How to Know the Unbearable

Karen Malpede

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, saw it happen. The Hudson River met the East River in the middle of downtown Manhattan. Water roared down the streets, rushed into tunnels, and filled the World Trade Center construction site. A responsible person in a responsible position, personally unaffected—it wasn’t his house, his family in the flood zone—he was standing there when the unthinkable happened. The two great rivers met in the middle of the financial district, turning land to sea, disabling the transportation system, and a third of the power grid. He’s still in shock; you can hear it in his voice, and in the voice of New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, too.

First, we need to focus on the now. To recover, stick together, as the Mayor of New York City advises, and get things up and running again. Take no thought of tomorrow for sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. But this shortsighted focus is not sufficient, as Governor Cuomo knows. It will happen again, he says; we’re foolish if we think that it will not, and greater floods than this. Like Cassandra, he warns us of our fate.

How to know the unbearable is a skill we need to massively acquire now as we struggle to comprehend the reality of global warming, sea level rise, and future extreme weather events. Only if we dare to know, might we gather the courage, wisdom, and fortitude to change our destructive ways. For we need not only to commit enormous human and financial resources to our protection; we will need to address the problem at its source, if, that is, all 22 million of us don’t wish to abandon these city islands to an increasingly rising, raging and polluted sea.

When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of forty-four, my mother, twin brother, and I were escorted into a private waiting room in the local hospital and told to swallow white pills with water in tiny white fluted paper cups. I see myself sitting on a windowsill, thinking “this is not happening,” while dutifully downing the tranquilizers that would, in fact, put me into that fugue state.

The tranquilizers were a bad idea, intended primarily, perhaps, to blunt our reactions so that nurses and doctors would not be stuck dealing with our emotions when they were feeling helpless enough already. Professionals who concern themselves with the effects of trauma, as an artist, I am one, trained in trauma counseling and human rights, no longer believe that numbing the trauma victim is appropriate. Disassociation is an immediate survival strategy. “This is not happening,” says the rape victim, watching the unthinkable from a safe place on the ceiling. But much of the healing process, over time, will be about putting her back into her body, helping her to feel the full extent of the violation.

But if disassociation is not ultimately helpful, nor is the shock option optimal. Our family physician who had misdiagnosed our father’s stomach pains as an executive’s ulcer now wanted to tell him as he woke from a massive, useless surgery, the cancerous tumors still in place, that he was going to die within two months and should get his affairs in order. My mother refused to allow those dire words. She insisted that a tube put into his stomach through which he would be fed, be removed. “He ate yesterday,” she said. She moved him to a prominent cancer research hospital. He continued to take nourishment by mouth until his death, two years later. His life was prolonged by a series of increasingly debilitating chemo doses. Only near the end did a family friend, a social worker, find the courage to sit with my father and calmly speak with him about his short life and imminent death. After that, he was able to sit straight up in bed, I remember this, too, in a dreamlike way, as I remember the window sill, white pills and fluted cups, and he spoke to each of us in turn about his love, his hopes for us, and he said goodbye. The cancer was already eating at his brain, and though he lived a few more months, this was his final lucid moment, and it remains a gift. It was the only time in two years of illness, when the truth was honored, felt, and shared, when the unbearable was borne. Later, I stood at his bedside while he was dying until the nurse said to my mother, “you don’t want her to see this, do you,” and my mother told me to leave the room. I obeyed, leaving in the trance-like state in which I had mainly learned to live. It is a decision I have sorrowed over ever since. Not having the courage to witness the moment of my father’s death numbed me to my grief. For decades after, I struggled with uncontrollable and debilitating depressions that cost me jobs and friends.

Grief is best endured in community. Being present at the moment of death could be reimagined to be as great a privilege as it might be an ordeal. Sparing the young when family members die is as impossible as it is deleterious to their mental health. Mourning openly and full is essential. Orpheus gave us music, so we could feel loss; the endings of ancient tragedies turn to song. In the beauty of the lyric sorrow finds its home. The lyric tells us we are no longer alone.

Governor Cuomo is acting as a reliable witness. He refuses to pretend everything will be all right. He saw the waters rise and he cannot stop telling the story of how the rivers met. He needs to talk about what he saw not to those who ran or swam for their lives but to the rest of us, who saw it mainly on television where it might have been any other horror or action adventure show. Surely, he is hoping if he tells his story enough, he will stop feeling so alone with what he knows. “It is going to happen again.” It will be worse; sea levels will have risen, and the next storm is likely to be more intense.

Our climate crisis might awake in us renewed desire for the beautiful both in nature and in poetic, collective modes of song, ritual, and drama. Knowing ourselves to be on the precipice could enhance our desire to know more about the self, to feel more deeply the imperatives of conscious choice making, to become more alert to the murmurings of soulfulness within and without. Revering the fragility of all that lives includes revaluing selfhood and connectedness. New York City is the perfect place, multicultural capital as it is, to be home to such a renaissance. The aimlessness of much of what passes for contemporary art and literature, its wanton violence and mean-spiritedness, would give way to a new and real sense of emergency calling forth immediacy of imagery, the need to hold and name what is.

Bearing the unbearable puts us into a dual state of consciousness. We need to be able to understand the dire truths of climate change, and talk about them relentlessly, until we are not alone, and others join in the Cassandra chorus. We need to feel the full force of the inevitable doom scenario. At the same time, we need to be able to go on, to enjoy the moment, and to relish the life we have. We need to experience joy in the present and sorrow for the future, alternately. In this fully conscious if bifurcated state, only, will we be able to act.

The planet has a terminal disease caused by human beings’ exploitation of fossil fuels. The wisest among us know we will have to take protective measures, reestablishing wet lands, and the like, to mitigate the harm but at the same time we need to stop drilling for oil, mining coal, and fracking for gas, use less of what is already above the ground, and develop alternative renewables, for which the technology does exist, fast. Not in decades, as was once the case, but now.

If we are not able to bear the truth that we are destroying our own ability to live on the only planet that sustains life, we will perish, if not us, our children and their children, and there will be untold suffering for us and them as life unravels. We need to see this future clearly, and tremble before it. Then, with vigor and trust, with delight in our newfound purposefulness, our imaginations revivified, we might act together to avert the fate we’ve been brave enough to know.

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