What Not To Do When There’s Nothing Much You Can Do

I don’t like goodbyes.

For years, when my mother and I are about to say goodbye–when the visit is drawing to a close, say, or one of us (why is it always me?) is about to take off on a new adventure–we have picked inane fights with one another.

We are quite expert at inane arguments. My dad once happened upon us in the kitchen, debating passionately, even Talmudically about seltzer.

Yes. Sparkling water. Seltzer. Fighting about it. With religious fervor. I don’t recall the specifics, just that my dad walked in and surveyed the scene silently, and then pointed out, very calmly:

“You’re arguing. About seltzer.”

The truth is that we are the best of friends, and saying goodbye is hard, and for whatever neurotic reason, it’s feels easier to pretend that we are furious at each other and can’t wait to get rid of the other than it is just to CRY and say I’ll miss you.

Is it possible that something similar happens when we are faced with old age or incurable disease?

In response to Monday’s post, one of my friends commented on the “manufactured controversies” that whip evangelicals into frenzies online, noting (as I did) that we are often very selective in what we get outraged over:

Bikinis? YES!

Shackling laboring inmates? NO!

‘Biblical’ gender roles? YES!

Unjust wages? NO!

Something dumb that John Piper just said? YES YES YES!

The same commenter noted:

Another social injustice [that’s] invisible to Facebook is our casual neglect of the elderly.


I was talking to a friend recently who was off to see visit someone who was very, very ill. The friend mentioned feeling a bit nervous–which I think is really normal. Hospitals and nursing homes and hospices are not, generally speaking, cheery places, and it is awful to see people we once knew in their strength and vigor laid waste by old age or disease.

It’s easier push them from our minds, be upset about other things, forget that they exist, or try to fix them than it is just to BE WITH the old and the dying.

One of my favorite cartoons from the Dad archives sums this up well:

echinaceaWhen there’s nothing more to be done, it feels easier to just to stay away, or to pick a fight within ourselves that justifies our staying away:

“It makes me feel sad to see her in that condition.”

“He probably doesn’t even know I’m there.”

I’m no expert at any of this. I will admit that I dragged myself to the nursing home sometimes to visit Mr. and Mrs. S.: it is all so depressing. Sometimes there were things to do: potted plants to be watered, eyeglasses to be found and cleaned, shoes to be tied and nail polish to be applied, not to mention meals to be eaten and coffee to be drunk.

At the end, though, there is very little to do except simply to be. You resist the urge to have little seltzer arguments within yourself and just sit there for a long goodbye.

But I think that something similar is true for many of us with our everyday little traumas. We would like to escape the pain of them by bickering over seltzer; to pretend that the natural remedy du jour is just waiting to fix what ails us; to find a way to avert our eyes even from what is happening right before them.

I’ve just finished writing several different pieces about David Rakoff’s posthumously published novel-in-verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is a remarkable book because it sugarcoats nothing and is much concerned with death and the various kinds of small torments we humans inflict on each other, and yet, at the same time, is one of the most hopeful and life-affirming books I’ve read in ages.

What to do when there’s nothing much you can do?

Don’t bicker. Don’t try to fix. Don’t bring echinacea.

Just bring a little beauty, and a little kindness.

Books (And Authors) You Can’t Get Out Of Your Mind

I have a long history of becoming pretty obsessed with a particular story or book. I am only slightly embarrassed to confess that I collapsed dramatically on the carpet of the bedroom of my high school years weeping when Fantine died in my first reading of Les Miserables. It is slightly more embarrassing to confess that I really enjoyed the drama of collapsing and weeping over a book. Months later, when my mother and I went to see the musical on Broadway on my 16th birthday, we wept dramatically together on the train ride home. The next day I went to a record store (remember those?) to use my birthday money to buy the Original Broadway Cast recording of the show, so that I could do more listening and weeping.

This week (and last) the book I’ve been obsessing and crying over is Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and the author is David Rakoff.

