If he were walking around the streets today, the richest man I ever knew might be mistakenly thought to be homeless. His clothes were well-worn, almost threadbare, the leather on his shoes was cracked, and he wore no jewellery. The man who accompanied him might be mistaken for a carer of some sort, except that this man was always wearing a tailored suit with fashionable leather shoes, carried a literal bag of money, and he was never without the aid of a reliable and recognisable timepiece. This sharp dressed man was, of course, was the personal assistant to Mr. Phipps, the bedraggled banker he served quietly and with great decorum.
This PA (let’s call him Johnson, because I never had any idea what his name was) saw to the messy details of Mr. Phipp’s life such as paying for services, food, and the few material items Mr. Phipps might require. Mr. Johnson had an easy job, as Mr. Phipps was as gentle as he was austere. Mr. Phipps also knew that money was about the filthiest thing you could touch, so he never touched it unless it was fresh from the mint. Any previously used money was handled strictly by Mr. Johnson, who took his chances with the germ-ridden currency, but still saw to wash his hands frequently.
I had a fairly intimate relationship with Mr. Phipps myself. At least I guess it was more intimate that what most of the local 12-year-old boys had with him—I shined his shoes. The leather was old and cracked, as I said, but I did my best to restore it and bring the shine back. He always seemed grateful for my efforts, and he’d have Mr. Johnson reward my labor handsomely by the standards of a 12-year-old shine boy.
I think of him every time I hear a salesperson brag about the ability to size up potential customers as soon as they walk through the door. “I can tell right off,” they’ll say, “whether someone is ready to spend money. Or even has any money to spend.” The snap judgement and dismissive following behaviour serve only to fulfil the bigoted prophesy. But I suppose our days are filled with nothing but minor miscalculations. We trip over our own feet constantly but usually carry on to walk again.
The venerable X. J. Kennedy used a poem about “vile rottenflush”
to illustrate bad poetry in his seminal textbook, Introduction to Poetry.
The poem, he explains, was submitted to the equally venerable Paris Review, but he does not credit (blame?) the author.
The poem about vile rottenflush, he clarifies, is too personal
and subjective to speak to anyone other than the person who wrote it.
He says, “the author has vented personal frustrations upon words,
instead of kicking stray dogs.”
Who am I to question the wisdom of someone
as accomplished as X. J. Kennedy?
I only know that I remember the phrase “vile rottenflush”
four decades after first hearing it. Also, I think the author of “vile rottenflush”
had witnessed a death of someone much loved, and anyone who has watched
the most cherished people in their lives die might understand the poem, after all.
I think this because the poem also mentions “corpseblood” and “ghastly stench.”
No one forgets the smell of a soul leaving the body.
And no one forgets what they see when life is flushed away.
Perhaps “rottenflush” was a novel way of avoiding the now
clichéd references to “putrefying flesh.”
Perhaps it is a way of reminding the readers
That our blood will cease to flow, pulse, and pump,
Only to be left to pool, drip, and stink.
The author of “vile rottenflush” might be accused of being too direct,
But not too personal. Which of us will not overwhelm
Post mortem viewers and handlers with our own
Ghastly stench, reducing them to cries or horror
As they see their fate clearly in our eyes?
While mourning his daughter Tullia, Cicero took to writing a book of self-consolation. Thinking himself the inventor of this type of self-help, he said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”)
I certainly don’t think Cicero was the first to console himself by writing, but he seemed to find it of value, and many after him have repeated the exercise. Writing can be a way of releasing out inner torment when faced with grief or illness.
If you use or have used writing as a consolation, I’d like to invite you to join the Writing Through Illness and Grief group on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/256668978211572/). If you are not on Facebook but are interested in participating in other ways, please contact me at Randall@ethicsbeyondcompliance.com.
I was fortunate enough to be included in Isabelle Kenyon’s new poetry anthology supporting the mental health charity, UK MIND. I was happy to participate in the project because I think any effort to remove stigma around mental illness and to provide support for those suffering is a good and necessary thing to do. I don’t think I am unusual, really, but I’ve had my bouts with depression, anxiety, avoidance and attendant health problems. The more open we can be about our struggles, the easier it will be for us, collectively, to cope. I’m very grateful to Isabelle Kenyon for her efforts, which she describes below.
Isabelle Kenyon is a Surrey based poet and a graduate in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance from the University of York. She is the author of poetry anthology, This is not a Spectacle and micro chapbook, The Trees Whispered, published by Origami Poetry Press. She is also the editor of MIND Poetry Anthology ‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’. You can read more about Isabelle and see her work at www.flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk
Thank you to Randall Horton for letting me guest blog today! I wanted to spread the word about the MIND Poetry Anthology, which I have compiled and edited. ‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’ will be out in early February, expected date of release to be Thursday the 8th, on Amazon. The Anthology consists of poems from 116 poets (if I include myself!) and the book details a whole range of mental health experiences. The profits of the book with go to UK charity, MIND.
The book came about through my desire to do a collaborative project with other poets and my desire to raise money for a charity desperately seeking donations to cope with the rising need for its work. I received over 600 poems and have narrowed this down to 180.
As an editor, I have not been afraid to shy away from the ugly or the abstract, but I believe that the anthology as a whole is a journey – with each section the perspective changes. I hope that the end of the book reflects the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for mental health and that the outcome of these last sections express positivity and hope.
‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’ is a poetry anthology, the profits of which will go to UK charity, MIND. The book consists of 116 poets (I’m happy to be one of them) from around the world and details a whole range of mental health experiences. The expected date of release is Thursday 8th, on Amazon.
Editor Isabelle Kenyon answers questions about the project.
Question: How did this project begin?
Isabelle: I knew I wanted to work collaboratively with other poets and it was actually the theme of mental health for a collection, which came to me before the idea of donating the profits to charity MIND. This was because I knew how strongly people felt about the subject and that it is often through writing that the most difficult of feelings can be expressed. I think that is why the project received the sheer number of submissions that it did.
Question: How did you select the poems – was there a process?
Isabelle: In some cases of course personal taste came into my selection, but I tried to be as objective as I could and consider the collection as whole. I wanted the book to have as many different personal experiences and perspectives as I could find. Because of this, I have not been afraid to shy away from the ugly or the abstract, but I hope that the end of the book reflects the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for mental health and that the outcome of these last sections express positivity and hope.
Question: Why should people buy this book?
Isabelle: Easy – to support the fantastic work which MIND does and to support the fantastic poets involved. Rave about their work because I believe the poets involved are both talented and dedicated.
Imagine you and a friend go to see a documentary (or even fictional film) about the plight of victims of famine, war, disease, or oppression, and you bawl uncontrollably throughout the film as your friend sits next to you unmoved and indifferent to everything happening on the screen. You think anyone who isn’t moved by the extreme suffering you’ve just seen must be some kind of monster (or a sociopath at the least). You feel, in short, that crying is more moral than just sitting there.
You will admit, of course, that your crying through the movie didn’t help the victims any and your friend’s indifference didn’t really hurt anyone. Still, it seems that a moral person should have feelings for those who are suffering, even if you can’t find any real benefit for these strong feelings for strangers who get no benefit from your tears, heartfelt as they are.
In fact, your friend might point out that you are getting all worked up for no reason, and it might be better to keep your emotions in check. Your wailing for these strangers won’t change anything for them, but it might impair your ability to attend to problems you can change. What good are you to your children, for example, if your mind is on the poor souls in some far corner of the world? You should get your head together, friend, and get on with the business of life.
