My mother never spoke in the first person singular. She never said “I”, always “we”. “We love you”, she would tell me as she tucked me in– even on nights when Dad was out of town. She belonged to a “we” that I was not a part of. It used to make me lonely. She would tell me “we don’t care what profession you choose, we just hope you’ll be happy.” Unhappy people were incomprehensible to my mom. They seemed ungrateful, or morally questionable. Happy was an obligation.
I never really wanted to be happy. Not that I wanted to be unhappy, though I often was, to my mother’s considerable alarm. Happy just wasn’t that important to me. What I wanted to be was alive.
I made the first in a series of career choices when I was seven and had failed miserably by the time I was seventeen. Since then, I have never really feared failure. After the spectacular flaming crash there is the Sisyphus walk; valid in its own right. In struggling, as in suffering, there is sensation and awareness, although all that you sense is the pain.
We are more sensitive to pain than to joy and distinguish more subtleties and variations of discomfort. We remember pain more specifically and in more detail. It is an animal survival mechanism. We remember with great clarity to help us avoid repeating the causes of our suffering. We are more intrigued by agony than by joy, likely to turn in disgust from public love-making and crane to catch a glimpse of car-wrecked lives.
Anguish, and terror, and loathing, lend themselves easily to prose. Love unrequited, and despair, and loss move readily into poetry. They say the universe hums with energy, that the tiniest segments tingle and vibrate, but what language do we have to express a sense of being in tune, on key and in the right tempo with that hum? The Pain and Sorrow Canon can not express the sense of a destiny created, not fulfilled, of being simply and purely alive, a conduit for the energy of the universe that amplifies an individual’s piece of it. What is the language of the peacefully joyous? Is it in bad taste to say that late last night, tired and pushing the edge of my physical endurance, but involved in work that I love, I paused for just a heartbeat, because suddenly my heart was full? I felt the hum, I breathed the energy, I was — in those seconds — alive. Why is it more acceptable to scream my fear and my suffering?
I do fear; and what I fear is numbing monotony, the daily drum that deadens the pulse and drowns out the universe. I fear mediocrity and routine. I’d rather be homeless than middle management. Except now I have a child, and yes, I’d wear the management loafers to keep her safe and warm, and maybe that’s where it starts. Maybe, to the intense aliveness of a child, we sacrifice our own sensations, we begin to turn away from the joy of others and voyeuristically compare their sufferings to our own. We begin to cling to “we” and hope for happy.