Unbuttoned into the Blow

In defense of human fragility

Jen Wick Studio

A little more than two years ago, one of my closest friends died of breast cancer. Kitty and I met when we were barely out of adolescence—two rural Oregon girls, recent college graduates, trying to sort out our places in the world. Soon after, she headed to Stanford business school while I started at Georgetown law. We saw each other now and then, but a few years later, we came home, found jobs, got married, had kids. Once we'd gotten through the grind of breastfeeding and diaper bags and shoe-tying, we made a commitment to see each other at least once a week. Every Friday morning, before the sun came up, we walked and talked—about our kids and our husbands, about our ambitions (both the noble ones and the self-serving ones), about injustice and climate change, about the vagaries of the healthcare industry, about whether market solutions had any place in solving civic problems, and in the end, about her illness and most certain death. And then one Friday she was too weak to walk, and I spent weeks running back and forth between her house and mine. And then she was gone. Just like that. Forty-six years old. Four kids. A promising career in healthcare reform. She was just gone.

I am left with the hollowness of her absence, of course. And filled with love and worry for her family. But it is also an experience like no other to witness the illness and death of a bright and vivacious person at the peak of her life. Terminal cancer exposes us to the body—suddenly organs that have been invisible and flawless send us into waves of wracking pain. As the plump layers of vitality fall away, the skeleton reveals itself in ways that we never see in our healthy and distracted lives. Walking, eating, breathing—all of it—becomes both miraculous and tenuous.

Since then, several more young and seemingly healthy friends have been diagnosed with cancer. My father had deep brain stimulation surgery to curb the increasing symptoms of Parkinson's such as the ability to walk without a cane. Some of the symptoms got better. Some of them got worse. And if that were not enough, I turned fifty this past summer. I feel it. Not just in my knees or when I catch a glimpse of the crepey skin across my throat that looks just like my grandmother's—I feel it in my bones somehow. And even deeper than that, I feel that I am going to die. And so will everyone and everything I love.

In the midst of all that, I began to notice my reaction to the expression “white fragility” that has emerged in the cultural conversation. Whenever I'd hear it, I'd think: “Damn straight I'm fragile. And so are you.”

The scholar Robin DiAngelo coined the term more than a decade ago, but it started gaining traction recently to describe the deep discomfort that many—maybe even most—white people display when forced into a conversation about race and racism. There are anguished and outraged articles and hilarious but pointed videos all recounting times when white people crumbled in the face of a frank discussion of race, diverting attention and sympathy back to them and making it nearly impossible to unpeel and honestly address layers of racial oppression.

DiAngelo defines “white fragility” as “the state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” DiAngelo, who is white, describes something real and pernicious and dangerous. The basic idea is that white Americans are often so unpracticed in considering race and racism—which is, of course, in and of itself a massive privilege granted by whiteness—that they collapse into a moral and emotional crisis when confronted with evidence of persistent and systematic racism.

I know I have indulged in the grasping, guilty, insipid weakness that DiAngelo warns against. Too often I am thin-skinned and conflict-averse and afraid to look too closely at the overlapping oppressions of this culture and how I might benefit from them. There is rot at the center of whiteness. It is a toxic stew of disconnection from culture and privilege derived from white supremacy and an unquestioned belief that polite equals good. Of course, then, any conversation about privilege and oppression points squarely and uncomfortably at that rotten center.

But all that said, I still bristle at using fragility as a corrective, or worse, as an insult. It suggests that we should toughen up and take what the world has to offer. That we should outgrow our petulant fragility. But I want to claim fragility. I want to own it—I want all of us to own it. I want us to face up to our fragility rather than shun it—or worse—hide it from one another. Maybe DiAngelo can use a replacement term: white weakness or insecurity or even preciousness. But I want to save fragility for something more bodily and more existential. In fact, I have a hunch that by turning toward the deep knowing that I am actually fragile—flesh and bone and mortal—I am less likely to be the shallow and fearful person DiAngelo describes.

