“Life,” the American journalist and author Elbert Hubbard once quipped, “is just one damned thing after another.” Like many of the best one-liners, it’s funny until you realise how unsettlingly true it is.
Imagine if you recorded all your experiences over a year. I don’t mean that you recap the year the way some people do in their Christmas cards; you simply list every single thing you do, and everything that happens to you, for twelve months. You now have a full inventory of your life during that time. For most people, what we’d be left with is a mass of repetitive detail punctuated by random disasters and noise. Mostly you’d be struck by how much each day, even each year looks like yesterday and yesteryear. You might even have the experience Albert Camus describes, the sudden onset of a sense of absurdity which “at any street corner … can strike any man in the face.”
The French have a wonderful expression for the daily grind, first coined by the poet Pierre Béarn: “métro, boulot, dodo.” The poetry is lost in translation, as “commute, work, sleep” doesn’t quite cut it. But we do have a hauntingly blunt English equivalent, courtesy of an apocryphal 18th century suicide note: “all this buttoning and unbuttoning”.
Staring at your list you might find yourself numbed by the constant over-and-over-againness of it all. You find yourself sympathising with Sisyphus, forced by the gods to push a boulder uphill only for it to roll down again, again, and again, forever. There must be something more than this, you might think. I need to get a life.
That’s a very telling expression. It implies a distinction between life and a life. The former is the parade of things that happen. It’s just one damn thing after another. But a life is something else. If someone asks you to tell them your life story, you won’t simply recite your list. You won’t just rattle off a bunch of dates or events, from what you had for breakfast on your eleventh birthday to how many times you’ve seen a deer. That’s not a story. A story selects the pertinent details and leaves out the ones it doesn’t need. It has a structure, an internal logic, a meaning. A good story pulls you along with it irresistibly; a mass of details with no trajectory and no traction is no story at all.
We don’t just ‘live’ our lives; we ‘lead’ them. A life is no mere aggregate of details, but something we create, even as life is, so to speak, done to us. In leading a life, we assume we know roughly, vaguely, where we’re going. One of the reasons Sisyphus horrifies us isn’t simply that his labours are endless, but that they aren’t going anywhere. What Sisyphus has isn’t a life, not because his rock-pushings are boring, but because they don’t lead to anything. They have no narrative, just endless reiteration, each time exactly the same as the last.
Focusing on this element of trajectory shows up how strongly our evaluation of lives is not simply about adding up good experiences and then subtracting the bad. Compare two lives, each containing twenty years of struggle and twenty years of bliss. Each life contains exactly as much pleasure and pain as the other – there is, just in terms of sheer enjoyment or misery, nothing to separate them. But in one life, you enjoy twenty years of happiness, followed by twenty years of hard slog, while in the other you toil for two decades and then enjoy twenty years of triumph. The net pleasure is the same in each case, yet most of us would prefer the second option to the first, all things being equal. A life story that is one of triumph or redemption strikes us as a better life than one that travels in the opposite direction. Rags-to-riches is better than riches-to-rags, even if there’s just as much of both.
Not everyone gets past rags, of course. Many lives are sheer misery; some are unbearably and even irredeemably tragic. Many more are just unsatisfying or dull. But even boring stories can be told. Even drabness can have pattern and form. Even the repetition and drudgery, the buttoning and unbuttoning, might be the rhythm of a larger piece of music, swelling and falling, building to crescendos and resolutions. Unless an unexpected discordant note strikes – or the music simply stops.
Sometimes it turns out our stories aren’t what we thought they were. A sudden injury, the death of a loved one, losing a job, or a grim diagnosis can break into the settled rhythms of our life and throw everything into disarray. Part of our distress in these cases isn’t simply due to pain or absence or disability, but also to the violation of meaning, the sense of betrayed expectations of what our life is and where it’s heading. Narrative injuries can run just as deep as physical ones, and be just as hard to heal. When our lives don’t have the shape we assumed they would have, we can find that we no longer know who we are.
Hubbard, as it happens, was someone who understood the importance of the shape of a life, and particularly of how the end can fit the whole. When the Titanic sank in 1912, Hubbard wrote approvingly of Ida Straus, who passed up a spot on a lifeboat, preferring to stay and die than leave her husband Isidor (owner of Macy’s department store):
One thing is sure, there are just two respectable ways to die. One is of old age, and the other is by accident. All disease is indecent. Suicide is atrocious. But to pass out as did Mr and Mrs Isidor Straus is glorious. Few have such a privilege. Happy lovers, both. In life they were never separated and in death they are not divided.
Some evils, the philosopher and theologian Marilyn McCord Adams wrote, are so horrific that they don’t merely outweigh the goods in a life, but simply defeat them at once. They ruin a whole life, like an ugly slash of garish colour in the middle of an otherwise balanced and beautiful painting. Deaths can often be like that. A squalid or cowardly or appallingly unjust death can crowd out everything that came before it. A wasted life is, retrospectively, a ruined one. But a fitting death, even if abrupt and desperately sad, can ennoble the life it completes. Nobody wants the song to end, but a good ending resolves the melody, completes the final cadence. “We have lived together for many years,” Ida told Isidor in the chill of the Atlantic night. “Where you go, I go.”
Three years later, Hubbard himself – having personally pleaded with President Taft to pardon an obscenity conviction so he could get his passport back and travel to Europe – was aboard the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. A survivor reported that Hubbard and his wife, the feminist writer Alice Moore Hubbard, seeing that there was no hope of rescue, simply walked off the deck into the nearest room and closed the door behind them – presumably so they could die together and avoid being separated in the ocean. That’s some damn thing.