Rakoff said that as a child he was “tiny, articulate, and vibrating with anxiety and fear,” which also describes the child version of me pretty well. I was actually quite easygoing much of the time, except I would lie awake poking at my abdomen and thinking that my intestines were cancerous growths. Also, once, I read some really scary junk mail from some crazy group which said  the Holocaust was nothing in comparison with what the Bible predicted would one day happen to Jews (like me, because Hitler didn’t care if you were baptized or if you had a goyische father as I was and I did), and that kept me over-alert, waiting for the sound of goosestepping, for months. (I think I was seven). All that to say: I can really relate to so much of Rakoff’s writing.

This week on my blog, I want to introduce you to some of my favorite bits of David Rakoff’s work: nothing like a formal review here (but look for that elsewhere–I’ll tell you when), just some tidbits. I’m aware that he’s not for everyone; his language and subject matter is not always ‘family friendly,’ shall we say, but there is so much good in Rakoff that I feel compelled to share.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from his first book of essays, Fraud:

Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 12.46.38 PM

On his strange lack of memory surrounding his cancer treatment at age 22:

“What remains of your past if you didn’t allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don’t have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories. Procedural and depopulated. It’s as if a neutron bomb went off and all you’re left with are hospital corridors, where you’re scanning the walls for familiar photographs.”

On the curiously peaceful and un-cranky atmosphere in the new Princess Margaret hospital where he was treated:

“When medicine is socialized, when you have true universal health care, when everyone’s treatment is the same regardless of socioeconomic station, those strong-arming attitudes of entitlement just aren’t part of the vocabulary. This atrium, this lovely space in a hospital with a world-class reputation, is actually the equivalent of a state hospital. That American sense that someone somewhere else is getting what you’re not, and the attendant demands that go along with that perceived injustice, well, it’s just not in the equation here.”

And on the necessity of a sense of humor:

“Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”


How NOT To Help Someone Who Is Hurting (comic strips included!)


We all have times like this, don’t we? And they are never easy. I happen to have a strong tendency (whether owing to my genes, my God-given personality and inclination, or who knows what) toward anxiety, much, MUCH more of it than is helpful and much more than I care to admit. Because it can be really hard to admit that you are struggling with something like anxiety.

Unfortunately, sometimes when you gather your courage and go ahead and tell someone how you’re feeling, it ends up going something like this:Fix1

And then, some of this:

Fix2And then, this:


Now, along with the late (and lamented) David Rakoff, I do really believe that:

“people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation many times over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?”

But in his very last piece on a recent ‘This American Life’ episode, Rakoff, his voice raspy from the lung tumors that were consuming his insides, he mentioned being at a dinner party at which people were discussing what sorts of self-improving things they’d like to do…as if giving up sugar or exercising more or doing more reading would really, truly, change their lives for the better. When it came to David’s turn to contribute, there was nothing to say. It was clear by then that all the ‘fixes’ in the world weren’t going to do a thing for him. He was dead within a matter of weeks.

We are in a cultural moment that is obsessed with FIXING. With magic diet and lifestyle changes that promise, when implemented, to make us a whole new, better person.

I understand that. I think it’s actually a deeply theological longing. But it’s not so simple as we might imagine. We would like to eliminate suffering, which is possible some of the time and completely impossible much of the time. Death forces us to face that head on.

It’s amazing how little Jesus preached at people who were hurting, reserving his harshest and most preachy and advice-giving words for those who were pretty sure they had this whole God thing entirely figured out. And it’s equally amazing how he chose simply to be with–and EAT WITH–people who were struggling with all kinds of problems, and, yes, to use that unpopular word, sins.

I just can’t see Jesus doing what the people in the above strips are doing. Instead, I could imagine a scenario like this:


You’ll also want to check out:

another comic strip post on what anxiety feels like

my friend Ellen’s post on being ‘unfixable’ in a world obsessed with fixing

my friend Laura’s post on being anxious (and Christian)