Sometimes, you stumble across wisdom in the least predictable places.
Time Magazine recently had an interview with gay icon Harvey Fierstein,. The interview was triggered by the publication of Fierstein’s memoir, titled “I Was Better Last Night.” As you might expect from a writer known for his wit, the interview elicited some funny responses; for example, asked what had prompted him to write the memoir–what circumstances had led him to consider doing so–Fierstein replied,
First, you arrange for a global pandemic. You clean your desk of all other garbage; then you look around the house for other things to do. I made five quilts. I walked the dog. And then the next thing—the only thing—I could possibly come up with, besides cleaning the refrigerator, which is nothing anybody ever wants to do, was to write my memoir.
The interview covered a number of more serious topics, several focused on Fierstein’s long history of activism on behalf of gay rights. But it was the following exchange that made me stop and reread both the question (in bold) and the answer.
You wrote about rehearsals for the Torch Song Trilogy, and a scene specifically where Estelle Getty took issue with a line from her character, when she tells her son, “It gets better.” She’s talking specifically about grief, but that phrase has become such a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community more broadly—and maybe too generally—in recent years. Do you think that’s been the case?
Whatever you survive becomes a triumph, right? And I think time, you know, does make things better. Does it bring somebody back to life? No. But makes it easier to take that breath without that incredible pain underneath. Do things get better politically just because time passes? No. You actually have to do the work. One thing that people don’t understand, and I don’t understand why they don’t understand, is that you can’t go backwards. Nothing goes backwards! If you want to go backwards in time, you’re just kidding yourself. Especially these days when you see this ‘Make America Great Again’ idiocy; I look at those people and what I see are these walking skeletons. Dead people. They’re not looking to the future, and if you’re not looking to the future you’re not alive. You are saying, I am no longer a force in the world. I am just a memory. And that’s no way to live.
This exchange highlighted the under-appreciated connection between the pain of loss and the utter uselessness of trying to reverse that loss. Reading it made me (marginally) more understanding of the people trying so desperately to return the country and the world to an earlier time that existed in their (very selective) memories.
Most of us who have reached a “certain age” have experienced the grief that comes when loved ones or friends of longstanding die, and we have no choice but to come to terms with the hole in our lives that results. Three years ago, I lost my best friend of 50 years, and Fierstein is exactly right when he says that “it gets better” is limited to the dulling of the pain, not its absence.
He is definitely right when he points out what should be obvious: you can’t go back.
No matter how much you grieve–about a personal loss, about the disappearance of a social environment in which you felt comfortable–your grief, nostalgia and yearning won’t reverse what has happened. If you aren’t working on accepting changes you cannot undo, Fierstein is exactly right: you aren’t really living.
Reading the interview reminded me of my grandfather’s favorite saying: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.
When people are unwilling to accept reality–when they are in denial–they are surrendering an important, even essential part of what makes us human. Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of loss; that pain also makes us human. It does mean that–as Fierstein eloquently framed it–if you’re not looking to the future, if you’re not engaging with your environment as it actually exists and making decisions about how you will continue that engagement, you aren’t truly alive.
Fierstein’s observation made me think of that famous line from the movie “The Sixth Sense,” where the young boy says “I see dead people.”
So does Fierstein. So do I. A lot of them.