Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Leah Browning’s fiction piece, Wax
John: The Buddhist idea of reincarnation is a lot like the one that fills your protagonist with horror: most people will come back to an existence a lot like the one they just left. Is this hell?
Leah: The short story referenced in “Wax” is “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret (translated by Miriam Shlesinger and included in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, published by Riverhead Books in 2015). Keret’s story is very specific about the ongoing monotony of the main character’s life despite the fact that he has already lived and died.
To me, this is hell (or some version of it). When I was much younger, I really liked the idea of reincarnation. However, I always felt that people would be punished or rewarded for their behavior in this life. Someone who behaved well, for example, might come back as a well-loved family dog.
At that time, I didn’t think of people in a particularly nuanced way. A person was either bad, or good, and would be treated accordingly. It didn’t occur to me that an ordinary person, with both positive and negative characteristics, might have to go through an entire life only to start over again as an ordinary person, sitting in traffic and paying bills and going to doctor’s appointments. This did strike me as a horrifying idea. Life is what you make of it and all that, but being an adult involves many uncomfortable and unpleasant tasks that are, for the most part, unavoidable. In this scenario, there’s no escape.
And a corollary to that—true or false: hope is an affliction. Why or why not?
This seems to me both true and false. Hope can make a person deeply unhappy. If I miscarry, I will be devastated, not because I lost a physical baby that I have held in my arms and cared for, but because I lost the idea of a baby that I wanted. The hope for that particular future is gone. Similarly, we often mourn the death of a relationship that was based as much on hope as on reality. If we didn’t have that sense of hope in the first place, we would be spared a lot of disappointment and heartache.
On the other hand, though, I feel that once hope is gone, a person is living for what? Without something to look forward to or the confidence that the next day will (or at least might) be better, it’s difficult to get through even a low-level bad day. We need hope to survive.
What is that moment that lets us go on? Is there any way to hurry it, or do we just have to wait?
I like your phrasing here. Grief can cling on for a long time, and the moment that lets us go on, the moment that we are filled with hope again, is enormous. That feeling might disappear again, but just the fact that it existed can let a person go on until it happens again.
I don’t think there’s any way to hurry it, though every person is different. Grieving just takes time.
What are the pros and cons of your favorite strategy for dealing with difficult emotions?
Is avoidance a strategy? I’m not sure.
In reality, I find art very therapeutic (writing, music, visual art, etc.). I was going through something a few years ago and read two of Joan Didion’s books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Her experiences were unique and in some ways unrelated to mine, but there was something about them that made me feel less alone.
It can be counterproductive to wallow in sadness for too long. But sometimes as people we need to slow down and feel whatever we’re feeling. Connection is what helps us heal the most, though, I think: understanding that someone else has gone through a similar experience, knowing that our friends and family members support us, and clinging to the idea that we will somehow make it through.