My brother, who is some years older, once said, “When I don’t see you, I don’t think about you.” This meanness nearly felled me, but it was just one of an infinity of cruelties for which he had become known.
Now, memories of these sadisms live in me as if they were another body with a separate respiration, and I continue my lived life in the other vessel, the more fragile of the two, which nevertheless still sustains me.
I have been thinking, though, that my brother simply gave voice to what many of us could never be honest enough to admit but to what is likely true for most human beings: we really don’t think about others—not deeply, not at length, and not over the long haul—in part because we are consumed by our own often desperate needs, which, when you really think about it, are born out of this wish we have not to die.
Here I am, for instance, feeling terribly sorry for a sweet student who tells me her boyfriend has just passed away; then, a few days later, forgetting all about what seemed in me a genuine compassion, I am irritated that she has not come to class and that she has not handed in several assignments.
Or this: a friend is ill, with a ravaging and protracted treatment ahead of her, and I am solicitous and well-wishing at the start. I even offer assistance and seem to mean it. Ask me a week on about how she is doing, though, and, if I am honest with you and with myself, I will have to confess that I have not thought of her once since I made my offer. It seems, instead, that I have been busy worrying about bills. And about a man.
With my friend, whom I really quite love, it is as though the offering is nearly the same thing as the doing, and I can convince myself I am a pretty terrific person by conveniently mistaking the former for the latter.