Thinky Post: The Cowardice of Choosing the Impossible Task Over the Possible

Oh boy, a thinky post! Turns out, when I get to write whatever I want, I want to write a bunch of really depressing deep thoughts.

I just watched a really really beautiful documentary on Netflix called Evelyn. It’s a simple concept, 13 years after a suicide the camera captures the grieving loved ones talking about how they feel as they go on a walking trip. It’s simple, but so very affective. We don’t need a big picture movie about the problems of mental health care and so on and so forth. This is just folks honestly talking, and showing, the never-ending damage that suicide does.

BBC Two - Evelyn

And I was comparing this documentary with another one I recently watched about a terrible murder in America, and the aftermath. In that one, the surviving father/husband dedicated his life to getting the death penalty for the killers. The death penalty in America is a thing, absolutely. But what you may not know if you aren’t American is that it is extremely time consuming and expensive to actually make happen in most cases. As soon as someone receives a death sentence, supporters from all over society arrive to try to do anything to save their life. Sometimes it is about actual innocence, proving this person didn’t do it. But often it is simply about believing that the taking of a life is a blasphemy, any life. Even if the criminal is guilty (as they are in this case, they admitted it, no question at all), is it right to take a life? What that means for this family is that they went through the death, the grief, the investigation, the trial, and then years and years and years and years of media circus and more trials and interviewees and on and on just to get the death penalty for the killers. The only one who really cared about it was the father/husband, and he just would not let it go, and he dragged down the lives of everyone else around him in his quest.

See, getting the death penalty enacted is something that is really really hard, almost impossible. But if you pick that as your goal, it means you can focus 100% on this impossible task and have an excuse to avoid the possible tasks. And the possible tasks are scary, because that means at some point they will be finished and you will have to face what your life is. But on the other hand, the possible tasks are important BECAUSE THEY ARE POSSIBLE.

Going back to the first documentary, this family spent 13 years trying very hard not to deal with the suicide. The filmmaker went off and made movies about evil oil companies and civil war and stuff. That’s impossible, that’s the sort of “one man can make a tiny difference but it won’t really be fixed” kind of problem. He never talked about his brother, never tried to heal his family, it was easier in a way to go off and heal the world. And say “I can’t be there for you, because I am healing the world”.

This is what people do, all the time, in response to tragedy. It’s a natural human instinct, it’s that “I am going to paint the living room because my grandmother died” kind of feeling. You have all this sort of grief energy and you need to put it somewhere. But what bothers me sometimes is when I see something that feels like it reaches an unhealthy point, and there is a general societal encouragement for it. At some point, the impossible crusade stops being noble and starts being avoidance, but no one says that because it would be tacky.

It’s bad for the world, to have this never ending energy directed towards one goal without stopping, that kind of myopia is a poison. For a simple example, let’s think about a family who loses their loved one to a rare disease and throws all their energy towards finding a cure. That’s a good thing to do, nothing wrong with that. But it can so easily move towards “my disease is more important than your disease, I will do whatever it takes to cure my disease even if it means taking resources away from other illnesses that effect more people”. There’s a line there, and grief is such a hard thing that it is difficult for people to see the line, and even more difficult to point it out to others.

This documentary, the suicide one, everyone involved very bravely saw that line and took a deep breath and stepped back to really think about what they were feeling instead of running from it. They forced themselves to talk, made a plan so they couldn’t avoid it in anyway, and identified and addressed the main problem as “we have to find a way to love each other” instead of “we have to fix some external issue”.

Franklin Dow on the technical innovation behind Evelyn - Seventh Row

The scariest and saddest part of this documentary is the end, when they talk about the effect of spending this month talking. The sad thing is, it didn’t fix anything. They cried, they talked, they are a little closer. But at the end of it, the sister is crying because she realizes the pain is just never going away, she has to accept that nothing will change it, she will always feel that. At another point, a friend is talking about happy memories and the others say how jealous they are, that they can’t remember the happy times because the misery of the end overshadows it. And the friend says he is the same, it’s this giant thing he has to work to get passed to remember the good things. That doesn’t go away. There is no magical “ahh, closure” feeling.

That’s a scary and sad thing, and yet the most vital healing thing also. When something bad happens, you can’t work towards “closure” because you will never ever get it. Curing the disease, sending the criminal to jail, finding the suicide note, none of it is ever going to make sense of things, to bring you peace. What will come closest to peace is accepting that peace will not come. All these impossible goals you set for yourself, they will bring you nothing. So instead, be brave, set possible goals, accomplish them, and move on to another possible goal.

Okay, that’s the end of my big sad thinky post! Respond if it makes you think thinky things too.

17 thoughts on “Thinky Post: The Cowardice of Choosing the Impossible Task Over the Possible

  1. Wow. What a poignant topic! I think about this a lot. And not just this year, but actively for atleast the last 5-7 years — maybe because grief and happiness continue to play such an integral part of my life, as I’m sure they do with many people. You are very diplomatic in this post, as usual, and I love that. But it’s late and I am tired, so forgive my crankiness. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I have come to realize that while grief is hard, it is not an excuse to be a giant toxic jerk! Using some of your examples, for instance, you want to channel your grief toward a cure for something, great. But don’t use it to become a bully that stifles someone else’s work. You want to ignore your grief, great. But don’t do it in a way that makes everyone else who is grieving feel like they are stepping on egg shells to protect your feelings while being forced to suppress theirs. Grief is hard. It makes everyone do irrational things. That is even natural to an extent. But there is a line and when you use grief to sprint past that line and keep going, then grief just becomes a tool for you to be an a$$hole.

