago, three friends and I were running in a recreation area near my home in Asturias, in northern Spain. Though the area is just a 15-minute drive from the heart of the city, it’s more wilderness than park, and the trail we followed through the woods was rough and sometimes steep. On the uphill stretches we pushed ourselves rather than slow down, recovering our breath when the trail leveled off. So when the other woman in the group lagged unexpectedly on a steep hill, we others kept on to the top, and waited for her there, kicking our toes at the leaves and sticks underfoot. The two men had been conversing as they ran, and they continued talking while I, looking around in the gathering gloom, let my mind wander.
Over the back of the mountains that make up the area is a lonesome winding road through a valley patched with woods and fields, with an occasional stone farmhouse in view. Some of these houses are abandoned and some still lived in, but all invariably look desolate. We were heading to that valley, and I pictured the lumpy stone farmhouses strung along the narrow road and the smaller huts higher on the sloping valley sides, many just ruins sinking against the hillside to become part of the rocky terrain and eventually to be lost in the overgrowth.
Despite proximity to the city and the closeness of one farm to another, these farmhouses seemed much more remote than the old house where my two best girlhood friends grew up, on a ranch near my hometown in Colorado. Bleaker, too: even the lived-in stocky stone houses appeared to be crouched, hanging on halfheartedly, whereas the weathered, ramshackle wood house of my friends seemed jauntily balanced on its knoll, despite being the picture of dilapidation, apparently on the point of slipping, splintering, breaking up, falling to pieces, and scattering to the dry winds of the Southwest. We girls on summer horseback rides at the ranch wound through sagebrush and scrub oak where, especially near the arroyos, even the colors seemed to have dried up and blown away. Everything was bare bones, light, and clean compared with the dense growth and dripping greens of Asturias, the decaying remains in piles under your feet, where even on the trails in the middle of a forest we sometimes stumbled over a hillock only to discover that it was the remnants of a wall or the rotting roof timbers of an old hut, sinking and moldering, turning mossy and being consumed by the relentless growth of this wet area, still there but not to be resurrected, though you tread upon it, as on a grave.
After a few minutes, our friend arrived at the top of the hill.
But when we turned to start off again, she held up her hand and said she wasn’t ready, she needed to rest. We waited, of course, although it seemed to the three of us, who’d run up the hill instead of practically walking as she had, that she was the least in need of a rest. Had we come that slowly, we would not have been a bit tired, and the looks we exchanged while she caught her breath said as much. She was 20 years younger than we were, so in our surprise was a little disapproval and a fair amount of triumph.
“What excuse do you have to be tired?” asked one of the men, his tone joshing.
Still winded from climbing the hill, she smiled and shook her head. The man continued teasing her. When she had the breath for it, she told him she wasn’t saying she should be tired or had a right to be, just that she was. She didn’t need an excuse, she said, and she didn’t offer one. She kept smiling, but I sensed her irritation at being called to account for herself and make her fatigue believable.
But even had we known the details of her work schedule or eating habits, how much sleep she’d gotten the night before or what her worries or her iron levels were, the closest we could come to imagining our companion with these handicaps would be to imagine ourselves with them. Three hours of sleep after a blowup with the boss? That wouldn’t slow us down, we’d think, and we would be no closer to understanding her than before. Even draped in her particulars, we wouldn’t be in her skin. Cada uno es un mundo, as the Spanish saying has it: each person is a world unto themselves.
And yet I forget this all the time. I see others and, with the barest details of their life, I imagine I know what they’re going through, and therefore how they ought to behave, given their circumstances. I know how I would, I think, were I in their shoes. Don’t be so loud! Don’t be so demanding! Don’t be so full of frowns! Give that little boy a hug! Laugh at that silly joke, say you like it, open up, smile, be happy! Why not, I silently exhort these people, often seen in passing, whose lives have for a moment touched mine. A former workmate, young, smart, and adventurous, was also often sour, sometimes indignant. Standing at the new copier one day, he said grouchily that he hated the machine. I thought, “Oh, no! Not again!” because I’d heard his tone of complaint so often before.
