My friend Louis died last week. He and I had become close over the last four years; I would go so far as to say we loved each other. As his health declined I considered it a privilege to help care for him. He liked the way I shaved him.
Louis passed away at 91, having enjoyed a rich, eventful life and the love of a close family. Can one ask for more? But his body and mind began failing him a few years back and by the end he was pretty miserable. “Ninety-one is too long to live,” he would confide. For him that was true.
Near the end, before the medical team shifted to palliative hospice care, he would ask about his suffering, “What is the purpose of this. Can the doctors tell me? Can anyone?” All I could do was return his gaze and hold his hand.
Since he left us I have been thinking about our deep need to believe this world is not ruled by happenstance. That our sufferings and our lived lives have purpose. Stories are what convey those purposes and give us comfort.
We want to live in the dominion of causation, not chance. At the opposite end of the pole from chance is destiny. “It was fated,” is its simplest expression in English. The Arabic version is Masha’ allah – This is what God has willed. Destiny can wear many clothes: predestination for some who are devout, genes for the materialists among us, childhood environment for the psychologists. Human will and agency mediate between those two poles, without the assurance of certain outcomes (some non-smokers still die from lung cancer).
It is easiest to see a life’s narrative at its end. “When you reach an advanced age and look back over your life,” the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote, “it can seem to have a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot.” While we can identify some of the events that give form to our lives, Schopenhauer’s observation also makes use of the post hoc fallacy we are all vulnerable to – seeing causation simply because one event precedes another one. “The childhood beatings caused his violent streak.” Well, maybe, maybe not.
As Louis and I got to know each other, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own father, born one year before Louis, in 1924. Their cohort has been called “the greatest generation,” for winning a global war on two fronts and saving the world from fascism and totalitarianism. Louis was an exemplary husband and father, who showered his two lovely daughters with unconditional love. My own father came home from war in the Pacific a troubled man; a deeply flawed husband and father who died from alcoholism at 41, leaving his widow to raise seven kids. Talk about contrasting narratives. Would my father have been a troubled man without the war? I like to think not. But maybe, maybe not. Lots of men who never touch a grenade leave a trail of wreckage wherever they go. Conversely, many men who experience horror in childhood or war manage to lead good, responsible lives. Choose your narrative.
What I can say with certainty is that my friendship with Louis enriched my life. And perhaps gave me a glimpse of what it might have been to have a good father. I am grateful. I will miss him.
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