Life Is a Chapeau Shop

As a hypochondriac, I have always had frequent “health scares” in which I go through a kind of ritual of worrying and agonizing, wondering if it’s just my hypochondria, finally consulting a doctor and learning that my worrying is indeed unfounded. If I were honest with myself, I’d admit that my biannual hypochondria ritual is a kind of bargaining, somehow buying myself immunity from disease through the price of constant worry.

Recently, though, I had what to my great indignance turned out to be a “real” – i.e. warranted, requiring tests – health scare. I was scared shitless for a week, awaiting the test results, and my fright was completely different from my usual fear. It turned out to be nothing, in the end (thank the gods), but it did make me think about mortality in a more serious, non-bargaining sort of way. It was kind of a valuable experience, actually.

One thing I realized was that a big part of my fear of having a serious illness was actually a fear of having to act out the role of someone facing a serious illness. My relief at the end of the ordeal was largely a relief of not having to put on an act for other people and for myself – and act that, moreover, thrusts you into a kind of limelight. Mortality is the biggest drama, and the sick or dying man is center stage, with the lights shining brightly on him.

Fear of a major calamity like a serious illness is partly a kind of stage fright, in other words. Going through this brief scare, I suddenly understood why, when my father was fighting and, eventually, dying from cancer, he avoided contact with people, and avoided telling even his closest friends about it. Now I can totally understand not wanting to have to play that role. Now I felt bad, in retrospect, for having tried to make him talk about what he was going through: I had been forcing him to play a role that compounded his suffering.

I think people naturally do that as a way of showing their own concern, making sure their concern is registered and recognized. But to some degree it can be selfish, overlooking the pain of forcing the sick person to dramatize.

Sartre wrote about life as perpetual act, but he put it in strenuous, moralistic terms: You were a liar, living in bad faith, when you dramatized your predicament, allowing social roles to define you. G. put the issue of dramatizing your life in much more humane and forgiving terms. The problem with acting is not some metaphysical wrongness or dishonesty; the problem is simply that it causes pain, and it’s a pain we can never quite escape. The best we can do is think carefully about that pain, notice how our acting causes it, and try to defy or subvert the roles that are pre-written for whatever situation or predicament we are in.

My favorite part of G’s memoir A Kind of Testament is his description of a trip to Rome after the publication of Ferdydurke. A Polish painting student he met there wondered about his disinterest in the beautiful churches. He said they all looked the same inside, but in reality his distaste at visiting St. Peters and the other monuments of Western civilization was a desire to avoid the standard act of feeling humbled and dwarfed by them, having to take your hat off. The painter said, well why don’t you just not take your hat off? So that’s what he did. He went into the churches with his hat on and this choice empowered him.

Death is like a big awesome dark cathedral. It is so frightening that mostly we ignore it or push it out of view. But then when we are dragged kicking and screaming to its doorstep, we genufluct and bow and scrape. We are frightened and humbled by it, and we go through the postures and the poses and make the grimaces of awe and fear. Because that’s what other people expect of us. In other words, we remove our hats. Or, we go to great lengths to try and escape it, flee from it, which is kind of like chasing after our hat in a wind. And as some European writer said (not G.), there’s nothing so absurd as a man chasing after his hat.

So I hope that, when eventually I do approach the doors of that cathedral, I figure out how to do it on my own terms—maybe by just not taking my hat off.

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