I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives. Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.
One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read. Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.
Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat. My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight. In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.
This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of. And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.
My other solution, for many years, was to write. I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument. But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.
Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.
I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back. I still believe it. Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December. Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues. And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.
I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.
I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that. But maybe not. It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue… I think I spoke in full sentences. I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.
Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.
It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving. Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.
After getting home, I asked myself many things. The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.
“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman. It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams. In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it. Why? Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.
And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.
The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief. The first two pages, denial. The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway. He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.
Third page? Anger, of course. Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.
In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche. They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action. We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.
Then… bargaining. This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.
Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage. Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies. Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”
Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world. Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain. Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…
The wheel lights up and starts moving. Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective. He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel. Ah, sweet acceptance.
And it works!
It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue. Oh and a writer analogue. Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction? In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer. And as a reader, so do we.
Well, maybe not The Answer.
There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions. If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?
But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened. Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.
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