“I’m always finding humans at their best and worst.
I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
<in “The Book Thief”>
So. This quote is said by Death. Yeah. Death is suggesting he considers humans beautiful, as well as ugly, all the while resting comfortably in his chair awaiting the opportunity to end it all.
The thought seems slightly counter-intuitive, but I like thinking the thought that Death is a lot more complicated than we may think.
I like thinking that Death sees us … and assesses us … and maybe even judges us a little … as not one-dimensional things to say ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’
I like thinking of death as not some grim reaper but rather a thoughtful person who has a job to do. One who contemplates the fact that some days will be good and some days just won’t be so fun.
I like thinking of Death One who can see the best and worst … acknowledging that good things can happen to bad people and bad things can happen to good people.
And, I imagine, I like thinking of Death as … well … intelligent and not simply some mindless executioner wandering about seeking his next victim.
For sure this quote reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote about intelligence:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
I believe it was Keats who called this ‘negative capability.’
In other words, you understand, or least come to grips with, that there is a shitload of inconsistency and uncertainty in Life and, yet, you deal with it and do what you need to do.
<that’s my translation>
The truth in Life is that we really don’t have to be one thing because you’re not another thing – or not be something if you are something <you get it>.
It may seem impossible if you appear to be a contradiction and, yet, be quite a successful, happy, productive bundle of contradictions. I will suggest, no, state, that not only do you not have to be one thing forever, but you can actually be a couple of things now … at the same time … in this time & place.
I sometimes believe individual happiness is found more often than not in our ‘negative capability’ intelligence. In other words … how smartly we can navigate the contradictions in Life as well as the contradiction of what is within who & what we are. If we don’t learn negative capability then we must seem to inevitably seek to isolate being one thing and one thing only as a judge of whether we are living Life well, productively and with focus.
And maybe that is why I believe Death was, and is, intelligent — it has mastered negative capability. Death has embraced the contradiction of being one thing and yet living another seemingly contradictory idea. If Death can see beauty in that which it will inevitably have to end with its own hand surely we can see good in bad … as well as be both bad & good ourselves.
It seems like there is a lesson in here for all of us. And maybe the lesson is, unfortunately, not that simple.
Death looks, on the surface, as one thing … and yet … is most likely something other.
Death does one thing … and yet … most likely thinks many other things.
We view Death as one thing and avoid him … and yet … should we meet him on the street on his way to meet someone other than us … he may greet us with a smile. While Death’s perception challenge is actually called “affective fallacy” <confusion between what it is and what it does>, this is a challenge we all face in Life.
I imagine, in the end, the lesson is a simple one … sometimes Life just isn’t that simple.
Life is never that simple.
We are more than one thing … we are a sum of all our parts … we are part of everyone we have met <and will meet> … and we are, at our core, a reflection of a multi-faceted character containing aspects of all which we desire to be as well as some aspects which we view slightly glumly as ‘the aspects I do not desire to be … but am.’
We either embrace the contradictions or … well … we will most likely suck at dealing with Life and living Life.
Anyway. What I do know is that I wish someone taught “negative capabilities 101” because we should all sign up for that class. It would be a better world if we were all competent in negative capabilities.
“When the first living thing existed, I was there waiting.
When the last living thing dies, my job will be finished. I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave.”