Holidays in Hanoi
I read the book Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West sometime after the 2008 financial crisis. Having completed college and graduate school, I skulked back home, working as a bank teller and living with my parents. Miss Lonelyhearts is billed as a black comedy, but I found nothing to laugh at, reading it on winter nights, what I realize was now a good number of years ago.
Though it had been published in 1933, written in the worst years of the Great Depression, Miss Lonelyhearts read more like my daily life. In it, an unnamed hack writer gets slotted in at the paper’s advice column. The people writing in for advice from “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the eponymous pen name taken on by a string of ink-stained wretches, have no idea she doesn’t exist. The breezy, streetwise Miss Lonelyhearts, and his even more nihilistic editor, Shrike, are as black-humored about the column as its readers are credulous. Vulnerable, downtrodden, and in desperate need of real help, their appeals to Miss Lonelyhearts lack any trace of the newspaperman’s worldly contempt:
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—
I am in such pain I don’t know what to do sometimes I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much…I was operatored on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice as he said I might die but when I got back from the hospital he broke his promise and now I am going to have a baby and I don’t think I can stand it my kidneys hurt so much. I am so sick and scared because I cant have an abortion on account of being catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I dont know what to do.
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—
I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do…I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes. I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself…What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate?…I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—
I am writing to you for my little sister Gracie because something awfull happened to her and I am afraid to tell mother about it. I am 15 years old and Gracie is 13 and we live in Brooklyn…Gracie is deaf and dumb…Mother makes her play on the roof because we dont want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She to’d me about it and I dont know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby…I am the only one who loves her…So please what would you do if the same happened in your family.
No matter how much world-weary indifference Miss Lonelyhearts is able to muster, chain-smoking cigarettes as he clacks away on his typewriter, it is not enough to ultimately bear the burden. Even if readers were more sophisticated, more educated as to the workings of newspaper columns, as Miss Lonelyhearts is, it wouldn’t mitigate their problems—painful, shameful, in need of resolution, fast. This urban newspaperman, expert on the workings of the world, cynical of all motives, knowledgeable of all scams, cannot bear the sincerity of these pleas. And it destroys him.
“We shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the War,” announced UK Prime Minister Ted Heath on December 13th, 1973. Coal shortages, amidst the global energy crisis, had prompted Heath to announce a three-day work week, mandated by law. Television channels were to stop broadcasting at 10:30 PM, and the pubs would be closed. Obviously, it was no small thing to invoke the privations of World War II in speaking to the British in 1973. If that was no exaggeration, in that time in place, what are we to call this approaching Christmas?
December 9th, 2020 marked more deaths from Covid-19 in America than were suffered on 9/11. Virtually every state is trending dramatically worse. Our many elected butchers, whose incompetence and ignorance have killed hundreds of thousands of people, publish books touting their great wisdom, and wrap themselves in the flag at deranged rodeos. Meanwhile, even if you can afford to get tested, even if you’ve worn your mask and done as you were told (before some other public official gave the opposite order), you may find yourself gasping for your last breath, saying your last goodbyes to the blank face of an iPad, before your corpse too is added to the stacks of bodies freezing in the coming cold.
When I look out my front window, here in Los Angeles, I see the leaves are still falling. There has been virtually no rain so far this winter. When those leaves were still buds, sometime in March, a new virus was being coughed up across North America, having crossing over from a bat to a human sometime last year. I can still remember driving my car through Los Angeles, this time last year, hearing as an NPR reporter told of the dire situation in Wuhan, of the scores of people confined to their homes, of hospitals being constructed overnight from pour concrete. Huh. That’s quite a situation. And then I parked my car.
At no time did I think, in the arrogance afforded many of us Americans, that soon we’d be living that reality on the radio. That March, when those dead leaves were still budding, the disease exploded into the night. Here was the week that changed everything. On a Friday, I got a phone call. One of my closest friends, wracked with mental illness, had killed himself. He was like a little brother to me. The confusion, the rage, the numbness, the panic. A week of phone calls, with other uncomprehending, numb survivors, all juggling the logistics of grief. By midweek, a plan had formed for a memorial service that Friday — more logistics despite the void, air travel, lodging.
And by that Friday, the day everyone would come together in a music hall to mourn my friend’s life — nothing. In the span of that week, coronavirus had made its terrible power felt. It had humbled all human plans. A memorial service wouldn’t be happening; air travel, gatherings, sleeping on a friend’s couch, these were now all disease vectors. How perverse. The cure felt worse than the disease.
At the beginning, at least. Then coronavirus started shearing the papillae off the insides of our neighbors’ lungs, unthreading their heart muscles, leaving scores of them filling the ICU beds or walking through crowds, asymptomatic carriers. As the gates clanged behind us, in the days before what I did not yet know would be a state-enforced lockdown, I was able to make two brief trips into nature.
