Man leaps in front of Metro train, survives….What should he do now?


“..Only in God does the difference between ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ completely disappear.”

                                                                                                                                   -Nicolai Berdyaev


Man leaps in front of Metro train, survives..


                  He got up in the morning, I guess like most people. He shook the sleep from his memory. He may have even ritually whispered a few holy words into the fleeing darkness. He put on clothes. He put on coffee. Made  buttered toast and oatmeal. And then thought  about the goal of dying. He was alone in his thoughts, and he was alone to his thoughts; and so there was no one there to give him the “things to live for speech”; this was seen by him as pointless. It was always being delivered (so he thought) by someone who did indeed have a great deal to live for! By “coaches” who were never really in the game you were playing; by those who made their living, and live by convincing you as to why you should live. He read them all, he heard them all. He knew of  all of the reasons for living, and all of the reason for ending his life, and living came up short. This final act must feel like the most singularly powerful expression we can undertake; and yet it is in every way the least singular powerful event in the human experience. Our personal existential cross and the full extent of its burden are hidden from even the people who are close, and love us dearly. Its crushing weight is known and understood in its true fullness only to us.  I once wrote an essay about people who suffered from depression; surprisingly most people saw them as happy, outgoing and jovial. I wrote in summary : “It is a feeling that is lacking in causality, rootless (and persistently ruthless), meaningless, disconnected from a particular event; it is an everyday struggle of waking up in a cloud of sadness; and then spending the rest of the day fighting through that cloud to get through one day, one day at a time.”  Despair would lose its powerful meaning and its power over us, if we did not feel that not only are we facing our suffering alone, but further, our particular version is greater than any others in this world. We would gladly trade our lives for the seemingly happy life of another; while they, in their private thoughts dream of trading their painful life for our perceived happy life.  

          As a youngster growing up in Brooklyn there was a house in our neighborhood for which I was forbidden to even enter the doorway. To a young boy, any restriction or intrusion onto the natural instinct to explore was problematic.  My mother offered no explanation, only the prohibition. My friend who lived in that house was welcomed as were all of my friends to visit my house; where my mother was always willing to feed the group of us friends with tasty food and her specialty, coconut bread. My mother saw “feeding someone” as synonymous with love. But no matter how often my young friend was welcomed to my house; I was absolutely forbidden to go to his house. I reluctantly obeyed. In those days parents were not required to provide a reason or a rational for a decision they made; and of course there was only one line of appeal; I took it. “How; I humbly asked, do I explain to _________ why I can go to other friends’ houses but I can’t go to his house?” “That” she said; “was not my problem”; end of the appeal process. What I did not say to my mother was that I was extremely curios about that house (the prohibition did not help), and what went on there. This curiosity was driven quite honestly by the fact that I envied my friend. It seemed that he was not under the rigidly high expectations and rules of a first generation Caribbean emigrant’s child. For example, I was never “awarded”  anything for high grades and academic achievement; it was expected and meant only that I could avoid  the penalties and sanctions of receiving a low grade. I had very tough rules about weekly church attendance, curfews times that never seem to match those of my friends; and all of that West Indian “hard work’ and “perseverance” stuff I had to endure; “I don’t care if everyone else has ‘it’; or what everyone else is doing, you must learn to do without it, and to not follow the crowd.” Or, “wait until you save enough money to buy it.” (I learned later in developmental psychology class that my mother was teaching a lesson in: “deferred gratification”; an important life skill) My mother alas, was totally immune to the marketing tricks concocted by me, or Madison Avenue. 

           But my friend (of the banned house) seemed to have a “better” life than my own. He had more freedom; more independence; more choices about the things that impacted on his life; and I wanted to see up close, the source of his power. Oh how I so envied him, his house seemed to be “loose” ,fun, a child’s version of a liberated territory. He ate what he wanted, and when he wanted. He could even (unimaginable for me) bring “purchased cooked food” into his house, and actually eat it! 

