Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kesey's Letter: Thoughts on Truth and Empathy

Note: This is a repost of something I wrote over a year ago. I'm posting it again now because my last post was about symbolic logic, of all things, and it doesn't get much more dry and analytical than that. I feel like I should restore some balance by posting something a little less cold and mechanical. In fact, I wrote this in part to remind myself not to be too cold and mechanical. But it didn't work. I slipped back into a bit of emotional tone-deafness. It's a failing I have--I get so caught up in thinking that I forget to feel. That's really quite stupid, for reasons I explore below. So I'm going to remind myself again--hanging on to past insights is one of the major purposes of this blog, after all. I thought about tackling this topic all over again, and then I realized I probably won't be able to say it better than I said it here. Or maybe I'm just feeling lazy. Anyway, here it is again:

I just read a letter by Ken Kesey, the '60's wildman famous for writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and for leading a band of pioneer hippies known as the Merry Pranksters on a cross-country trip in a psychedelic school bus--a trip immortalized in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kesey's life was, oddly, defined by school buses.  In 1984, after Kesey had long since settled down, his son Jed was on another school bus, on his way to a wrestling meet.  The bus started sliding, and went over a cliff.  Jed was comatose when he was pulled from the bus, and died a few days later. Kesey wrote the letter afterward to some of his closest friends, describing his son's last minutes in the hospital, and his touching funeral. It's a heartbreaking, honest, beautiful letter, written by a man bent with grief but still overwhelmed by his love for his friends and family, and for the relentless beauty of a world where birds keep right on singing, no matter who was just buried.

But don't rely on my second-hand account.  By all means, read it yourself (unless now is not a convenient time to shed a tear). I'm going to wait, though, and put the link at the bottom of this post. If you read the letter now, you're not going to want to come back to my anemic, overly-analytical scribblings which it inspired.  At least, I wouldn't if I were you.

My friend who recommended the letter to me said it made her “cry noisily.” It didn't quite do that to me, and that's probably my loss. But it did make me think. Well, that's not quite right. It made me feel, and then think. I'm usually more of a thinker than a feeler.  I'm one of those withdrawn ponderers who is as attracted to ideas as to people (unless they're people who have a lot of interesting things to say).  For years, I've imagined that I prefer facts to feelings, not realizing until today just how silly that statement is. Why it is so silly will take some explaining.