“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”
– Elie Wiesel
This is an analysis of the fiction piece The Arboretum. If you haven’t yet read this story you can do so here.
Like most of my angstier stories this one was written during and inspired by my tumultuous first year of University, specifically when I fell in love with a girl and everything went to shit. I remember feeling like nothing had hurt more in my life, and wishing that I could just be numb. That feeling inspired this story’s plot/message, and my University’s arboretum inspired the setting.
The story starts with a boy, talking to his therapist about a girl he’s fallen in love with. I never actually had a therapist to talk to about such problems in real life (nor did I want one), so the conversation they have is based around similar conversations I’ve had with myself. Essentially the issue is this: the protagonist is so wrought with self-pity and self-loathing (sound familiar?) that he is convinced she could never feel the same way, and even if she did he wouldn’t be able to handle the emotional volatility that comes with being in a relationship.
Feeling overwhelmed with emotions and the pain they bring, the boy mentions that he would rather feel nothing at all. The therapist asks him if he’s sure, and while he admits that he isn’t sure, he says that if he didn’t feel anything then he wouldn’t have to be sure. After a moment of silence the therapist asks him if he’s been to the University’s arboretum, and when he says he hasn’t he suggests visiting it.
We then flash forward to him doing just that, and as he takes his first steps into the park his mind wanders back as he contemplates how he came to this point. He recalls his final meeting with his old therapist, and contemplates how much different his new therapist is. He lists off his new therapist’s personality traits: detached, cold, distant, something that will be important later.
He then moves on to thinking about the girl he’s fallen in love with, recalling how he met her and so on. This part is important in establishing his character and provides some helpful backdrop, but there’s nothing that really needs to be unpacked with further detail so we’ll skip ahead.
As he ventures further into the arboretum he forces his mind away from his problems and away from the girl, and before long he gets lost in the experience. He observes and contemplates all the things the arboretum has to offer, snapshots of a life outside of his head. There is a moment when he realises he wants to share this with someone, and naturally his thoughts first turn to the girl, but something stops him from contacting her and he ends up going on alone.
The idea here was that he’d achieved something that few people achieve or even strive for in life: a sense of pure contentment with himself. He’s learnt to enjoy his own company, to think in terms of himself rather than through the eyes of a nonexistent lover. Unfortunately this revelation pushes him to the brink of a very thin line, and he ends up off the deep end. Something about the arboretum has changed him; from these snapshots of life he has gleamed some all-important truth, one which shakes him down to the very core of his being. The opposite of empathy is apathy, and he gets exactly what he thought he wanted: he feels nothing at all.
Six days later he is back in his therapist’s office, and the therapist confirms that he knew what would happen. In the conversation that follows the therapist shifts in his chair:
The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.
This paragraph is meant to confirm what was hinted at earlier in the story: the therapist, just like the boy, went through a troubled youth which stemmed from feeling too much. His emotions are the wound which has become a callus (sounds a lot like callous… see what I did there?), and as a result he is detached, cold and distant, just as the boy is now.
“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”
Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.
Those of you who read The Woods and the Way may have noticed similarities between the boy in that story and the boy in this one (at least, I hope so). That’s because it’s the same character. This story takes place after the boy in TW&TW goes off to University, wedged in right before the final chapter of TW&TW.
So you’ll be happy to know that he ends up getting a happy ending after all.