Field Notes from Elsewhere

Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living

Mark C. Taylor
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/tayl14780
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  • Book Info
    Field Notes from Elsewhere
    Book Description:

    In the fall of 2005, Mark C. Taylor, the controversial public intellectual and widely respected scholar, suddenly fell critically ill. For two days a team of forty doctors, many of whom thought he would not live, fought to save him. Taylor would eventually recover, but only to face a new threat: surgery for cancer. "These experiences have changed me in ways I am still struggling to understand," Taylor writes in this absorbing memoir. "After the past year, I am persuaded that I have done enough fieldwork to write a book that combines philosophical and theological reflection with autobiographical narrative. Writing is not only possible but actually seems necessary."

    Field Notes from Elsewhere is Taylor's unforgettable, inverted journey from death to life. Each of his memoir's fifty-two chapters and accompanying photographs recounts a morning-to-evening experience with sickness and convalescence, mingling humor and hope with a deep exploration of human frailty and, conversely, resilience. When we confront the end of life, Taylor explains, the axis of the lived world shifts, and everything must be reevaluated. As Taylor sorts through his remembrances, much that once seemed familiar becomes strange, paradoxical, and contradictory. He reads his experience with and against ghosts from his past, recasting the meaning of mortality, sacrifice, solitude, and abandonment, along with a host of other issues, in light of modern ways of dying. "You never come back from elsewhere," Taylor concludes, "because elsewhere always comes back with you."

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52003-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. ONE Day | Night
    (pp. 1-4)

    The world, ancient myths teach us, did not originate once and for all at a moment in the distant past but is created anew every time dawning light reveals changing patterns. This endlessly recurrent event almost makes it possible to believe that rumors of death are nothing but idle gossip. Eternity is neither the infinite extension of time nor its negation; rather, eternity and time meet in the paradoxical moment when creation repeatedly emerges as if from nothing.

    As I write these words, dawn is slowly breaking on the Berkshire Mountains. For more than two decades, I have begun each...

  4. TWO Beginning | Origin
    (pp. 5-20)

    It began—or so I thought—with two phone calls of which I have absolutely no recollection. In retrospect it seems fitting that the beginning was an event I cannot remember but know only through others. I have long insisted in my teaching and writing that life is always lived on the edge, along the elusive border between order and chaos. What we call normality is a narrow bandwidth—a fraction of a degree more or less, and everything spins out of control. Along this margin reason and madness are simultaneously joined and separated by a membrane so thin and...

  5. THREE Elsewhere | Silence
    (pp. 21-24)

    I have been elsewhere. The distance is short, though its crossing takes a lifetime. Elsewhere is not far—it is near, ever proximate, never present. It is a place or placeless place that is strange because it is so familiar. Rather than beyond, elsewhere is between the places I ordinarily dwell or think I dwell. When journeying elsewhere, you do not leave the here and now; it is as though elsewhere were folded into the present in a way that disrupts its presence. The everyday world does not disappear when you linger elsewhere—all you care about approaches from a...

  6. FOUR Reflections | Reticence
    (pp. 25-28)

    “Such works are mirrors.” So begins Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way, though every book he published implicitly bears this preface. In all his writings Kierkegaard holds up to the reader a looking-glass in which he or she can see the stages of his or her own life reflected. In this way the reflections of the writer are reflections of and by the reader. But exactly what are such reflections and why do they make readers reflect?

    The first thing that must be said about reflections is that they take (and give) time, though not all do so in the same...

  7. FIVE Premonitions | Postcards
    (pp. 29-36)

    I had always been suspicious of reports about premonitions until one night when I was seventeen. That was the summer that our family drove from our home in New Jersey to California and back. We spent the last night on the road with my father’s brother near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Though our two cousins, Noel and Chuck, were older, my brother and I had fond memories of hunting with them on the nearby farm where my father and his siblings had grown up. We were eager to share stories from our trip with our cousins and were disappointed to discover that...

  8. SIX Home | Afterlife
    (pp. 37-47)

    My earliest memory is of bringing my brother, Beryl, home for the first time, when I was three and a half years old. I sat holding him in my arms, squeezed between my mother and father in our 1945 maroon Chrysler with hideous Scottish plaid seats. I remember his pink face with peeling skin, as if he had been out in the sun too long. While my father drove, my mother hummed a tune from a hymn I had heard but whose words I did not know. There is no way I could have imagined the relief and joy they...

