Sunday, May 27, 2012

No, not Me!

We drive our cars way too fast. We tell ourselves that we can take that turn at 60 mph. That we can drink that much. Eat that much sugar, that much fat. That we can smoke that much.

We tell ourselves that one more day spent at the beach with the purposeful intent of burning one's skin will not give us skin cancer.

Ernest Hemingway, in a masterpiece among masterpieces, wrote a short, short story called "Indian Camp" in which the main character, young Nick Adams, a central figure in many of Hemingway's short stories, determines that he will never die. Nick has earlier accompanied his father, a country doctor to a remote American Indian camp, where a young woman struggles to give birth. The woman's husband, temporarily crippled by an axe injury, sits in a nearby bunk in emotional agony as his wife goes through physical agony. As Nick watches and listens, his father performs an improvised Caesaerean section, using a jackknife and Nick as his assistant. The new father, strangely quiet for the last part of the Caesarean, is soon found to have sliced his throat with a razor--Nick's father speculates that he killed himself because his wife's pain was too much for him to take.

One reason why this story speaks to me is that Nick, in trying to comprehend one of life's greatest mysteries, fools himself like we do. He asks his father the unknowable--Why did the man commit suicide? Do men often commit suicide?--and twists the answers into the answer he wanted: the way to avoid death was to avoid it, to make a concerted effort not to believe that death will one day get you.

The more you say something, the truer it becomes, right?

Nick Adams sees his life stretching ahead interminably, his childhood but a wisp in the unfolding life story. We have this same selective blindness as Nick every time we eat that extra couple of donuts, drink to excess, smoke that cigarette (even the tobacco industry tells us that we are ingesting tar and other potentially-deadly materials!), or bathe in the sun with the intention of singing our skin.

I was always taught (and I always teach in my classes) that actions speak louder than words, and when it comes to mortality, our actions shout. While we pay lip service to our fragility, to the impermenance of this life, our actions are often right in line with the final line of Hemingway's short story, a description of Nick's thoughts: "...he felt certain that he would never die."

No comments:

Post a Comment