“You’d better try to make it your friend,” I said. Relax, approach the problem differently, try to get along—all of that was in my comment.
He was leaning over the copier, back to me, and he half turned to give me a look. He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve got enough friends,” he said.
The rest of the day, I thought about that answer. Enough of a good thing—that made sense. Why be greedy? Why put yourself out to get more?
At the same time, it made no sense at all. Enough happiness, enough compassion, enough goodwill—how could you reject an extra dose of any of those, saying that you already had plenty? When my workmate slammed down the cover of the copier, it was as if he were slamming the door in the face of new experience, preferring to take offense than to invite fate in and try to get along with it.
I could think of no reason for his grouchy attitude. But somewhere in his background or in his circumstances might be an experience to explain it, which I, locked in my own life, just couldn’t see, or even imagine, or understand the meaning of. If I could keep this in mind, I wouldn’t have the same expectations of others that I have of myself. I’d make allowances. Not because I understand, but because I don’t. Because I don’t have any idea.
Even with friends or family whose histories I do know, I remind myself that knowing is in no way like being, just as looking out the window at the wind swirling through the garden on a cold, wet day is not like being out in the weather, and that no matter how similar we are—same language, same abilities, same prejudices, same tastes, even same genes—we are different people.
When I asked a friend of mine once why he bowed to his 80-year-old mother’s unreasonable expectations about her role in his life, he answered that he couldn’t possibly understand what was behind her demands because he didn’t know what it was like to be her. To be 80, to be widowed, to have bad knees and an unruly granddaughter who regularly and extravagantly lost her temper and made life difficult, and to no longer have, herself, any hope of ever returning to her village, scene of youthful joys, which she’d left 50 years earlier as a newlywed?
“No, of course not,” I agreed. “You couldn’t really understand. You couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.”
But not understanding was no reason to doubt her claims or question her aches, her joys, or her sorrows. So my friend decided to simply take his mother at her word, replacing understanding with believing.
Understanding is being outside, too, suffering the heat or the cold or, if the other is locked inside, then being there in the room, rather than just looking in the window. Yes, I see you can provide some comfort, but Here I am, with you is better for sharing a burden or giving guidance. So people are always trying to get in and understand. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch says that to really understand another person you should “climb into his skin and walk around in it,” and in a Mavis Gallant short story, “The Concert Party,” a character named Steve, on his aunt’s advice to put himself in the other fellow’s place, tells himself, “O.K., imagine your name is Harry Lapwing.” But whatever insights they gain are about themselves. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel says, imagining yourself with wings, an appetite for insects, and poor vision gives you an idea of what it would be like for you to be a bat, but the question is what it is like for a bat. No imagining will tell you.
After their daughter’s mishap in a swimming pool, Alice Munro’s first-person narrator of “Miles City, Montana” and her husband talk about the accident. They go over the chain of lucky events that kept the incident from ending in their child’s death from drowning. The narrator, however, reveals to the reader that she also imagined the opposite—the tragedy in all its desolate heartbreak. How could they have gone on after that, she wonders, how could anyone? Then she suggests there’s something trashy about such imaginings, which she likens to touching a wire to get a safe shock before pulling back. It’s similar to rubbernecking, looking at an accident, craning to see enough of it—to see the stricken incredulous faces, to see the blood, to imagine the pain—to make it almost real as you drive safely past, thinking, “That could have been me!” But it doesn’t get us into the room. Neither does memory. I often recall those happy horseback rides at my friends’ ranch on dusty trails through the scrub oak and the sagebrush, our silly laughter and jokes, the chill summer mornings turning warm, the grays and browns and tans of the dry land, how shadows shrank and dried up like water as the day progressed. I can picture it, but I don’t share the gaiety or smell the sage or the piñon pines or feel the reins in my hands.
