….And God made him die during the course of a hundred years and then He revived him and said: “How long have you been here?” “A day, or part of a day,” he replied. – The Koran, II 261
The embryo of this post has gestated between my prefrontal cortex and limbic system for one year and eight months. It’s time.*
There seem to be two opposite axes from which we typically consider and evaluate character. Character as traits, Eigenschaften (see Musil), the markers of personality, virtue, and vice.
One extreme is to say that character is formed and reinforced through our daily actions and habits.** We are the actions we tend towards, the self not noun but verb, a precipitate we shape using the mysterious organ philosophers have historically called free will. Thoughts rise up and compete for attention,*** drawing and calling us to identify as a me, a me reinforced as our wrists rotate ever more naturally to wash morning coffee cups, a me shocked into being by an acute feeling of disgust, coiling and recoiling from some exogenous stimulus that drives home the need for a barrier between self and other, a me we can imagine looking back on from an imagined future-perfect perch to ask, like Ivan Ilyich, if we have indeed lived a life worth living. Character as daily habit. Character, as my grandfather used to say, as our ability to decide if today will be a good or a bad day when we first put our feet on the ground in the morning (Naturally, despite all the negative feelings and challenges, he always chose to make today a good day).
The other extreme is to say that true character is revealed in the fox hole. That traits aren’t revealed until they are tested. That, given our innate social nature, it’s relatively easy to seem one way when we float on, with, and in the waves of relative goodness embodied in a local culture (a family, a team, a company, a neighborhood, a community, perhaps a nation, hopefully a world, imagine a universe!), but that some truer nature will be shamelessly revealed when the going gets tough. This notion of character is the stuff of war movies. We like the hero who irrationally goes back to save one sheep at the expense of the flock when the napalm shit hits the fan. It seems we need these moments and myths to keep the tissue of social bonds intact. They support us with tears nudged and nourished by the sentimental cadences of John Williams soundtracks.
How my grandfather died convinced me that these two extremes are one.
On the evening of January 14, 2016, David William Hume (Bill, although it’s awesome to be part of a family with multiple David Humes!) was taken to a hospital near Pittsburgh. He’d suffered from heart issues for more than ten years and on that day the blood simply stopped pumping into his legs. He was rushed behind the doors of the emergency operating room, while my aunts, uncles, and grandmother waited in the silence and agony one comes to know in the limbo state upon hearing that a loved one has just had a heart attack, has just been shot, has just had a stroke, has just had something happen where time dilates to a standstill and, phenomenologically, the principles of physics linking time and space are halted in the pinnacle of love, of love towards another, of all else in the world put on hold until we learn whether the loved one will survive. (It may be that this experience of love’s directionality, of love at any distance, of our sense of self entangled in the existence and well being of another, is the clearest experiential metaphor available build our intuitions of quantum entanglement.****) My grandfather survived the operation. And the first thing he did was to call my grandmother and exclaim, with the glee and energy of a young boy, that he was alive, that he was delighted to be alive, and that he couldn’t have lived without her beside him, through 60 years of children crying and making pierogis and washing the floor and making sure my father didn’t squander his life at the hobby shop in Beaver Meadows Pennsylvania and learning that Katie, me, here, writing, the first grandchild was born, my eyebrows already thick and black as they’ll remain my whole life until they start to grey and signing Sinatra off key and loving the Red Sox and being a role model of what it means to live a good life, what it means to be a patriarch for our family, yes he called her and said he did it, that he was so scared but that he survived and it was just the same as getting out of bed every morning and making a choice to be happy and have a good day.
She smiled, relieved.
A few minutes later, he died.
It’s like a swan song. His character distilled to its essence. I think about this moment often. It’s so perfectly representative of the man I knew and loved.
And when I first heard about my grandfather’s death, I couldn’t help but think of Borges’s masterful (but what by Borges is not masterful?) short story The Secret Miracle. Instead of explaining why, I bid you, reader, to find out for yourself.
* Mark my words: in 50 years time, we will cherish the novels of Jessie Ferguson, perhaps the most talented novelist of our time. Jessie was in my cohort in the comparative literature department at Stanford. The depth of her intelligence, sensitivity, and imagination eclipsed us all. I stand in awe of her talents as Jinny to Rhoda in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. At her wedding, she asked me to read aloud Paul Celan’s Corona. I could barely do it without crying, given how immensely beautiful this poem is. Tucked away in the Berkeley Hills, her wedding remains the most beautiful ceremony I’ve ever attended.
**My ex-boyfriends, those privileged few who’ve observed (with a mixture of loving acceptance and tepid horror) my sacrosanct morning routine, certainly know how deeply this resonates with me.
***Thomas Metzinger shares some wonderful thoughts about consciousness and self-consciousness in his interview with Sam Harris on the Waking Up podcast. My favorite part of this episode is Metzinger’s very cogent conclusion that, should an AI ever suffer like we humans do (which Joanna Bryson compelling argues will not and should not occur), the most rational action it would then take would be to self-annihilate. Pace Bostrom and Musk, I find the idea that a truly intelligent being would choose non-existence over existence to be quite compelling, if only because I have first-hand experience with the acute need to allay acute suffering like anxiety immediately, whereas boredom, loneliness, and even sadness are emotional states within which I more comfortably abide.
****Many thanks to Yanbo Xue at D-Wave for first suggesting that metaphor. Jean-Luc Marion explores the subjective phenomenon of love in Le Phénomène Erotique; I don’t recall his mentioning quantum physics, although it’s been years since I read the book, but, based on conversations I had with him years ago at the University of Chicago, I predict this would be a parallel he’d be intrigued to explore.
My last dance with my grandfather, the late David William Hume. Snuff, as we lovingly called him, was never more at home than on the dance floor, even though he couldn’t sing and couldn’t dance. He used to do this cute knees-back-and-forth dance. He loved jazz standards, and would send me mix CDs he burned when I lived in Leipzig, Germany. In his 80s, he embarrassed the hell out of my grandmother, his wife of 60 years, by joining the local Dancing with the Stars chapter and taking Zumba lessons. He lived. He lived fully and with great integrity.