It promised to be such a fun evening. My book club, which read and adored Lessons in Chemistry, had decided to get together to watch the streaming version, a couple episodes at a time.
“Can we wear pajamas?” one woman texted.
The table was covered with Brie, spicy jam, crackers, bridge mix, French onion dip (whipped, which makes all the difference), dark chocolate peanut butter cups, pumpkin Joe Joe’s, and gorgeous glasses of Prosecco mixed with Italian cherries and a bit of sparkling orange. Our host’s husband had been banished. The chairs reclined.
The clever pencil-graphic intro rolled. Elizabeth Zott appeared, then her future husband. (SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you do not know what happens.) We pronounced the casting (Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman) perfect. We held our breath at the rape scene but made it through. A cool, crisp, brilliant lab tech, Zott was regularly subjected to the ridiculous and petty tortures that women underwent in 1950s U.S.A. She held her own even as she fell wildly in love with the dorky genius chemist whose lab was sacrosanct. He gave her a sense of safety, the freedom she craved, and the support she needed in that tight, biased world. They became one another’s family, and they relaxed into a playfulness rare for both of them.
Then he died.
I knew this was coming; we all did. Oh no oh no oh no I said under my breath as the cues stacked into inevitability. Is this it? somebody whispered. Ah, here we go. Tugging on the dog’s lead, he runs backward into the street and a vehicle crashes into him.
The second episode ends there. Our host flipped off the TV, and light chatter filled the room, people comparing notes about what they remembered from the book, how it was the same or different, how it would unfold from here.
I sat there, too sad to speak. Driving home, I asked myself why I was as weepy as a teenager when I already knew the damned plot.
Because my mom lost my dad when she was that young.
Because so many people lose people they love.
Because so many of my friends are lonely and I do not know how to help them find the just-right person that Calvin was for Elizabeth.
Because Elizabeth and Calvin were passionate about scientific discovery and indifferent to convention, which endeared them to me.
Because they worked through their idiosyncrasies and became a real team—which is my model for marriage. Together they were able to reach ideas neither could reach alone. Which doubled the tragedy of the loss.
Because Calvin was one of those sweet-hearted, clear-thinking men who are natural feminists, able to love a woman for more than what she does for them.
Because the dog had to watch the crash, and he was so sad and confused. Did Six Thirty (named because he wakes Elizabeth at that time every morning) sense that the death of this person he loved was kind of his fault? And why was I anthropomorphizing a fictional dog and worrying about the feelings I had given him?
Because now Elizabeth has to raise her baby alone (she does not yet know she is pregnant, but we knew from the book) and that is what my mom had to do, and I always felt guilty about weighing her down with, well, me. I felt even more guilty than Six Thirty was about to feel.
Because, because, because. Can we ever predict what will upset us? I can watch grisly murder mysteries, see damaged young bodies on the table in the morgue, and toddle off to bed. But to this day I cannot look at a child’s stuffed bear without remembering the scene in Testament when the little boy’s dead body must be buried, and Jane Alexander goes nuts running around the house trying to find his favorite stuffed animal because he cannot be buried without it. I am tearing up as I type this.
Some griefs, like my overreaction to Lessons in Chemistry, overlap with our own past hurts. Others, like that scene in Testament, conjure searing imaginative pain, remind us of pain suffered by someone we love, or scare us about future pain. A single poignant detail can twist the knife deeper than a cataclysmic tragedy. And knowing what is coming does not necessarily make it any easier to bear.
What would have made Calvin’s car accident easier? Hating him. Hating her. Not resonating with their values. Feeling sure that Elizabeth would find someone even better for her. Not factoring in her pregnancy, her solitude, her struggle. Not seeing the helpless distress on Six Thirty’s face.
A useful exercise, this. I now see that if we want to go through life with minimal pain, we should live as opportunistically as possible, learn to despise as many people as possible, avoid noticing their vulnerability or empathizing with their past struggles, and avoid dogs altogether.
Except for that last bit, we U.S. citizens are well on our way. Our right to pursue happiness has somehow left us with long, categorical lists of groups we want nothing to do with—immigrants, people of other races, people on the opposite side of our political views, people even more dogmatic about their beliefs than I am about reviling dogma. Truisms sit in a basket by every door, readying us write off anyone who does not pull themselves together, recover from an addiction, or climb out of poverty. What matters is our life: our safety, our cash flow, our bright future. Sadness is okay, even fun, as a temporary wallow, a mood that can be manipulated with ice cream. If a few scoops do not do the trick, we just wait to be distracted, like babies rapt when someone jangles their car keys.
When your pursuit is happiness, protracted worry or sadness must be avoided at all costs. We speak of something “reducing” us to tears, as though that were a diminishment. At best, we excuse occasional tears as catharsis, proud that we are still capable of feeling. But the more tragedy the world holds, the less eager we are to endure it even by proxy, from a cushy recliner. I am not criticizing; I am confessing. I brush news aside and sweep even fiction and art about certain topics into the same dark corner. Yes, homelessness, we have been saying what has to happen for decades now. Yes, early childhood education. Violence against women—this is a surprise? Antisemitism again and again, and now more violence and oppression and hatred on all sides…. Being inundated has left me helpless, jaded, impatient for at least a new form of suffering to explore. (Forgetting that all pain is, at the core, the same.)
What breaks through this cold ennui? The same list: Something that strikes a familiar emotional chord. Something suffered by someone I love. A poignant detail so small and mundane, it sneaks past my defenses. But what about the national political news, the science and tech developments, and the social issues that do not match those criteria? I know less about them, and I feel less.
Which is no way to live in a participatory democracy.
The personal nature of our emotional responses worked when we lived in small clusters. Everyone in the village had a stake—and an ability to comprehend at least the basics of their common issues. We still live in clusters, of course, which is why we joke about finding “our tribe,” and why local politics still generates practical (as opposed to purely ideological) passion. People band together to help someone on their block; hundreds show up at a town hall to argue about trash pickup or an addiction treatment center moving into their neighborhood. Empathy is Homo sapiens’ superpower, and it ought to extend far beyond what is familiar. But—and this is yet another important issue I am now numb to—far too much is thrown at us 24/7. We no longer have the capacity to respond thoroughly and thoughtfully.
I am afraid I know how this story ends, too. But that will not make it any easier to watch.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.