Discover more from The Redneck Intellectual by C. Bradley Thompson
Of Joy and Grief
This essay explores the nature and meaning of joy and grief. In the last week, I’ve had cause to experience both. These experiences have also led me to think more broadly about the role of emotions in our lives and their relationship to memory and imagination.
I should also confess that I’m writing this essay not so much for all of you but for me. I need to understand the meaning of these experiences. As Ivanov said of Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, it seems to be in my nature to think “everything through to its logical conclusion.” This is how I process my thoughts, experiences, and emotions. It’s how I make sense of it all.
John Adams once said of the experience of grief that it’s “essential to moral development.” There’s something to that. The same is true, I think, for man’s other emotions as well. Understanding the nature and meaning of emotions such as joy, anger, shame, fear, and wonder help us to better understand the human condition. To experience and reflect upon these emotions, Adams wrote, prompts us “into serious reflection” that “sharpens the understanding and softens the heart, teaching patience and compassion.” This seems right to me.
Introductory Thoughts on the Human Condition
The last week has represented, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, both the best and worst of times for me and my family. Over the course of several overlapping days, my wife and I experienced great joy and great sadness. We’ve lived through euphoria and gut-wrenching pain. In other words, over the course of a few days we experienced the best and worst of what life has to offer.
The purpose of this essay, though, is not so much to recount the happenings in my personal life even though it may seem like that, but rather to process and reflect upon the nature and meaning of our emotions, memories, and imaginations and their relationship to each other.
Man’s emotions are a powerful force of human nature. They are to our consciousness and conscience what the pleasure-pain mechanism is to our physical body. They are a kind of early-warning system for the soul. Nay, more: while it is true that we most often experience our emotions in the form of psychological pleasure and pain (e.g., joy and grief), we can also experience them physically, e.g., by crying. Hard crying in the form of sobbing can literally be a gut-wrenching experience.
Our emotions function and present themselves as an instantaneous, automatic reaction to some event or idea that touches our most deeply held values or the things we care most about. Emotions serve as a kind of psychological tripwire. They can be either weak or strong depending on how we assess and value the ideas, actions, and persons we experience. This means that emotions are neither causeless nor valueless. They are rooted in our past. They are the sum of our past evaluations and judgments.
Emotions rise up almost instantaneously, and sometimes they can be quite powerful. A convulsive emotion can shake body and soul. We experience powerful emotions physically, and often we don’t know in advance when they’ll strike. One moment we can be smiling and laughing and the very next moment crying and feeling as though we’re being cut in a thousand places. With anger, for instance, we feel the blood rush to our head and our face turns red as though it were going to explode. With shame, by contrast, we feel the blood rush from our head and our faces turn ashen as though it were about to implode. With joy, we feel a kind of light-headed mental euphoria; and with grief we feel a kind of crushing weight that suffocates.
Memory is a cognitive function of the human consciousness that all men and women exercise on a daily basis. It is a powerful tool or function of the human mind that can take us instantaneously on a journey to a place and a time from our lived past. Memories can be fleeting and vague, or they can be permanent and vivid.
Every day all of us use the faculty of memory to remember something from earlier that day, yesterday, last week, last month, last year, or from decades ago. Often, we use our memory faculty to recall rather mundane things. For instance, when we wake up in the morning, one of the first things we do is to recall what we have previously planned for the day. When I woke up this morning, my first thought was to remember an action item that I had given myself the night before, namely, to not forget that I have a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon. Over the course of the last couple of hours I’ve remembered several conversations and interactions from the recent and distant past.
Memory is the mind’s record of past thoughts, emotions, and actions. Memory is rooted in experiences. Most of our memories are fleeting. They come and go. They quickly fade into oblivion, which means we forget most of our memories. There are some memories, however, that are emblazoned on our minds that cannot be forgotten. They cannot be unseen or unheard or unfelt. I have decades-old memories that are permanently imprinted on my mind. I will have access to them until the day I die.
Memory is a profoundly complex function of human cognition. On the one hand, it is clearly volitional. We can turn our memories on and off at will. But there is also a sense in which our memory has an automatic function just like our emotions. Our memory can be triggered by an unannounced sight or a smell that unleashes a flood of memories. The smell of a particular food in a restaurant or in someone else’s home can precipitate the memory of your mother and her home cooking, and from there you fondly recall how much your mother loved you and how much you loved her. Left unattended or unregulated, our memories can sometimes bounce around from one to another like a pinball.
