How Can I Hold On To Hope and Humor While Witnessing So Much Suffering?

In T’s advice column, Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at [email protected]

Dear Culture Therapist,

I’m an intensive care nurse living in a large American city and working at a hospital with a strong union. As you can imagine, it has been both a particularly difficult and particularly rewarding time to be a nurse. Last spring, two dear friends died in sudden violent ways, and two of my immediate family members were diagnosed with life-altering illnesses. Cue the pandemic, widespread civil unrest, horrific wildfires and political shenanigans. In response, I put my head down and counted my blessings: I have my health, supportive friends and family and a love story for the ages with my partner. The same things that helped me cope before 2020 (speed-dialing the Virgin Mary, looking like a million bucks, riding my motorcycle at high speeds and turning up the bass on my stereo) still help me now. My question, therefore, is not about the basics of self-care. I remind myself that it could certainly be much worse.

Throughout the pandemic, my colleagues and I have frequently been devastated, frustrated, dismayed and frankly annoyed by the laissez-faire response from much of the public and our elected officials. My view of humanity and destiny is beginning to darken. My understanding is that my future emotional health isn’t determined by my experience but by how I make meaning of it. I’ve reread my favorite books, seen my favorite movies — they all seem to fall flat. Could you please recommend works of art where our heroes find hope, style and humor while witnessing ongoing suffering?


Nightingale or Bust

Dear Nightingale,

At a time in which many of us carry on our lives behind screens, you’re out on the front lines, and have been for over a year now. The nightly applause has waned, as has the sense of being “in it together.” Humor, style, gratitude and hope — I’d also add empathy to this list — are the rarest resources, but they’re exactly what we need at a time like this.

Burnout is real. It was a reality in the kind of work you do before this pandemic, and Covid has acted as an accelerant for all of the reasons you allude to in your letter. Even for those of us who don’t work in an intensive care unit, social distancing has made the kind of collegiality and connection that help us process vicarious trauma all the more difficult.

It doesn’t help that the social contract is always tenuous in our country. Any form of care or regard for others, whether it’s mask wearing and quarantine abiding or sensible gun laws, is seized upon as “socialist,” rather than part of the basis of an ethical society. And here you are caring for people, risking your own mental and physical health every day, often without appreciation or acknowledgment. In a culture that emphasizes self-improvement and self-enrichment at the expense of others, that care strikes me as nothing less than a radical act — and a heroic one.

In times of mass grief, we need art, with its truths that cut through the banalities of thoughts and prayers, more than ever. Art is all about reaching for things beyond ourselves, and not only to things like transcendence and beauty but to other people. And as you say: It’s not just our experiences that shape us, it’s how we make meaning of them, how we frame the traumas we witness, how they so often prompt gratitude for our own relative privilege. Art lends us a frame.

Think of Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series, those staples of museum gift shop postcards. They become a great deal less innocuous when you remember that the greatest of them were painted late in the artist’s life, during World War I, at his home in Giverny, France, 30 miles from the front; he could hear the gunshots as he painted, and both his son and stepson were in the army. “Yesterday I resumed work,” the artist wrote in December 1914. “It’s the best way to avoid thinking in these sad times. All the same I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and color while so many people are suffering and dying for us.”

Even so, and though he was losing his vision, Monet’s impulse to create remained: a small act of heroism, of keeping the faith. Something of this sense of unseen, yet omnipresent, trauma informs Ja’Tovia Gary’s 2019 film “The Giverny Document,” which moves between the Impressionist painter’s iconic gardens, in which the filmmaker strolls, and the streets of Harlem to reflect on the experiences of Black women in an often hostile world.

This was a year in which so many abstractions became painfully concrete and specific. Meanwhile, our heroes became human-scaled, their heroism rooted in their insistence on our common humanity: Darnella Frazier, who was only 17 when she filmed George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. Stacey Abrams, who tirelessly registered Georgia voters before the fall elections (and continues to do so today). Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who spoke on the floor of the House, standing up for all women after being called a vulgar sexist slur by a fellow congressman on the Capitol steps.

I want to pay respect to the daily heroism of all of those who show up — to the art studio, to the hospital corridors, to the supermarket checkout, to the umpteenth day of Zoom school.

