From the conclusion of Abigail Pogrebin’s interview with acclaimed filmmaker Mike Nichols:
“I find myself looking at this famous director, who dines regularly with Spielberg and ‘Harrison’ [Ford], who has a staff at home, and a pool outside, and an equally accomplished wife upstairs on a conference call, and I find myself asking the old chestnut: Does he ever think about how far he’s come from that seven-year-old on a boat from Berlin? Nichols pauses. “I do think about that. What I think mainly is that I’m ridiculously lucky. I mean, indescribably lucky. Frighteningly lucky. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh please, don’t let some spiritual bill be piling up somewhere.’ And I’m relieved to remember that the first part of my life (as a German Jew escaping the Nazi regime) was not wonderful by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe, maybe, maybe I’ve paid my dues in that tough, painful first part, which was, after all, very long. We’ll see. If not, then I’ll be sorry. Of course the gag is that the luck was there to begin with. As I’m always telling my children and they’re now always telling it back to me: ‘You can never tell the good thing from the bad thing. Sometimes not for years, and sometimes never, because they become each other.’
From Abigail Pogrebin’s Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.
This quote comes at the end of Pogrebin’s profile of Nichols, the comedian and director of The Graduate, Angels in America, and several other cinematic masterpieces. I read this for the first time in eighth grade, and it was my introduction to an idea that I still consider perhaps the deepest bit of philosophy I’ve yet read; namely, the notion that life is inherently tragic because we have to go about experiencing it in one direction while understanding it in the other.
Two great thinkers recognized and wrote about this idea before Nichols could have known. They are, first, Clive Staples Lewis, who, in reflecting on the tragic and abrupt passage of his wife, said, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” In other words, if it weren’t for the sublime moments in the presence of his former wife, the time in her absence wouldn’t be so painful.
We all understand this intuitively. The horrendous moment sometimes becomes the happy joke with the help of time, and the golden, shining instance often turns into a point of particular melancholy, and longing, and loneliness once it becomes a mere memory. You cannot tell the good from the bad: they become each other. Lewis spent several books — Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, The Problem of Pain — trying manfully to work this out.
Yet the original and best distillation of this idea was made by Søren Kierkegaard in his journals. He recognized the tragic and unavoidable truth that life can only be understood retrospectively. So you don’t know the mistake until you’ve made it, and you cannot truly know the beautiful moment until it has already passed you by. Kierkegaard wrote:
“It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards.”
Now reflect back on Nichols’s words.