This hunch springs partly from my own experiences and the vagaries of aging, but it is also informed by the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who incisively demonstrates the central fallacy behind white supremacy, not just as a matter of racial identity but also as a condition of the human body. In his book Between the World and Me—an extended letter to his teenage son—Coates pierces the bubble of what he calls “the dream,” a version of whiteness that is tidy and protected by capitalism and baked-in white supremacy. And he is provocative in his conclusion: “I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

It is hard for me to read Coates's words without becoming either defensive or passive in the face of them. It is tempting to either pull out a litany of my own suffering or to accept his worldview wholesale in a sort of guilt-addled stupor. But taking either path does a disservice to the seriousness of his thinking.

What Coates is calling us to do—particularly white people—is to wake up and confront that which is dark and brutal, and yes, fragile. But here's the news you already know. Ours is a culture—and here I mean white majority culture, such as it is—that walks into the house and throws on every light. We will do almost anything to hide from the dark. We spend lives and money and precious years trying to insulate ourselves from death by trying to pretend that we are exceptional, that we are exempt from the human condition. In our refusal to look directly at human frailty and death, we chase after that which is impossible, leaving a trail of injustice and rapacious consumption in our wake.

And if we can't face up to our own vulnerability and ultimate mortality, we sure can't do it on behalf of the planet, which is as fragile in our hands as it has ever been.

The last hours I spent with Kitty alone, she was in and out of sleep. She had been confined to bed for days at that point, but her loved ones were stopping in to sit with her. By then, she had coalesced into what was essential in her body—bones and skin, breath and tiny sips of water. That day, that last day I was alone with her, she asked me to read to her. I had Whitman's “Song of Myself” on my iPad, so I just started from the beginning:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

She closed her eyes and kept them closed.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge.
Always the procreant urge of the world.

I kept reading. She kept sleeping, her breathing shallow but steady. I read one section after the next until I reached the beginning of section 7:

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe, and am not contain'd between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

“Read it again,” she said.

“What?” I responded.

“Read it again,” Kitty whispered. “He's so brave.”

“So brave,” she repeated and closed her eyes. I read it again, and then kept reading for a few more minutes, a few more sections. She didn't say anything else that afternoon, just breathed and held my hand and listened until I had to slip away to work.

That poem, the one Whitman worked on for his whole life, “contains multitudes,” as he says, a lot of it expansive and brash and sometimes downright self-promotional. Yet it was in his quiet confrontation of death and decay that Kitty found solace, that she felt strength and saw courage.

French geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon argues that fragility is actually what makes the earth a living being. He writes of the strengths and weaknesses of tectonic plates and how they interact to create the dynamism of the earth's surface. And now he is applying those theories to the earth's sentient inhabitants. In a recent interview radio interview Le Pichon said, “I think it's going to be a big discovery in life sciences when they realize the importance of the fragility of human life and the fact that the human life is really so fragile that it needs to create a whole new way of culture, of dealing with the others. The fragility is the essence of men and women, and it is at the heart of humanity.”

In his essay “Ecce Home,” Le Pichon argues that only by confronting fragility and mortality can we imagine life beyond our own limited selves: “As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic and (or) poetic.”

That particular kind of clear-eyed and elegiac thinking calls on us to maintain a sort of dual consciousness, or even, if we are particularly good at it, multiple consciousness. We are called to be attentive to the grocery list and also to the rough crossings of our ancestors. It means working to be present and connected parents while knowing that our parents did the best they could while holding the suffering of their parents and their parents before them. It is knowing that while I live in a relatively safe neighborhood under a relatively intact roof with relatively clean drinking water, that is not true for everyone, not even everyone I know. It is also holding on to the knowledge that there are Iraqi sisters the same age as my girls who have never lived in a world without war. It is knowing that right now someone is plotting a brutal attack to wreak suffering on strangers, ablaze with some imagined eternal glory or earthly notoriety. It is staying awake to the fact that my now perfectly functional organs could turn on me in a second. That kind of multiple consciousness is the only seed for strength, the only seed for empathy.

It is in our inner lives where dual consciousness can arise, where we can start to break down the fear-driven constructs that make us unwilling to look injustice and oppression in the face. In that space, there is hope that we can hold our own sufferings and failings and frailties and not cling so hard to the identities that keep us from seeing clearly our role in the suffering of others. By accepting our own fragility, we have nothing more to grasp at, nothing more to hide from.