  9. SEVEN Stealth | Sacrifice
    (pp. 48-54)

    November 26, 2006. Every morning for the past two weeks, a buck, a doe, and two fawns have greeted me outside my study window. Apples and pears have fallen from the trees, and deer always return this time of year to eat them. It is rare, however, to see a buck; usually, there are only doe and their fawns. Buck are much more wary and thus elusive. This buck is young—perhaps two or three years old—and seems calmer than most. In the predawn light we have been staring at each other, and after a few days he has...

  10. EIGHT Killing | Elemental
    (pp. 55-64)

    My father taught me to kill. We began with insects and proceeded to birds and eventually to animals. The first thing I remember killing deliberately was a small white cabbage butterfly. One day when I was seven, my father came home from school with a butterfly net and announced, “We’re going to start a butterfly collection.” Not until then did I realize that he had been developing his lesson plan for a long time. A couple of years earlier, we had planted a butterfly bush in our backyard. Each summer many different species of butterflies were drawn to the fragrance...

  11. NINE Abandonment | Mortality
    (pp. 65-71)

    Before the beginning, there is abandonment. I am, we are, abandoned, not once but again and again and again. Being comes to pass as abandonment; to be, therefore, is to have been abandoned. Nothing abandons, yet there is abandonment; abandonment occurs as having taken place without ever taking (a) place. Always already past, abandonment remains shrouded in oblivion. I have no memory of the primal event that allows me to be, and, more important, to become, what I might yet be or not be.

    Since abandonment happens before the beginning, I am forever after—after the past that never was...

  12. TEN Displacement | Place
    (pp. 72-77)

    I split my life between city and country—New York and the Berkshires. My friends in the city cannot understand why I have stayed in the country for thirty-five years, and my friends in the country have no idea why after so long I would want to live in the city.

    My apartment in the city is on the thirteenth floor of a building at the corner of Broadway and 103rd Street. I have an unobstructed view due north to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and beyond to Morningside Heights and Harlem. To the left new high-rises with...

  13. ELEVEN Creativity | Thinking
    (pp. 78-82)

    “God and the imagination,” the poet Wallace Stevens avers, “are one.” To appreciate this rich insight we must expand our notion of the imagination and transform our understanding of God. Wherever form emerges from formlessness or pattern appears in the midst of confusion, the imagination is at work. The imagination is not only within us but is also in the world around us. Theologians have had it wrong for centuries—God is not the Creator, creativity is God. Rather than a person, God is the infinite process in and through which everything arises and passes away. The good news is...

  14. TWELVE E/Mergence | Emptiness
    (pp. 83-85)

    E/mergence is the space-time of the aleatory. In this interval the music of chance plays without end. This score opens a wound that is as creative as it is destructive. E/mergence takes place without taking place before the beginning; it is an event that is neither planned nor programmed. It occurs without why and thus surprises, sometimes even astonishes. The interval in which e/mergence erupts gives pause, and this pause is the beginning as well as the end of reflection. Always a “matter” of chance, the event of e/mergence is without reason, which is not to say it is irrational....

  15. THIRTEEN Walls | Garden
    (pp. 86-93)

    As I hike the Berkshire Mountains, I often stumble on stone walls that the forest has overtaken. Many of these walls are long and their patterns intricate. When I occasionally find the foundations of nearby houses and barns, I pause and try to imagine the lives of the people who once farmed this land. The length of the walls is an abiding testimony to how grudgingly New England earth yields to shovels and plows. Sometimes there is a small family graveyard near the remaining traces of the homestead. Hidden deep in the woods, the lichen-covered tombstones etched with fading names...

  16. FOURTEEN Painting | Play
    (pp. 94-104)

    What I most remember are not the colors but the smells—the linseed oil with which I mixed my paints and the turpentine with which I cleaned my brushes. From the age of nine until I was twelve, I spent every Tuesday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:30 taking painting lessons from an elderly widow, Lillian Owen, who lived two doors up the street from us. She also gave my brother violin lessons. As a small token of our appreciation, we spent Saturday evenings during the summer watching the Perry Mason TV show with her while sipping ice cream sodas that...