               It was only many years later when we both were grown men in our 20’s that we ran into each other on the subway (ironically connecting to the inspiration for this story). The young man looked twice our age, he was haggard, dirty and clearly was engaged in a battle with alcohol, a battle he seemed to be losing. We sat on a bench in the Borough Hall IRT station and reminisced  about all of our exciting childhood exploits; like playing “Army” in Prospect Park, in those “wars” we always argued about who shot who first, but in the end, we all went home, and  nobody really permanently died.  I asked him about his brothers and sisters; the scientific part of me was inclined toward some order so I started with the oldest sister ________. He said that, “she was doing the best out of all of us as she was in a residency drug rehab program”. I was stunned, “the best”, I thought, but I struggled hard not to show my thoughts.      He then went person by person through each of his five siblings, and how sad each of them turned out. How all of their lives ended in some type of tragic end, driven by a litany of capture in some social-psycho pathological swamp. (As it did not seem to be any good news that was forthcoming, and so I stop asking questions; but at the same time I felt ashamed to not ask about his mother and father; and he did not offer an update.)  He left his own story for last. He led me through a tragic tale that led from our being together in a “gifted and talented” class to his present state of mess; he had nothing left to lose because everything he cared for in life was already gone. He was in tears as he recounted what he thought was the origin of all of his and the siblings collective defeat; his childhood home. “Michael”, you have no idea what was going on in my house; it was nothing like your house”. He went on to tell a story of physical and sexual abuse, of alcohol addiction, of neglect, pain and denigration. “No one”; speaking of all of us friends; “knew that my house was a living hell!” At that moment I could only recall my mother’s face, and I could hear her words, when she issued that no explanation ban on visiting his house (oh, the endless fount of  youthful “Wis-Dum”). Not only was she exercising her right back then as an adult to be able to issue a non-explanatory directive; she was also following that era’s rule of not discussing “adult matters” with children; while at the same time lovingly protecting them from their own ignorance.

 My friend continued; “Michael, I loved to visit your house just to have peace; to see what a real home felt like”. He ended our talk by asking me for $3 to get something to eat; I gave him $10 but as he limped away (due to some injury that was a result of a chapter of his sad biography); I doubted seriously if he was going to buy food; and at that moment I really didn’t care; I just wanted to sit and think, as I watched several of my (#4) trains enter and leave the station; thinking each train, like a life looked better than the one that just left the station, but in reality they were all the same. Yes, we think that everyone else’s train (ride) is better than our own, that is, until we get on, and sit down.

            Perhaps (to borrow from P.L. Dunbar), we all wear a mask. There is the ‘us’, and then there is the other ‘us’, who is so inferior, at least we think, to the public ‘us’. And, because of this, maybe we value the speculative Art of life trading, over the more difficult, but authentic Arc of life changing.  People, even if they are in some stage (going in or coming out) of sadness or disappointment; may want to seriously think about keeping the life they have, both physically and metaphysically; and think twice about trading for the life they think they want, or no longer want.  It seems we all either have too little of something, or too much of something else; and often the “something” reverses itself over time. What we have too much of, someone else wants more of; and what someone else has too little of (and thus is unhappy); we have an abundance of it; but it is the abundance of “it” that makes our unhappiness equal to theirs. Celebrity seeks and longs for the serenity of the peace found only in obscure non-recognition. The “star” says: “Oh if only I could spend a nice weekend morning in a coffee shop, sans the paparazzi”. The “unrecognized” (in a recognition driven society where the image, not the person is the marketable commodity) lives for the bright blinding lights of fame. We are taught to strive from childhood (the false purpose of schooling?) to “win”. But what is “wining”? It is by definition implies a losing, and many, many more losers.  And since the space for “winners” is so small, as is its lack of permanence; when we “lose” we feel we have lost everything we consider to be ourselves. Thus our own presence becomes a burden to us.  Everyone at the Naval, Army and Air Force academies (who desires to be so) can’t be an Admiral or a General. In the Performing arts; vocal- instrumental, plays, movies, professional dance companies; every good and sincere performer can’t always get a part to play let alone be a “marketable star”. And even if one “reaches” a position of “star” recognition; they quickly realize that the “there” they thought was there is not really there at all. It is not just a matter of being “lonely at the top”; rather it is being empty at the top.  And now you must  expend all of your waking hours, all of your mental energy, all of your ethical and moral values preventing others from taking your place in that big bright house of emptiness.  Is this what happened to the gentleman who is the focus of this article? Did he come to realize that in a world where everything and everyone is on the auction block in a perpetual state of selling themselves , being sold, traded and tossed away when the new version of ‘you’ is invented in someone else; ( who by the way, also is on a timer for discarding).  Did he say: “Wait, this whole thing, everything I have been told is a lie; a clever marketing trick to convince me that I am actually living, and not renting a life?

