What Then Must We Do?

I was going to write about muses today, but I’m in a different kind of mood after driving by an assembly of stuffed animals getting rained on a few streets away. The animals are gathered next to the sidewalk because a man killed his family and himself in the apartment building there a couple of weeks ago.

I’d been resisting reading about it, the way I often resist the news, because most of the time it doesn’t help. But after I drove by, I knew I’d have to read the story, if only as an act of witnessing. The police said the man had financial problems and was depressed, and his wife was being treated for drug abuse. The neighbors said they were a nice family. One man offered, “If you want to kill yourself, that’s one thing, but Christ, give your kids a chance to have a life, to have something.”

I think one of the hardest things to accept is that actions, no matter how crazy they seem on the outside, usually make sense within the framework of the actor’s perceptions. This is profoundly disturbing, that there’s an inner world in which killing three young children could “make sense”. It feels better to say we don’t understand, to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and such a world.

I’m thinking of a scene in Sam Mendes’ movie Away We Go, about a couple searching for a suitable home for their coming child. Lying in bed one night, the woman turns to her partner and asks, “Are we fuck-ups? Maybe we’re fuck-ups.”

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes? If you feel it long enough, and if you have three young children, it might come to seem an act of mercy to spare them the world you know, the one you’ve made with your life. I’m not saying this thinking is right, but I don’t find it difficult to understand. Of course, I don’t know what was in the father’s mind; no one does. And the time for help has come and gone.

So what can we do with this? From another film, one of my favorites, The Year of Living Dangerously: “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Not that pondering the “major issues” is bad; I just find it incapacitating, much as I find reading the news incapacitating.

What helps is to do something, to do anything we can for the lives in front of us, and to keep doing things, even if we sometimes wonder if we might be fuck-ups, or the people around us might be. To continue asking, what’s the best thing to do right now?

Right now I need something easy. Lay towels under the leaking roof, do the dishes. It’s been raining all day here; I keep thinking those stuffed animals, wet as they are, must be the brightest things around.

2 thoughts on “What Then Must We Do?

  1. I picked What Then Must We Do out of the list on your website because I knew it would say something meaningful. And it does. I try to keep up with news like it is a responsibility to know what is happening in the world but I am so frequently overwhelemed by the news that I end up turning it off. I prefer to read than listen and watch which seems like inviting the violence and suffering inside me. Which is after all where it belongs if I’m willing to do something about. The something is often tonglen or just a few deep breaths. For me too, The Year of Living Dangerously is one of my favorite movies–a remarkable one. Thank you for these thoughts. Such a good and peaceful center to them

    • It’s a thin line, between shutting the world out and letting it get to us too much (it should get to us some, I think). Reminds me of Wordsworth’s line, “The world is too much with us; late and soon.” Glad you’re enjoying the blog! A peaceful night to you…

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