I recently read a short (and I do mean short) story in The New Yorker called The Trench by Erri de Luca and translated by Ann Goldstein. Without much plot, or even deep character background, we meet an Italian man in France (called “Italy” by the others with no other name given for us) who is digging a trench in order to find a sewer pipe for the neighborhood. At first many people are digging, but soon it is up to two diggers, and finally, it’s just Italy. It’s a dangerous, uncomfortable job and the dirt wall could come crashing in at any minute as Italy goes deeper and deeper. This prompts him to wonder:
Why in the world should a human being have to earn bread for his children with a noose around his neck?
That line and Italy’s time in the trench got me reflecting on a few things. On one hand, this is a great metaphor for worry and anxiety. Living and working with this sense of doom is incredible and difficult. In this story, though, it’s how Italy makes his living and he’s not apparently nervous about it. Yes, the boss isn’t taking any safety precautions, there’s no organized union to be his voice. He’s digging his own grave and being paid to do it. And he does it.
It makes me think about denial as well. In order to get through our day-to-days most of us engage in some denial. If we contemplated the possible dangers in what we regularly encounter: the food we eat, the street we cross, the whim of someone who wants to rob us or hurt us–if we focus all the time on this we’d be overwhelmed, we couldn’t function.
Italy keeps digging. He returns to the trench each morning.
Is he a martyr? Is he a person who doesn’t know his own strength and isn’t “leaning in” or doing something more fulfilling with his life? We have no way to know.
But his attitude is something to look at. Not look up to or look down on, but something to observe.
Endurance as Connection
There are times when enduring is one of few options. I get angry on Italy’s behalf, but I’m not sure what that would do for him. In his words, when contemplating the other workers around him who have different, less dangerous, jobs and his judgments towards them, he thinks:
But the only way they could have done something for me was either by risking their own precarious jobs or by taking my place: one cannot ask a man to leave the rank and file and raise his voice or his cross. Still, a man who appreciates in another a gesture that he has had to repress can later become his friend.
Italy would give anyone a pass who doesn’t organize for him or fight the boss for a different work environment. I’m not sure I’d be that generous. What he is looking for is someone who has also suffered and who has also endured. This is his way of connecting with someone else.
Groups do this. Any group that forms around a particular common issue such as cancer survivors, alcohol use, or trauma can be powerful because you learn that you’re not alone. But bringing together people that “appreciate[s] in another a gesture that he has had to repress” might be different.
I’d like to be a part of a group like that. But I probably already am. We all are, I would guess. I think each of us can see something that someone else has done, maybe that we avoided, and out of shame we avoid that person. Italy is saying not to. He’s saying, he didn’t want to do it either, and maybe we can join together having that at our core, even if it’s unspoken.
Maybe the prisoner-of-war, maybe the parent of a special needs child, maybe anyone who suffered in a different way than you or I suffered. All the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God folk. If we recognize the pain that we could have had, that is enough, according to Italy.
Empathy is Boundless
You realize what this means? I take from de Luca’s story that we can all connect. We can all find a common connection if we are willing to look deeply at what we’ve endured and what we’ve had the capacity to endure. If an actor can play Hamlet and Dr. Frankenstein without ever creating a Monster or being a prince, then we all have the capacity to understand and empathize with each other.
With everything that divides us, such as race, class, politics, etc., we still can build with each other if we’re all willing to sit with each other and hear each other.
In the past I’ve written posts about avoiding challenging conversations with family, focusing on the love, but I’m shifting a bit in that. It’s time to want something deeper in our relationships.
Make sure, of course, it’s safe to do so. No need to rush into vulnerable sharing with someone who’s been abusive or heartless to you, especially if you haven’t done the necessary healing for yourself. Being vulnerable should be making yourself stronger. It’s not about making yourself an easy target to someone who’s mind and soul is closed against you.
Is that something you want to do?
If you’d like to find a better connection to yourself as you look toward better connections with others, please give me a call or email me for a free phone consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.