  17. FIFTEEN Perhaps | Numbers
    (pp. 105-109)

    Perhaps you will have noticed that perhaps is one of the most important words in my vocabulary. I repeat it often, though perhaps not often enough. The issue is not just linguistic; it is philosophical, theological, perhaps even metaphysical. Perhaps: per (by) + chance (hap). It is not, however, by chance that I use this odd word so much. My design is deliberate, quite calculated—calculated, in fact, to suggest what I cannot exactly calculate.

    Perhaps: Possibility with uncertainty, suspicion or doubt.

    Something that may or may not happen (or exist).

    A mere possibility.

    A possible impossibility.

    An impossible possibility....

  18. SIXTEEN Pleasure | Money
    (pp. 110-114)

    Pleasure is never satisfying because it always leaves one wanting. Satisfaction overcomes lack and restores balance by fulfilling expectations. Though rarely admitted, the sense of completion that satisfaction brings harbors death even if life continues. Those who are satisfied are the living dead roaming, which is not to say erring, in our midst. Fulfillment, it seems, is a perfect equilibrium and as such is entropy in which differences become indifferent. As the circle closes, Omega and Alpha finally become One—completion brings the loss of difference.

    Pleasure, or its prospect, by contrast, is never fulfilling—it unsettles, disrupts, and throws...

  19. SEVENTEEN Vocation | Teaching
    (pp. 115-118)

    Is it possible to believe in vocation if you do not believe in one who calls? I have never considered my work a job or even a career; indeed, I’m not sure I really regard it as work. Rather, teaching and writing are vocations and that means they are callings. It is no accident that many of the oldest and most prestigious universities and colleges in this country were founded by New England Protestants and initially were led by pastors. The commitment to the Word runs deep even in those who do not know or even vehemently reject their own...

  20. EIGHTEEN Last | Burial
    (pp. 119-124)

    Though always singular, the last time is endlessly repeated. Sometimes you know, often you don’t—the last chance, the last class, the last book, the last dance, the last laugh, the last time you make love, the last time you see your daughter or son, the last supper. The last lesson my mother taught me—not once but twice—was the importance of the last time.

    When the phone rings in the middle of the night, it’s never good news. The trembling voice on the other end of the line was my father’s, telling me that my mother had suffered...

  21. NINTEEN Solitude | Loneliness
    (pp. 125-128)

    Solitude is what everyone has in common and as such is what constitutes our essential humanity. Whereas isolation separates and individualizes, solitude relates and universalizes. Far from suppressing singularity, the essentiality and universality of solitude cultivate the singular as their necessary condition. While singularity makes us unique and thus irreplaceable, it is not the source of our identity because the singular can never be identified as such. It is utterly idiomatic and therefore is inevitably lost in translation. Since the untranslatable cannot be communicated, what I hold in common with others is the incommunicability of a singularity that is never...

  22. TWENTY Things | Ghosts
    (pp. 129-134)

    Things never seem stranger than when cleaning out the possessions of the dead. For the living, things are not mere things but are animated by the lives lived through them. Animists are not completely mistaken: things are the extension of the person, even the embodiment of spirit. We know each other by the things we value and possess. Though we appear to own things, they really own us.

    While things were never very important to my parents, as they grew older, they became obsessed with a few special things: my mother’s antiques, figurines, and pitcher collection; my father’s cameras, photography...

  23. TWENTY-ONE Levity | Grief
    (pp. 135-138)

    The miracle: almost having after having had not. The indifference to indifference harbors duplicity. In a world where nothing matters, nothing is ever what it seems. Having is having-not and not-having is, perhaps, the only way of having. Nothing seems more grave than indifference; indeed, the burden of “Nothing matters” can plunge one into a fathomless abyss of despair. After all, what weight could be greater than the weight of nothing? Yet “nothing matters” is light—terribly light. The recognition of the insubstantiality of it all can prepare the way for overcoming gravity. In this new physics, which is no...