The volitional part of memory is a powerful tool that can either recall or suppress something from our past. With some memories, almost always painful memories, we lock and store them away deep in our subconscious. But with memories that invoke pleasure and joy, for instance, we store them just below the surface of our conscious awareness, ready for immediate access. These are the memories that make us happy when we recall them. A mother’s touch, a first kiss, a great victory or accomplishment are the kinds of memories that we can and do recall with elation. They can bring a smile to our faces and literally make us feel good.
Emotions and memories can of course be painful and damaging, but more often than not they can be pleasurable and life-serving. Part of a successful life is managing our emotions and memories. Sometimes this can be done by employing a third psycho-cognitive element connected to our interior lives as we navigate the complexities of life: i.e., the imagination.
Whereas emotions deal with the present and memory deals with the past, our imaginations are almost always concerned with the future. They are cognitive constructions of what might be. Humans have the capacity to imagine horrible things that induce fear (e.g., imagining what’s behind a closed door in a horror movie or the things that go bump in the night), but we cannot live good and happy lives as psychosomatic masochists. As with memory, we tend most often to imagine those things that give us pleasure (e.g., a boy imagining that he’s playing in the Super Bowl and throws the winning touchdown pass, or a girl imagining that she’s Nadia Comaneci performing a triple somersault).
We live, think, and act in the moment, but our lives are partly defined by the memories of our past and our imagining hopes for the future. And what most often triggers a memory, or the imagination, is the experience of an emotion. (The imagination can also trigger an emotion.)
Human nature is complex and so is life. We hope that our lives are full of love, joy, and happiness, but life also inevitably includes pain, suffering, and grief. This is an existential fact of the human condition. Death is real, and it is omnipresent.
For most people, the former outweighs and outlasts the latter. As a general rule, we make our own joy but suffering most often just happens to us. The best of life is the birth of a child, which we make happen. The worst of life is the death of a loved one, which is beyond our control. In the natural course of affairs, most people experience both. Life and death are the fundamental alternatives from which there is no escape. The great challenge of life is figure out how to find joy in life and to cope with death.
In the last week, I’ve experienced both new life and death and therewith joy and grief. As a result, I’ve spent much of my waking time this last week dealing with powerful emotions in the present, accessing memories of the past, and creating imagined scenarios of what might be or could have been.
This is what I’d like to share with you today.
The Best of Times
On July 25, 2023, my wife and I became grandparents for the first time. Two days, later we got in the car and drove to Oxford, Mississippi, to see our son, daughter-in-law, and, most importantly, the dauphin.
Seeing my grandson for the first time was one of those glorious but strange moments that evinces undiluted joy and happiness, but also a small degree of fear and trembling. The fear and trembling come from that first moment when your son presents you with the package and you both fear simultaneously that the hand off will be fumbled.
The joy and happiness obviously came from first seeing, hearing, touching, and even smelling this little person, this tiny bundle of perfection. Everything about him was—obviously—perfect. As my dear friend, Alan Charles Kors, put it to me in a congratulatory email: having a grandchild “is like falling in love all over again.” Just so!
There is a sense in which holding a grandchild for the first time is better than holding your own child for the first time, mostly because grandparents have much less of the shock and awe, much less of the numbness and paralysis that comes with first-time parenthood. By contrast, grandparenthood is one of those rare instances in life when you can actually live completely in the moment and actually feel a baby’s softness without the numbness. Time stands still when you hold your grandchild for the first time.
And when you see your own son or daughter (or daughter-in-law or son-in-law) hold their child for the first time it really is something of a surreal experience. It’s one of those rare moments in life when the present, the past, and the future are all rolled into one. To see your child hold your grandchild naturally evokes memories of when you first held that same child as a baby, but it also represents a glimpse into the future.
None of us, of course, can know how it will all turn out, but in that moment, we use our imagination to project the future we hope for. It’s one of those moments when all of one’s hopes and aspirations in life are rolled into one moment.
But there was another experience during our visit that may have had the greatest emotional impact on me. It was the moment when my daughter-in-law gave her son to my wife to hold for the first time. I was really quite unprepared for the rush of emotions that came with the moment. At first, in the joy of the moment, I saw my wife and my grandson in clear view. It was an unadulterated beautiful sight, and I was overjoyed to see my wife so happy. But then, in a flash, I saw something else. I saw my wife holding each our three babies, and I fell in love again. I fell in love again with the only girl I’ve ever loved.
The Redneck Intellectual is a reader-supported publication. To support my work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
The Worst of Times
Sadly, our time in Oxford was not simply pure, unadulterated joy.
We brought our beloved dog “Curdie” (West Highland Terrier) with us. (The name “Curdie” was taken from the George McDonald novel, The Princess and the Goblin). We first got Curdie fifteen years ago when he was a puppy.
