Lately I’ve been wondering if I might be a terrible person because my response to reading both fictional and nonfictional accounts in which either the protagonist or essayist responds with profound grief in cases where they haven’t gotten what they want out of life has pretty much been: Get over it, I had to.
And I really did have to!
(What does any of this have to do with Pompeii? I swear I will get to that eventually.)
Objectively speaking, I think my curmudgeonly response to other people’s despair might be awful. It’s definitely a kneejerk reaction at this point, but after thinking a lot about it (and jerking a lot of knees), I’ve come to the conclusion that my response is coming less from a place of: Pull yourself up by your damn emotional bootstraps, why don’t you, and more from the rather large degree of discomfort with which I view my own past grief over having to weather serious disappointments and lost opportunities.
Believe me, I understand that grief is necessary in order to move forwards, but it can also be really messy. I was really messy, and maybe not so great to be around, and yes, a bit self-involved, and yeeeees, unable in those moments to understand that, no, actually the world was not ending, and maybe even a bit boring and uninteresting in my despair. In the end, it’s the awful messiness of grief that I don’t like being reminded of because, ultimately, I haven’t quite forgiven myself for being human.
Human. I read all the time, I am always #amreading, at least not when I’m not working, writing, exercising, or watching the occasional show on Netflix. It’s my favorite thing to do. Mostly, I think, I read because engaging with characters and ideas makes me feel human, and I like to feel human, and I also want to figure out what it means to be human.
So why am I not soaking up these grief stories in a different light? After all, grief is definitely part of the human experience.
So. I look at my own life, and I see cycles.
Grief, certainly, and also trauma, and the pain associated with that, and sometimes, unfortunately, the losses that can accompany trauma and pain, because trauma and pain can change us in the eyes of those we love. And more than once, I’ve found myself stuck in some kind of valley, looking up at the point from where I’ve fallen, and despaired because how could I be stuck here, in this pit, again?
Serious mental illness has been episodic in my life, and episodes, by nature, come and they go, and to me the coming has often arrived as a great interruption, as a crashing and burning of all the hopes I held for some weird ideal I held in my head of what I thought might be something approaching a normal life.
(There actually is such a thing as normal, I think, at least in the sense of how powerfully it exists as a concept—and that counts as existence in my book. I’ve been writing a lot of poems about this, and various other feelings related to psychosis and healing, and some of them have been published here and here.)
And I guess this is how I get to Pompeii.
I sometimes think that history is made up of humans wishing. Over time, through time, above and beyond time.
When I was a kid (and even well into my teens), I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up, and obviously that’s not what happened, and I suppose there has even been some odd grief and disappointment about that along the way because of the many reasons I didn’t pursue that path.
I was reminded of all that as I stood among the ruins of houses and temples in Pompeii, which might objectively be called a would-be archaeologist’s wet dream. I got to see intricately tiled floors, colorful murals, and even a very blackened (and very old) loaf of bread.
A long time ago, people walked across those floors with thoughts in their heads, with plans and hopes for their day, or the next week, or maybe even for the rest of their lives.
Thinking about that made it easy to reflect on the tragedy of Pompeii, how everything ended. I thought of how the inhabitants fled in terror from erupting Vesuvius. Plaster casts of the inhabitants of Pompeii show us men, women, children, even dogs in their death throes. And weren’t they all just people (or dogs) who wanted things for themselves? People making wishes, large and small, for their futures which were all then suddenly cut short when Vesuvius started erupting around noon on August 24 (estimated date) in the year 79 of the common era. All those wishes, gone astray, blinked out.
But then, here I am again, yelling in my head at people sad about their own wishes gone astray, convinced that they should get over missed opportunities, that their sadness makes them ickily unattractive to me, stop sobbing down your metaphorical shirt front please.
Ultimately, there’s a rule (I think) about approaching personal pain. In order to get over it, I mean. We each have to take our own pain seriously, but it also helps to acknowledge that, often, thinks could be worse. In other words, in most cases, Vesuvius is not erupting.
But: And this is a big but, I think. It can take a while to gain that perspective, and it’s probably also a true thing that everybody has to gain that perspective for themselves. Maybe that whole journey, that getting from the point of this is the worst to this is survivable and, in fact, could be worse is a large part of what healing might be about.
Like I said, I’m pretty sure that I know what my other-people’s-grief-centered grumpiness is about. I spent a lot of time sobbing down my shirt front. (Ugly crying, keep in mind. How embarrassing.) A lot of time stuck in this is the worst.
Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t the worst. Not even close. I just have to learn that it was okay that, for a while at least, I couldn’t see past that. That I was really sad when my hopes weren’t realized or goals I wanted to achieve remained out of reach.
And once I do that, I think I will stop being such a curmudgeon.
Ultimately, I think, part of being human is being sad.
And yeah, sometimes I even do still feel sad about never becoming an archaeologist, despite all the other interesting turns my life has taken.
But I’ve found ways to comfort myself over that. I haunt museums and look at really old stuff. And magically, somehow, I got to go to Pompeii.