For the first two months of my time in Kolkata, I congratulated myself anytime I walked outdoors. If I found myself outside for any reason at all and if I was standing up, it felt like a real triumph. Jeremy and I exchanged notes and laughed that we had both been doing the same thing. The fact that it might even occur to us to think, "wow, I am totally able to handle this" where "this" refers to standing or walking is something you'd have thought we had outgrown, oh, about 30.5 years ago. We figured that it was probably also an indication of just how well we are not handling things, so we had to laugh. Twelve of my years were spent in one of Africa's largest and dirtiest cities, and I had hoped they would have served a little better as preparation for the new and the strange, but I guess I was wrong.
So much for plans; it is hard to get used to the sight of human suffering and neglect on such a scale as this, and I am not sure I want to, anyway.
Last December, only a few hours after we were introduced, a new acquaintance called me "delicate." I don't know exactly what he meant by it, but I received it as an insult to all the effort and hard work I feel I have directed toward becoming a strong, capable and resilient woman and mother (not to mention the brave public face I thought I was successfully pulling off). Of course delicacy and strength do not necessarily cancel each other out, but four weeks on the ground in one of Asia's dirtiest and most horrifying cities meant I was already dipping deeply into my reserves and so, yeah, I will admit that I was a bit fragile.
Like I said, I don't know what he meant by it (and he was a bit of a strange one), but he was obviously quite sincere as he spoke, and he said it very gently. From his expression, I understood that I ought to take it as the simple truth, and maybe even a compliment.
This year has offered plenty of opportunities to contemplate the limits of my endurance. Immediately before Kolkata, a season in Brooklyn "broke me in" a little for life in an overcrowded and filthy urban setting. Mostly, it made me want to move somewhere beautiful and remote. So I had to laugh when I read the Onion's a hilarious (and satirical, as usual) piece about how, at the same moment on the same day, the entire population of New York City all suddenly realize just how awful the place is and decide to leave immediately:
At 4:32 p.m. Tuesday, every single resident of New York City decided to evacuate the famed metropolis, having realized it was nothing more than a massive, trash-ridden hellhole that slowly sucks the life out of every one of its inhabitants... According to residents, the mass exodus was triggered by a number of normal, everyday New York City events. For Erin Caldwell of Manhattan, an endlessly honking car horn sent her over the edge, causing her to go into a blind rage and scream "shut up!" at the vehicle as loud as she could until her voice went hoarse; for Danny Tremba of Queens it was being cursed at for walking too slow; and for Paul Ogden, also of Queens, it was his overreaction to somebody walking too slow.Oh man, I am still laughing. (It's funny because it's true!)
The article goes on to joke about the misplaced pride New Yorkers feel at being able to tough out all the unpleasantness and inconvenience that comes from stuffing 8.4 million people onto a few islands. As if the real pioneering Americans are the ones who continue to test themselves against the unbeatable odds of their day--ours being pollution, global terrorism and overgrown subway rodents. Face the facts, people: New Yorkers are more hardcore than the rest of us. (Well, besides Alaskans.)
You can always tell survivors by the fact that they have been through so much more than you have, and they want to tell you all about it. The medical community has its share. They are the physicians who were trained before the 80-hour/week cap for residents came into effect and frankly, they are insufferable. I am pretty sure these are the same people who, as kids, used to walk two miles to school (uphill both ways) year-round, in the snow. With no boots. They lived through it and they were even made stronger by their trials, and you ought to accept your share of suffering, too, preferrably in silence. If you don't, well, I guess that just shows what a softie you are.
It is best not to argue with those folks. Not least because they have a point. "Yup," I want to say, but don't, "that's just the kind of wimp I am. Even this is too hard for poor, fragile me." That's not too hard to admit. Actually, the implication that difficulties and hardships naturally makes one less compassionate is more of a problem for me. "So you are saying that you endured the same, or worse, and you refuse to admit that my pain is legitimate? Shouldn't you, of all people, understand and empathize?"
A neighbor lent me a book recently, but I had to return it after reading only a couple of chapters. It was about the women who work in the "dance bars" of Bombay and I should have known better than even to pick it up. Too, too sad. I couldn't handle it. Abuse is so common that when someone gives in to tears about it, the other women accuse them of overreacting. "Those who cry have not suffered enough," they say, exasperated by one of their number who has a habit of telling and retelling her sad story.
Toughen up. Learn to cope. That's what we all do. Right?
The truth is, human beings are remarkably resilient and, with time, we can get used to almost anything. On the other hand, we have also been known to (when given the choice) take the easier way. The easiest thing is to try not to hurt or care too much and avoidance is a particularly effective shield from the hurts we would rather not remember. Still, it seems more than a little harsh to judge those women who resented being forced to face their own still-unhealed wounds. They, like all of us, have learned to adapt in the best way they know how. Everything has its purpose and calluses are there, after all, to protect what is most fragile.
On Sunday we read the Gospel passage about the raising of Lazarus, a story that foretells an imminent and more glorious Resurrection. Outside the tomb, people crowded around to see what Jesus would do, and before He did anything else, He wept. "See how He loved him!" the witnesses said, and their words have been passed down to us so we would know that Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, never outgrew the ability to cry.
It is difficult to balance the mutual need for grief and resilience, compassion and the work of survival. If everything has its purpose, and if tears are proof of love, I hope that I have not--and that I will not--toughen up too much. Love, exultation, and the sorrows of the crushed are still the tools used to heal the world and raise the dead.