Death and life as usual

I watch a lot of YouTube videos. They’re mostly Let’s Plays, footage of video games being played while the player talks. I let the videos run in the background while I do other things. It’s my version of listening to talk radio while I work.

One of the Let’s Players I used to watch went by the name of SlainMagic. His real name was Alex. He was British and mainly played Minecraft. I liked listening to him horse around with his friends, and I admired the organized way he ran his channel. It was one of my inspirations for getting back to work on my site last year.

Around the middle of last year he quit YouTube to concentrate on school. Fortunately, he left his channel up with all its videos so people could still watch them. I was sorry to see him go, but his reasons were good, and he still posted on Twitter here and there, so to a degree he was still around.

But a few weeks ago I was catching up on one of his friend’s videos, and at the start of his latest, he told us that Slain had died in a skiing accident. Disturbed, I paused the video and did a search, and it seems it’s true. It happened in early March. I found tribute videos with comments that explained the situation (“Remember Slain Magic, R.I.P” and “#RememberSlain,” and the related videos include others), then later some messages on Twitter. In these posts I saw a mix of sorrow, affection, acceptance, and even a kind of hope.

I felt sad, though somewhat distantly. I’d interacted with him a little through YouTube and Twitter, but I didn’t know him very well. For all my positive regard, I considered him an Internet acquaintance. Still, especially in the first couple of weeks, his death invaded my thoughts at random times. I felt bad for his family. I can barely imagine having a family vacation turn so abruptly to tragedy. And I felt bad for him. The violence of his death weighed on me, and his life was so short–17 years. Occasionally I do feel tears welling up.

Even though I was an ocean away, and I only barely knew him, and almost no one I know has watched even one Let’s Play, somehow it felt wrong to let my life go on normally when something this wrong has happened in it. I wanted to post something to tell the story so someone I knew would know. Sometimes someone just needs to know.

* * *

If this were a eulogy, I would stop there. Sometimes a life that has ended deserves to stand on its own without extra commentary. (A eulogy would also be more about Alex and less about me.) But a main purpose of my site is to let me think out loud about the parts of life that confuse me, so I have more to say.

In spite of this event and my feelings about it, my life goes on. I work, watch TV, read comics, laugh with my friends. I’ve posted something on this before. But especially in the week or two after I learned about it, whenever I thought about Alex, I wondered if life as usual is really allowed.

This happens whenever life hits me with a personal tragedy or a deeply felt problem. I look at the bad that I feel in contrast with the good I felt before, and I land on the same question: Joy or pain–which is more real? This is another way of asking a more practical one: Given that bad things have happened and they can’t unhappen, is there a reason I shouldn’t give them all my attention for the rest of my life? I always have the sense that the happiness I felt before was a veneer I layered onto life. It was based on an illusion that nothing too bad was happening or would happen. Then the problems broke through that layer and went on to strip it all away. This feeling is accompanied by a sense that the goal of life is a state of utopia, and so if any problems arise that interfere with that state, eliminating them becomes the highest priority.

But I think my choice of words in that first question isn’t quite right. I’m not really comparing pain and joy. I’m comparing pain and ease. In ease I’m including everything that makes life feel light, whether in a fun sense or a restful one. The answer seems obvious at first glance. My veneer-of-happiness image is correct, and pain is more important and lasting than ease. Pain sinks to ground level, where we live, and it pushes ease to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, out of our grasp.

But the past few years have given me a different answer. When we introduce the twin emotions of actual, deep joy and rest into the picture, the contest has a new winner. We can call this new molecule of emotion well-being, though I’ll call it joy for short. It’s like oxygen. Unlike the helium of ease, it descends to our level, and while it doesn’t completely displace the carbon dioxide of pain, it makes the air breathable.

How do we access this well-being? I think a simple starting point is gratitude over the things in life that are good, especially the life-giving parts of our relationships with other people and with God. Along with gratitude we can intentionally spend time with those good things so we’ll have more experiences to appreciate and so those experiences will be recent. I think nature and people are especially good choices, things that are deeply real and supportive. Being in the middle of those good experiences can give us space to be ourselves without the fear of rejection. That means we can do the grieving we need and process our pain until we can make sense of it enough to keep living.

What does this say for ease or even the mundane activities of life as usual? Do they still have a place in a world of such weighty pain? I think they do. This question becomes more complicated the more I consider it, but I’ll save the detailed analysis for a later essay and give you my basic thoughts so far.

