Out on the street, I know how to hide. I move quick, flickering from pub to traffic signal under the yellow glow of streetlights and the muffled sounds of bass pulsating out of salt-caked Honda Civics and Ford Explorers. A blast of icy winter air whipping my face. Stress and anxiety is soldered into this place. Trekking into Boston comes with its own set of suffering. Anyone who’s been here for over thirty minutes will tell you that these streets are not made for driving. They’re labyrinthine, the drivers are erratic and the pedestrians have absolutely no fear of oncoming vehicles. I spend a lot of time underground. I’ve been navigating Boston’s subway system since I was a boy. Back then, this place really felt like somewhere. You could make it here. The city felt full of promise. The ancient buildings, brownstones and historical sites juxtaposed with modern skyscrapers that bled out into the bay—and it all glowed at night, signaling its existence out into space. It’s as if the place had been conjured into existence by some sort of magic spell. That supernaturalism still resonates within me when I see the city at night. It’s all smoke and mirrors, but I play along.
I’m tethered to the big cities. This is where we house culture. This is where you find the good stuff—the music, the food, the art, all that intellectual trash. I’m sentenced to forever find myself negotiating the bowels of the metropolis, a punishment from the gods. It’s not so bad. I come here to get my head together, stopping in the museums to space out for a while. Staring at a five hundred year old painting can feel like staring into a time machine. My worries and concerns become tiny flickers of light, insignificant blips. Everyone and everything melts into the background. I sat in the church on the Harvard campus to see a French Baroque ensemble play Charpentier. These people are dedicated. Men and women my age who have sacrificed huge chunks of their lives to this, playing to the wealthy geriatric crowd. I occasionally make eye contact with the players, exchanging knowing glances. It’s like we’re in on a secret. Most of the audience is not. The most beautiful stuff you’ve ever heard fills the halls of this ancient church and my blood is filled with a warm sense of comfort. This makes me happy. I get wary of that.
You can’t win at happiness. It wobbles atop of a shaky Jenga game. A great fall comes from a simple slip. If my phone stops working, if my car breaks down, if my bank account is hacked into, if my identity is stolen, if I get into an accident, if a loved one dies, if I get sick, if I get injured, if I get fired—or a million other things, my happiness is compromised. Happiness is fragile and fleeting. Trying to stay happy in life is like trying to catch fog with a butterfly net. We all dream about finally being happy. Some day it’ll all work out, but it won’t because it can’t. In turn, we avoid suffering and seek pleasure.
We make ourselves profoundly unhappy in the pursuit of happiness. I recently went through a few implausibly stressful months. I found myself in a series of situations that I entered with the best of intentions that turned out to be small descents into the underworld. One right after another. I went from being in great shape to being in good enough shape. My motivation dropped, my cortisol levels shot up and I felt it. I saw it. All this stemming from attempts at making more money. I thought it would make me happy.
As I was walking to the Harvard campus that night, I wondered what I was planning on taking away from this experience. Why bother with this? Is this really that important? Good questions. It’s a bit of an investment to penetrate the fortress of Boston and Cambridge just to sit in a concert hall by yourself with flocks of scowl-faced silver heads. It’s not like I was trying to impress a date. The tickets aren’t cheap and the people aren’t pleasant. Something in that music is pointing the way to the truth for me. I had to be there and participate in it. But there is another side to this coin. Every pot of gold is guarded by a dragon of some sort. It’s often the dragon itself that’s more interesting.
I’m working on finding the meaning in the ugly, the disgusting, the evil, the wretched. That’s the bulk of existence. In a counter-intuitive way, making peace with this stuff will set you on the path to the truth. It’s not easy. I’m sensitive to disgust. Discovering the beauty in the old blood inside the used syringe needle, the vomit in the gutter, the ancient black gobs of gum imbedded on the sidewalk, the piss smell in the alley, the miles of traffic stopped in front of you, the drunk passed out in the store front, the gunshots and the screams, the police sirens, the shouted argument off in the distance—that takes work. My sense of beauty, like my sense of happiness, has been teetering atop that Jenga tower, ready to topple over at the slightest tug of a block. I retreat from the world because I’m tired and weak. I need a break. That’s not going to get me anywhere but stuck. You have to participate if you want to grow. You have to take it all in and learn to find meaning in it. Suffering and change are the only constants. You will never get away from them. Make peace and learn to love them.
I’ve found all kinds of ways to hide from the ugliness out there. I keep my head down and my headphones in. I make good friends with my tunes—Alice Cooper, Patti Smith, Black Moth Super Rainbow, The B52s. I slightly shove guys out of my way in the crowded subway. Manners get lost down there on the T, on the Orange Line. Old place never changes. The subway cars have the same fake wood paneling interior that was popular in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s been like that in there since I can remember. I don’t want it to change at this point. I’ve found the beauty in that, at least. Place smells like armpits. The doors open, we all rush out. I remember standing on that platform as a kid, watching the rats run around down below. Don’t fall down there, especially on the third rail. You’ll get shocked to death. Like that guy on the news. Like that lady on the news. Here and there I’ll make eye contact with a beautiful woman and imagine an entire lifetime with her—a house somewhere, a couple vehicles in the driveway, coming home every night to a new argument, pictures on the wall, an affair, laughter and dogs barking, a disaster, a funeral. I look out at all these people out here on the street. