Saturday, May 17, 2008

Modern smelling salts

Just down the road, a woman is missing and presumed drowned. The radio news reports have warned people that the chances of stumbling across a corpse are pretty high just now, and also assure us that people with property along the river downriver have been notified personally. It's an awful situation, but so far nobody I've heard of has taken to running around screaming that they shouldn't be expected to deal with something like this, or that they'll never recover from the experience.

You are scratching your head over that last statement? I don't blame you. Normal people absorb news like this and deal with it at least after a fashion, normally. They search, they grieve, they make sure the lady's horses and dogs don't starve or die of thirst. They don't expect, or claim, that they'll never get over it.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to give short shrift to the heartache, the grief, or the horror involved, especially for whoever winds up dealing with the remains (assuming the lady is, in fact, drowned). My heart goes out to her family, her neighbors, the search and rescue people, her friends. She was an acquaintance of ours, a bookstore customer, somebody I didn't socialize with but did chat with when our paths crossed. I am, myself, somewhat shocked and sick over the whole situation.

It probably doesn't help any that a week and a half ago we buried one of my favorite people on Earth, and that a couple days after that I found out that a very nice young man in our community is terminally ill. To make it worse, he and his very nice young wife are the very picture of devotion. But I guess that's part of my point. If you live in a community, as opposed to off in your own little world, you run into this sort of heartache all the time. Frequency doesn't make it easy. It doesn't make it seem normal. It is, truly, heartache. Tragic. Difficult. Painful. But it is, for all that, surprisingly common. And it doesn't ruin you for life. It might - perhaps should - stagger you for a bit (would you rather be heartless?), but it doesn't ruin you for life, especially if you have the decency to pitch in to help those staggered more by the calamity than yourself. (It helps to know you've done something, for one thing. And you can draw on the strength of others if you only work beside them. Etc.)

But here's the deal (I am coming to the "modern smelling salts" business, really...). In college, I remember, my friends and I read in the newspaper about someone finding the body of a woman who had been dead a few days, and we sat around claiming to each other that we'd never recover from finding a body that had been dead a few days. Never.

In hindsight, I can see we did that sort of thing rather a lot. We were never going to get over this or that or the other thing. I don't know where the grown-ups were: whether they didn't catch us at this sort of nonsense, or didn't care, or thought it was cute, or considered it harmless. Harmless, my foot. If you practice thinking of yourself as fragile, and breakable, and unable to recover from circumstances, how can you expect to become strong, and steady, and resilient - or reliable, for that matter?

We also used to sit around and feel superior to those delicate damsels of older days who reportedly swooned at the least provocation, expecting someone to fish out the smelling salts and revive them.

We should not have laughed at them, I think. I think, really, that we were more like them than we knew. And in some ways we were their inferiors. The oh-so-refined ladies did, after all, recover from their swoons. We were practicing, on the other hand, to never get over whatever had prompted us to have a case of the vapors. To never forget. To never heal completely.

The oh-so-refined ladies of yesteryear, moreover, weren't asking for more than personal attention. We had an unfortunate tendency to think the world ought to be changed to protect our fragile selves. Not that we considered ourselves fragile. I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar was a big song about then, and we could be caught, now and then, belting out I am strong, I am invincible, etc.

Who were we trying to kid, I wonder? If we had been strong, if we had been confident (never mind 'invincible'), would we have championed abortion? Affirmative action? Punishment for clubs that only admitted men? Would speech codes have even come up as a subject? Hate crime legislation was over the horizon yet; but it's the same sort of thing, isn't it?

I look around, and a lot of what's going on in society, in popular culture, and at the government level seems to me nothing more or less than people (generally people who have practiced modern variations on swooning until it is second nature to them) getting the vapors (right on cue, very often, it seems to me), and somebody rushing to provide them with (mostly harmful) variations on those old smelling salts, whether it be legislation, lawsuits, or optional medical procedures, or what have you. We have 'progressed', you see, from individual swoons, to group ones, whenever possible. Or at least some folks have.

The gentility is lacking, but I still think it's the same thing. Oh, this is too much for little ol' me! the lady exclaims, collapsing in a heap. And somebody rushes to the rescue, playing along, instead of (which might be more sensible, and perhaps better for everyone in the long run) saying, "Oh, for crying out loud, stop being hysterical."

1 comment:

Barb, sfo said...

EXCELLENT post! And your point about "if we had been strong, would we have championed abortion, affirmative action, etc."--not an angle I had ever considered before, but very true.