For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:25
As a boy I remember scrawling faces on blocks of memory foam with a sharpie. The strange and synthetic smell of both the marker and the foam. When the foam was compressed the faces would distort and slowly pull back into perfect cubes, like watching damage in reverse. My father had brought the blocks of foam home from work where he built wheelchairs for people whose bodies were injured or shaped in such a way that their body could no longer fit comfortably in a standard-issue wheelchair. His first shop was in a poorly-lit basement where they kept a marker board tally of the number of spiders killed during the day. His work was defined by densities of foam and millimeters. The work was precisely engineered to minimize suffering.
After decades spent working on wheelchairs my father still measures in millimeters. When he marks a cut he marks the center and two precise 45 degree angles creating an arrow. Now that he is retired, he has moved on to home projects that spool out for years. It is difficult to complete house work to the same exacting standards that you use for medical equipment. A gift in one field can be unmanageable in another. Imagine a home in which every nail and screw is measured to the millimeter. “If you do something wrong you have to do it again.” was a phrase that I often heard repeated like a mantra. Imagine the way that the light would stream through the dust in a window frame of perfect 90 degree angles. Would we even recognize such a thing? A home engineered as close to heaven as you can come. A home built like a wheelchair. The reason that this calls for imagination is because it is unattainable, an idea like a dream.
Sometimes I think that my father loves motorcycles because they are representative of a kind of precise, engineered freedom. Unlike driving in a car, the process of driving a motorcycle demands more attention. Your thoughts are all channeled into a singular sharp focus. The narrow gaps defined by channels between yellow lines. When making a turn, you have to look through the turn to the spot you want to arrive at because the vehicle follows your eye-line. I learned this the hard way as a teenager when I couldn’t see around a bend and instead drove over a hill, dropping the motorcycle on its side about six feet away from a barbed wire fence.
A ride on the motorcycle was a rite of passage for both me and for his grandchildren. All freedom always necessitates some form of vulnerability. You cannot be both free and safe. I’m not sure if this was the lesson that my father intended, but it is the one that I took away for better or worse. I’m not sure what the emotional equivalent of a minor motorcycle accident is, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve ticked that box several times over. Despite the pain and the mistakes (there were many), it has been a pretty nice way to live. That perspective was a gift even if I haven’t ridden a motorcycle for decades.
After the past few years, it seems like it might be in everyone’s best interest to assume injury. Assume that the people you are interacting with are haunted by some unreasonable fears and irrationalities. Assume that people are not like the foam blocks that I played with as a child and that we don’t simply return to the same pristine shape after being hurt or being deeply lonely for extended periods of time. None of this requires you to justify the harm that someone does. It seems like the best way to add to suffering is treat suffering like a competitive sport. In competitive sports you whittle down contenders until you are completely alone on a pedestal. Isolation is a terrible gold medal.
After years of silence I have begun the process of trying to rebuild a relationship with my sister through scheduled phone calls. As I write about this everything is still in the early stages. Our lives slowly diverged as I moved to the city and she moved to progressively smaller towns. When I began, my fear was that our ways of seeing the world would prevent us from sharing the meaningful things that a relationship is built upon. What we have both learned instead is that our own perceptions of one another’s lives were fictional, idealized constructions. We both assumed that the other was experiencing a better and less alienating reality. What unified us was a mutual recognition of loneliness in one another. Our inherited depression is an odd bridge. This is a person who lived in the room below mine in the same house. I could hear the bass of her 90’s rap music through the floorboards. A short flight of creaking basement stairs and 100 miles away.
I just don’t want to live in a zero-sum world any more. I assume the worst about myself all of the time and this position despite its inversion, is another form of narcissism. To assume that knowledge, even negative knowledge about yourself is absolute knowledge is hubris. In order to breathe hope for more into myself I have to be willing to breathe the same hope into other people. Maybe we are all just wrong about one another most of the time and mercy is just a better default. I imagine that this will cost me some of my certainties and that losing them might feel like an injury.
You cannot be both free and safe.
I learned that from father on a motorcycle.