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On Roh’s Death, Steve Reich, and the Tao of Imagining Sisyphus Happy

I’ve been saddened by what happened recently in regard to ex-President Roh’s suicide. Not the suicide itself, or all of the political wrangling related to it.I’m saddened because I fear suicides will worsen here, for the next while.

Korea has a serious suicide problem. It’s the number one killer of people in their twenties, as many blogs are eager to state. It’s the kind of thing many people think about in their youth, of course. But suicide is tragically common here, and in recent days a number of people have talked about it with me. Korean people, I mean. Young Korean people, some of them brilliant and all of them with their whole lives ahead of them.

It’s heartbreaking.

I don’t know whether it will help, but if you’re a teacher in Korea, you might take the time to find out where your university’s counseling service is, and take time from one of your classes to suggest that anyone who is feeling pain, or considering suicide, should consider talking to someone at counseling services.

If a student comes and talks to you about suicide, take it seriously. Treat it seriously. Last semester, a student in the department where I teach killed herself, and though I don’t think I knew her, I know professors and students who did. Nobody knows if they could have done anything, but surely wondering about it is haunting enough.

You might be able to make more of a difference than you think. You might be able to do someone good.

Someone asked me, “Why should I live?” Actually, the question, in a few forms, was asked to me a few times in recent weeks. If you’ve never wrestled with the question yourself, it’s hard to answer. I have wrestled with it, in times of pain, but it’s hard to answer. Sometimes I direct them to Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” and advised getting counseling, always wanting to help but not sure how, and aware that I am not trained to help. But these days, besides that, I speak honestly and from my heart.

I do now have something of an answer, though, to the kind of pain that sometimes brings it on. Regrets, loss, sorrow. I was at a party the other night, and while everyone was smiling and happy, so many people spoke to me of, or fought to hide, their frustrations and pains and sadnesses. There’s something to be said for the Buddhist insight that suffering is universal.

One answer I can give to this is music. The music of Steve Reich, for example, is probably the first (composed, ie. “classical”) music in the world that revealed any inkling of special relativity. Listening to this music is to gaze into the beautiful clockwork under the hood of the post-Einsteinian universe.

(Too bad Youtube cuts it off before the end.)

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There is a memory I hold of this music on a rainy afternoon, taking a break from driving lessons with a girl named Melanie, whom I never dated, though I don’t know why. I’d fallen for her during middle school at band camp held in Fort Qu’appelle — don’t laugh, she was the prettiest flautist ever I did see at the tender age of 15, and the sister of my buddy then, trombonist Matthew — and we ended up pretty good friends at university during freshman year.

She started teaching me to drive a car. We sat in my family’s Hyundai one rainy afternoon, the seats folded back, this music filling the car, counterpoint to the pattering of rain on the roof and windows, and the quietness and the warm air and the comfort of having nothing to do all day.

Time passed slowly, but we went off in different directions, who knows why, and relativity set in. Though we were in the same city, it felt like we’d slipped into different light cones, different worlds. I saw her in hallways, we talked, we were still friends, but the frames of reference were forever off. Light reached each of us just that tiny bit differently, and that was simply how it was.

This is what happens in life. Someone can be a few inches away from you. You can be so close your elbows brush, that the hair on the back of your arm is touching the hair on the back of her arm, and a few days or weeks later, you are in different orbits around the same sun. You are hurtling through the spacetime of your life, toward unknown worlds and suns, and that person who was beside you on that rainy afternoon, the person who comforted you or made you laugh or cry, is hurtling off in another direction, towards other worlds and other glorious suns.

This is simply how life is. It is not something to regret, because it is not something to control. Why should we regret what we cannot control? It is life. Gravity is the weakest of the forces in the universe, but is also utterly crucial. It is the driving force of the beautiful clockwork of the physical world, and to fight it is futile.

Gravity always wins.

I don’t regret that nothing happened between Melanie and me besides those Sunday afternoons in the rain. They’re a symbol to me now of the kind of grace one must have in all separations, in all goodbyes — even the biggest ones, the hardest ones — and indeed the kind of wholeness that must also survive into hellos and into new orbits with different suns and worlds.

There is joy in surrendering to the pull of gravity, in settling again into the hurtling and the darkness and even the temporary cold. In colder coldness, in darker darkness; when deeper orbits and gravitational bonds have been broken, one must find the taoist-like acceptance of the old man who falls into the river and relaxes, letting it carry him away instead of fighting for his life.

(Like my friend Mike says, quoting Bruce Lee, “You need to be water, my friend”:

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… and as cheesy as the soundtrack is, as mystico-kung-fu as he makes it sound, there’s a profound insight there too.)

A comet must accept the blinding light and darkness and cold and hot in alternation. The asteroid must grow to love the abrasion of its fellows against it all the time. The planets must learn to love the nearness but never-touching of their moons.

We are not all suns and planets and comets and asteroids. We are, most of us, simply dust motes, floating in an immenseness so grand we can never even imagine its scale.

Here, there is still me; and somewhere there is still her, in her light cone; and there is always this music.

The universe teems with dust. You are not alone, even when it feels that way. Even when you think you are. You are multitude. You are everywhere.

Yet if hydrogen weighed just 1% more, our physical universe would not be as it was, as Paul Davies notes in his little book, The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures About The Ultimate Fate Of The Universe. That the Big Bang happened is, for us, functionally, a miracle. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes at the end of The Black Swan, that you were born instead of all the millions of other people who could have been — that your mother and father made you, and not one of those other people who could have been born, is a miracle.

You are a fucking miracle.

That’s my answer. You are a fucking miracle.

If you must weep, weep for joy. Weep for the blessing of being, of being you. You are a fucking miracle.

Say it out loud: “I am a fucking miracle.”

Yes, yes, you are.

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