Cha pter 5.2
“And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom”
—W. H. Auden In Memory of W.B. Yeats
“Then,” recounts Ms. Ton, “I regained enough courage to march into ‘Canned Ego,’ Lazarus Department Store’s beauty salon. It was a shattering experience.”
In his recollection of the what he calls his “First Operation,” Mr Ariely describes the procedure in depth:
“Midmorning, one of my physicians enters my room accompanied by two nurses. He informs me that my right arm is so swollen that the inside pressure is preventing blood flow to my hand. He neatly arranges a tray of what seems to be dozens of scalpels and explains that in order to reduce the pressure, he has to cut through the skin to drain the liquid and reduce inflammation. I cannot help but think of the ancient British barbers that used to bleed patients as a form of medical treatment. The physician also informs me that since my heart and lungs are not functioning very well, he has to perform the operation while I am in my hospital bed and without anesthesia. I am frightened to no end. In an attempt to comfort me, the physician explains that since most of the nerves in my right arm are dead anyway, I should not experience much pain—but he is not very convincing, and, in fact, turns out to be so very wrong.”
“One of the nurses holds my left arm and shoulder in place, the other holds my right shoulder and arm and presses it down with all her weight. I watch the scalpel advance slowly along my arm, creating a deep tear. I seethe physician cutting me with the sharp scalpel, but I feel as if he is tearing me open with a blunt garden tool. The intensity of the pain catches me by surprise and leaves me gasping. It is unbelievable, unlike any pain I could have ever imagined. It begins at my elbow and advances slowly until it stops near my wrist. Then it comes again, a second time, starting at my elbow and moving upward. I scream and beg them to stop, “You are killing me!” I cry out. No matter what I say, no matter how much I beg, they do not stop. The pain grows stronger. “Stop!” I scream over and over again. I tell them I cannot stand it any longer, but they only hold me tighter. Finally, the physician tells me that he is almost finished and that the rest will pass quickly. He tells me to count slowly to 10 and that when I reach 10 it will be over. I start counting as slowly as I can bear. 1, 2, 3…Time slows down. The pain captures ever y aspect of my being. All I have is the slow counting. 4, 5, 6…The pain moves up and down my arm as a new incision is made. 7, 8, 9…I will never forget the tearing ﬂesh, the excruciating anguish, and the waiting…as long as I can…before yelling…TEN!”
On cue, Mr Ariely describes the physician’s pause upon his mention of the arrival at the number 10 which he has just yelled out:
“The physician stops cutting.The nurses release their hold on me. I feel like an ancient warrior who has conquered his suffering with brave nobility. I am exhausted. ‘Very good,’ the physician congratulates me. ‘I have made four incisions in your arm, from shoulder to wrist; now we just have a few more seconds and it will REALLY be over.’”
If there is one thing that brings a composer close to impossibility, it is the fact that we have the infinity of time and meter to use, respect and keep as our tool (in an analogy to the painter’s affinity for cherished light and shadow, the composer must love Kronos and, in loving him, revere him).
Did Mr Ariely’s count to ten resemble the following ten-note pattern?
Or is Ariely’s countdown better represented like this eleven-note pattern (correctly taking into account the number “seven”’s problematic bi-syllabic structure?
How about this?
Perhaps the following representation (one which deviates above the tick-tock of a clock and breaks the second hand of the clock through a decimal)? Is such a musical rendition more “realistic”?
What if Mr. Ariely attempted the same thing as above but applied it in the following way?
Were I to mount the scene on a stage, I would be able to go on positing rhythmic inventions based on this narrative for a long time. I could sit here for the rest of my life sketching and suggesting infinite possibility.
But that word above, “rubato,” brings us closer to the picture (that of the need to recover stolen and not simply lost time).
It is possible that the surgeon in question told Mr. Ariely to count to ten in a manner keeping with his best approximation of the second hand of a clock and, thus, avoiding all quickening or slowing of time. It is possible but, if he did indeed instruct Mr Ariely to do this (and therefore offer Mr. Ariely a compass by which he could navigate the distance between the current moment and the end of his torturous ordeal) then Mr. Ariely does not tell us about any such instruction.
It is possible that the physician told Mr. Ariely to do this (count in seconds from one all the way up to ten):
It is possible… but it is unlikely. It is improbable that such an instruction was ever given or received; the objective measure of time remains an implication in the reader’s mind (it is what we assume when people tell us to count to ten; we do not count minutes or hours or micro-seconds; we could seconds to the best of our ability).
