Ezra Klein: Ta-Nehisi Coates is not here to comfort you

“It’s important to remember the inconsequence of one’s talent and hard work and the incredible and unmatched sway of luck and fate,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power.

Coates’s view of his career flows from his view of human events: contingent, unguided, and devoid of higher morality or cosmic justice. He is not here to comfort you. He is not here to comfort himself. “Nothing in the record of human history argues for a divine morality, and a great deal argues against it,” he writes. “What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world.”

It’s this worldview that makes conversations with Coates so bracing. His philosophy leaves room for chaos, for disorder, for things to go terribly wrong and stay that way. In this discussion, I asked him what would make him hopeful, what it would mean for America to live up to its ideals.  Closing the 20-to-1 white-black wealth gap, he replied. But what would that take, he asked? “Maybe something so large that you find yourself in a country that’s not even America anymore.”

Maybe, he mused, it’s something that he couldn’t even support. “It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.”

This is a discussion about race, about luck, about history, about politics, but above all, about how the stories we tell ourselves are often designed to carry comfort rather than truth.

“For me, my part in this struggle, my part to make a better world, is not simply to have people pick up my work and say, ‘Well, all the facts seem correct. I think this is right,’ and, then move on with their lives,” says Coates. “My job is to bring across the emotion, to make them feel a certain way, to haunt them, to make it hard to sleep.”

The Secret to My Success? Antidepressants

Many of my favorite authors had suffered from anxiety or depression — Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Plath, Woolf and Emily Dickinson, with whom I felt a special migraine-sufferer kinship. I sought out biographies of these tortured artists and underlined the details of their suffering until the pages were covered in multicolored highlighter. Surely, I told myself, their anguish was linked to their greatness. Instead of fleeing anxiety and depression (although many did douse their emotional instability with alcohol), they dived in and used their misery as inspiration for their creative work. I was convinced that killing the mad part of me with medication would also kill that which made me unique. I memorized a line by Proust: “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

.. In fact, I am more myself than ever, able to tap veins of creativity and insight I never knew existed, once buried under the clamor of anxiety. My writing, too, was born again. Glimmers of redemption sprang in my dark, and often tragic, stories. I can now see the infinite spectrum of emotion in all its nuanced hues, not just the black and white of despair and joy.

E. B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1

Andy White is small and wiry, with an unexpectedly large nose, speckled eyes, and an air of being just about to turn away, not on an errand of any importance but as a means of remaining free to cut and run without the nuisance of prolonged good-byes. Crossing the threshold of his eighth decade, his person is uncannily boyish-seeming.

In their last days together, a mother and son clung to what bonded them together

My mom had an approach to parenting, a philosophy. She saw raising kids as a happy endeavor, more adventure than science, and she aimed to show me and my two siblings that the world was an amiable place — that you could wander around in it and see interesting things, and then come home and sleep in your own bed, unscathed.

.. In 1994, when I became a parent myself, she offered me an observation instead of advice: “You expect your children to become clones of yourself,” she wrote in a letter, summing up her own parental journey, “but they don’t, and for that you are secretly glad.”

.. So eventually, in my mom’s final year, I began camping, clandestinely, on the grounds of her retirement home. There was a patch of forest, a grove of pines and maples and oaks, down a wheelchair-friendly path away from the parking lot

.. My mom was a lifelong hiker and cross-country skier. Her advice to anyone suffering angst was simple: “Just go outside and get some fresh air!”

.. My mom, and my mom alone, had read every word that I’d ever published. She had borne witness to my tricks for over 50 years, and she had amassed an infinitude of details on who I was and how I might behave in every scenario.