“If You Knew” – Ellen Bass
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
The learning of love—the real stuff, and not the feeling-based parasitic emotional strip-mining process à deux that many mistake for love and are seeking—requires that we start circling our lives and our thinking around some pretty hefty questions, death being one of them.
If we are living and loving others as if life goes on forever and as if we have all the time in the world, we are not loving another but using him or her.
And if we are living in denial of our own mortality, then we are not capable of truly loving another. In fact our own self-deception and denial and dishonesty basically insures that we will not be able to handle the rigors of real intimacy and real self-revelation. Truth—the truth—will be too much for us. So we will prefer darkness to light, hiding to openness, obfuscation and buffers to transparency.
Real intimacy is based on being open about who we are—our fears, our weaknesses, our dreams, our hopes, our past, the good the bad and the ugly.
All of which requires intense honesty—a concerted ongoing effort not to hide, not to cut corners, but instead to become more and more open and more and more real and visible to another person.
But this can’t happen if we are still at the stage where we think life goes on forever—that is, if we’re still living in denial. If we’re still hiding out from life and hiding from ourselves, we are automatically disqualifying ourselves from loving and being loved. No love can reach us, because real love is always truthful, honest, real. Sometimes love is very kind, nice, warm; but there also may be times when it’s direct, tough—especially when it’s showing us something about ourselves that we don’t want to see. At those times we will feel that it isn’t love that is being shown for us.
But this line of reasoning only works so long as we’re still basically living in denial and hold to that adolescent hedonistic mentality that if it feels good it must be good for us, and if it feels bad it must be bad for us. Whatever we feel determines whether something is good or bad for us.
When the reality is that not everything that feels good is good for us, and not everything that feels bad (or harsh or tough) is bad for us.
Life is complex like that.
And so not only will no real love reach us so long as we are living we are living like this and living in denial, we won’t actually be able to genuinely love another because what we will “love” and value in the other person will be their utility (usefulness) to us as an escape, a fantasy, a palliative, a prop, something to help us feel better, more alive—and to help us feel more alive but without having to confront ourselves and our own and others’ mortality. We won’t be valuing and engaging the other person as a “real” person, as someone on equal footing with ourselves, as real as ourselves, because we can’t do it, we lack that ability until we become real to ourselves, and we can’t—cannot—become real to ourselves so long as we’re living in denial of our own mortality and we haven’t developed an ongoing honest relationship with our own and others’ deaths.
Thus one of the first marks or signs that we are truly ready to love and to grow into some sort of psychological and spiritual adulthood is that we begin giving up our denial and dishonesty in regards to our own and others impending deaths (or that we allow it to be taken from us—because sometimes life does this—gives us an near-death experience and cracks the ingrained shell of our egoism/narcissism in that way and allows us to see reality and our lot much more clearly).
And to do this voluntarily is the beginning of a truly heroic journey because of all of the courage it will require and cultivate in us through our honesty and steadfastness.
And when we begin to develop these character traits in ourselves—honesty, courage, steadfastness, perseverance—then we are also beginning to ready ourselves as well for the rigors of real intimacy and real love.
The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff