Yesterday, for #7daysofcoping, I took a stab at my thoughts on “7 days,” or a week (tl;dr — weeks are useless and absurd). Today, I’d like to think about the second half of my assignment: coping.
And, for me, I think one way that “I cope” (if I do at all) is by reading. Like many people, books have always been a refuge for me, and so I’d like to share some titles that I especially rely on. I’ll recommend seven, because whatever, seven seems to be a relevant number here. Yes, seven books for coping!
But let me preface this by saying that I don’t actually know what coping is.
The dictionary tells me that “to cope” means to “deal effectively with something difficult.” If we’re talking about relatively simple challenges like assembling a puzzle or cleaning the bathroom, then I can understand what it means “to cope.” You can “deal effectively” with a tile floor or a set of interlocking cardboard pieces, despite the inherent obstacles therein. Sure.
But if we’re talking about something broader, like being alive, here on this planet, in this body, at this moment in time, amid everything that surrounds us (and all of the things that can’t and won’t), then I don’t know if I truly believe in the idea of “dealing with it effectively.” In part because “dealing” is a little vague, and so is “effectively.” Definition-wise, we’re in an ambiguous jumble. We’ve got constraining terms, yes, but the terms are cloudy. Of course, anyone who is still alive at this moment is in some sense “dealing” with the situation at hand, sort of by default. Like: you’re alive? Okay: You’ve won! But effectively? That I don’t know. The universe is awful and doesn’t have a point system. Not like, say, basketball. I think we can agree that being alive isn’t, for the most part, basketball. I know how to be effective at basketball, but “effectively” is the part of “coping” that I think, in the broadest sense, might be impossible. And perhaps even unnecessary.
That is: your life doesn’t have to be effective. Being in a body in any given moment on this planet surrounded by people and things doesn’t need to meet quotas or hit benchmarks. And maybe can’t. What would the quotas even be? An eternity of data couldn’t clarify. We should be skeptical and suspicious of anyone who says they are “dealing effectively” with life. The moment you know how to make life “effective” is the moment something important inside of you has died. Or perhaps the moment something awful inside of you has been born. So, in that sense, I think “coping” might be impossible.
But the impossibility of coping is itself something I think we can cope with (or at least briefly fool ourselves into thinking we can!). How? Through books!
So, here are some works that help me both accept and even adore the fact that life is impossible, unknowable, and futile.
Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
Here’s a graphic novel about some birds who witness a plane crash. They think the plane is a giant version of themselves. So they are justifiably shocked to see a man emerge from its shattered form. That’s when they start asking the “big questions.” Like these birds, I too believe my conception of the world to be founded on grave misunderstandings, mistakes, and assumptions masquerading as fact. Also, the pictures are great.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Here’s the rare book that features a uniquely nihilistic protagonist. A woman who says “no” with her whole life and body. “No” to social norms, to biology, to everything. A body-horror version of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Gorgeous, terrifying.
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Scientists study a distant planet. The planet studies them back. Nobody can understand anybody else ever. Lem’s classic exploration of the limits of human knowledge presents its most “human” character in the form of a giant alien ocean struggling to understand itself and the world around it. It fails and fails repeatedly, always taking on new forms — an endless creativity that amounts to nothing, but which is beautiful nonetheless.
The Inner History of Devices, edited by Sherry Turkle
Essays on the relationships that people have with inanimate objects. The nearly religious experience of losing yourself in casino slots. Feeling your existence float away as you meld with the dialysis machine. Objects are people too.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
It’s either about a person who accidentally gets trapped in a pit in the middle of sandy village and is forced to live with another person they barely know, or about the social structures of contemporary life. Either way, Kobo Abe is one of the most unique and frightening authors I’ve ever encountered, and this is one of his most powerful books. The movie is great, too.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Here’s a book to validate that feeling of not knowing where your life ends and others’ begins. Are you only yourself or instead some weird amalgamation of the forces all around you? Multiple histories and identities intertwine seamlessly in this book, and pretty much everywhere else too. So.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
A better explanation than I could ever give on why coping is not enough.