Thursday, April 4, 2013

On therapy, empathy, and The Road.

Let's talk about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  This is one of the most emotionally gripping stories I’ve ever read.  It is about a man and his son who are trying desperately to survive as they travel across post-apocalyptic North America.  They scavenge for food and supplies; they avoid other survivors (who are almost always barbaric and dangerous); and, perhaps most importantly, they struggle to maintain their sanity.

The man and his son are never named.  They are simply referred to as “the man” and “the boy.”  Also left ambiguous is the specific nature of the apocalypse that had apparently happened a decade or so before the book’s beginning.  I believe the intention of this ambiguity is to allow the reader to immerse into the world and its characters.

One of the main themes of the story is the idea of being the “good guys.”  In such a bleak environment, it is important for the father to keep assuring his son that they are the “good guys.”  Good guys, after all, are hard to come by.  “Are we still the good guys?” asks the boy after one particularly terrifying incident.  “Yes, [and] we always will be,” replies his father (77).  This theme comes up over and over.  The boy always wants to make sure he is one of the good guys, and that he and his dad are still “carrying the fire.”  Why is that important?  Why is that more important than survival?  This is one of the ideas the narrative explores.

At one point in the story, when the man and his son seem on the brink of starvation, they miraculously find an underground bunker full of food storage.  Whoever had left it behind was certainly gone.  They marvel at their good fortune and then there is a silence.  The boy seems hesitant.  The father asks:  what’s wrong?  “Do you think we should thank the people?”  What people?  “The people who gave us all this.”  Well.  Yes, I guess we could do that.  “Will you do it?”  Why don’t you?  “I don’t know how.”  Yes you do.  You know how to say thank you (145).

Then the boy, after some more silence, offers up what sounds to me almost like a prayer:

“Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff.  We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn’t eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didn’t get to eat it and we hope that you’re save in heaven with God” (146).

Whenever I read this passage, I am brought almost to tears.  This is a beautiful reminder of humility and priorities.  The father has been disillusioned by now and his son is the one reminding him of virtues long forgotten (like gratitude, for example).  The son indeed reminds all of us that even in the darkest of times, even in the direst of circumstances, being good and grateful is more important than surviving.  It is more important than anything—because virtuous traits shape your identity.  Surviving does not make you who you are; choosing to be empathetic, however, does.

I have been reminded of this lesson many times while working as a mentor at my internship at Maple Lake Academy (a residential treatment center that specializes in helping adolescents with learning disabilities).

My job is to be a caregiver throughout the day and to help the children learn and develop academically, socially, psychologically, and hygienically—so that they can meet their therapeutic goals and be better prepared to function in society when they graduate from the program.  Because these students lack basic social skills, there are many fights and arguments.  Often, my role is to mediate peer interactions and help them learn to communicate effectively and tactfully with each other so they can get along better.  I remember one time a student was trying to be nice all day to her peers and she wasn’t getting the responses she wanted (people were snapping back at her, probably defensively as she has been awfully mean in the past).  This really frustrated her to the point where she broke down crying and expressed sincere hopelessness in her efforts.  “Why bother trying to be nice,” she asked, “if people are just going to be rude to me anyway?”  I tried to explain to her that it was important to be nice, even if everyone else is rude.  She can’t control other people’s actions, but she can control her own.  Social results, as reassuring as they are, shouldn’t be our main motivation in trying to be more kind.  We ought to want to be kind just for the sake of being kind—just for the sake of being able to know that we are one of “the good guys.”

This is a difficult lesson to internalize, and it is certainly difficult to teach.  We all want recognition; we all want reciprocation.  But sometimes we simply won’t get it, and when that happens, we face a true test of character.  Are we willing to do what is right regardless of reward?  Are we willing to stand up for principle even when we aren’t thanked for it?  This is something I think about often, because of my internship and because of Cormac McCarthy’s novel.  In The Road, the atmosphere is dark and hopeless and yet our protagonists try so persistently to maintain their dignity and morality.  This is a good lesson because often life may seem dark or hopeless (especially, perhaps, if we are a student at a therapeutic boarding school, surrounded by peers whose social inadequacies match our own and who are not good at being kind to us).  And when those moments come, when we find ourselves in those situations, we must remember that goodness is worth achieving for its own sake, not merely as a means to an end.  A spirit of gratitude for all people, and a recognition of all our debts—as exemplified by the boy in The Road—makes us better capable of facing challenges uprightly and courageously.  Then we will be better able to help those around us along the road.