  24. TWENTY-TWO Humor | Monsters
    (pp. 139-144)

    The most reliable index of a person’s perceptiveness, I have long believed, is his or her sense of humor. In medieval physiology humor referred to one of the four bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile) believed to determine a person’s temperament. Gradually, it came to be associated with a particular disposition characterized by levity and playfulness. Far from the frivolous recognition of foolishness, this disposition grows out of a sophisticated awareness of life’s contradictions, incongruities, incommensurabilities, even absurdity. Though I had written about humor, I did not really understand it before lingering in that night beyond night from...

  25. TWENTY-THREE Faction | Dishonesty
    (pp. 145-148)

    “Did all this really happen?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Did everything you write about really happen or have you made some of this stuf up?”

    “Well, yes, I guess so—and, no, I don’t think so.”

    “What do you mean you guess so, you don’t think so?”

    “Well, I don’t think I made anything up, but I guess it depends on what the meaning of happen is.”

    “Don’t mess with me. You know exactly what I mean.”

    “To the best of my recollection, everything happened as I’ve described it.”

    ‘“To the best of your recollection’—that’s what they say on...

  26. TWENTY-FOUR Inheritance | Withholding
    (pp. 149-155)

    As a teacher and a writer, I believe the most valuable inheritance I can pass on to my children is immaterial rather than material. I will never be able to leave them great wealth, but I can give them the gift of knowing how to read and write well. This inheritance, however, involves far more than completing a few legal and financial transactions, no matter how complex they might be.

    Having come to this realization when my children were still young, I decided to begin gifting our kids their inheritance in annual increments as soon as they left elementary school....

  27. TWENTY-FIVE Letting Go | Dinnertime
    (pp. 156-161)

    Autumn breeds mixed emotions for a teacher. It is a time of ending and a time of beginning. Unfinished projects must be set aside as I face the demands and opportunities created by classrooms full of new students. This is a rhythm I have known my whole life, first as a student and son of teachers, now as a teacher and father of students.

    But this fall has been different—Aaron has left for college. The sense of ending and beginning, for him as well as for me, is more profound this year. He had, of course, been leaving for...

  28. TWENTY-SIX Compassion | Suffering
    (pp. 162-167)

    How do you measure compassion? The word holds clues. Deriving from compati—com, with + pati, to suffer—compassion is sharing another person’s feelings or suffering. As such, compassion seems to require empathetic identification in which two somehow become one. While such a union does not necessarily presuppose familiarity or proximity, compassion tends to create a sense of closeness even when it is between or among distant strangers. Well-intended compassion can, of course, be exploited for political purposes and economic gain. When it is genuine, however, compassion can get you through the darkest night. But how can we ever be...

  29. TWENTY-SEVEN Clouds | Waiting
    (pp. 168-172)

    On certain summer days the atmosphere is so clear that the line where sky meets mountain is crisper than any artist can draw. As morning gives way to afternoon, clouds gradually gather—not dark clouds that portend approaching storms but light, fluffy clouds that constantly change their shapes. From time to time I attempt to capture these clouds with my camera but always fail. Their forms are too transient, their movement too fleeting for the lens to record. What most intrigues me is the way these clouds drift—even when moving in a straight line, they seem to wander. I...

  30. TWENTY-EIGHT Freedom | Terror
    (pp. 173-177)

    There is no freedom without terror. To spread freedom is therefore to increase terror. In the instant of freedom, the power of creativity appears as “the fury of destruction, which knows no limit.” What makes freedom so terrifying is that it reveals an unfathomable abyss “within” that exposes as groundless every ground believed to be secure. This unfathomable abyss is the whiteness of the whale—the “never-to-be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.” It is the nothingness that haunts being as its impossible condition.

    Those who cannot bear to face this void define freedom as self-determination and even autonomy. To...

  31. TWENTY-NINE Forgiveness | Cruelty
    (pp. 178-182)

    I am sometimes willing to forgive but am never willing to forget. To those who say, “Forgive and forget,” I say, “Forgive but remember.” The point is not that I hold grudges and seek revenge, though in all honesty sometimes I do. Rather, my refusal to forget reflects my respect for the past and insistence on the abiding significance of human decisions and deeds. Clichés sometimes become clichés because they are true: What has been done really cannot be undone. The fitting response is not to forget it and move on. There are few phrases in the contemporary lexicon of...