The first was to the ocean. Walking along the sea cliffs that are somehow part of Los Angeles, the seagulls luffing in place in the air, I descended the switchbacks taking me to the tidal pools. I missed my friend, and thought about him. The sun in the sky, the view clear out across the Pacific, the waves rushing in over the rocks, then rolling back. I skipped a stone.
Looming over all of it, a heap of slime clinging to the rocks, was the Trump National Golf Club Los Angeles. In order to access the cliffside trails, you have use the country club’s sidewalks, walk past the worst people in LA County, slung low in their golf carts, the waiters and caddies jogging up from their far parking spots. It was a grim reminder, his phony family crest adorning the building — this is to whom the cycle of life was entrusted, a violent pig placed at the chokepoint of American life.
As the virus spread, two days before LA County shut down more or less for good, plunging us all into the day-to-day existence we’ve known for nine months now, I made one more journey to see the cherry trees in bloom. The nature of cherry blossoms, such as they’re both revered and mourned, is that change is inevitable. The pain is optional. I wrote about it and published it. I sent it out on my newsletter. And then, I just stopped writing for myself.
A staple of business advice literature is an axiom known as “The Stockdale Paradox.” I have no opinion on its usefulness for running a restaurant or gas station. What I do know is that psychologists, particularly those specializing in treating the effects of trauma, abuse, and addiction, have also found its lessons intriguing. As recounted by writer Jim Collins:
“The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military office in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda…”
There was no limit on atrocities in the Vietnam War — most of them committed by the United States. Amidst our criminal occupation of that country, the treatment of the POWs under Stockdale’s command was inexcusable, both under the international law for which we held little regard, and the moral code that had long gone by the wayside. Left alone in the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale faced a human struggle: how to survive an impossible situation, and bring along as many other survivors as possible.
“How on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”
‘I never lost faith in the end of the story,’ he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.’
Finally I asked, ‘Who didn’t make it out?’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ he said. ‘The optimists.’
‘The optimists? I don’t understand,’ I said, now completely confused given what he’d said earlier.
‘The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’”
The paradox bearing Stockdale’s name might thus be described as this: while maintaining absolute faith that the conditions of your unjust situation will change, will end, will improve, you cannot for a moment live in denial of just how bad the situation really is. Just as the morass of darkness must be leavened with hope, so too must that optimism be tempered by living in reality.
The human capacity for denial is enormous. We can expend enormous amounts of energy avoiding this truth. The pandemic has been a reckoning for this, as those who refuse to wear masks die, but not before further spreading this plague. If this isn’t hitting bottom, I don’t know what is. The bleakness of this present moment is undeniable.
That’s what rends the heart, reading Miss Lonelyhearts: for a novel, every word feels so true. This is pain, real pain, undeserved and in need of amelioration. The pain of losing a friend, of seeing loved ones sick, of living in an unjust world, where the powerful are endlessly selfish — these tragedies have depth and weight. They are not to be waved away. They can’t be.
The readers write into Miss Lonelyhearts because they are desperate for answers. What are the answers to such terrible questions? I believe there is at least one reward, in even the most grim situation, of knowing the battle: at least it is real. And some believe, as we enter the coldest winter, that there may be something valuable there.
“Some survivors of trauma end up embarking on what [social psychologist Amy[ Canevello and other psychologists call post-traumatic growth,” writes Matt Simon in Wired. “That uncontrollable rumination evolves into a more deliberate thinking about the event, in which the patient puts the pieces of their worldview back together—not to forget the incident, but to incorporate it into a new way of seeing the world.” The expert explains further:
“Which is why it's called post-traumatic growth, right?” asks Canevello. “You're not the same person you were before, because you've had to figure out a way to incorporate this really negative thing into your sense of who you are and how the world operates.”
People are hungry. Evictions loom. Real problems are going unaddressed, as homelessness and poverty explode alongside the illness sweeping America. Just how every day, each of us has to participate in flattening the curve, wearing masks and socially distancing, the inhumanity of this era demands of us all: we have to build more meaningful lives. Laid bare, we see how little our country takes care of its people. This cannot be allowed to go on.
We run sidelong, seeking distractions and stimulation, instead of uniting for the hard work necessary to change this situation. So many of us live shadow lives — a simulacrum of what we know we should be doing, and which terrifies us, beyond even the material. More, more more — I get this job, this house, this girlfriend, this car, and I’ll be safe. No matter how valuable such things might be, they are inevitably false solutions to the larger problem. The pain of not doing what we know we’re meant to be doing aims to kill.
As the first vaccines are administered, we can have the hope Stockdale spoke of as a necessity. This nightmare will end. In that, we must have absolute faith. But such an end is just a beginning. In the months that I stopped writing for myself, I twisted myself into shame, into a thousand diversions, all meant to distract from the fact that I knew this is what I’m supposed to be doing. The only way out is through. The cherry blossoms that fell last spring will bloom again. And even the loss of a friend isn’t an evaporation. He will be with me, always, as I hope those lost to Covid always are.