In the ecstasy of the moments after the winning goal of the world cup, Andres Iniesta was outside of himself. Yelling, screaming, mad with adrenaline and victory, he stripped off his shirt in a popular gesture. But Iniesta had another shirt underneath that read Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros – Dani Jarque is always with us, a tribute to a teammate who died suddenly of a heart attack a year ago. Ecstasy meeting tragedy became a triumph. That’s the nature of our obligation to those who have gone on before us, a calling not just to the departed but to our better selves – and a deeper appreciation of the moments we have.
A writer never gets a brilliant goal in the last minutes of overtime but still has the obligations we all have to those who have gone on. Any well performed wake will tell you that at some point life is a collection of stories. The more artfully we can tell them the longer the person stays alive, at least in our minds. Obligations to the dead may seem like a burden, but they are often instructive and quite liberating in their own ways. The stories, at their best, explain how lives touch each other and what made us who we are.
Our culture often looks the other way at memorials to the dead – they are supposed to be private things that are deeply personal. Contemplating my own obligations to pass on the stories of those who went before me has taught me that this is nothing more than cowardice, a denial that we all will one day die. As pedestrians on the sidewalk of life we are supposed to keep moving and let it go.
My own view of writing, which starts with keeping my eyes wide open in a nearly desperate search for context, can’t do this.
This is especially true of people who have died violently. Understanding the forces that caused them to die as their blood stained the concrete is even more important if for no reason other than to understand violence – where it comes from, what it does, and how it can be stopped. But these stories are even harder to tell because the context is often so far outside of the lives of people who need to understand them. A world numbed by dumbed-down violence rendered by shopping mall posers has to have everything they know cleared out of their heads before they can possibly understand any of it.
Then there is a question of privacy. When the stories are from a life well lived they are easy to tell. A story written at the moment of death is inherently an invasion of a very private moment – one that at the very least demands great care in the telling. A newspaper might write its obituary in crisply factual language to drain the moment of the colors that are far too vivid. It gets around the privacy issue, at least in part.
And so the casual stories of violence sanitized for our protection by Hollywood win out over reality. Those of us who have obligations to reality, difficult as it is, have a lot more work to do in order to fulfill them. Something has to give.
A moment of triumph and a tribute to a colleague are touching when revealed in a single moment. Getting a yellow card is the only real downside, one that no one with a soul would ever care about. But when there is a lesson that needs to be learned, or more accurately absorbed, the stories are much harder. They require an attention most people aren’t willing to give. You can shove them into people’s faces and force them to share the moment of innocent bystander but they will probably only learn repulsion. That would be a start, but it hardly does justice to the stories of a life.
So the obligations are still there to tell the stories and do it well. I have some work to do. Sadly, it’ll take more than a t-shirt.