Life And Death
I once watched a documentary about the death penalty, a large portion of which was spent following a lawyer whose sole focus was defending death row inmates. During the course of the show, the lawyer was desperately trying to salvage an appeal for a man sentenced to die within days, and then hours, and then minutes. To be up front, I don’t remember whether or not he saved the man’s life. All I can remember is the lawyer. He ran everywhere he went, his brow beaded with sweat, his tie coming undone, his shirttail hanging out of his pants. He cursed a lot. He chain-smoked. He yelled at people. At one point, a coworker suggested he take a breath, to which the lawyer responded, “I’m trying to save a man’s life, damn it!”
There’s no doubt he was trying to save a man’s life, but to me the lawyer declared his intentions with the false conviction of a soap opera actor. It seemed to me he had allowed the drama of the story he was telling himself about himself to overtake the reality of his life. The story was that he was saving people’s lives and that this required his complete focus. This story meant he could treat everyone around him however he wanted because his mission was more important than the fragile sensibilities of a few paralegals.
I doubt I would have remembered the lawyer so clearly if I hadn’t seen a bit of myself in him. Like a lot of artists, I sometimes fancy myself a kind of hero, a knight on a holy quest for artistic purity. All the ticky-tacky business of everyday life be damned – I’m onto something bigger than grocery lists and library fines.
Yet all my swagger and self-absorption, like the lawyer’s frenzy, is born from a fear that maybe nothing matters. Maybe a novel is no more important than a grocery list. All paper burns. You try to nail meaning to the wall, and the wall disappears, and there you are swinging your hammer at nothing. Life begs you to release your hammer; the inmate will die or live, the book will be written or forgotten. The things of life can only drown you if you hold them, and meaning always waits for you downstream.
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