A WONDERFUL FACT to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?
The above is from one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps it has stayed with me because it so eloquently expresses a mystery I have often felt but have never been able to explain so well, the realization that all around me, others are going through their days, living their lives, thinking their thoughts, and those lives and those thoughts, of which I am completely unaware, are every bit as important to them as mine are to me. I may see a person just once, through a car window, our lives just barely intersecting, and I will never know anything more about that person, her triumphs, his tragedies.
Have you ever stared at the person you love most in the world and suddenly realized something similar, that he or she is a person just like you, with an inner life and thoughts you can never fully fathom? All of a sudden that person starts to look a little too REAL, somehow, and you almost have to look away. It’s too much to think about, too much to understand.
I’m thinking about this today for a sad reason. I was thinking about how over the past several weeks so many of us have been following Henry’s tragic story, and it has become very personal to us, and painful, because Katie’s writing drew us in and she allowed us to become part of the story, to have the privilege to share her suffering.
But there is so much suffering and so much death, all around us, every day, that we cannot share. This morning the headline story of our local paper told of the death of another teenager, this one a girl who was shot on her own front porch by a stray bullet as she tried to take her baby cousin to safety. How many more have died from drive-by shootings, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? And just last week two teenage boys died in a terrible car crash while on a road trip. Car crashes are the third leading cause of death for teenagers, after all.
Almost exactly two years ago, our family members in Maryland were stunned by the death of Brian, who had just graduated from high school and was headed to the beach to celebrate when his car was hit by a drunk driver–a driver who had killed with his car before. And I still remember vividly the case of the Knoxville Catholic High School senior, Sharon Gerard, who died in a motorcycle crash on graduation night when I was still a sophomore.
So many tragic and early deaths. If you are reading papers in other states, you’ll have seen different stories, equally sad. Or you have personal knowledge of similar situations–perhaps your family has been touched personally by untimely death. We read the stories of others, and maybe our eyes dampen a bit as we say what a terrible thing it is that has happened. But then we go on, because there is only so much pain we can allow ourselves to feel.
Death and tragedy and loss are, then, universal. We all suffer them. Yet to the extent that we experience them privately and internally, our losses are singular and peculiar to us alone. Everyone feels them differently and we can never know exactly how another is grieving. Nor can we know what private pain that person we glimpse in passing through the car window is carrying inside, but we can be sure that there is something.