The physician and Mr Ariely are inhabitants of a dark place where time is subjective. If the physician told Mr. Ariely to count time conventionally then it simply would not be practical in this situation. Mr Ariely goes on to describe recursive count-ups; a veritable rhapsody of metric rape:
“My imagined brave warrior dissolves into a patient defeated. I have used all of my energy on convincing myself to hold on as long as possible, certain that the 10-count would bring the end. I perceive the impending pain, which a few seconds earlier seemed manageable, with full- blown terror. How can I survive this again? Now? “Please, I will do anything. Just stop,” I beg. The repeated cutting terrifies me. I am helpless. I cannot control myself. I scream, cry, and shout all at once. But, I have no say in the matter. This time they hold me even tighter. “Wait, wait,” I try for the last time, but the doctor proceeds silently with his cutting. He “finishes” the arm and then makes two cuts in each of my fingers. I do not know how much time is passing but I continue to count 1, 2, 3, 4…and shout when I reach 10. I count over and over until the physician finally stops cutting. My hand is unbelievably sensitive and the pain is endless. Bleeding and crying, I am left to rest.”
One can understand the pain causing such feelings of defeat; being cut up alive… what could possibly be worse than that? A talented filmmaker or painter could render such a scene in a celebration of squirm-inducing artistry. But, what, if we may stay with the question a moment longer, could possibly be worse than this surgically tortured nightmare?
This physician and Mr Ariely are, as I have pointed out, inhabitants of a dark place where time is subjective. If I was to render Mr Ariely’s count-up in the ways akin to the sketches above (add to this the many more concurrent and strange deforms of time that I could deploy even before I began to combine the different disfigurements with one another) there is a hint to an answer.
Mr Ariely is cut off from objective time; the harmonic motion of a ticking clock; the basic unit of a second; the rotation of an hour and twelve hours; a day, a night, a cycle of the Earth around the sun in a year and the celestial cycles of moon falls and moon rises…
Mr Ariely, in brief, is cut off and removed from the rotations of every universal body known to man as well as from the circulation of his blood and lungs; he is cut off from the entire universe atomically and celestially. Mr. Ariely, a faceless patient wrapped in bandages is relegated to his own inner cell within a burn unit.
He is alone; time will never tell anything. He will count to “TEN!” again and again with no inkling that there is objective agreement between his count and the count of the rest of the universe. The doctor might meet him there to ease him of his pain and apply the comforting words (a true balm in Gilead): “it’s over, Mr Ariely; you suffered that like a strong man… a true champion.”
But what are the chances of that meeting happening? They are as many as the chances that I will exhaust all of my rhythmic rhapsodies on a countdown… It is terrifying to experience the hell of burning alive or to experience the surgery of being cut up and crafted before one’s very eyes. The only thing more terrifying than that is if one is cut off from everything predictable and confined to a solitary cell; a unit of the self form which there is no telling when the agony will, or if it ever will, finally come to an end.
“In other parts of the interview, Eric stated that before he was burned, he never looked forward to where he was going, at least, not seriously. He had always looked back, but even then, he never confronted the serious questions that could have been raised. After he left the hospital, he recognized that he was in a “bad situation,” and he also knew that he didn’t want to stay there. So, he had to search for answers, he had to search for and take responsibility for his future. He finally had to confront the situation he was in:
Eric: You’re thinking that people don’t get over the “Why me?”, they’re not willing to look at what’s going on right now. There’s a lot that happens with the acceptance of, “This is who I am, this is the situation I am in.” Most of the problems, people can’t identify that. They’re in their illusionary world of, “This is how I want to be,” and not looking at how it is.
“To take responsibility for what his life was going to be, he was forced to recognize his concrete situation, a task that many people, not just burn survivors, find difficult to achieve. Finding out exactly where he was, and who he was (each of which is relative and open to further elaboration and interpretation), is an achievement made over a period of time, through intense introspection, meditation, and therapy, and through periods of doubt, depression, and despair.”
“Of significance is the fact that the latter experiences, while temporarily painful and probably disabling, were seen by Eric as leading toward his transformation and metamorphosis.”
Here is the next section of the “Q&A”:
“Q: This can be very crushing, being forced to examine these issues.
Eric: If this is how it is, that I chose this, then I can choose something else. People have the ability to direct and control their lives. If they have that they’ve always been out of control and “it’s the world’s fault for me doing this, it’s God’s fault, it’s my parents’ fault for me doing this,” they never accept the fact that, well, they had a part in their life. In fact, they had the main part of choosing some of these things.”
