Contrapasso of the butterfly

With a disconcertingly cheerful chime, my phone announces the arrival of a text from Gideon. I shift my attention over to the rectangle of light, underneath the bed covers, that glows like a predatory fish at 20,000 feet. The text is encased in a chest of forest green that appears as soon as I pick up the phone; I open it with a press of the thumb and absorb, rather than read, its message. Its few lines catapult off the screen and fall over me in a dark wave. The words are disfigured, somehow and, in reading, they disfigure me. Gideon has had a panic attack.

It’s not a good time for feelings. At present, I am in the wallowing in the damp, chilly swamp between the moody pool of sleep and the acrid desert of wakefulness. I am refusing to enter the labyrinth of the rest of day which will involve: coffee, news, coffee, e-mail, e-mail, e-mail, coffee, self-loathing break, PowerPoint, e-mail, e-mail. Possibly I have understated the prevalence of email in that list. If I have time for Gideon, it is only in the splinters between one task and another, when my attention will falter and catch on the thorn of my recollection of his message, and I will think of him pacing his bedroom, or forcing himself to eat lunch, or scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, or lying on the couch with his face pressed wetly to the dusty cushions.

His trust in me terrifies me. He’s told me about his panic attack, apparently without any thought to what I could do with the information. In the past, I might have felt perverse pleasure at receiving such personal revelations. A missive handwritten in blood and addressed to me is proof of my success as an advisor, a confidant, a companion. It’s proof of power—power to plunge my hand through a mask of flesh and expression and extract the broken shards of a confession, a secret, a promise. To be trusted with vulnerability is to be well-regarded, respected, cherished as a friend. But reading the text from Gideon now feels like being handed a nail bomb. Its jagged edges pierce the palm of my hand. It escapes my grasp and pinballs relentlessly around the bare corridors of my mind. Its power is obvious and frightening.

He’s had scary thoughts, he says. He’s sought out professional assistance, and it hasn’t helped. I am not surprised, though I am still disheartened. “I am working on it in therapy” is a sentence I cannot parse, even though the phrase is deployed so casually now it’s easy to accept it axiomatically, as a basic truth of our modern world. I think of a therapist as the Virgil to a patient’s Dante; they may record, console, reassure, even guide and reframe, but they cannot change the fundamental principles of the underworld. A guided and annotated voyage through Hell is not a useless exercise, but it is also not useful in the way Gideon, self-aware and self-hating to the end, needs. But then again, what do I know about what he needs? I am still searching for the sequence of words that would unlock his peace of mind, though I know, from the cruelty of experience, that I have never possessed the ability to summon the angel, to hasten the healing, to produce the cure. Each attempt only manages to cause more harm.

I wish I could tell Gideon this: I don’t ever feel life is worth living, either. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s the wrong question. I don’t look at a black and yellow butterfly, shredded on the concrete outside my front door, and wonder if its life was worth it. A butterfly leads a life lacking in fate, purpose, or worth. It flies past the archangel Gabriel and doesn’t recognize him. Its life and ours are different but fundamentally the same, in the way all shapes of the weather emanate from basic properties of the sky. Does that help you to feel less unworthy—the notion itself that “worth” itself it not worthy of consideration?

I know it doesn’t. I know it strikes you as a flimsy, indulgent rhetorical exercise. A cheap square of plywood when what you need is a bridge of solid oak to cross a black gulf. We stand there, together, at its opening, where the dry earth forms a trembling lip that threatens to crumble and then cascade down into nothing. We stare down. We belong to that darkness below but it does not think of us anymore than the ocean thinks of the fish that belong to it. We hold our lives—yours, mine, and the butterfly’s—in the form of palmfuls of red sand, held tightly in the undecorated chalices of our hands. I am trying to convince both you and me to tip the red sand back into the vials in our pockets and experience what we can in this wasteland of occasional beauty. I am trying to summon the courage to touch your arm. To be a comfort to you when I cannot be a comfort to myself. In the end, we will be lost to the mouth of the wind, and whatever dust we leave behind will never tell the complete story.

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