Even the common troubles, the ones we’ve all suffered, don’t help us know one another because we each suffer our troubles as ourselves, not as the other person, whose troubles we hardly see or feel. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, after his wife’s death by fire, wrote to a friend that he was “to the eyes of others, outwardly, calm; but inwardly bleeding to death.” Likewise, when I was going through the worst three months in my life, no one knew, and if they had, they would have thought the pain excessive. After all, it was just the final breakup, years after the tentative breakup, with a boyfriend who was no longer even my boyfriend. I can hardly myself believe now in the anguish of that person, though she was I. Now that I don’t feel it anymore, it’s hard to understand how I ever did feel that much heartache. I even wonder, more than how, if I ever did. How much less I understand others, their pain and joy also unfelt.
Would it even be a good thing if we could experience through others what they experience? In Middlemarch, George Eliot writes, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
But I do wonder. What’s it like to be happily married? What’s it like to have no regrets? To have a beautiful singing voice or tell great stories? Or to have no teeth or live with MS? What’s it like to enter your last decade? Or to have your whole life ahead of you, as those girlhood friends and I once did? What’s that like, I wonder, though I should know, I was there. Like a mirage, that time is still there but not, still present in my mind but lost in the past.
Simone Weil gives a different route to understanding other people. Rather than fit into their shoes, she says to empty yourself to accommodate them, to allow them to enter you. Weil calls this practice paying attention and says that all we have to do is wait. In a similar though less rigorous vein, the writer Brenda Ueland says that all you have to do to understand is listen to people, truly and with affection, when they talk; just try to know them. No arguing or changing the subject.
I’m not sure, however, how far that gets you, though perhaps farther with children than adults because children, at first ceaseless questioners, are soon great talkers. They, more than adults, who often want to influence you or impress you, want to tell you what it’s like. Feel this, try this, touch this, children ask of you, from the baby in her highchair with her fistful of food, holding it out to you, to the older child asking you to look at or, worse, touch the frog or beetle or dead mouse he’s found. Sometimes it’s just a story or a joke, told regardless of how busy you are or how ready to hear it. How confident they are of your understanding! As if a joke is a joke, the same for both of you. Should you fail to understand, however, they aren’t embarrassed for you. When it’s they who don’t know what you’re talking about, they don’t try to hide the fact, but stare openly, as if the problem was all yours in speaking, not theirs in understanding.
Almost a decade and a half ago, when my British friend and I met up for a drink, we’d often bring along our sons, who were the same age, around eight. No sooner did we exchange greetings and kisses than each boy corralled the other mother. My friend listened to my son with what appeared to be deep interest, and I tried to do the same with her son, Liam. I asked a question from time to time, generally consolidating the information he’d given me. “Is that what you’re trying to say?” I’d ask, and he’d pause, turn, and stare at me. At that age he liked to wear capes, and he had one tied over his shoulders. He studied me as if I were speaking nonsense, something he wasn’t even trying to make out.
After a moment of silence, he spoke. “Well, anyway,” he said, then launched back into his story, no apology and no explanation for whatever it was I hadn’t understood.
It was from Liam I learned one of my two favorite jokes, a knock-knock joke, with “banana” and “orange,” one being the many-times-repeated answer to “Who’s there?” and the other being the punch line. It matters which one goes where; the joke, a play on sounds with orange and aren’t you, only makes sense if you start with banana and end with orange. But that didn’t concern Liam when he told me the joke.
For him, the funny part was how frustrated his audience grew on having to repeat “Orange who?” an endless number of times, and it was no more or less funny than “Banana who?” His calm was complete through four, five, six repetitions of the lead-up:
Over and over.
“Come on, Liam, let’s get on to the joke part,” I urged, but he continued in the opening loop. He tittered. The more I wanted it to be over, the funnier the joke was. I was making myself laughable.
How old exactly was Liam when he told me, I wonder. What day was it? What bar? How cold was it, or how warm? I remember his blue eyes, wide shoulders, perfect balance, imperturbable calm. He was never quick to obey but never a whiner. I would like to be able to ask him now whether he remembers the joke and the telling of it one dark fall evening when the four of us sat at an outdoor table before we mothers shooed the two kids off with some coins to spend at the kiosk around the corner so that we could talk alone.
“Do you get it?” he asked of the joke when we’d finally gotten through it.
