Anything Could Happen

Joseph Heller spreads mustard onto a piece of rye bread, places the piece of bread on top of a large stack of pastrami, cuts the sandwich in two, closes his eyes, says a silent prayer to himself, then opens his eyes and picks up the sandwich, but puts it down once tears start rolling down his face: “I’m worried about my daughter. She’s only eight years old and she’s depressed. My daughter’s teacher called my wife and I and asked to speak to us about our daughter, who has been writing poems in class that her teacher could only describe as incredibly bleak and full of despair. One of the poems is called ‘Zero,’ and it is about just exactly that, how our daughter feels like she’s nothing more than a zero, that there is zero to be happy about, and how, when one thinks about it, life adds up to zero. Another poem is called ‘Broken Heart,’ and it’s about a heart asking the world to not break it, a request that goes unheeded. My daughter wrote these poems all by herself and then read them out loud to her class. Her teacher told us that when our daughter read them she read them in a very even, detached voice, which is what disturbed her almost as much as the content of the poems. I told my daughter’s teacher that I don’t know why my daughter feels so hopeless and that I had no idea where she would get it from (except I do know; she gets it from me. I feel hopeless almost all of the time and I don’t think I do a very good job of hiding it. I’ve known since I was a little boy that life was essentially meaningless, or, no, not that life is meaningless, but that one has to spend one’s entire life trying to create the meaning they seek, which is hard to do, because life in general doesn’t want you to do it on your own, life wants to impose its fabricated meanings on you, so you have to fight, always fight against this, which means, essentially, that you’re constantly at odds with life, with the people you’re surrounded by, with the environment, and this causes its own kind of despair, or maybe this despair, the despair you feel while trying against all odds to create some meaning in your life is the meaning of life, I don’t know. All I know is that since she was born I have had a hard time hiding my despair from my daughter and now she’s feeling what I feel, which isn’t fair [you could probably argue that this may be the meaning of life]. I was hoping my daughter would be a happy child and then gradually come to discover that life is without meaning, as most people do, much later on in life. She has learned this lesson too quickly, though, which leads me to believe she’s smart, but then again, she’s not doing too well in school, so I don’t really know how smart she is. There’s also the possibility that I have affected her not one whit, that her despair is natural, which is definitely a possibility, because I’ve probably hid my despair from her better than I think I have, or maybe she just hasn’t been paying as much attention to me as I think. My daughter has never been that interested in me, who I am or what I do, so I’m probably overestimating my influence on her. I tend to do this. I tend to overestimate my influence on people. As far as I can tell I have influenced almost no one, which is another reason for my constant despair. I always thought I was going to have an impact on the world, but having an impact on the world seems to me to be almost impossible. The world is resistant to one person’s desire to have an impact on it. If you really want to have an impact on the world you have to do something really horrible or something really great, and as far as I can tell I possess the capability to achieve neither. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m hopelessly average. So is my wife. And so is our daughter. I think her only problem is that she knows this already. Better to know it now, I guess, then learn it later). My daughter’s teacher told us that we should think about maybe having our daughter see a therapist, and my wife agrees with her, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it’s a waste of money. And besides, if anyone is going to get the credit for helping my daughter I want it to be me, not some stranger. The only problem is that I don’t know how to help my daughter. I’ve been trying to give her pep talks, but I think she sees through me. She knows I feel the same way she does, so when I try and tell her that life is good, that there is meaning and love and a purpose, she looks at me with the same expression I would have if someone was trying to convince me of the very same things. I also tell my daughter that yes, maybe there is no meaning to life (not all of my pep talks are full of pep), but, consequently, because there’s no meaning, almost anything could happen and you would be able to give it any meaning you want. I tell her she is free to supply her own meaning and I try and sound excited when I say this, but my daughter does not share my excitement. She continues to write her poems and read them in front of her class and her teacher keeps calling my wife and I and expressing concern and I keep trying to act as if I’m concerned about these developments, but I’m no longer surprised. My daughter has figured things out earlier than most people and I don’t know whether to be proud or frightened (I think I’m mostly frightened. I don’t think my daughter is going to be around for very long. I think her despair will get the best of her at some point, and no amount of interference from me is going to stop the inevitable. She will probably end up taking her own life. Or she will go the opposite route and become one of those religious nuts who goes around in frenzy trying to convince everyone she knows that she has found the ultimate meaning to life. I don’t know which would be worse. I don’t know if I would rather lose my daughter to her despair or lose her to some crackpot religion. A part of me thinks I would prefer to lose her to the former). Sometimes I’ll be somewhere and I’ll be overcome with sadness about my daughter. I could be at the deli getting ready to eat a pastrami sandwich and a monster wave of grief will wash over me and I’ll close my eyes and pray for my daughter, which surprises me, because I’m not a religion person and I don’t believe in God and I have never really prayed in my entire life. When I close my eyes and pray to God to make sure that nothing bad happens to my daughter I’m able to trick myself that I’m talking to someone other than myself for about ten seconds, and then I am unable to trick myself any longer. I know exactly who I’m talking to and who I’m talking to is myself. I’m praying to myself and asking myself to make sure nothing happens to my daughter, which is completely reasonable and totally ridiculous. If anyone should be able to protect my daughter it’s me, but I can’t (I can’t even protect myself). Sometimes I think the only way to protect my daughter is to get myself out of the way, but I don’t have the guts to remove myself from the situation. I would rather stick around and see how it all plays out even though I think I already know exactly how it’s going to play out. I think my daughter does too. As a matter of fact, I know she does, because she’s written a poem about it (and despite everyone’s concern about my daughter, I think the poem is quite good. It’s certainly better than anything I’ve ever written).”

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