Mr. Stouffer’s “Q” can hardly be said to be a “Q”; where is the question here? There is no question. Mr. Stouffer makes a statement. “This can be very crushing,” he writes with blissful unawareness shining through every word, “being forced to examine these issues.”
On that note, he proceeds to ask his next question: “Do you feel ,” asks Mr. Stouffer, “you have more control now then you had before?” and not “Do you have more control now than you had before?” To which Eric responds as follows:
Eric: I would say that before, I wanted to be out of control. Because I couldn’t control how my parents acted; I couldn’t control what they did to me, how teachers acted toward me, or so I thought. Therefore, I felt like I did not have the control in my life as much as now, because I wasn’t willing to accept the pain that goes with it. Afterwards, I had no way but to accept it: “Hey man, this is a painful situation.”
“Prior to being burned,” writes Mr Stouffer, “Eric’s life consisted of going to classes in college, working part time, and frequently partying. He had a drinking problem and he was using marijuana. His biggest problem was with alcohol. He had been jailed several times as a minor for being “under the influence.” His father also had a long-term problem with drinking and, for years, this had caused embarrassment for Eric. Family problems often revolved around his father’s drinking. Eric resented what his father’s drinking had done to both him and his family, yet Eric was following in his father’s footsteps.”
Eric is then quoted as follows: “I was the youngest of four children. My dad had a drinking problem which caused conflict in the family, which was part of the things I wasn’t ready to accept. We never talked about it, never discussed it. It didn’t exist. We had our own lives outside the family and I would exclude everything from coming into the home. I wouldn’t consider bringing anybody over.
And then the embarrassment that would come from that. So a lot of those factors, which were reasons for me to be out [drinking], another good excuse for me to say, ‘Well, at least I’m not as bad as he was.’”
Mr. Stouffer then asks Eric the following question: “Did you see a relationship there?
To which Eric responds as follows:
“No. at that time, he was a good excuse. For me, I think it was an excuse, “Well, even if I do, I’m not as bad as him. Look how much he does.” One of the catch-phrases afterwards, when I was thinking about it, was “Well, I had what?…twenty years to go catch up to be as bad as he was.” And that was kind of the path I was taking. And so [before the burn] the alcohol and the drugs and whatever else was a means of getting away. I didn’t want to be in control. I wanted to be out of control. I was good at turning away emotional pain which hurt, was a matter to be avoided, to be ignored. And then at the time of the burn, it set me down and I had no where to run, but to look inside [my emphasis]. When I looked inside I had some pretty big skeletons, things I didn’t want to admit about myself. Again, “Why me?” might be a result of not accepting responsibility. Why did I do these other things to other people? I had no answers, but it was time for me to look and evaluate myself, what I’ve done, and then try to make amends for that, just to be sorry for the things I did to people.”
“So,” says Mr Stouffer, “you were forced to look at yourself?”
Eric responds with clarity and candor: “Exactly, and there was nowhere to run. I had to sit down, I was like, “Well, regardless of what he did, or anybody else did, what am I?” And that’s pretty much the thing I had to get to. You’re looking at the world. How can the world be happy when I’m in so much pain?”
Mr Stouffer dutifully moves on to his next question. “Before you were burned,” he asks, “did you realize you were in pain?”
Eric’s response deserves commendation and praise. The consistency of his awareness is reason to be hopeful:
“That’s part of the problem. It was covered over by activities and drinking and having fun. Yeah…and that manifested in trying show how happy I was: Look at what a good time I’m having, see? So that was pretty much a result of it. My identity of who I was, I was no longer. So then it was a complete search.
For his part, however, Mr. Stouffer transcribes Eric’s response with assumptions about his thoughts (“his emphasis”) and then, as though the reader needed it, a reminder from Mr. Stouffer of the fact that it was he himself (Mr. Stouffer) who decided to italicize the second emphasis contained in this short sentiment:
“That’s part of the problem. It was covered over by activities and drinking and having fun. Yeah…and that manifested in trying show [his emphasis] how happy I was: Look at what a good time I’m having, see? So that was pretty much a result of it. My identity of who I was, I was no longer. So then it was a complete search [my emphasis].
One is grateful here for the presence of an awareness on the part of one member in this conversation; that member, of course, being the young and injured boy who now realizes that he is a man. Eric should be applauded for the courage of facing reality squarely and taking charge of his life. It might be too late for Mr. Stouffer and many others in this chapter to do the same.