Eve Fairbanks, a writer who lives in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.

 


A train arrives at Tsepina railway station in Bulgaria on April 28. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

Many years ago, living in Boston but in love with a man in New York, I took the train down the Eastern Seaboard twice a month. Five or ten minutes before the ride ended, the train would begin to slow. This was my favorite part of the ride: the whizz of goldenrod yellow, asphalt blue, indiscernibly shadowy backyards, town squares popping up into view and then vanishing fast as the backs of cresting dolphins disappearing down into the deep — all this suddenly started to resolve into detail, to piece itself together into identifiable things. I savored the chance to pick out the shape of a single purple tricycle in someone’s open car-port, the lettering on the street signs, the different wildflowers genuflecting at the edge of the gravel railway track, the face of a child in a window. What had been imperceptible became knowable through the very different rhythm of the journey’s ending.

I’ve been thinking about these train rides lately. We’re often told to move from one thing to the next as quickly as possible, not to “draw out” endings because to do so is inefficient. Jim Collins, the Good to Great guru, tells of the revelations his clients have to “pull the plug” on bad investments: once the plug is pulled, everything changes; the organization is instantly set free. A friend once told me the best way to end a faltering relationship is by “samurai chop.” Anything less is merciless.

But this method can deny us the wisdom that comes from experiencing endings: of watching and riding in the circle of water going down the drain after the plug is pulled. This may sound strange, but I have often found the endings of any kind of human relationships particularly (bitter)sweet, a time when the happy blur of ordinary life falters and slows, and new qualities in a loved one suddenly come to light.

For better or worse, the endings are the phases of things we all most powerfully remember. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, reports on a phenomenon called the “peak-end rule”: What we recall of experiences comes down to their emotional peaks and their endings. Patients undergoing medical procedures report much less total pain if the pain tapers down at the end than if it spikes, even if the former patients’ painful procedure was more than ten times as long. In keeping with his love of logic, Kahneman suggests this cognitive bias is the result of “confusing experience with the memory of it,” and that it can even result in “indefensible” judgments of experiences that went one way, by and large, and then changed at their endings.

But what if thinking this way is simply human? It’s an argument for letting ourselves experience endings in full, even to relish them. Pulling the plug might be most efficient, but for real human minds that operate according to the “peak-end rule,” it adds a harshness to a memory, removing the period of time we’re wired to hold on to.

This isn’t an argument to create endings — just to live with them. To enjoy them when they have to come. No heavy train weighted with dreams stops with a samurai chop. It must slow itself by stages, and in doing so reveal new aspects of itself and the terrain of wonder through which we were riding it.