Have you heard of Wilfred Owen? He was a WWI poet, a Brit. He was barely grown-up when he died in the mud in France. He kept a journal on him in the trenches before he died, and in that journal he wrote the most wonderful poems.
Wilfred Owen knew a thing or two about feelings. This is his poem "Insensibility." I hope you don't mind me posting the entire thing...
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones;
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
I think Shylock means the same thing when he says this, upon hearing that his daughter Jessica traded the ring his dead wife Leah gave him for a monkey:
"I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."
A wilderness of monkeys. Yes.
Sometimes I think what makes Benjy so sick is trying to locate the ring within the wilderness of monkeys. How do you figure out the value of things when your world is more fixated on capuchins and cappuccinos than on pain and joy and hunger and beauty and all the various, mixed up aspects of human experience? When money trumps everything, and there are little bitty burnt-up five-year-old girls living down the hall from you in the psych ward and you can't do anything about it?
My father used to say to me, back when I was a forlorn girl, "Your day will come." I have made this remark to Benjy on occasion, but of course he does not believe it. I didn't, either.
But funnily enough, my day has come. I had thought it came years ago. When I was an ambitious grad student, the type of overachiever I admire but no longer really comprehend.
These days, if I manage to take a shower and cross three items off my to-do list I have achieved at quite a high level.
I have no problem with this. And also, I realize that my day hadn't come at all back when I was winning fellowships and securing grants and writing books. It's only just come now, in the thick of middle age. Just think: I am peaking at fifty, right when I've reached the apex of underachievement. (Yes, that sentence is of dubious logic. So what?)
You know why this is my time? Because whether or not I shower every day, whether I sit and stare into space or work all day as an ersatz chauffeur or clean the kitchen four times or write an amazing essay or blog or don't blog, I have people all over the world -- folks who live right nearby and folks who live so far away their seasons are all topsy-turvy -- who care about me. I have come into a very big inheritance, and it has to do with feelings and people and connections and the beauty of kind gestures and of brief emails that say, "Hey, I've got your back."
It has to do with generosities born of swelling empathy and a desire to touch people's lives. (***You know who you are. I don't, but I hope you realize the impact of what you did today. What can I say, but THANK YOU? Thank you for reminding me that life and family and friends and community are all gifts.***)
You know, people have gathered round our small family these past years -- each year more difficult than the previous one -- and offered us succor, and love, and made us laugh. Proffered rides (and vacations) to Saskia when we couldn't. Cooked us meals. Given to us in the ways that made most sense to them. (All ways make sense to us.)
Some of these people we have been lucky enough to have in our lives are paid for what they do, and some are not. No matter. All of you do what you do with open and full hearts.
My happiest days, apart from the days when my entire family is content and thriving, are the days when I am able to give back. I do what I can, when I can. In ways that make sense to me and to those to whom I pay it forward.
Wilfred Owen had it right. I think Shylock did, too. It's better to feel richly, even when it hurts, than to feel nothing. You don't trade the ring your dead mother gave to your suffering father for a monkey.
That is just not cool.
The good news is, this world is full of folks who would never do that. We don't hear about them much; they do their good work quietly. But they're out there. I know, because a whole lot of them have touched our lives.
How lucky we are!