Lots of people I know seem to be having nasty problems of one sort or another. Some of the problems sound serious and worrisome, and some of them sound trivial but highly annoying. Quite a few people I know seem to be rather down lately. It makes me want to get the Happiness Mallet and go after them. Of course, if such a thing existed, I think I'd have to recover from my own concussion from giving it a go first. It's amusing to entertain the idea that there is some kind of pattern to this, but really, the great chain of events is a chaotic system. There is no real predicting it, and events have a tendency to clump and cluster instead of spreading themselves out in a homogenous mixture. Certainly, the misinterpretation of this phenomenon has got to be one of the contributing factors in the superstitious belief in things like astrology. Of course, maybe it's the spring weather which does, after all, have some influence on people's mood. That wonderful feeling you get with the weather reminds you how great it is to be alive, can turn kind of sour on you when your enthusiasm is brought up short by the abrupt realization that you have nobody to share it with. Of course, for some, who would otherwise be having problems anyway, seeing everyone walking around with big grins only seems to draw a sharper contrast between themselves and those who are feeling up and positive.
This afternoon, I am thinking about the cynicism with which I have come into contact lately. I don't care much for cynicism and I don't give it much credence as a realistic outlook on life. In fact, I tend to believe that 90% of all cynicism is just a phony affectation anyway. I don't remember where I saw that joke, but it always makes me smile. It is consideration of this which has put me in mind of a story I once heard. It's the kind of story with which a good writer will occasionally become inspired, except that, as far as I know, the story is one of those truths stranger than fiction. I did read about it in a newspaper, for what that is worth.
The story concerns a knife thrower who was married to his beautiful young assistant. Everyone knows of what it is that a knife-throwing act consists. In the more dramatic demonstrations of this skill, the assistant is strapped to an upright wheel and the wheel is set in motion. The knife-thrower then attempts to throw sharp bladed implements (such as hatchets, sometimes, but most often long-bladed knives) at the assistant in such a way that they strike dramatically close to her scantily-clad body without actually hitting her. The performers are flirting with the audience's perverse human affinity for being frightened and titillated at the same time, playing on the fear of and fascination with death and sex.
It's a tricky game. Of course the knives have to be sharp, or they wouldn't so readily embed into the wood of the wheel and stick there. Of course they have to strike very close to the assistant, because any idiot can miss a target, but it takes real skill to consistently miss a large moving target entirely by a few inches with every throw. The fact that the target is a real live woman raises the stakes for failure to extremely high levels, given that she will suffer injury, possibly mortal injury in the case of a mistake. The audience understands these consequences, as most people have, at one point or another in their lives, been cut, sometimes severely, by a sharp object. Everyone can identify with the assistant's risk.
You have to wonder how long the knife thrower practiced throwing those blades at small, unmoving targets. How long did he practice throwing at moving, but non-living targets, like outlines drawn on the spinning wheel, before feeling confident enough with his skill to attempt it with a living human target. What is more intriguing is the assistant's reactions. Can you imagine what it would be like to do that for the first time? How many times does she have to practice with the knife thrower before she can conquer what must be an overpowering urge to flinch? What kind of bravery does it take for an assistant to stand as target for someone who has never had a live target before?
Of course, it is predictable where the story is going. A story implies drama, and drama, in the context of this story implies an accident, and that is precisely what happened. Who knows why it happened? Who could say? Perhaps the knife thrower had distracting problems on his mind. Maybe he and his wife had been arguing. Perhaps he thought she was smiling a little too earnestly at the human cannonball. Maybe he didn't get enough sleep the night before. Maybe his hands were a little sweatier and slicker than he thought they were. Maybe he got a chill or a twitch at exactly the wrong time. Perhaps he was distracted by a strange or sudden noise, or the light from a flashbulb that caught his eye just right and at the worst possible time. Perhaps he was just having one of those days where he was, as theater people refer to it, "just phoning one in," and got just a tiny bit careless.
At any rate, he missed his aim, and in one of the worst possible ways imaginable. The mis-thrown knife went into his wife's eye-socket, passed through her head and through the back of her skull, embedding itself in the wood and pinning her to the wheel. I wonder what percentage of the people who saw the accident, or even of those who read about it later, can realistically hypothesize about what went through the performers mind the second he realized what had happened. Maybe he knew the throw was going to go awry from the feel of it as soon as the knife left his fingers. Maybe he watched the accident happen in helpless horror and in the slow motion time scale that the brain slips into when stressed.
Living has a way of dealing experiences, both useful and painful out to us. Seeing things like a relative or two waste painfully away and die of cancer, or seeing your wife lying unconscious in a hospital recovery room bed with a big bandage around her head after surgery to reattach a retina, drives home to you just how precious and fragile life can be. I wonder how many people mistakenly believe that there wasn't enough time right at the moment the accident happened for him to think much of anything. Seeing your children get into an auto accident in another car on the highway will dispel that misconception forever. It is amazing how many thoughts can stream through your brain in a shockingly short amount of time under the right conditions.
Who knows what went through his mind? Did he recoil in horror at the thought that the woman he had married and expected to spend the rest of his life with was now gone and that it was his fault? Did he feel terror at the thought that the wound was not immediately fatal and that he might be, right now watching her die? Was his mind a blur of thoughts, trying to decide, if the wound did not kill her, what the safest course of action would be, whether it was better to let her hang there with the knife sticking out of her head until the paramedics could get there or if there was a better chance for her survival if he pulled it out and got her down from there. Whatever went through the man's mind, and what happened in those awful minutes after the accident happened, the paper did not say. The story picked up at the aftermath of the accident.
Surprisingly enough, the wound was not mortal, the path of the blade having gone beneath her brain. That the woman did not lose her eye was more astounding yet. The most interesting part of the story however, was how the couple reacted to the accident. She didn't forgive him. She didn't forgive him because she trusted that the accident was a freak occurrence, neither malice, nor negligence nor incompetence. She recovered from her injury...and the two of them went right back to performing that act. I find that incredible. How many people could do what that woman did, go back and face that again, after such a harrowing accident, even if they did work up the courage the first time to let an expert knife thrower use them for a target? Is it courage? Is it dedication? Was it two people's profound love for and trust of one another? I believe that it is the latter. I can't think of too many things powerful enough to make me risk my mortal existence, outside of love. I'm sure the cynics will say that it is just plain stupid foolhardiness at work, and that the two people probably didn't think they had the skills for any other job, but I think that explanation is a cop-out.
The important thing to consider though, is with evidence of that kind of powerful bond at work between two people how could people still remain cynics? Love is something that drives people to feats of heroism and creativity every day in the world and yet the cynics, often bitterly, reject the idea that there is such a thing. To me, that smacks of denying reality. You can't go basing your view of the entire world on what happens to lie only within the scope of your personal experience. So what if your heart's been mashed into paté and eaten on hors d'oeurves? Just because you don't have it, does not mean that it doesn't exist. Only a small minority of the population are millionaires too, but I'm not planning on giving up the attempt to join them! I do believe that cynicism is cowardice masquerading as wisdom.