  32. THIRTY Daughters | Obsession
    (pp. 183-188)

    My mother often said that one of the primary reasons the prospect of dying was so disconcerting was that she would never see where her only granddaughter, Kirsten, would end up. Such thoughts are not uncommon, but I suspect there were several reasons she expressed this feeling so often. Kirsten became the daughter she had lost at birth. In the quiet of my mother’s endless melancholy, how could she not have asked what Baby Girl Taylor might have become had she not been strangled? There is no worse fate for a parent than to outlive a child—and then to...

  33. THIRTY-ONE Failure | Success
    (pp. 189-195)

    Teaching is more about raising questions than providing answers. For many years I have told students on the first day of class, “If you do not come out of this course more confused and uncertain than you are now, I will have failed.” They usually chuckle because they do not realize how serious I am. In most classes I fail. Many students who attend elite liberal arts colleges and Ivy League universities consider their four years either a ticket to future wealth and success or an enjoyable interlude before getting on with the serious business of life. All too often...

  34. THIRTY-TWO Balance | Simplicity
    (pp. 196-199)

    I have always been wary of balance because I fear it will take the edge off. I prefer things off balance, slightly out of kilter, just a little bit edgy. When things seem settled, I get unsettled; when people get comfortable, I am uncomfortable. I value disagreement more than agreement, resistance more than compliance. As a parent I am demanding, as a colleague, difficult, and as a teacher, tough. It is because I respect others—because I want for them what they often don’t want for themselves—that I try to keep them off balance.

    On the face of it,...

  35. THIRTY-THREE Face | Aging
    (pp. 200-206)

    What most intrigues me about the face is not skin but bone. Nothing is more personal than my face, yet it always remains strange to me. I never see it directly but only indirectly in reflections cast by mirrors and windows as well as the eyes and sometimes the voice of others. In the faces of others, I glimpse my own mortality, and others read things in the lines of my face that I do not know about myself. Efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, faces betray by exposing what we would like to keep secret.

    I have long preferred rough...

  36. THIRTY-FOUR Stigma | Autoimmunity
    (pp. 207-211)

    Disease stigmatizes but not all stigmas are the same. Some are visible, others invisible; some are more threatening, others less. I bear the stigma of several diseases. A stigma, I have discovered, singles out, sets apart, creates a distance. Once stigmatized, you become other, always other. This othering is not so much my own activity as it is a process of distancing that others deploy as a strategy of containment and control in their relations to me. In declaring the other other, people claim, “I am not that.”

    When I was diagnosed first with diabetes and then with cancer, I...

  37. THIRTY-FIVE Patience | Chronicity
    (pp. 212-215)

    Patience is a waiting that is not an awaiting. The patient who suffers disease, pain, or anguish awaits relief, perhaps even cure. The promise of research, a phone call with the diagnosis, the test results with an answer, the prescription for a pill. Awaiting is an active response to suffering through which the patient attempts to master time by making the future apprehensible as well as manageable. Even when it appears dark, the future can lend the present meaning and direction if there are strategies to negotiate it. As long as a condition remains unnamed, it provokes anxiety. By naming...

  38. THIRTY-SIX Technology | Addiction
    (pp. 216-221)

    We are always already posthuman. Indeed, the line that simultaneously separates and joins what is human and what is not can never be drawn precisely. Culture and its extension in technology are the supplements that originally constitute the human as such. Far from opposite, nature and artifice are codependent and coevolve. The natural is artificial because the artificial is natural. The distinctive trait of humanity is an originary lack that makes prostheses, implants, and transplants necessary for survival. Nevertheless, many critics today—from the supposedly sophisticated to the apparently naive—insist that rather than enhancing humanity, technology threatens the “authentically...

  39. THIRTY-SEVEN Pain | Intimacy
    (pp. 222-225)

    Pain is not the same as suffering. There can be suffering without pain and pain without suffering. Nor is pain primarily physical. Indeed, physical pain is but the aftereffect of a deeper pain, which is always a matter of knowledge or its impossibility. Pain and secrecy, it seems, are bound in a knot that can never be undone. Both betraying and guarding secrets can bring pain. When some secrets are told, everything changes in the twinkling of an eye. Revelation transforms knowledge into ignorance by exposing as pernicious lies truths that long seemed certain. Pain is knowing that you did...