Tracy K. Smith, in her poem “Duende,” takes a swipe at that inner state and the clarity that follows:

If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.

Oh! I love the line: “If I lean unbuttoned into the blow.” That embrace of suffering and loss and fragility bears no relationship to the weak-kneed ninnyism that Robin DiAngelo describes, and in fact—in Smith's version—that fragility sets us on the path to meet the world that we most fear and that we most need to confront.

As I grapple with loss and aging and what seems like impending fascism and imminent climate catastrophe, it often comes down to questions of what is fragile and what is strong, what is mighty and what is weak. In my confusion and sadness and sometimes outright despair, I return to that last afternoon with Kitty and to her clear-eyed recognition of the strength and courage that comes from embracing our own weakness and certain death. Only then, when we strip away all that is inessential can we look squarely at what we are facing and, indeed, what we are—flawed and mortal and yes, fragile. Only then can we get a glimpse of what Xavier Le Pichon calls the “heart of humanity,” and only then—hopefully—can we take a breath, stand strong in the face of hegemony, and inch closer to justice.


Death and Dying, Values, Literature


8 comments have been posted.

A dear friend of mine died of cancer in August. What wonderful work you've done, Wendy, braiding the inevitable fragility and I think of the hubris of wall building as if these walls will last forever as the fragile earth has its way. And what language would we pursue? It must be sharing and opens?

Tricia Knoll | January 2017 | Portland, Oregon

What a lovely piece. Thank you for sharing it, and thank you Oregon Humanities for publishing it. We need also to accept--or celebrate?--the intense fragility that sometimes prevents us from leaning unbuttoned into the blow, the fragility in finding ourselves planted firmly between our hats and boots. In my own life, this fragility was most prominent after giving birth to my own new-wash'd babe. To love that part of ourselves, to love that deep fragility, suggests loving those who respond to their own fragility in ways we find repellent. Trying to push people past their shame and horror has not worked... or perhaps it's slowly working on some of us, but others just dig in more deeply. More essays like this would be wonderful. I also think we should reexamine the language of social justice, itself a carapace in which to hide our soft, mushy center.

Tiffany Lee Brown | December 2016 | Sisters, Ore.

Thank you for this, Wendy. I'm learning that aging is not only humbling and hard but a privilege. The fact that I've lived to see my skin sag, creases deepen, joints lose their fluidity means that for another day I have a chance to understand my own humanity and fragility, and then recognize it in others. It takes guts to draw near and "unbutton" yourself to a dying loved one, or to anyone who is suffering -- like throwing open the shutters we believe are protecting our fragility and letting the raging storm in. I'm sure your friend was greatly comforted by and appreciated the gift of your courageous presence and love. We are all stardust -- beautiful, fragile, burning. Peace.

Suzanne Manning | December 2016 | Portland, Oregon

As a Bereavement counselor, your words have eloquently explored the realm of vulnerability that people often try to skip over in life. Thank you for shedding light upon it. As a lifelong friend to Kitty, thank you for sharing such a precious and vulnerable moment between you. I admired Kitty in life. I admired her approach to death. I look forward to a day when all friends and family are reunited on the other side of the veil and all pretense is stripped away. Blessings be upon you.

Rev. Chaplain Mary Kearns | December 2016 | Chico, California

Oh love oh my sweet heart friend. Thank you. Hearing and sharing your fragility. You make beautiful language that heals me.

L | December 2016 | Ashland

Thank you, Wendy---for the complexity and range of your thought, and for the human vulnerability at the core of all that thinking.

Deborah Dombrowski | December 2016 | Portland, Or.

Thank you for this beautifully articulate piece. I am the next door neighbor of the 46 year old woman, now gone. Experiencing my own recent loss, husband of 26 years died, this essay put an insightful twist on loss.

Yvonne Wakefield | December 2016 | The Dalles

Beautiful tribute to Kitty, I grew up with her and her lovely family. Thank you for your impactful writing

valerie correa | December 2016 | vancouver, Wa

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

Sometimes Break Apart

Making Peace with Chaos

Within Makeshift Walls

King Tide

The Longest of Long Shots

Unbuttoned into the Blow

The Golden Hour