Monday, February 03, 2014

Saying Yes, Saying No and the Tragedy of Humanity

I say yes a lot. It's overcompensation for a temperament that is pathologically change-averse, and would gladly go nowhere and do nothing and stay in my bedroom reading the books people sent me until I ran out of food. (I do run out of food on a regular basis, so at least I'd go out sometimes. Although now I live in Peapod country, so maybe not.)

Saying yes has been a mostly winning strategy. It's gotten me into a certain amount of trouble, but it's also let me have a pretty fabulous life. I know a lot of interesting people and I've watched, if not actually done, a lot of interesting things. I told my boss 25 years ago that I wanted to learn as much as I could about as many different things as I could, and I've been able to pursue that goal pretty well.

Over the past week, however, I've had a few too many reminders that you can't say yes to everything, and it's not a good idea to try. Adulthood is all about knowing when and how to say no, and what to say no to — because if you can't do it for yourself, the universe will damn well do it for you.

I didn't know Philip Seymour Hoffman, except in the way that we all knew Philip Seymour Hoffman. Because didn't you feel like you knew Philip Seymour Hoffman? I did. He was close to my own age, and he looked like someone I might be related to. He talked like someone I might be related to, about things I cared about and was interested in. He felt like a member of my tribe, the group of people trying to figure out how and who to be in this world.

Yesterday afternoon, like everyone else, I wanted to believe that the news of his death was a hoax. A cruel, horrifying hoax would be better than what the truth turned out to be. A 46-year-old man died, leaving three small children and a partner and a world of people who loved him but could not give him whatever it was he needed.

Humans are small, and the universe is vast beyond our imagination. We have such a narrow window on things, and such a short time to be here. The Internet Movie Database says that Philip Seymour Hoffman played 63 different screen roles in less than 25 years, and that doesn't count his iconic stage performances or the plays and movies he produced and directed. He said yes to everything. In doing so he got to live so many lives that were far, far from the reality of his daily life — but he lost his footing in the life that mattered most, the daily struggle to connect with the live human beings who had the right to expect his presence and his engagement.

It's hard to know whether addiction was the cause or the effect of that, and it doesn't really matter. Addiction might start as a yes to a new and interesting experience, but continue as an easy way to say no when you don't know how to do it otherwise — to step out, to turn off, to shut down, to absent oneself from care a while. The drug says no, so you don't have to.

I turned down a project last week for the first time in a few years. I wasn't right for it, and it wasn't right for me. I might say no to a few other things this week. Saying no terrifies me because it feels like holding myself separate from something (or someone) that might need me, and if no one needs me, why am I here? But this is the constant battle, this is the fight of humans on this planet — the quest for that point of equilibrium at which we can say yes to enough to connect, while saying no to enough to stay whole.

Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn't find that point. Maybe none of us can. But today, while I travel up to New York City, I might watch Magnolia again.

No comments: