An Old Man’s Winter Night
by Robert Frost
All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him–at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;–and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon–such as she was,
So late-arising–to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man–one man–can’t keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
My friend, a physician, my physician, sent me Robert Frost’s poem. He knows Frost well, from the inside out. To him, this poem, among other things, is an example of Yankee individualism at its worst. And we, growing up in it, have been trained to think of it as a great proud quality. Rugged individualism, independence, self-reliance. These are the prime American traits.
When I was trying to rebuild a dilapidated house in the New Hampshire hills and didn’t know how to go about it very well, my neighbor, an old timer named Bill, told me, “If you are looking for a helping hand, you will find it at the end of your own arm.” Strong medicine? Tough love?
Recently I read a story about an anthropologist working in the Amazon with a remote tribe. They conceived a son and this white man brought his wife to New Jersey. She did not stay long because “she missed the close human relations” of her tribal society.
For me, going to Bangladesh to work for two years in 2002 was traveling into the unknown. I expected a hard experience; I expected to have to steel myself to the human suffering. And there is that of course, but I also saw more people smiling, more people singing on the street as they walked, more people with sparkling eyes than I ever saw in a lifetime in America. How can that be?
When my Bangladeshi friends and I would go out in the countryside to paint and we needed directions I noticed that when they would engage a stranger for help it seemed like they had known each other all their lives. They call each other “brother”.
The same is true here in Indonesia. We go places and our driver is free to kill time, hang out as he pleases until we are finished with our business of one kind or another. Inevitably, when we return, we interrupt him from a very friendly association with a new friend who seems like an old friend. How different that is for an American.
They are connected in some mysterious way, mysterious at least to us, at least to me. They are not asking each other where they went to college or what they do for a living or even where they live. They don’t consider it polite to “interview” each other like that because, no doubt, they know it creates an immediate separation, a barrier. They accept each other unconditionally, comfortably. That doesn’t mean they will lend each other money or go into business together but that on a purely friendly social level everything is fine. They can exchange some human warmth, warmth that people need to stay happily within the human community.
Our new American mass murderer, Elliot Rodger, is destined to become a super star in the ranks of the disaffected, alienated, lonely, and very angry young men who act out in deadly ways. All these people, beginning in current times with the Columbine Killers of 1999, were outsiders, people who felt marginalized one way or another, bullied, disconnected, lonely. And nobody seemed to care.
This is not a gun issue to my way of thinking although the ease people can acquire guns makes their acts a lot easier to carry out. It is a social issue, a societal issue, an issue of “rugged individualism” and of social Darwinism. American is a competitive place and the ones who are not as pretty or as talented or as smart as those belonging to the “in crowd” suffer greatly. And if they suffer intensely enough and maybe get the support of a kindred spirit, they are willing to kill to take revenge on a world that has rejected them, a world they have come to hate.
One of the reasons Elliot Roger will be so important to future killers is that he wrote his story right from the beginning, one hundred and forty one pages of deadly honest prose chronicling his increasing anger. He also made a video and he also is a very interesting looking person despite his failure to ever have a girlfriend. The most remarkable aspect of his communication with the world is his honesty about his feelings, his sexual frustration, his family, his world. He talks about “rotting in loneliness” and about “hating humanity”.
Sure he was crazy. They all were, but so what? Is just saying that enough? America is producing these people steadily and at an increasing rate. I think we all sense that fact without having to investigate the statistics.
I spent many years teaching in private secondary schools, teaching teenagers from rich families. After one killing spree, maybe it was Columbine, we teachers were asked to make sure every student had a connection with at least one adult, one teacher. I think that was said once and forgotten.
Over the years of teaching this type of student, I began to realize a number of things that were different from when I myself was a rich kid in a boarding school. Now education, in the sense of trying to master different subjects to one degree or another, was not the focus. It seemed to me that our schools were now just advanced babysitting for the rich, that the rich parents wanted to know their kids were in a safe place while they pursued their careers and worked toward trying to put another Mercedes in the garage. If that is not entirely fair it is true enough.
As a teacher, I found my role to be increasingly that of a surrogate parent. And I began to regard my students as needy people and maybe more needy than the so-called “underprivileged” from the economically poor places of our society, urban and rural. My kids had money to burn but often they did not have the attention of their parents. They did not feel known or “seen” by them in a deep personal way.
Elliot Rodger was one of these. His parents meant well, had plenty of money. He drove a black BMW. He saw shrinks from age eight. He told his mother of his sexual frustrations. When you read what he wrote it seems hard to imagine that nobody took his anguish seriously, that nobody worked with him to give it a healthy resolution. It is not that his parents didn’t care or that they weren’t aware of his struggles but that they did not sacrifice much of their precious time to engage him. Parents so often want to buy their way out of the problem with another private school, another shrink, a better car, an exotic trip.
This problem arises from deep in the core of modern American experience. That won’t change, or as my friend, the poet David Kherdian expressed it to me in a letter recently, “You are right about loneliness and alienation (and isolation), but it is systemic; it would necessitate jettisoning the entire culture to find a cure, but I suppose that IS the cure.”
From Indonesia: Ricker Winsor