          And now, it seems, I can’t even get my escape right. “At the very least”, he is thinking; “One should be able to properly end one’s life?” And so the important question after an unsuccessful suicide attempt is: “What do I do now?”   

        One thought I imagine he would ponder; “perhaps, I will try again”. After all, the entire world for which he was saved to and from is the same world. “All I have done is added another “failure” to my biography”

          But there is another stubborn  thought he may gather in a slow haltingly, reflective moment; “I am”…simply because I am aware of my presence……. “I am alive… I am not dead”… and …..“For some reason …I am alive”..and “for some purpose, I am alive”…and…—- “perhaps, I was not supposed to die!”…and……. “My life has more meaning than my death”…”But how?”. As our friend searches deeper he may come to realize that his life is really not his to take; at least, not to take nowhere.  Death for us all is an eventuality; but we don’t operate dying in the same way that we operate our living.  We can separate ourselves from negative people and things in life. But we must live to confront the negativity that holds us and all of humanity captive. It is not fighting to live; rather it is living to fight.  What if, instead of ending our lives, we started our lives? Imagine if we decided to design the game, design the rules of the game. Boldly invent our own definition of “winning” that allowed us to express and exercise our unique talents, not for profit or glory, but in the interest of a creativity that could give birth to beauty in the womb of  service; living, not dying to create meaning in our lives.

           Death can be accidental, incidental or inevitable but, it cannot be casual, and most important it must be redeemable.  I am  speaking here of a noble death;  like someone in the military, or a Martin Luther King who offers their life in the cause of some noble healing objective. I suspect that our gentleman has been given a second chance to create a first chance.  We are in a strange way found, when we find ourselves the most lost in this world. A world saturated with the distorted values of over-acquisition, and the strain of keeping all that we have selfishly acquired. Perhaps the meaning that he seeks is not found at the edge of a subway platform; maybe meaning is best translated and realized by meaning something to someone else. I can’t believe that all of the imaginative and creative design that went into making a human, any human; was random. Our lives are biologically unique; ‘ourstory’ is stored in the volumes of our personal genetic library. And also stored in our transcending spiritual DNA is our unique purpose, reason, gift we (and only we, each of us alone) must bring to the world. This transcendence does not follow the standard rubrics of our mathematical systems. In this system not only can a second chance be converted into a first chance; life plus any number of difficult circumstances always can be resolved in hope, and in service to those who are experiencing more or the same level of suffering we find ourselves in. In fact helping others may be the antidote to this crazy world; which is why the “irrational” decision to serve, is the only logical response to an absurd world. As we help others, through their disappointments and pain; it oddly becomes the key to our own emotional healing. Our spiritual DNA has given each of us an equal opportunity to transcend the flawed aspects of our individual lives; and do, each day, as much good as possible; everyone is necessary, everyone is needed. The ultimate reality is that no life is uncalled for; mere presence pronounces and signifies a purpose. The real death then is not found on the edge of a subway platform. It is however, in every present moment that our unique, individual gifts and talents lay unrealized in a world; so in need, and waiting on our arrival.