Questions or comments? Contact Jeff Sykes at firstname.lastname@example.org
By any means necessary
The British weather we had all weekend and into Monday hadn’t done much to help my mood, nor had the stress of driving to Marion and back on Sunday in the driving rain.
Monday’s commute was uneventful, but not helped much by the driver who came onto US 29 between two slow-moving tractor trailers and decided to put it in the left lane at 50 mph right in front of my bumper, which just happened to be going a bit faster than that.
Typical day on Twenty-Nine, or the death gauntlet as I sometimes call it. So I was content actually, after a long day at the office, to float along on the way home as I cruised easily through Death Valley and made my way for the US 29 exit on the return trip.
I left the office just after the early evening downpour subsided. I had seen a few bits about Robin Williams on Twitter just before leaving the office. I had assumed he died, probably of the dreaded “C” word I thought, but I figured I’d get the details once I got home.
Lately my radio dial has landed on a variety of NPR stations, depending on reception along the highway. I have to admit I’ve grown tired of the news from Gaza and the Ukraine. I can’t stomach what’s happening in Mesopotamia. The never ending news about environmental degradation vexes my spirit.
So when it’s news time I generally leave the radio off. But as I merged toward the exit for US 29 North I punched the dial and heard these words:
“The American actor Robin Williams has died today, apparently from suicide. Sheriff’s deputies found his body at home and indicated the cause of death was asphyxiation due to hanging.”
Those words floored me. “No,” I said, fighting a shiver as a sense of sadness welled in me and I felt the urge to cry. That urge has been strong in me lately.
A week or so ago as I drove to the office the soothing passages of Londonderry Air brought me to tears. I was thinking of my son at the time, how fast he’s growing up. How little time I seem to have for him lately.
Prior to that it was some lingering issues I’m working out after my mother’s sudden death a few years back, some secrets that came to the surface again recently that I’d rather not have to deal with going forward.
Choices leave consequences. How we deal with both is often times not thought out very well.
That Robin Williams could kill himself is no great surprise on reflection.
I think back to Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, two of the greatest talents of my generation who took their own lives.
I told my wife once I got home that it was difficult for me to accept that Williams could have done that after proving himself to have such depth of spirit as he aged. The manic, drug fueled Williams I could see doing that in his 20s or 30s. The man who pulled reason from angst via characters in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society seemed years beyond that willingness to give into darkness.
But we never know what private demons plague our public figures.
The philosopher Albert Camus, one of my favorite writers, boiled life down to its fundamental essence with a simple statement.
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus said, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”
For Camus the clear answer was yes, life is worth living. Despite the absurdity of seeking meaning in an indifferent universe, Camus, via his essay The Myth of Sisyphys, says that one can find meaning, even if all else is lacking, in attacking the daily problems of your life one after the other. Being grateful for the opportunity to try.
I’m not narcissistic enough to use this space to delineate the myriad of challenges I’ve faced in my life. But I can tell you I’ve been right at that point of decision. I’ve combated the demon of anxiety and dread. Sometimes I’ve handled it well. Other times I’ve barely handled it at all.
But I recall a story a professor told during a course I took on Eastern religion. He was speaking of a Zen master living in post-nuclear Hiroshima, devastated to have lost all his family members. Struggling to live in the face of starvation, nuclear fallout, ultimate deprivation.
The master said when he had nothing else that he would lay still and focus on the sound of his own breath. I used that many nights to quiet my overactive mind, searching for stillness until the only thing I could hear in my mind was the sound of fundamental life.
Other tricks I’ve learned is to have a theme song. A wise man once told me that my job was to force the train of negative thought off the track. He advised me to have a song to play in my mind when I began sinking. Easily I picked John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things”, which has carried me through many years one day after another.
But a few years back I found the wave washing over me. I was close to abandoning all hope. The demon stomped on my silence. He plugged up Coltrane’s tune.
Luckily I read an article about the power of positivity and dedicated myself to finding a new trick. Out of the blue I devised a plan to focus my mind on a simple, positive thing. Something that was tactile and sensory. In the dark one night I began meditating on the process of peeling an orange. The touch of the peel. The effervescence of the aroma. The anticipation of that first slice.
It worked like a charm, especially once I began adding in meditative chants.
Did I go too far in sharing this glimpse?
I’m still here. I hope you’ll stay too. !