Invisible, parallel lives

Yesterday I read Dr Lee Lipsenthal’s beautiful book, Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day As If It Were Your Last. Dr Lipsenthal was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2009 and passed on just three months ago, in September 2011. His book is very fascinating and inspiring, and resonated very much with my own thoughts on mortality (some of which you’ve read here).

I really recommend the book, but strangely enough it’s not the mortality or the inspiration that prompted me to write in my journal after reading it. Instead, it’s the glimpse into a parallel lifestyle (that of the terminally ill person). Have you ever thought about how odd it is that we see so little of lifestyles other than the normative “grow up in a family, go to school, get a job, have your own family”? I mean, we know there are deviations from this trajectory, but there are such varying degrees of separation. Some people grow up without a family, some people never form their own, some don’t get jobs, etc. When it comes to more substantial deviations, on one side you have the lifestyles we might characterize as obviously very different from first-world normative: impoverished people in developing countries, for example, or religious monastics. On another side, you have a different kind of obvious distinction: people whose life choices may be (but aren’t always) fairly normative, but who differ from the majority in their person: disabled people, for instance, those with certain kinds of mental illness, or the genderqueer; these folks were invisible/hidden for a long time, but are now becoming more visible.

But the kind of parallel life trajectory this book made me think about is that of people who may have started out normative, and who perhaps hope to return to normative, but who are currently — maybe permanently — set apart because of life circumstances. They’re members of normative society, and then suddenly they’re not. I’m thinking of people like Dr Lipsenthal, with terminal illness, or people like my friend Cathy, with chronic illness, or servicepeople returning to civilian life, or people who are (or were) incarcerated… perhaps also the families of such folks. I feel like it’s hard for us to see these people because there’s often a stigma to their coming out, or because they are reluctant to affiliate themselves with circumstances they hope are temporary, or because we as a society seem very determined to deny the existence of non-normative life trajectories (even to the point of, as Stacie wrote once, thinking people should “get over” grief quickly! we want everyone back to straightforward normative as fast as possible!).

Why is it that these parallel trajectories remain so invisible? Are we still so afraid of difference, disease, and death, that we don’t want to have anything to do with people who are touched with any of these? Or are these invisible walls of separation already coming down because of the internet? Every time I’ve made a connection across one of these walls, life seems so much richer. But maybe it’s easy for me to say that from my vantage point of normativeness and privilege.

(Please note, this is something I’m just thinking through. I’ve tried to write this in a way that doesn’t imply any kind of value judgment on anyone or their life circumstances, but there is so much I don’t know. If I’ve been ignorant or disrespectful, educate me!)