Curdie was diagnosed with liver cancer a few months ago, and we knew our time with him was limited and to be measured in months. The day before we left for Oxford, our veterinarian told us that Curdie had responded well to chemo, and that we might hope to get another six months with him. He seemed fine the day we left for Oxford.
Soon after we arrived in Mississippi, Curdie started what was to be a rapid decline and fall. First, he stopped eating and drinking (he went five days barely eating anything). Second, Curdie also started to exhibit strange behavior. Not exactly a dog who had enjoyed hot weather over the years, he now wanted to be outside in the sweltering heat where he would just walk aimlessly around the backyard for hours. He seemed dazed and confused. Finally, he wouldn’t sleep at night. He would stand for hours in the dark facing a wall. Something was clearly wrong.
During our five-day stay in Oxford, my wife took him twice to a local vet, but his condition was worsening by the day and the vet thought he might be suffering from kidney failure. Without exactly saying so, she seemed to be preparing us for the worst.
By the time we got him back to South Carolina, Curdie was in clearly state of distress. Within an hour of getting home, he started having seizures. The nearest 24-hour emergency vet was an hour away. At 11:45 pm, my wife and I got Curdie into the car after his convulsions stopped, and we headed to Greenville. A few minutes into the car ride he fell asleep, and twenty minutes into the car ride my wife suggested that we turn around and go home. Curdie slept peacefully for a few hours, but he started having seizures again at 5:00 am. The local vet opened at 8:00 a.m. Those were three of the longest hours of my life. At this point, we knew the end was probably near.
My wife and I got Curdie to the vet office as soon as it opened. The vet’s assistant immediately put him on oxygen, and he seemed to settle just a bit. The vet thought he was having kidney failure and that his tumor had possibly burst. She told us that she could probably keep him alive for another week, or we could have him put down. The vet left the room so that we could make the decision.
The next few minutes were painful. My wife was overwhelmed with heartbreak, sadness, and grief. She adored her little Curdie and literally spent every minute of every single day and night with him from the time we first brought him home. She never left the house without him. She took him everywhere. They were inseparable. They spent hundreds of hours together at the soccer fields. He slept in our bedroom. She loved and treated him as though he were her fourth child.
Curdie was in distress and now my wife was in distress. To support her and to make the best decision about Curdie, I retreated to that cold, sterile place in the soul where there is no emotion, no feeling, no pulse. That place is a kind of uninhabitable abyss devoid anything that makes life lovely and worth living. But still, I had to go there even if just for a few minutes. I couldn’t let my emotions cloud my judgment.
When the vet came back into the room for our decision, we told her that we had decided to have Curdie put down, or, as I prefer to say, laid to rest. She gave us a few minutes alone with Curdie. We said our goodbyes. He looked at us helplessly. He seemed to know the end was near.
Only a few days earlier, I watched with ineffable, euphoric joy as my wife held our grandson in her hands. And now, I watched with helpless, gnawing grief as my wife held our little Curdie in her hands.
The vet returned and injected Curdie with pentobarbital. We assumed that he would slowly go to sleep and pass in ten or fifteen minutes. In what seemed like just seconds, though, the vet told us that his heart had stopped beating. My wife sobbed, and I ran as fast as I could deeper and deeper into the lifeless abyss where there is no emotion. I wasn’t even numb. It was worse; I was the walking dead.
After a few minutes, we left Curdie. But no sooner were we out of the room where he lay in rest than I turned around and went back in to have one last goodbye. At that moment, by myself, the dam burst, and I could feel a powerful surge of sadness come rushing through my veins. I swallowed hard and pushed the emotion back as hard as I could.
My wife and I left the vet’s office and drove home. The drive was filled with a kind of aching silence. When we got home, my wife asked to be left alone. I knew what that meant. She went into the bedroom and closed the door. I went downstairs to pretend that I would tidy my office. I sat for a long time and just let the sadness envelop me.
So, how am I coping with Curdie’s death? It turns out that my wife and kids were not the only ones who loved him. I loved Curdie, too. He put a smile on my face every day when I came home from work. He always greeted me at the front door with his wagging tail.
It’s now been five days since he was with us. I see glimpses of him everywhere in the house, but just as fast as I see Curdie, he vanishes. It’s also hard to erase from my memory watching his little body shake with convulsions and then the sight of him dead on the vet’s table. That’s painful. I don’t want to see it, but for now I can’t unsee it.
But I think I’ve found a way to love him and for him to love me back. When I sit in my office at home, I turn around and look out the window at the broad hill behind our house and I imagine him running up and down that hill chasing a ball or a rabbit. I see him running free and happy, and I too am free and happy. And I fall in love with him all over again.
The Redneck Intellectual is a reader-supported publication. To support my work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.