In Act 2, Scene 2, of Hamlet, the doomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are chatting with Prince Hamlet. They are his old college buddies, and King Claudius (Hamlet’s step-father) and Queen Gertrude (his mother) have sent for them to attempt to learn what is bothering the young man, who has been acting with an “antic disposition” and saying strange things, half to himself and half to, well, no one can figure out who.
Hamlet greets them and speaks in the same riddling manner that he has been using with the rest:
HAMLET: Let me question more in particular, my good friends, what you have done to deserve such fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
GUILDENSTERN: Prison, my lord?
HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ: Then the world is one.
HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.
ROSENCRANTZ: We don’t think so, my lord.
HAMLET: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
Hamlet quickly determines that they are not merely dropping in to talk about sports and the weather or to compare Klout scores but are indeed spies. Ultimately, he manages to have them both killed.
Hamlet’s quip about how one’s thinking determines a thing’s relative goodness or badness has lived on through the centuries, but in most peoples’ recitations nowadays it carries about the same weight as a Twittering teenager’s hashtagging of “YOLO.” (#YOLO. #Ugh.) Perhaps this is because the judgement is delivered by a character who has been speaking in riddles and jests and pretending to be mad. (Uh, Hamlet, “What are you reading?” “Words, words, words.” Petulant jerk.)
Four hundred years after Hamlet was first performed, “Nothing (is) either good or bad but my thinking makes it so” is spoken as a longer, a more profound-sounding, version of, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“The rain is uncomfortable for you but it’s good news for the farmers,” speaks the profound thinker who apparently wants me to punch him. (I once replied to this with a “Do you know any farmers? We live in the suburbs. If you do, see if they’re carrying umbrellas, too.” The person walked away, which of course was the only proper reply to my being a petulant jerk.)
(The two of us are still friends. I have my good points, I have been told.)
Many people resist strongly and vocally when it is suggested to them that, taken existentially, Shakespeare and/or Hamlet is right. Our perception is all that defines good from bad. A happy event, in and of itself, is not inherently a good thing. Outside of love, whatever that is, there is no such thing as “good.” And a tragic happening, a sad event, is not by definition evil. (Just to be clear, I would never insist on this philosophical point with someone who is enduring a deep loss or a terrible sadness. Perhaps this makes me a philosophical wimp, an existential compromiser, but I like to sleep at night.) We carry with us a deep commitment to the idea that there is evil in the universe as well as good, that good inheres in things we like and love, and that evil is a containable reality, too. This is because most of us combine and conflate the notions of sad with bad and happy with good.
Some of the saddest things that I have witnessed have had positive things follow them, possibly as a result of reactions to the sad thing. Conversely, some of the best things that I might think I have done in this life may yet turn out to have terrible consequences.
For instance, I am disabled and that sucks, and I would not wish the experience to befall anyone, even people whom I dislike, but being disabled in America gives me an income, a teeny-tiny one, which gives me the time to write. I watch people’s eyes light up with envy when I say that I do not have to punch a clock for the rest of my life if I choose to not do so. Which of these things is the sad thing and which is the happy one? But the income is so small that I can not jet off to those many exciting bloggers’ conferences that I have not been invited to and which may not exist. It’s a tiny stipend. I live in a room I rent from my girlfriend’s father, not a palatial Gad House. This is a small, personal example, I know, but reality resides on a spectrum and not in an either-or or zero-sum playhouse. If I could choose to choose between this life or a fresh start, a do-over, would I? I do not think I would choose to choose.
Sadness exists. Tragedy is a reality. But so is happiness. So is love.
Are there people who do wrong in this world? Yes. People who introduce sadness into peoples’ lives or who work for their own personal gain to the detriment of others around them? Of course. Hamlet was no murderer but he had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed. I know, these are fictional characters.
Look at Hitler’s baby picture. People celebrated that birth and cooed at the infant. Hitler existed.
If evil is inexplicable, well, then, so is good. We want all matters to be explicable, however, so we deploy terms like “good” and “evil” as if they are tools that explicate. They aren’t.
Further, our minds want there to be someone to credit or something to blame behind the good or the evil thing. There must be an explanation, goes the thinking. Thus, there must be a find-able motivation animating even the explicably good thing or the evil person. The great journalist Ron Rosenbaum (he follows me on Twitter!) explores this in his famous book, “Explaining Hitler,” which confronts the book buyer from the start, its front cover. Hitler’s baby picture sits there. Historians have searched for decades for the clues to pinpoint the moment baby Adolf became monster Hitler. What was the cause? The explanation? It seems that it is not okay if there is not one. But “here there is no why,” as Martin Amis writes of Auschwitz.
Rosenbaum interviewed Alan Bullock, one of Hitler’s major biographers. “‘Some days, I ask God,’ Bullock told me, his voice dropping to an impassioned whisper, ‘If You were there, why didn’t You stop it?’ And then he added the sad lesson of a lifetime spent attempting to explain Hitler: ‘Never believe God is omnipotent.'”
Boom! Is the Holocaust, or a holocaust, a man-made political rampage, something so far outside our human imagination even when it always is—and only is—the product of human imagination?
Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust Studies scholar, replies to Rosenbaum’s question, “Will there ever be a why?” “Bauer told me that he believes it is theoretically possible. ‘But the fact that something is explicable doesn’t say that we have explained it.'”
Terrible acts and tragedies are the horrible outliers of most human experiences. The beautiful thing is that love, great love and small love, is not. And it is just as inexplicable … until I gaze in my beloved’s eyes.