  40. THIRTY-EIGHT Blindness | Aura
    (pp. 226-230)

    Sometimes the literal is figurative, though the figurative is never literal. From ancient myths and scriptures to contemporary psychology and critical theory, the gift of blindness, we have been taught, brings with it irreplaceable insight. Prophets and visionaries who are blind reveal truths to people who cannot see what is staring them in the face. Throughout the history of the West, the metaphysics of light, which associates knowledge with vision, has always been shadowed by an epistemology of darkness in which knowing is shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

    The obscurity of vision, which is not the same as the...

  41. THIRTY-NINE Cancer | Surviving
    (pp. 231-235)

    Nothing—absolutely nothing—prepares you for the words, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” No matter how long you have anticipated the news, no matter how sympathetically it is delivered, the world stops the moment the message arrives. The future, which is never secure, suddenly seems blank—plans, projects, programs are immediately suspended. A broken relationship never mended, a book almost complete left unfinished, an unborn granddaughter never met. Even if the prognosis is “good,” cancer exposes a fragility that is the inescapable trace of the future’s uncertainty.

    Cancer is unlike other diseases. Neither my mother nor grandmother ever uttered the...

  42. FORTY Trust | Bitterness
    (pp. 236-240)

    Life often hangs by a thin thread, and sometimes you really do have only one quarter to make the call. When that moment arrived for me, I never could have anticipated the person to whom I would turn. Our worlds could not be more different: his is Wall Street, mine the university; he is very wealthy; I am not; he is midtown, I am uptown; he is East Side, I am West Side. A child of the sixties, I had grown up suspicious of wealth and wary of businessmen. When our worlds intersected, I was therefore very surprised to discover...

  43. FORTY-ONE Hands | Will
    (pp. 241-246)

    Either you have hands or you don’t. If you do, you can’t explain it; if you don’t, there is nothing you can do about it. While hands obviously differ, nothing visible distinguishes good hands from bad hands. What, then, is it about hands?

    To understand hands, it is helpful to look at arms. A friend once asked me, “If you could be a star professional athlete in any sport, what would it be and what position would you want to play?” Though I had never considered the question, my response was immediate: “Baseball. Pitcher.” Perhaps it was because my father...

  44. FORTY-TWO Secrets | Tripping
    (pp. 247-250)

    Are you still reading? I often wish I could step off the page to explain things better by talking with you directly. But, I realize, this is an idle fantasy because all discourse is destined to be indirect. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve said too much or too little about myself as well as others. We live in a world obsessed with exposure where privacy and, with it, interiority are disappearing. Art has become political in unexpected ways: the modernist aesthetic ideal of clarity has become a political ideology of transparency in which everything is turned outside in and inside...

  45. FORTY-THREE Strangers | Tips
    (pp. 251-254)

    At the end of the day, our lives depend on strangers. Late one night, after she had awoken me to take my vital signs, she told me that she had prayed for me the day before. I was ashamed to admit that I barely remembered her face. I inquired where she worshipped and she told me she attended a megachurch near Times Square. She had been born and raised a Catholic in the Philippines but had converted to Protestantism after coming to this country. After talking about faith for a while, I asked her, “How can you continue to believe...

  46. FORTY-FOUR Sharing | Fatigue
    (pp. 255-258)

    When I was transferred from the intensive care unit to the general ward, I shared a room—and, I would discover, much more—with Marty. I had not had a roommate other than Dinny since college. Marty was, in many ways, much more interesting than most of the people I met during my student days. He proudly claimed to be half Apache and half Italian—a volatile mix, to say the least. His present life was rough; he lived alone in the Bronx projects, where nightly gunfire made it impossible for him to leave his apartment. A social worker had...