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    • HA!!!!! I think you should sell signs for funeral homes “remember, while grief is hard, it is no excuse for being a big toxic jerk”. SO TRUE!!!!

      The other part of this is the egoism of grief. Because really, everyone has lost someone sometime. You can’t turn it into a “treat me special because I have it the worst” kind of thing. See also, cancer patients, divorcees, children of divorce, etc. etc. I mean, you have a perfect right to ask for sympathy and receive it, you just have to acknowledge that your situation isn’t the most specialist in the world.

      On Thu, Dec 3, 2020 at 11:43 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • `
        I find this interesting in the context of the current pandemic. Just when I’m ready to feel so specially put upon becuase I have to suffer with the pandemic, I’m reminded that EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE WORLD is suffering with the pandemic. Talk about a universal experience . . .

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        • Yes! And the possible-impossible too. The temptation is to focus all your energy on a “cure” or something. But really the harder thing to do is to just stay home and wear masks, the task that is actually possible.

          On Fri, Dec 4, 2020 at 9:30 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oooh funeral home signs. There’s something to consider.

        Agree 100% about egoism of grief. It is infuriating. Maybe you can’t see someone else’s grief because you are so consumed by your own. And that is okay. And as you said, it’s perfectly fine to ask for and receive sympathy. What is not okay is to put down someone else’s grief or make it some sort of competition.

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        • Or do a Queen Victoria and make grief your entire identity for the rest of your life because it is easy.

          On Fri, Dec 4, 2020 at 10:14 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I love this post and your point “What will come closest to peace is accepting that peace will not come.” Another thing that has always brought me slightly closer to peace is the gratitude of having had a deep relationship with someone who’s absence now destroys me and changes me for life. It reminds me never to take people for granted and that time and attention is the most important thing you can give to your loved ones (which of course are always the possible tasks).

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    • Exactly, grief should bring you closer to the people who are still living, not lose you in an impossible quest that separates you from them.

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  3. Living with a pain that nothing can change, knowing that there is no ‘closure’, learning to live with it being the only option, is a pain that, I’m sorry, no one in the comments so far is addressing. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you; you know that feeling when you first wake up and for a split second you are okay and then you think, ‘wait something is wrong. oh yeah, this terrible grief..” Now, imagine feeling that everyday for the rest of your life. Some griefs fade, some never do.
    mpollak711

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    • It’s a horrible reality to acknowledge. But it feels kinder to let people know that this might happen, than to send them off on a never ending impossible quest for some magical “closure”. There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing you should be doing to make it better, sometimes it just always keeps hurting, and the best you can do is accept that.

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  4. Growing up in Berkeley CA, I heard a lot about closure. You have to confront someone, because it will bring closure, you have to do this or that or travel around the world to bring closure… Closure was definitely an “it” word for at least a decade. So it is refreshing to hear someone discuss the idea that it doesn’t exist.

    when my best friend was diagnosed with a Brain Tumor I felt like I was going through a bad break-up. The pain in the chest, the heaviness, it was like he was breaking my heart, except we weren’t lovers. I asked a friend who had lost her mother in her teens and she told me it was the feeling of loss. My friend died, and that heaviness stayed for about two years. And then one morning I woke up and it wasn’t there. I haven’t talked with people, personally, for whom the grief never got better. While the grief doesn’t disappear, even my friend whose daughter died, her pain is not as intense as it once was. So the idea that 13 years later, a sister’s pain is the same as it was 13 years before is not something I expected.

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    • Hmm. You have me thinking about it now. She doesn’t actually say that the pain is the same, just that it hasn’t gone away, and she is realizing it never will. So it could have been a pain that changed over the years, just never went away like she hoped. But on the other hand, the older filmmaker brother says that this experience has made a big difference for him while it hasn’t for her. So I think it might also be an acceptance that grief is unique to the person, everyone handles it differently. The sister was in her teens when her brother killed himself, and saw the body. And was living in the same house at the time that he was sick and heading towards suicide. So for her, that is a lot of trauma that might never heal. While for her siblings who weren’t as close to it, it might be a different kind of wound. I certainly hope that if nothing else this is a catalyst for her to realize she needs to be more proactive in dealing with her feelings, that there is no magic cure coming.

      And of course the other big thing, especially with the magical “closure”, is suicide. That is a death that just rips up everyone around it in a very particular way. One of his friends, who generally seems very together and healthy in his grieving, admitted that he still finds himself thinking all the time about the last voicemail he didn’t return and if that might have changed everything.. With suicide, that seems like the kind of thought that will just keep coming back to you for your whole life when you least expect it. Hopefully less as time goes on, and hopefully you have some healthy mantras to repeat and so on, but that thought will still always be there. Right?

      I’m very lucky in that I’ve not had that sort of traumatic death in my life yet. But even with my less traumatic long illness and slow decline at old age kind of death experiences, it does evolve. The first few months there’s a lot of physical sensations, tiredness and difficulty concentrating and so on. And then the sort of adjustment to a new world without this person. And finally just occasional sudden memories but no real pain.

      On the other hand, there was one time I was at a neighborhood gathering and a woman who must have been in her 80s (and who was widowed with children and grandchildren) was remembering her fiance who died in WWII and broke down. So it’s not like it ever ever really goes away, for your whole life. Closure-not a thing.

      On Fri, Dec 4, 2020 at 7:26 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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