What Is Frailty?

When I first heard of Dmitri Teplov’s death, I looked him up on Facebook. I wanted to see a face, to make sense of who he was and to quiet the chaos that filled my mind. I could not find a single picture of him, but found a video instead. It was a music video that he had posted on Sunday morning at 4:47am by Proem, an electronic music artist, called “When Frailty Fails”. Without hesitating, I quickly inserted my earphones into my ears, effectively drowning out the shocked silence of the library, and clicked “play”.

The music was soft and slow, with an eerie feel of peace. The lulling melody was almost hypnotizing, and the animated video showed a little girl hugging goodbye to her father, who leaves on a small boat. The girl then gradually grows older, returning to that spot of departure time and time again. I was struck by the scenes of her as a young woman riding her bike against a relentless wind, pushing and pushing to get to the place where she lost her father, only to stare longingly out into the water, truly alone. She was always alone – the only other people in the darkened scenes are riding their bikes as well, but there was no interaction. By the end of the video, she is a sad, old woman, dragging her feet with every step. She collapses onto the ground and lays down in a hole. When she comes to,  she sees something in the distance and begins to walk and then run, all the while transforming back into a young girl, until she is again in the arms of her father.

The End.

I could not finish my anthropology papers after that, and even as I walked past the sudden, strong scent of spring flowers on the way to the Little Arch, I could not get the melody out of my head. I shivered as my heartbeat reached a crescendo in my ears. I wanted to hug someone, or cry.

Later, after I learned that Dmitri’s death had most likely been a suicide, I watched the video again and tried to find information on it on the Internet. I was surprised to learn that the song had lyrics, and I had to listen closely in order to distinguish the distorted singing voice and hear:

When frailty pales in comparison
And your bones feel like breaking
When your empty head caves in
You can tear off my arms and take me
I will not complain or fight with you
To save you from your life
When frailty fails to save you
When frailty fails to save you
From me

My heart was breaking as I read and heard these lyrics, and I imagined Dmitri feeling as if he was too frail to fight against himself and that he was too exhausted to go on.

Then I started to wonder what “frailty” is. When I left home during my senior year of high school to study abroad in Japan, I thought doing so would let me become more independent and strong. I had depended too much on my parents and brothers growing up, I decided, crying when I was hurt or sick and asking for help when I needed it. For me, being strong meant that I needed to solve my own problems.

But it also meant that I began to pretend that I was fine when I was struggling. During the Christmas season, I became so homesick that a stress-related rash appeared and spread on the backs on my hands. I did not cry once after arriving in Tokyo in August, and I refused to even consider telling my parents back home that I missed them. I wrote lies in my journal every day, claiming that I was happy, grateful. Strong.

But was I not exhibiting true “frailty” by running away from my problem? Anyone can pretend that they are doing fine, that they are in no need of help. It is easy to ignore strong feelings of sadness and face the world with a false smile that always seems to be faltering. It takes true courage to say in that instance, “I need help,” or “Please help me,” because in doing so, you admit that you are in a bad place. I was terrified of asking for help because deep down I believed that if I did so, I would instantly lose control of everything – my life, my happiness. I would be deemed a failure, someone too frail to succeed.

Yet what is really courageous, I realized, is to admit weakness. For me to let go of my facade and break down in tears. For Dmitri to have finally, in the last moments of his life, admitted,  “I feel as if I cannot go on.” In a society that has defined courage as emotionless stability, true bravery lies in admitting that we are all human.

I am constantly amazed at the courage I see in others who have opened up to me about feeling indescribably intense emotions. And I hope for a future in which we do not have to define strength as the ability to battle on alone.

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