By: Jehangir Saleh
Written: October 9, 2011
My grandmother’s in a nursing home. Stuff happens there: residents get wheeled to meals, sometimes they play bingo, sometimes they hobble around the halls.
“What happened today?” I ask her. “Nothing,” she replies.
And she’s right. Each day it’s the same meals at the same times. The same faces animated by the same pains. The same activities with the same motive: to occupy time instead of building something within it.
Days change. Seasons change. Time pushes on. Yet everyday – whether Monday, Thursday or Sunday – is experienced by my grandmother as the same day. Something happens (“bingo!”), but doesn’t register as a happening.
For us to experience something happening, more needs to happen than just the bare fact of a happening. Or, put differently, what happens and what we experience doesn’t necessarily coincide.
Leaves fall. Matter sits around, and thenbumps into other matter. Organisms grow, and die. The world happens, and we primarily see ourselves as witnesses of this happening. There’s something really true about this: this strange mysterious thing we call the world moves on it’s own, which is to say, it doesn’t need us to tell it what to do. And this means that we’re primarily seeing something unfold. Chipmunks forage on their own, and collect seeds that have fallen on their own, which come from trees that have grown on their own…
So, in one sense, when it comes to the world, someone can ask, “what’s happening?” and all we need to do is look and describe what we see.
But my grandmother’s senses work perfectly. She is a witness to all these happenings. She sees the halls, and the residents, as she gets wheeled to dinner. She hears the bingo guy (“34O!”).And this perhaps is the problem: she experiences her reality as something to witness, as something unfolding outside of her, rather than something to participate in. Things are happening in some objective sense, but they aren’t happening to her.
Bingo – or anything else, for that matter – needs to find someway of connecting with her, someway of mattering to her – but the bare fact of bingo happening doesn’t have enough power to affect my grandmother directly: only she can decide whether it matters to her or not. It is only by finding a way to speak to what matters to her (religion, family, Indian food, match-making, bargain hunting…), only by connecting with her identity,that she can actually be “inside” the happening of bingo. Until then, she’ll hear the bingo sounds. She’ll hear me encouraging her to play. She’ll see people hobble around the tables. Stamp the cards. But none of this will feel like it’s happening to her.
But these don’t register to her as “happenings”. She hasn’t found
None of these things matter to her.
But in each case, she doesn’t inhabit her situation: she witnesses it,
In the hallway, she’s not
And this is precisely the problem: she encounters her reality as something unfolding outside of her, rather than having a say in the way that unfolding takes place.
Just as we watch the birds bathing themselves in a puddle, my grandmother watches the nurse cleaning her immobile body.
This is why, when you ask people “what happened?” they can give differing, even competing, accounts.
Think of all the things that happen, but that don’t actually happen, i.e., you don’t register them as events.
Your mother dies. You know she’s not here anymore. But it still feels as if, on Sunday, she’s going to pick you up for brunch.
Your uncle has cancer with six months left. He knows this. You ask him, “What can I help you do in these last 6 months that will be meaningful to you?” “Nothing,” he says. “I’ll be fine.” He goes to work and comes home to watch TV, just as he did before the diagnosis.
For something to happen – for some reality to “start up” – there needs to be a before and after.
It leaves it mark on the future, such that
Reality happens when it registers meaningfully in our experience, when it touches our lives, and we become oriented by it.