Rated: PG-13. Some adult situations in this story may be deemed objectionable, and they may be shocking to young minds.
The Quiet Man
“Why is it selfish to commit suicide?” the quiet man asked me.
Why? I said what I had said a number of times before, and no one had ever asked me why before. ‘Why?’ What do you mean why?
Anytime someone commits suicide people want to know why. They assign motives, mostly complicated rationales that they hope will reflect upon them and their thoughtful, complicated rationale. I thought/think selfishness grasps this as well, if not better than any other, but no one had ever asked me expound on why? I suppose I could’ve said that varies, but I wanted silence to follow my profound thought. I didn’t want anyone asking me why. I didn’t know why? No one does, and that in part is what makes it so selfish.
I thought the quiet man was calling me out for making a provocative statement without knowing how to back it up. I used to think that one of the virtues to being quiet was that when you spoke people would listen. I used to think that profundity would be heard in the words of a man who cast few. I’ve come to realize that some quiet people are quiet as a result of pain and insecurity, and that some of the times you’re quiet, because others prefer you to be quiet.
I didn’t listen to the quiet man when he spoke, no one did. No one missed him when he wasn’t there, and no could remember when he was. When he eventually made a profundity that no one would forget, with that question, we all tried to remember how he put it, his tone, and his overall demeanor. Was he earnestly seeking an answer, or was it more in line with a challenge to my premise?
Most people are so shocked by my declaration that suicide is selfish that no one asks me why. Most people think suicide is a sad and sympathetic act. Most people weren’t sickened by the suicidal victim. Most people want to understand “the victim”, and they want to read into it. They want to piece together the actions leading up to the horrific incident, they want to remember, so they can understand. Few say, “selfish bastard” and walk away from it with that as their solid conviction. Few will talk about how much confusion “the victim” has provided his survivors. That’s selfish, they say, to think about yourself at a time like this. Well, why did he do it, I ask. He asked me, why not?
I gave the quiet man some kind of answer. It wasn’t well thought out. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I said something. Some say that our selective memory, in cases such as these, overrides reality. I’ve pictured this moment so many times that there are times when I picture myself delivering a Lincoln-like address on the selfishness of suicide from behind a podium.
We were in a pizza place. His question was soft, almost too soft to hear, and I nearly ignored him. I was shocked that someone should call me out like that. I wanted him to be quiet, so I could remain profound. I didn’t know that he really wanted to know. I didn’t know that he considered my statement thoughtful and provocative. I didn’t know he was searching for answers he thought I might know. I was just a gasbag releasing a statement. I didn’t think I would need follow up.
Why would someone ask why? The question never dawned on me before. I never devoted myself to the answer of why. As political people who have not devoted themselves to an issue say, it wasn’t my issue. I simply liked the statement. I thought it was beautiful as a standalone. Why is it selfish to take one’s life, well isn’t that obvious? To some it’s obviously not. To some, it is the only answer to a life not well lived. To some it is the only answer to the questions of what to do about never ending solitude and routine and worthlessness and obscurity.
I’ve attended a number of get-togethers, and The Quiet Man was often there. We often forgot he was there. We all remembered provocative and funny and interesting things said by others. It doesn’t take much to make a memorable statement to those who want to speak with you. To my mind, The Quiet Man never made one. He said some things that were somewhat, sort of, pseudo funny, but they were cutesy, funny statements that you forget five seconds after they’re said.
Why would it matter if a man has decided that he has just had enough? He’s worked his menial labor jobs –because that’s all he was capable of– throughout his life. He’s put food on the table for his family. He’s created an environment for his children, so that they would never want anything. He taught these children how to exist in the real world in the best manner he could, and now they’re gone, and now their phone calls have stopped. They don’t need him anymore. They don’t have any more questions. They stopped him when he tried to help them. They said they knew that already. They’re gone, and he still has to work these menial jobs, because no one else will hire him, because he has no skills and very little education, and he has tended to the lawn and the household machinery for so long that no one appreciates it anymore. They expect it now. It’s what a good man does.
Machinery used to give The Quiet Man such a thrill. He learned how to fix things when he was younger. His father drove him to be a man’s man, and he became that man. He became the mirror image of his father. Then he taught his sons. That felt great. He learned, he taught, and he learned how great it felt to teach. He was passing a legacy, he had purpose, he had those wild eyes of youth looking up at him with such reverence when he fixed that bicycle that they assumed could never be fixed, and he was a great man to those wild eyes of youth. It ended over time, of course, as each of his boys carved out their own identity by learning and rebelling and learning again. He could laugh at the foolish notions of his young boys and their obnoxious beliefs that they knew it all. That gave him purpose. That let him know he still had something to teach them. They still turned to him, and that felt great. Then they did begin to learn it all. They began to drift away from their obnoxious, rebellious beliefs, and they began to truly learn how to do things. They learned everything he knew and more. Every parent’s dream fulfilled. After a time, the euphoria of this fulfillment subsided. The parent sees that their child has become a good man. The parent sees that their child has become a good parent. The parent sees that their child doesn’t need help any more. The parent even begins to see, at a certain point in time, that their child resents them always trying to help. That’s when it dawns on the parent that they are in the way, useless, a burden, an obligation to visit, a bore to talk to, an asterisk in life that must be tended. “Have you visited your father?”