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When this first appeared last year, a reader wrote, “I remember when I realized that Life never promised me anything. I think, as a society, we think that we deserve to have good things happen. In fact many good and bad experiences are random and have nothing to do with who we are. It’s our responsibility to take those experiences and do the best that we can with them.” I think she stated in a handful of words what it took me a thousand to get to.
Also when this first appeared, someone wrote me a long comment explaining how Hitler was misunderstood. That no one died at Auschwitz. That there is no such thing as “Jewish,” and those that call themselves that (like me and my mother’s side of the family) never had a better friend than Mr. H. I seem to have deleted it, because this is my web site and I can decide for myself those things I think “good” and those I think are “bad.”
This is a re-write of the second time this appeared, in June.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 17 asks, “If you had the chance to be reborn, would you choose to return as your present self, or would opt for a fresh start? Tell us about what motivates your choice.”
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Some disabled people get a stipend. Some of us just get to stare at the walls and try and figure out how to make money despite our disabilities. 😛 I’m not ragging on you, I’m just pointing out that the government doesn’t recognize everyone’s disability equally. ^_^
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I owe an explanation. Sorry if I sounded like I was gloating at my particular fortune. I was trying to say that it is my choice in how I look at my circumstance and for sanity’s sake, I choose to be grateful. I apologize for failing to make that clear.
(You know, I think it was from your website that I stole the knife image! If it was, please let me know and I will correct this with a credit to you; if you drew it, even more credit.)
This website is a project to keep me writing and to (attempt to) make me more marketable to achieve employment that might pay better than the $1135 per month I receive. No one was waiting for me to start writing again and really no one will miss this when it is gone, but I care, and I have built something here that was not here two years ago. I used to be a writer and editor. As I have been off the job market since 2010, my Rip van Winkle resume is not of much use. Also, my last job was at RadioShack, so it was not a writing or editing job, and since $1135 per month is about what I was making in a good month there (sometimes before taxes, sometimes after taxes; even with it being a commission sales job, because full-time in retail is often only 35 hours max per week, as I’m sure you know), I figured this stipend was pretty good for me, if I treated my day like I am employed. Also, I am no longer physically capable of working on a sales floor. I don’t know what anyone else needs to do for themselves, but I needed to treat myself like I have a job. (Although sometimes I cheat and write in my PJs.)
I probably should write a piece about my way into the disability bureaucracy. Perhaps an inside story would help someone. My SSD indeed was awarded, but not retroactively, so I have been living hand-to-mouth on it since. If I had gotten a lawyer, perhaps s/he could have won me the retro payments. This is what I mean: I requested that I be found disabled starting in 2010, but their evidence of disability was the same date as the date they learned I exist: the date I requested disability, in 2012. A lawyer probably could have offered the argument that my life-affecting SMA symptoms (a disease one is born with) did not start the day I walked into the Social Security office, and perhaps they could have offered the evidence that symptoms began to affect my life in 2008, when I bought a cane one day because it was less expensive than a walker.
Some SSI was awarded, but because I had been on welfare in my life, that money was used to pay back the county that had paid my rent for three months. (Whenever people mount arguments against welfare, I seethe. It is mandatory that welfare recipients pay the money back, as it is a 100% loan.)
I make $1135 per month based in part on my earnings through the years. There is something not fair about that, as the disability doesn’t care how much or little a person earned. So they look at the most recent 10 years. Well, in my 25 years of working for others, I had some pretty good years, some $40K years, but only one of those years was in my most recent 10 years. There were nine other RadioShack-type $10K–$15K years sitting there. If they had found me disabled in 2010, a couple other big earning years would have been included and perhaps my monthly stipend would be greater. I don’t know.
Thank you for patiently reading my work, day after day, Willow.
I honestly didn’t mean to imply that you were gloating. It’s difficult to emote with text and I was trying to go with short and sweet. Oh well.
My resume is 7 years old… And because it’s been 7 years since I last worked, I no longer qualify for disability. Even though I’ve been applying for disability all those seven years (3 times! and I had a lawyer once! It’s a long story…) Needless to say that despite my long list of things wrong with me, the government, in its infinite wisdom, feels that I am, indeed employable… even though I haven’t worked in 7 years… because of my disabilities. It’s enough to make my head hurt.
If I had qualified for disability, I’d probably have gotten about $800 a month (if I’m remembering correctly), because I never cleared $20K a year in all the time I worked. I think my best year was $20K. Some years, I was lucky to make enough to file taxes. But I made too much to qualify for assistance. Argh, I bitch about that enough on my own blog.
Anyway, I like reading your stuff. You have a way with words. I used to have a way with words, but the brain fog keeps me from accessing them as often as I’d like.
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The delete button is your friend. Good one, Mark.
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This is a really sad one Mark, even though I don’t quite get it, I’m sure. The Japanese did a Holocost type deal to the Chinese and several Island nations involving many more millions of folks. Most of them weren’t Jewish, just in the way. Our military is righteous and our leaders are too, doing the right thing. Don’t get in their way I gotta warn ya. ” Careful of the guns,, they’ll get ya!” I wonder what folks would say if asked, hey do you want to go duke it out with that evil country? There will be supporters, go get em boys! Most of us would just say absolutely not and, ain’t you seen enough you dumb ass sumbitch!
Man I been workin day and night getting shit ready for the show,,, so sore and so tired. I was looking at some old pictures of my work and was kinda shocked to see that I haven’t improved after all these years. Now doing another show after many years.The ego is still there, screw it I say, I’m still the man to beat! Still my friend, when I think of you and your dissability and hear your uplifting attitude, get humbled, right sized:)
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Happy you’re my friend. Even though I’ll keep with the pens and you stick with the swords, because I do not understand what you wrote here. Have a great show this weekend.