I had just figured it out and told him he had to tell it the other way round for it to make sense. “It’s got to be banana first. Then orange at the end.”
“That’s the correct way. Orange you glad I didn’t say banana? So it makes sense.”
“Oh,” he said, obviously not impressed at all by the notion of correctness. “Okay.”
Then off he ran with my son, to disappear around the corner, cape fluttering.
That little boy is gone, just as my eight-year-old son is. Gone into a nine-year-old. Then a 10-year-old. And before all those little boys were lost, the toddlers were, and before that, the babies. Remembering those little boys, I feel the sadness at passing time. Like furrows in a garden, the boys at seven, eight, nine exist until, in digging the next furrow, the current one is covered. One after another, successively, the furrows of their lives are concealed with the earth turned up for the next, in its turn to be covered. The season of planting is a hopeful season, with much work to do but with thoughts on the future when the labor will yield fruit: a boy a year older, a year bigger, a year wiser, a year more fun and funnier. Still, you are sad about the buried boys. There are no more little boy memories to be made. I shake off that sense of loss by keeping my eyes on the future.
But Liam’s mother can’t do that because Liam has no future. He died four years ago at 18 years of age. I think of him often, and he’s again a little boy, a boy I hadn’t thought about in years, lost already long before he died, and returned with his death rather as they say the sea takes a person and gives back the body. Ghostly little boys play, while we mothers, younger, watch and then turn away.
Liam wasn’t old enough to die. He wasn’t sick or troubled by dangerous habits that would make you fear for him. He died after a fall from a window, an unexpected, unnecessary death, one no one would have foretold and that, because it could happen to anyone, is shocking for happening to him instead. It was a fall that wouldn’t have to be fatal. Others have survived the same with only broken bones. Of course, you might live but be quadriplegic. Or brain damaged. Is there any disability so severe that a parent would prefer death for a child? One’s heard it voiced—better off dead—and Thomas Hardy, thinking of the balance of pain and pleasure in life, wrote, “The death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.” But after seeing what grief does, especially grief for a child, it’s hard to imagine choosing death.
What’s life like for my friend? Is it an endless hill she can hardly get up because she sees no point in climbing it? Is it a long corridor with no windows or doors, gloomy and endless, where she advances, unseeing, nothing to look forward to, no sense in looking back? To picture it one way, or the other, is my way of believing what I can’t understand. I think she tries to do the opposite and not imagine her life. She picks up her glass, smiles, laughs at a joke, tells a story, recounts a day, sometimes visibly angry, sometimes even vindictive, but usually calmly pleasant, hoping not to be made to open her eyes on that endless corridor. In short, she seems normal, as you’d be after getting over a fright, like a nightmare you awake from or an accident that almost happened. Except this one did happen.
On awakening from a nightmare, I’ll tell myself it’s okay, it’s just a dream. Sometimes, however, I seem to get stuck between waking and dreaming, and though I tell myself what’s happened in the dream is not real, it’s just a dream and I’ll wake up soon, I’m still caught up in the dream, unable to escape. Maybe that’s what her life is like, a dream she can’t awake from.
Sitting across a table from my friend, I know I don’t know what it is like to suffer such a loss, and I don’t want to know. Watching her is close enough. I never say, I know what you’re going through and never even say, I can imagine. We’ll never be in the same room again. Even belief eludes me: in a long, dark corridor, wouldn’t you look for a light switch rather than settle for blind fumbling? I would. Don’t be so full of anger! Let some light in! Give the world another chance!
Or would I? With this kind of loss, would I still think it was all worth it?
Remembering the little boy’s laugh, I think it is, but seeing the mother’s face, I am not so sure. And the boy? Suppose I asked him?
I can picture him. Eight years old. A cape over his shoulders. “Liam.” He turns. “Liam?” He waits. “Orange you glad, Liam?”
He tilts his head, purses his mouth, and in a little boy’s depiction of surprise lifts his shoulders in a shrug before dropping them and, after a moment’s steady regard, saying, “Well, anyway.” Then he’s gone.
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