“No, I really need to get around to that. It’s what a good son does.”
When the kids aren’t around, and they rarely are, it’s back to the mind-numbing job, the mindless machinery, and the purposeless life. Machinery follows a blueprint, insert A into B and loop R around T. It’s monotonous once you’ve mastered it. There’s no room for creativity in it, but The Quiet Man was never a particularly creative man. He’s a man who knows how to insert A into B. It’s how he arrived at three children. A master of machinery who never mastered mechanics, but knows just enough to know where to put the tape to prevent chafing, spillage, or the occasional break in the flow of the machinery.
The eldest son is a jovial person. He’s the life of the party. He’s always playing with your head. He’s well known in these parts for his quick wit, and a general air of joviality. The question that rages in the mind is what if that starts to go away? What if the Dad was just as jovial as the son at one time, and what if the jovial started to go away with each year and each grey hair in the son? What if the nature is inherited? My friend seems so stable though. He seems a lot like me. He seems like a little brother. I know him too well, but life can feel so purposeless at times. The machinery begins to pound one into the mundane, as you make sure there is food on the table and the kids around you begin to truly know it all. Will he ever be asking those challenging, seemingly mundane, but in the aftermath profound questions?
I have a line that I think describes my friend well. He is a game show host with a short-term personality. He has a vibrant, long-term personality, but you don’t see that until you’re around him long-term. Long-term is not his specialty though. He specializes in the short-term. When he enters onto your scene, you are blown away by his personality. I am more of a quiet type with a long-term personality. I have to grow on you a little, but he makes friends so easily that he makes you think you can do it at anytime with anyone. People gravitate to him in a room, even if they know so little about his personality that they don’t get his jokes. I could tell the same joke and be misunderstood by the same people, until they get to know me. In this vein, my friend seems much different from his father, The Quiet Man. My friend, the eldest son of the quiet man, is not quiet.
It makes one wonder why people are quiet, and if they want to be that way. Do they want to talk, but they can’t or won’t, depending on the situation? Do they fear that they’re stupid or inconsequential? Are they hiding aspects of themselves they don’t want known, or are they so wrapped up in an image of themselves that every word that comes out of their mouth ruins that image? Are people quiet, because their unending search for the perfect thing to say has them paralyzed to silence, or are they quiet, because they fear no one else is listening?
I think I remember having another generic conversation in a group of which The Quiet Man was apart. I think he may have said something substantial, something foreboding, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what they were. So goes the plight of the quiet man.
I do have one memory that’s quite vivid. I was walking through a field in front of his house. I was walking with a one year old and a four year old. I remember wanting to go over and strike up a conversation with the man, but I knew the young ones would not stand for it. They wanted action. They wanted something substantial to do at all times. They wouldn’t sit still for a conversation between adults. I made eye contact with him about three or four times, and I finally waved. The wave he returned is what I remember vividly. It had concession all over it. It was a hard wave that began behind the head and went all the way to the waist, and he was turned away from me almost before the wave began.
“I got kids here,” I wanted to say. In truth, I don’t know what I would’ve said to the guy. He and I had so little in common. He was a fix-it feller, and I couldn’t fix a poorly working pen. Plus, the man had so little to say. Even now, I search for something memorable he said. I search for that one quick little nugget he had that summed life up in a witty manner.
He walked into a church. He threw a rope over a banister. We all asked why? He asked why not? I didn’t have a sufficient answer. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have a sufficient answer either. I’m guessing that he would talk about how he lived a life that he deemed of little consequence, he had carved out an existence no one wanted to hear about, and that he continued on until he couldn’t stand it anymore. How awful must it be for the only question people ask you concerns your kids? Kids are great and all that, but we like talking about ourselves too. How long does it take before the people we love stop asking about us?
Is it possible to erase an anonymous life by achieving a glorious death, or will people soon forget that too? They will, and yes they do, and yes life goes on. Maybe that’s what I should’ve said when he asked me why. Maybe I should’ve said that you wanted life to stop, even momentarily, for people to look at you and listen to the things you said. Maybe I should’ve said, “that’s the selfish angle.” Life should be about the way you affect people in a productive manner rather than the way you chose to affect people in a conductive manner. We all ask the question why did you do it? He asks why wouldn’t I?