Capable of Learning Nothing from Almost Any Experience

Graceful Reprieve – art by William O’Connor.

Happy Days: Reprieve
By Tim Kreider / June 2, 2009

Fourteen years ago I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and it’s not the point of this essay. The point is that after my unsuccessful murder I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year.

Winston Churchill’s quote about the exhilaration of being shot at without result is verifiably true. I was reminded of an old Ray Bradbury story, “The Lost City of Mars,” in which a man finds a miraculous machine that enables him to experience his own violent death over and over again, as many times as he likes — in locomotive collisions, race car crashes, exploding rockets — until he emerges flayed of all his free-floating guilt and unconscious longing for death, forgiven and free, finally alive.

I started brewing my own dandelion wine in a big Amish crock. I listened to old pop songs too stupid to name in print.

I’m not claiming I was continuously euphoric the whole time; it’s just that, during that grace period, nothing much could bother me or get me down. The sort of horrible thing that I’d always dreaded was going to happen to me had finally happened. I figured I was off the hook for a while. In a parallel universe only two millimeters away from this one (the distance between the stiletto and my carotid), I had been flown home in the cargo hold instead of in coach. Everything in this one, as far as I was concerned, was gravy.

My friends immediately mocked me out of my self-consciousness about the nerve damage that had left me with a lopsided smile. I started brewing my own dandelion wine in a big Amish crock. I listened to old pop songs too stupid to name in print. And I developed a strange new laugh that’s stayed with me to this day — a loud, raucous, barking thing that comes from deep in the diaphragm and makes people in bars or restaurants look over at me for a second to make sure I’m not about to open up on the crowd with a weapon.

I wish I could recommend this experience to everyone. It’s a cliché that this is why people enjoy thrill-seeking pastimes ranging from harmless adrenaline fixes like roller coasters to suicide attempts with safety nets, like bungee jumping. The catch is that to get the full effect you have to be genuinely uncertain that you’re going to survive. The best approximation would be to hire an incompetent hit man to assassinate you.

It’s one of the maddening perversities of human psychology that we only notice we’re alive when we’re reminded we’re going to die, sort of the same way some of us only appreciate our girlfriends after they’re exes. I saw the same thing happen, in a more profound and lasting way, to my father when he was terminally ill, and then to my mother after he died; an almost literal lightening, a flippant indifference to the silly, quotidian nonsense that preoccupies most of us and ruins so much of our lives. A neighbor was suing my father for some reason or other during his illness, but if you tried to talk to him about such “serious” matters he’d just sing you old songs like “A Bird In a Gilded Cage” in a high, quavering old-man falsetto. When my mother, who’s now a leader in her church, sees people squabbling over minutiae or personal politics, she reminds them, diplomatically I’m sure, to focus on the larger context.

It’s easy now to dismiss that year as nothing more than a sort of hysterical high. But you could also try to think of it as a glimpse of grace.

It didn’t last, of course. You can’t feel grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever — or grieve forever, for that matter. Time forces us all to betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living in the world. Before a year had gone by the same dumb everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. I’d be disgusted to catch myself yelling in traffic, pounding on my computer, lying awake at night wondering what was going to become of me.

Once a year on my stabbiversary I remind myself that this is still my bonus life, a free round. But now that I’m back down in the messy, tedious slog of everyday emotional life, I have to struggle to keep things in what I still insist is their true perspective. I know intellectually that all the urgent, pressing items on our mental lists — taxes, car repairs, our careers, the headlines — are so much idiot noise, and that what matters is spending time with people you love. It’s just hard to bear in mind when the hard drive crashes.

I was not cheered, a few years ago, to read about psychological studies suggesting that most people inevitably return to a certain emotional baseline after circumstantial highs and lows. You’d like to think that nearly getting killed would be a major, permanently life-altering experience, but in truth it was less painful, and occasioned less serious reflection, than certain breakups I’ve gone through. If anything, it only reinforced the illusion that in the story of my life only supporting characters would die, while I, its protagonist and first-person narrator, would survive. I’ve demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons, and the main thing I seem to have learned from this one is that I am capable of learning nothing from almost any experience.

I don’t know why we take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best ones, crediting depression with more clarity than euphoria. It’s easy now to dismiss that year as nothing more than the same sort of shaky, hysterical high you’d experience after being clipped by a taxi. But you could also try to think of it as a glimpse of grace. It’s like the revelation I had when I was a kid the first time I ever flew in an airplane: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold onto and take back with you when you descend once more beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather.

[Tim Kreider’s articles have appeared in Film Quarterly and The New York Times and his cartoon “The Pain — When Will It End?” has appeared in the Baltimore City Paper since 1997. His Web site is thepaincomics.com.]

Source / New York Times

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3 Responses to Capable of Learning Nothing from Almost Any Experience

  1. Anonymous says:

    I had to look up ‘quotidian’. It means ‘daily, commonplace’.

  2. Steve Russell says:

    Great catch, Richard.

    Reminds me of my head-on whacking by a drunk driver at age 19. In a way, my whole adult life is gravy.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Very keen to understand what stops ?most? people learning from experience, Tim. Could you point me at some of the research you mentioned, please?

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