  47. FORTY-FIVE Idleness | Guilt
    (pp. 259-262)

    Nothing is harder for me to do than nothing. The issue is not merely psychological—it is metaphysical, ethical, even religious. I guess my problem with doing nothing shows how deeply Protestant I remain. I have never been able to forget my grandmother’s severe warning to me when I was a child: “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.” For her the idle person was not merely lazy but shiftless, useless, worthless. As the work of the devil, idleness, I was taught, is sin and sin, of course, breeds guilt. Even today I never feel more guilty than when I am doing...

  48. FORTY-SIX Driving | Accident
    (pp. 263-267)

    Something very odd has happened since I have returned—for some reason I have begun to enjoy driving. I had always hated to drive and have never had the slightest interest in cars. I regarded such matters in purely utilitarian terms. Driving seemed to be a waste of time because I always felt I should be doing something more useful or important. But since driving is unavoidable, I was forced to put up with it, albeit impatiently. In addition to harboring these misgivings, I find there is something terribly inefficient and even morally offensive about driving. Locked inside private cars...

  49. FORTY-SEVEN Imperfection | Vulnerability
    (pp. 268-271)

    Perfection is the mark of death, imperfection the sign of life. Far from admirable, the pursuit of perfection blindly rushes toward the end of the only life we can ever know. If perfection were ever achieved, time would stop—having arrived, we would have nowhere left to go. The end of time is not life everlasting but eternal death.

    And yet people remain obsessed with perfection: the perfect game, the perfect score, the perfect partner, the perfect style, the perfect moment, the perfect body, the perfect face. The contradictions involved in the contemporary obsession with perfection are revealed in the...

  50. FORTY-EIGHT Friendship | Doubt
    (pp. 272-274)

    A friend is the person who remains when everyone else has left. He knows when to call and when not to call because he is close enough to realize the value of distance. Though weeks, months, sometime years may pass between conversations and visits, when friends reconnect, it seems as if time had been standing still.

    Friendship cannot be planned—it either happens or it doesn’t. Like love, it is out of our control—a matter of grace rather than work. Genuine friendship is rare and thus truly precious. If you have four or five close friends in your life,...

  51. FORTY-NINE Love | Fidelity
    (pp. 275-278)

    “I love you no matter what.”

    “No matter what?”

    “No matter what.”

    “No matter what I do?”

    “No matter what.”

    “No matter what I don’t do?”

    “No matter what.”

    We have heard the words so often that they no longer seem extraordinary. “No matter what? … No matter what.” How can such familiar words be made strange?

    Love, it appears, is a matter of indifference. For love to be true love, it must be unconditional: I love the other no matter what. What the beloved does makes no difference to the lover, for love’s only law is to be without...

  52. FIFTY Hope | Despair
    (pp. 279-284)

    Honesty compels me to admit that hope is impossible for me. Once you have passed through the night and glimpsed the night beyond night, how can you hope any longer? It’s not just the pain, suffering, and violence but their eternal return that make hope so hopeless. Whether we are coping with the suffering of a newborn baby with no prospect of normality or genocide that seems to know no end, any search for meaning and purpose is more of a travesty than the admission that it is all senseless. My problem with hope is that so often it denies...

  53. FIFTY-ONE Happiness | Melancholy
    (pp. 285-288)

    Why is it so much harder to write about happiness than unhappiness and joy rather than melancholy? Happy eras, we are told, are the blank pages of history—and, so it would seem, of books. Perhaps it is because it takes more courage to write about happiness than unhappiness. Those who fashion themselves sophisticated dismiss people who embrace happiness as naive, simple-minded, and superficial. On the scales of criticism and scholarship, gravity outweighs levity every time. How many major writers’ reputations rest on odes to joy?

    My candidate is Nietzsche—no person has written more profoundly and eloquently about happiness...

  54. FIFTY-TWO Ordinary | Extraordinary
    (pp. 289-292)

    When you first receive the diagnosis of cancer, it is difficult not to feel singled out. Though I did not for a moment ask “Why me?” I did nonetheless feel exceptional in a way I never had before. In the days following that dreaded phone call, I watched friends and colleagues go about their business as if nothing had changed and realized that now I was set apart—I had become not merely different but other.

    I had not, however, anticipated how much things would change when I crossed the threshold of the cancer ward. Forbidding from the outside, the...

  55. Notes
    (pp. 293-294)
  56. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 295-296)
  57. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-298)