While we all have our ways of coping with this time, I get the sense that you don’t flinch from intensity: You work hard, and it follows that to unwind, you crave the wall of sound, the spike of adrenaline. You’re not interested in art as analgesic, as the aesthetic equivalent of a warm bath and a scented candle, but that doesn’t mean that you, too, aren’t feeling a sense of precipice and peril, or that you don’t need solace and protection.

What it means, I think, is that you need art that matches your intensity, and that binge-streaming wishful revisionist remixes of history (female chess champions, a racially diverse and unaccountably hot British aristocracy) is unlikely to satisfy. Maybe some great costumes and pretty faces (accompanied, perhaps, by a gin martini and cheese puffs) were enough for you at the dawn of the pandemic. But that was a more innocent time.

The full-blooded vitality of your letter reminds me of Reno, the heroine of Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel, “The Flamethrowers.” Set in the 1970s, it begins with a scene in which the young artist rides her motorcycle from Nevada to Utah to take part in the land-speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The novel moves to New York’s experimental art scene and then to Italy, where Reno follows her lover and gets caught up with the Red Brigades. Reno is tough, and she’s a daring witness to all manner of masculine provocation, but she’s not invulnerable. The question is: How much of her heart will she hold on to?

Heroic women have long dominated cinema. I thought of your letter, and the kind of heroism that goes unheralded, while watching the actor Simone Signoret in Jean Pierre Melville’s 1969 film, “Army of Shadows,” about the French Resistance. Signoret’s performance honors the many unnamed women who fought the Nazis in secrecy. No one, not even the men in her character’s clandestine cohort, knows her real identity; they exist in the shadow world. The risks are high, unfathomably so: Even if they make it out alive, some part of them won’t.

We can also imagine the real-life women who inspired Cora, the heroine of Colson Whitehead’s brilliant 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad” (a mini-series version, directed by Barry Jenkins and starring Thuso Mbedu, came out in May). Cora’s story — inspired in part by Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 memoir, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published initially under a pseudonym — not only humanizes an experience that, by definition, strips humanity away, it also pays homage to the stationmasters and conductors, many of them unknown to history, who helped guide thousands fleeing the brutality of slavery to the relative safety of the American North.

Heroism, the kind I’m talking about, isn’t clean or easy; mostly, it’s without reward. The heroic journey is, after all, an artifice deployed to work on our emotions, one all too often applied to historical figures in biopics, their lives manipulated to hit all of the beats in the classic story arc. We see through this kind of storytelling these days, knowing what we already know: that while making meaning of our traumas can give us tools to contend with them, we never entirely overcome them; the bruises remain.

When I think of women on the front lines, I think also of Lee Miller, the Surrealist turned photojournalist; her photographs of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau as they were liberated by American troops were published, unforgettably, in Vogue magazine in June 1945. “Believe it,” the headline read, quoting Miller’s own telegram imploring the magazine’s editors to publish them. The acute rage and trauma that seemed to drive Miller made her a fearless witness. It did not impair her artist’s eye. In one of her most famous images, a collaboration with David E. Scherman, she appears bathing in Hitler’s tub, her muddy boots, fresh from the horrors of Dachau, in the foreground, dirtying his bathmat: the surreal gallows humor of war.

Sometimes, I think, you have to laugh or cry — maybe both at once. I suspect I’m not alone in admitting that I’ve cried — wept, even, as in a 18th-century novel — more in the last 12 months than I had in the previous 20 years. But I also want to point out that one cannot have strength without vulnerability, and suggest that those who fear it have already lost the battle.

All of these women, real and fictional, are too complicated and fallible to be reduced to abstract symbols. Their effort is too visible. They care too much. Signoret’s character is, as one of the male operatives she works with calls her, “Une grande femme,” a great woman of extraordinary courage whose fateful vulnerability — her love for her daughter — is what makes the risk worth the ultimate cost.

Therein lies her heroism — rather than denying her humanity, she accepts and affirms it. I admire your fearlessness but, even more, I admire the grace you’ve found in doing the work you do, with full knowledge of its stakes. We don’t yet know how life will look after this long season of illness and violence ends, nor how we will begin to total up the loss and damage. Suffering may make us stronger, but it can also destroy us, and only you can negotiate with yourself how much you can take. While I hope you find some inspiration here, be sure to take a vacation, too. Protecting your ability to laugh and love will, in turn, protect the source of your greatness: having the courage not just to fight but to care.

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