Thursday, 4 August 2011

On the ultimate retention of indentity in severe circumstances... and stuff.

Warning: Serious thoughts lie herein.

The subject of this post requires a bit of introduction for those who aren't regular watchers of Vlogbrothers videos:

I Love Hank: Esther Day 2010

Rest In Awesome, Esther

I Love My Brother

Having watched those, we can now move onto me:

Yesterday was EstherDay

I think that adequately covers what I wanted to say about the whole family and love thing. The other thoughts provoked by the Esther related videos were ones about death and how we respond to it. Because as John says in that second video, Esther wasn't some model of perfection, she was a girl. A person. And it's something which has come up at least a couple of times in Vlogbrothers videos, that people are always people. It's easy to slip into an 'Us and Them' mentality, when really They are just more of Us, who happen to have been placed in different circumstances.
For example, people living in abject poverty around the world, they lack many things we have, like say good sanitation and healthcare. They're worse off than us, but that doesn't mean they're different to us in spirit. The men are still men, the women are still women, and the children are still children. They form the same sortds of friendships, enjoy the same sorts of entertainment, they live as we live, except where way of life is influenced by circumstances.

And it's the same with people dying of cancer. One may tend to imagine someone with terminal cancer becoming very gloomy and sullen as they waste away; or becoming angry at the world and their own body and biology which have betrayed them, raging against the dying of the light, as the poem goes; or accepting their fate with resigned dignity, setting things in order and facing the inevitable as best they can, perhaps passing on some wisdom to their friends before the end.
These may well all be the case. In fact, they may well all be the case for the same person at different points, but not all the time. Like anything else, cancer will provoke a reaction, many reactions; but we can't be thinking about it all the time. It may be a pressing concern at certain times, certainly it becomes a part of who we are, but that doesn't mean we dwell constantly on it. You have your reaction, and then you put it away in your mind and carry on with your life. And then you may think about it again at some point, and then again you'll put it away and go on with your life. And this is how it goes. Esther must surely have been affected by her cancer, but the fact she had cancer didn't make her a different person, it was just another aspect which was introduced into her identity, and she went on, spending time with her family and friends, making videos on the internet, and so on. It's just how we work. I know this, and yet it was still strange, watching through her videos on her own youtube channel and then coming to the point where they suddenly stopped. I had almost forgotten she was dead and I was just watching through the videos of another interesting and amusing youtuber until suddenly they stopped without warning, and I remembered. Because in all those videos she wasn't a terminal cancer patient, she was just a girl, who happened to have cancer. She was just her, just Esther, and her Esther-ness overcame any preconceptions I still had, in addition to whatever negativity might have been brought to her disposition by the fact of her cancer.
The abruptness of the end was still a little jarring, and it's a general problem we can have that unlike in fiction, in real life people often don't get the chance for some significant last words, and we don't get to see them gracefully depart this life, just one day they're them and the next day they're gone. But in some ways perhaps it's better that way. Once the shock is passed, instead of taking those final few sentences to sum up their existence, we have to judge them on their lives as a whole. It's more difficult, perhaps, but ultimately better to do so rather than taking the simple and easy way out.
(I should note that this was also the case with the one person I've known IRL with cancer - he remained much the same, friendly, genial, joking around a lot. But I have little to say there because sadly I never actually knew him that well, and now I will never have the chance)

And this same principle, of setting things aside and simply continuing, can also be applied to grief. It's problematic - one may feel like it's a betrayal to the dead not to be wallowing in grief and instead going on with the frivolities of normal life, but quite apart from the fact they wouldn't want you to be permanently miserable, there is a limit on how much you can grieve. Certainly you should do so, but you can pick your time to a certain extent. Once the initial shock reaction has passed, put the feelings aside and keep them for when you want to let them out. In the meantime, and afterwards, live and be happy, as your friend would want you to be, and don't forget to be awesome.
(This has reminded me of someone else I knew who dies of cancer. I always forget he's gone, and it slightly saddens my last memory of him)

Some might think that just not thinking about these things is a bit of an immature solution to these strong and intense feelings. But it works. It's the only thing that's likely to work, because these feelings and the bleak reality of our own mortality are not things we can face every second of every day and still function normally. I'm sure there's a quote to that effect somewhere in Angel, season 5, Wesley talking to Illyria. But I can't find it. The point stands anyway. We can't stand up to that much thought about things like death. I certainly prefer to avoid them, so this post is going to end about now.
In the end, we all are who we are, and that is not taken away by any experience, no matter how painful. An experience may alter who we are, but nothing can completely stop us being ourselves, short of actually losing our minds.

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