There is nothing quite so sobering as a shock, a deep existential shock. Let me explain. I was chatting with a fellow staff member over lunch one day during last week, which, as it turned out, was a rather enjoyable, though tiring, average working week as would occur in any busy school, when she told me the following story about a student I once taught. Let us call him Luke so as not to identify him and also let me paint in just a little of the background. Luke worked part-time in a well-known retail outlet while he was at school and continued to work there full-time after he left school. One day in November 2006 he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in the toy department of that store. His burns were so horrendous that he died practically immediately. I'm sure the customers in the store that fateful morning must have been disturbed, deeply disturbed. I had previously heard a rumour that Luke had ended his life, but had refused to believe it, writing it off as idle, if dreadful and disgusting, gossip as my experience of this boy in the classroom, on a school tour to France and in the retail outlet was always pleasant. He could have been no more than early to mid- twenties at the time of his suicide.
For those of you who are loyal readers of these posts you will have read my previous ones on the "beyond debate" nature of many existential themes. You will have read my thoughts and reflections on how human existence is such a complex reality that it can never be reduced to the parameters of an intellectual debate. This is my big theme, the central theme, indeed, of this very blog. Existence cannot be reduced by dry logic and be summed up in a clinical equation as my above horrific story illustrates. The human being is a complex totality like a diamond with many faces: the social, the personal, the emotional, the intellectual, the moral/ethical, the interpersonal, the spiritual, the cultural, the rational, the non-rational, the irrational, the aesthetic and so on and on. It would seem to me that narrow debaters forget to their detriment the sheer complexity and wonder of the human entity and the sheer heights and lows of the human spirit. I remember reading somewhere in the works of that wonderful Victorian theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman, that to seek to comprehend the human being in his/her breadths, heights and depths was nothing short of trying to "quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk." (i)
|Grey clouds will come....|
Anyway, Luke was a good average student who seemed to get on relatively well with his fellow students and who did well enough in his Leaving Certificate to continue on in a "middle of the road" course in college, though to my knowledge he never pursued any academic route. I taught him both the Irish language and Religious Education. He had a brother in the school who was far more problematic insofar as this particular lad was almost totally lost in his own world and was almost completely uncommunicative. This boy would now be diagnosed as belonging somewhere along the ASD spectrum. In those days we had no ASD unit in our school (and knew very little about special education) - we do now, and I am a trained Resource teacher who specialises in that disorder among other educational disabilities.
As I shop quite regularly in the retail outlet where Luke worked I did miss him, but thought merely that he had moved on, got a better job, or gone to college. Hence the above story shocked me to the core. In short, I experienced a deep existential shock. I have one memory of Luke and me playing basketball on the one team against another teacher with some other pupils somewhere in France on a school trip. For some reason I can still see Luke visibly in my mind's eye on that basketball court. He was a good gentle soul and a reasonably good looking smart young man. What could have led him to such a lonely and excruciatingly painful end?
|Compassion is needed|
In the great universal scheme of things we are minuscule ants on a minuscule anthill called earth, lost in the infinity of space. How do we cope with the fact that we as thinking and feeling subjects will come to nothing in the end. Let us hear the words of the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "I stick my finger into existence - it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?" (2)
In short what I am stressing here is that we are exceptionally complex beings who have had existence thrown upon us. In that very "throwness" (Heidegger) and randomness of life, we are left with the task or project (Sartre) of making some sense and meaning of our little lives. Again, let me argue for the complexity of life that would allow, to our dismay, shock and terror the horrific nature of Luke's painfully lonely act of suicide. This latter topic was always central to existential literature from Dostoevsky to Albert Camus. Both of these authors had scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of life's sheer complexity, though I hasten to add that neither took that fatal and final choice. Let me put it this way. They were both sensitive souls who embraced life in its totality and sought to make it as meaningful as they could for themselves. As you will observe, I'm leaving their more philosophical musings to one side here. However, what these authors of this rather amorphous Existential Group of philosophers (I am, like most commentators, loathe to call it a school given the great divergences from the admittedly common themes like alienation, individuality and anxiety to name but three) do offer us is a grappling with the big issues of human existence and considered reflections thereon. Indeed, a wonderfully real school of psychotherapy has grown out of their grappling and reflections, namely the Existential School of Psychotherapy. Ironically, it is by acknowledging the painful and almost meaningless (note the adverb here please) nature of human life that some meaning is embraced in the client's life. Acknowledging the problematic nature of life, naming it in its sheer nakedness, stripping away all the superficial coverings which only hide and deny the real problems is the road to recovery. Somehow on the road to recovery, with the help of other human beings we are healed.
Luke's death has shocked me deeply, and the picture of him, larger than life, in his sports outfit, playing basketball lives on in my mind's eye. These thoughts are my tribute to him. Unfortunately, there was no one there for him to reach out to in the sheer hell of his lonely tormented mind. Each day that I teach my poor needy SEN students I will think of Luke who had no one to listen to him in his pain. For me philosophy will never be a game, or an intellectual pursuit alone. It is and always will be a way of attempting to make even a little sense and meaning of the mystery which human life confronts me with - in its highs and lows; in its heights and depths; in its joys and sorrows; in its apparent randomness; in its occasional serendipity and rare synchronicity; in its rich bounty and supreme splendour; in its littleness and greatness; in its strength and in its brittleness. St Augustine of Hippo says somewhere that life is a hospital and that it is our duty to care for one another and help heal the wounded soul and the wounded body of our fellow travellers. In so doing, we are in fact engaged in making it meaningful and allowing a little light of understanding in.
(i) The full quotation is from The Idea of a University and goes: "Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man."
(ii) Quoted Lavine (1984, p. 322)