Chapter 2

Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities; without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forces for himself on this earth...

Jean—Paul Sartre
Being and Nothingness

He stared out the window: beneath him and above him, one immense blueness. He was unaware of the noises and people on the plane, unaware of being hurtled through space and time across an ocean. He turned to the book in his hands and solemnly closed it. Sartre was not the most felicitous of traveling companions. Putting it in his daypack, he saw the gift from McAllister. In the rush to leave for the airport, he barely had time to farewell his old friend and professor before Sharon had dragged him into the car. He took out the present and slowly unwrapped it. It was a copy of Hermann Hesse's last novel, his magnum opus, Das Glasperenspiel—The Glass Bead Game. He opened it and his eyes immediately fell upon the dedication—To Those Who Journey To The East—and the brief inscription penned in McAllister's nearly illegible scrawl,

Jason—

Have a good year in Japan.
And try to find out for me
what is the sound of one hand clapping.
I've never understood that.

Your friend,
John McAllister

He smiled, a slight upturning at the ends of his mouth, so slight it would have gone unnoticed by anyone watching him.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? It was among the oldest Zen koans—those illogical questions asked by the Zen master to jog and jolt the novice's mind out of its habitual way of thinking and to see the world in a wholly new way.

He put down the book and lay back against the headrest, thinking about his own journey to the East. This, also, had the feeling of the illogical about it, and he asked himself once again: What am I doing on a plane heading to Tokyo?

That, too, seemed to be a kind of koan.

*     *     *     *     *

Thank God, they'd found him in time.

McAllister was walking down the hallway of the university hospital that smelled of disinfectant and disease. He had never liked hospitals, the smell of them, the look of them, the people in them, both those prostrate and those vertical, all in antiseptic white. Two days since it happened; this was the first day the doctors were allowing Jason visitors. Yesterday, they had called McAllister, asking to speak with him about "the incident." He had met with them in the morning, two young doctors. They had many questions, about Jason's graduate program, any pressures he had been under recently, friendships, sexual relationships, his family. McAllister told them what he knew.

"Has he ever attempted suicide before?"

"Not that I know of."

"And how long have you known him?"

"Ever since he began at the university. Six years now."

"Do you know if there was a precipitating event?"

Damned if he knew. By all the accounts he had received, it had been an arbitrary decision, unpremeditated and committed without passion.

They looked perplexed, these two doctors, trying to determine why this young man who showed so much promise might try to end his life so...arbitrarily. Without any apparent reason or motive. How do you explain someone like Jason?

"Gentlemen, I doubt that you are going to discover any 'precipitating event.' It might be more helpful to think in terms of a precipitating condition."

They both leaned forward, suddenly attentive. "Condition?" asked the older of the two.

"Yes. One might say his orientation toward life." They looked blankly at him, much like his students often did. "You see, Jason is one of those people—one of those sensitive souls—who is, well, 'always a little in love with death.'"

"In love with death?"

"That's Eugene O'Neill. Long Day's Journey into Night?"

"Oh, sure," said the one writing, "I saw that movie. With Kathryn Hepburn?"

But the other doctor said, "Why do you say he'll always be a little in love with death?"

"Because nothing has a hold on him. Jason never bonded with the universe."

Never bonded with the universe.

He could see that metaphors weren't their strong suit. "Erik Erikson?"

"Is he a playwright, too?"

"Developmental psychologist. The seven life tasks?"

They shook their heads.

Lord, what are they teaching these days?

"I think Jason has never bonded...with anyone."

From the start there was something missing in the boy, something warm and living at the core of his being. Something essential to being human. Erikson had postulated that there are seven life stages, from infancy to old age, and each stage has a task to be achieved. Of course one can (many do) move on without accomplishing the task of a particular stage. But at a cost. In some way one is crippled, handicapped emotionally, which in turn can inhibit success in the later stages, at least until the task is finally achieved and the lesson finally learned. McAllister suspected that Jason had failed to achieve the first task, that of the infant: to develop a basic trust in the universe. A faith in the goodness of life.

Time was getting on. He could tell they wanted to wrap this up. They had other patients to see. The older of the two cleared his throat and said, "Dr. McAllister, in your opinion, would you say that Jason has a dysthymic disorder—a depressed personality?"

They were obviously trying to find some category to slot Jason into so they would know how to "treat" him. But McAllister was pretty sure that there was no treatment because there was no category that would fit. Quite simply, Jason was one of those who live on the edge of life, whose grip on it is tenuous, as if he had never really been convinced that living was such a good idea. He knew that the young man had been struggling with the terrible possibility of life's meaninglessness for much of his thinking life. Most people experience this occasionally, maybe as they sense the end approaching; but Jason, he was sure, lived with this possibility daily; until one day, he decided that he wished to live with it no longer.

"Do you think that he would benefit from seeing a psychiatrist?"

McAllister smiled politely and said no, and refrained from adding that he thought few people ever benefited from seeing a psychiatrist.

"We could prescribe some medication—an anti-depressant..."

"Gentlemen," he said mildly—they were little more than youths themselves; he wondered if he had taught them in their undergraduate years—"How would you cure Wittgenstein of his malady?"

They looked at each other, and the older one inquired, "Uh, who's Wittgenstein?"1

McAllister smiled thinly. Obviously they hadn't been students of his. He pulled himself up in his chair and leaned forward, as if taking them into his full confidence. "Fellows, what we have here is a brilliant mind. Indeed, one of the keenest intellects I have come across in my many years of teaching. In my humble opinion"—his tone belied, if not outright laughed at the humble—"Jason does not have a psychiatric condition. His condition is purely existential." He could tell that this wasn't what they wanted to hear. Understandably. How does one "treat" the meaninglessness of human existence? Who has a prophylaxis for despair?

The younger of the two spoke. "So, Professor McAllister, as one who knows Jason better than most, what would you suggest?"

He sat back in his chair. "I've been giving it some thought, and I do have an idea."



1Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was also known for his melancholy.