But, you counter, if you learn to be indifferent and unmoved by the pain of strangers, you may become indifferent to the pain of others, including friends and, yes, your own children. You don’t want to become the kind of monster you now suspect your friend of being. You want to be the kind of person who is moved by the suffering of others. You may not be able to help in every situation, but you do not want to become callous and cold. You want to be a caring individual. It isn’t about what you can do but about what you are.
And now your friend points out that not only did you cry during the movie, but you seemed, in some sense, to enjoy it. In fact, you apparently went to the movie with the prior intention of being moved to tears. You chose the movie because it was described as “moving” and “emotionally riveting.” Will you be happy when your children fall ill because it will satisfy your need to “let it all out”? Perhaps you are the monster, after all?
You didn’t enjoy the pain, you object, but you enjoyed the high quality of the film and its ability to elicit the pain. It was beautiful in its ability to enlarge compassion and trigger a caring response. The film will help, if nothing else, audiences develop a greater sense of concern for others, even if it doesn’t affect everyone (with a sly and disapproving nod to your friend).
And your friend now points out that people had to suffer in order to expand compassion and develop a greater caring response, so the suffering of others is used as a means to your own ends. You are actually acting selfishly after all, and the film makers are also exploiting the suffering of these people in order to teach a moral lesson and even to make a profit and perhaps sit in the spotlight after receiving coveted awards. You can just imagine the director’s teary expressions of gratitude and exhortations for a more acts of compassion at the ceremony.
In 2012, comedian Anthony Griffith told the story of his daughter’s cancer in a moving performance for The Moth. The video quickly went viral. You can see the video here:
The video on YouTube now has more than 1.8 million views. It is almost impossible to watch the video without sobbing, and people shared it by promising that anyone watching should have some tissues on hand. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, we enjoy experiencing his grief with him. It might be objected that we are emotional voyeurs watching a sort of grief porn. By watching, we are not helping his daughter, we are not preventing future cancer deaths, we are not improving medical care, and it isn’t clear how we might be improving ourselves.
Paradoxically, we simultaneously want to avoid our own pain but glom onto the pain of others. Watching the story enables us to experience the pain without having to actually experience the loss of child. Doing this while watching a fictional account of loss seems justifiable in many ways, but to seek out a chance to cry and experience this kind of pseudo-grief that is provided by the actual grief of another person certainly raises an ethical concern.
We might say that Anthony Griffith needed to talk about his loss, and we are providing him with an audience. We are doing him a great favor by listening. We are honoring his loss. And he may agree with us. In this case, he is using us to help him along his healing journey, but this doesn’t seem to be what is going on. We want to see and hear his story. We want to be part of his grief story without having to do any heavy lifting ourselves. We watch the video, feel emotional excitement, hug our loved ones because one never knows when they will be gone, and then we are done with it.
We might say that we want to hear the story because it is well written and well performed. Griffith is extremely talented as a story teller, and we appreciate his talent and courage to share such a personal story. When we watch the video, we are paying tribute to his writing and his acting. The only problem is that he really doesn’t seem to be acting. He has merely put his pain on view for the world. He is certainly talented, and the story is well-written, but most people will be moved by anyone’s story of a lost child. It is relatively easy to evoke strong emotions with a story of intense pain and grief.
It may be that we want to hear his story so we can prepare ourselves for the times our story might be the main event. Someday we will have to do the heavy lifting. If we can live through Griffith’s pain, maybe we can face our own. By experiencing Griffith’s grief, we see that we can also face it and live through it just as he has done. We finish the video feeling somehow more prepared.
Or we may be drawn to the stories of others because it provides an evolutionary advantage. By hearing stories of others, we develop compassion and care. Other than providing an audience, we may not be helping Griffith directly, but we may be better able to empathize with others in the future. We are preparing not only for how to face our own struggles but to help others through theirs. If this is true, then we are actually doing something noble and beneficial by watching such videos.
Or, maybe we are just seeking the thrill of an emotional roller coaster ride.
Comments are welcome below. I appreciate corrections to typos and so forth (firstname.lastname@example.org).