Thursday, September 29, 2011

`Him Whose Fortunes We Contemplate'

“All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however fictitious, or approximates it however remote, by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortunes we contemplate; so that we feel, while the deception lasts, whatever emotions would be excited by the same good or evil happening to ourselves.”

I’ve kept Dr. Johnson’s Rambler #60 close since learning of my friend Chris Ringwald’s death on Monday. Ostensibly, the essay concerns the writing of biography, a form Johnson mastered and his friend Boswell perfected. But his real subject is deeper and more self-revelatory. Johnson hardly recognized man-made distinctions between himself and others. He was peculiarly gifted with empathy because his failings were plain and beyond denial. His was a living humility. He was a natural-born democrat. Often he reminds me of an old friend who, when I would get worked up over some petty idiocy, would say: “Shit, he’s just a human.”

We congratulate ourselves on our good fortune, as though we deserved it. When, through Johnson’s “act of imagination,” I try to project myself into Chris’ being in those final minutes, I fail. To think otherwise is obscene presumption. None of us is immune to unhappy contingency. Our job is to remember. Johnson writes:

“I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful; for not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such a uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill but is common to human kind.”

Our old newspaper colleague and friend, Mike Huber, writes:

“In the Latin Requiem Mass, the priest says, Vita mutatur, non tollitur. Life has changed; it has not taken away.”

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