Keeping Vigil

Is it human or is it cultural, to keep vigil for something lost, forever? The widow who wears black all the remaining days of her life, the hapless romantic covered in tattoos to memorialize losses he will never fully understand. 


Money down the drain, time lost to a less-evolved understanding of life and less-authentic pursuits. It all echoes in a cacophonous elegy, like the monogamous birds that forever cry for their one true love. It used to be, it almost was. I had it and I lost it. These are noble tears, vestigial grief from a species descended from every other. We are not alone in our lamentations; we have simply created a world with so many different things to lose. Ants carry and bury their dead. Ducks will sit out on the ice and freeze to death beside their entrapped spouses. Elephants scream into the unblinking Saharan void, sobbing over lost relatives. 


Perhaps we would be better off if the only thing we had to lose was our one true love, if we were like animals and simply found a partner and stuck with them until it ends. Instead, we accumulate resources and lose them, we pursue hobbies and abandon them, we date and date some more, until we’re not sure who it is we really miss or what it was that broke our hearts the most.

In my bones I have the grief of an ancestor who lost so much; their innocence, their partner, their next partner, too. Their connection to home, their faith. Science has finally proven what we felt all along. Trauma is passed down through genes, so that our predecessors’ pain becomes ours, too. Perhaps this used to be a helpful survival strategy, back when avoiding pain was an integral part of learning how to stay alive. Now, we live too long. We have too much. Pain is inevitable, in multifaceted piles of despair that spiral one atop another, until it is difficult to discern whether the heartbreak that played out in a romantic relationship is really an isolated incident or perhaps part of a subconscious re-enactment of a wound from early childhood. We are doomed to repeat our worst experiences again and again, until we break the cycle. Until the cycle breaks us. 

We keep vigil for the loss and the pain because it is all we know how to do. Because millions of years of ancestors did the same. Because our animal and plant cousins still do. We are hypervigilant because it is the only way we know how to protect ourselves from the pain of the past. We become like the baby bird that lost its parent to a predator but somehow survived; we prickle at perceived threats even sooner than our reptilian brains really ought to. Somehow, the superego and id meld together, trauma responses and animalistic instincts duking it out until we become things that our species calls diagnoses: we are not attentive, we are anxious. We are not rightfully sad for the pain we feel, we are depressed. Some cultures elevate the dutiful mourner to deity, others pathologize them as someone who is hung up on the wrong things. I wonder if there is a difference.

I carry the names of murder victims in my mind as if knowing names of strangers makes their deaths less vain. I remember snails stepped on years ago and animals writhing on the side of the highway, thinking that my flawed tangle of synapses might be able to make the cruel cycle of life matter a bit more than it does. I can’t quite keep every turtle and rabbit my high school peers shot straight in my mind; the impressionistic swirl of sadness and terror melts together in a brain that’s been rattled by severe concussions and muted by the weight of a world that isn’t very kind to its inhabitants. I am sorry for each wasted life that I cannot more distinctly commemorate them. 


Is the duty of the living to honor the dead, or is it our fate to build new life off the backs of the anonymous billions who have gone before us? Think of all the humans who died tasting various wild berries and mushrooms, blowing out kerosene lanterns and forever sleeping in a room full of gas, their fleeting lives ended simply because they didn’t know better. All of that trial and error led somewhere, led to more caution and knowledge for future generations. In the moment, their friends and family were crushed. Sometime later, we can’t even name the person whose mistaken plant identification finally taught the scientific community about poisonous fruits. Perhaps someday my life will be lost to the wicked line-of-ill-fit that is our society, and some future species will study it impassively, laughing at how crude our culture was. 

Life is a balancing act. On the scale of an individual human lifetime, the weight of a loss or a special experience feels immense. On the scale of the cosmos, it is all but a blip. I seek the wisdom of therapists and gurus, writers and poets; some celebrate the infinite beauty of a single cup of coffee as if the meaning of life depends on it. Others remind us that if we zoom out a bit, everything is essentially nothing. I cannot tell which perspective is most true, most helpful, most real. I can try to let things matter less, and all I feel is hollowed and dead. Like the year I was put on antidepressants, because other people wanted something different from me. Perhaps the sadness can’t prod as deep into your psyche, but neither can the joy. Neither can the smells. Neither can the basic arousal that is as old as time, that we’ve been shamed into fearing.