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If you’re going through hell: a book and some thoughts

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill

By hell, I mean neither a trivial bad-hair day nor that bleak circle of earthly hell reserved to the clinically depressed, a condition treated these days with medication and counseling. No — by hell I intend that protracted war in which you are a lone soldier and the forces arrayed against you are as dark and insidious as Mordor’s Orcs. 

This is the hell where you wake before dawn beset by your demons as soon as you open your eyes, fiends aroused by self-doubts, physical diseases, the betrayals and lies of others, a sense of your own failings, your own worthlessness. This is the hell where your hours are ordeals to be endured, where you take punch after punch against the ropes. This is the hell where, unlike King Midas, all that you touch turns to lead. This is the hell where twilight offers no beauty, no laughter, no comfort other than the knowledge that sleep may soon be yours, releasing you for a few hours from your interior Alcatraz.

Sometimes circumstances or the words and actions of others build those prison walls. You are preparing supper for your husband and children when the oncologist’s office calls and changes your life forever. You wake to the sound of knocking and find two grim policemen at the front door, telling you about an accident and wondering whether the girl they name, the girl you have raised and loved for 17 years, is your daughter. You realize one day — the enlightenment comes as suddenly and as vividly as nirvana to a bodhisattva — that someone you love no longer loves you. You give your life to a dream, achieve it, and then watch it stripped from you by the jealous and the greedy.

Sometimes we build our own fences, brick walls, and guard towers. Rarely in these instances do we intend to fashion a prison. No—we begin with innocent thoughts and pure intentions. We get a credit card, then another and another, and one day find ourselves shackled by debt and financial ruin. We fall in love, but realize too late it’s the wrong time and with the wrong person. We feel immune to temptation and are stunned when we betray our sense of honor.

It is this self-made hell that Joshua Max Feldman investigates in Start Without Me (William Morrow, 2017, 274 pages). 

The novel brings together Adam, a former musician and a recovering alcoholic, and Marissa, a flight attendant whose marriage is coming apart. It is Thanksgiving, and both find themselves struggling with the demands of family. Adam’s loved ones — his parents and siblings — want to embrace him, but the barricade he erected with his drinking remains between them. Marissa, who grew up poor, the daughter of an alcoholic mother, has married into a wealthy family who keep her at arm’s length because of race and class. 

As we follow Adam and Marissa through their Thanksgiving Day, we learn how both of them have fallen, failing those around them, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally. They have become prisoners of their past, fettered in irons they themselves have forged.

Adam looks at his own life in terms of demolished possibilities, losing not only his self-respect and his career, but also Johanna, the woman and partner in music he once loved. Feeling abandoned and wounded by her husband’s behavior, Marissa runs into an old boyfriend at the airport, spends the night with him, and becomes pregnant. Having severed relations with her mother, she finds herself alone with what she has done.

Their self-judgment comes from “what they have done and what they have failed to do.” At the core of their painful journey is this lesson: “Progress. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time.” 

After Adam’s phone loses its charge at a crucial moment, he thinks “Just my luck…But no, he corrected himself, that was the dumbest, the most dangerous way to think: That it was bad luck; that he was its victim; that he was a victim at all. Self-pity was toxic to recovery. It was the vortex that pulled in all your resolve, all your good intentions, all your promises to yourself….”

In Start Without Me, Marissa and Adam grapple with the storms of their past while navigating the dangerous waters of the present. During their Thanksgiving Day odyssey, parts of which they endure together, they laugh and quarrel, advise and support each other. By the novel’s final pages, which end on a note of hope, we learn what they have learned, that to accept responsibility for our actions is the hard way but the only real way to live. The musician and the stewardess teach us that courage and acceptance are the shield and armor needed to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

In our “age of the victim,” Start Without Me reminds us that often the best target for our grievances is the mirror. Only when we look at ourselves, when we shove away self-pity and refrain from blaming others for our fallen state, will we begin to find our way into the light. 

Winston Churchill, as Adam and Marissa discover, had it right: when you are going through hell, keep going.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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