My first thought is that joy, pain, and ease all relate to each other, so ease isn’t an extra thing that’s out of place in life. First, ease is the goal of grieving, to a certain extent. The pain of a loss never completely leaves, but over time it recedes enough that life can go on more freely. Second, ease and joy support each other. You can draw on the small enjoyments of life to exercise gratitude and build joy, and joy counteracts pain enough that you can forget about pain from time to time and enjoy life’s more superficial pleasures. Third, ease eases pain. It gives you a break that can give you space to breathe and recover a bit and maybe gain a new perspective on what’s troubling you. It’s like taking a hot air balloon ride to feel the exhilaration of flight and look at the ground from the sky for a while. Fourth, pain can enhance joy. Part of your enjoyment of life’s good things might come from the fact that other parts of life aren’t going well, making the parts that are better more precious, or the fact that you didn’t have this good thing before, and now you do. It’s true that this relationship between pain and joy can be twisted into something harmful, but I think that done right, the relationship can be beneficial.

My second thought is that given that everyone encounters both joyful and painful events, a healthy and caring perspective on life will involve being in touch with both pain and joy and addressing them in appropriate contexts. Actively ignoring one or the other would have some harmful side effects. For yourself, it clearly doesn’t help to live in pain all the time, and it also doesn’t help to deny that painful things have happened to you. And for other people you interact with, it’s at best thoughtless to ignore their pain or joy (unless your pain is greater). A much better approach is attunement, joining people in their joy and pain in a way that strengthens both them and your relationship with them.

Societies have ritualized some of our expressions of pain and joy to give them a definite time and space–funerals, weddings, anniversaries, and so on. They’re like niches in the walls of life in which we put shrines to its important events. But they don’t cover everything, and people are free to create their own practices to attend to joy and pain. For my part, I’ve written this post, and I’ve started a list of people in my life who have died. That way I can look at it every once in a while and remember the place they had in my life and in the lives of others who cared for them.

I’m planning to think and write a lot more about these and related issues when I do my caring and coping projects, which will have many phases and subtopics. That will probably be the subject of my next post.

This entry was posted in Caring, Coping, Death, Life Model, Life updates, Projects. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Death and life as usual

  1. Linda W says:

    I’m sorry to hear about Alex’s death. I didn’t follow his channel. But I follow many others. It’s interesting how they become part of our lives, though we never meet them, except online. I have a number of blogger acquaintances (some have become friends) whom I would miss if something happened.

    This is an interesting discussion. Joy and sorrow/pain show each other in sharp relief. Some of the best stories contain both. The pain of childbirth leads to the joy of a baby’s arrival. I don’t know any women who dwell on how awful that pain was. Yet the pain of it is the backbone of the love they have for their children.

    I’m reminded of Jesus’ scars. He has them forever. A reminder of the pain of the cross and the cost of the joy we can share forever.

    • Andy says:

      Thanks, Linda. Yeah, I’m still following his various social media channels, and I feel a little sting whenever I see them because I’m reminded that I won’t be hearing from him again.

      Good points about stories and childbirth and Jesus’ scars. I didn’t think of those while I was writing the post. And it’s never occurred to me that there’s a relationship between the pain of childbirth and a mother’s love.

  2. Michael Culbertson says:

    Thanks, Andy.

    I’ve struggled for a long time to figure out what happiness is, exactly. I mean, I think I know when I’ve been happy, or at least I know when I experience excitement, pleasure, and satisfaction, which seem to have something to do with happiness. But, the question of what happiness is has eluded me, and more importantly whether it is something fundamental and permanent in a healthy life or something rightly fleeting and intermittent in life. I think your choice of the word ease may fit much better with what people want when they are searching for happiness. Maybe happiness is something different than ease, or perhaps it’s a byproduct of ease, but since I don’t believe that ease is something that is necessarily fundamental and guaranteed in a life well lived (thought certainly a nice thing to have, if one is so privileged), thinking about ease instead of happiness helps put these pursuits in better perspective.

    A friend of mine, whose infant experienced significant health issues in the first year after birth, once suggested (paraphrasing some eastern theologian, I think) that pain hollows out the soul so that it can be filled with deeper joy. I didn’t really like the sound of that, but it does seem like something that would be true.

    • Andy says:

      Maybe happiness is a class of emotions, though I’m not sure that gets at what you’re asking. I agree with the people who think happiness is a deep-seated human pursuit, but I think of the basic goal as satisfaction rather than a more bubbly form of happiness (going with the class idea). People often don’t mind pain if they feel the pain is somehow right.

      Interesting statement by your friend. I searched your phrasing and found something very close to it in this Timothy Radcliffe book. I also found similar thoughts in this very relevant poem by Kahlil Gibran. It reminds me of something Jim Wilder talks about, that to become emotionally healthy you learn to hurt like it’s like you to hurt and to like yourself for caring about the things that cause those hurts.

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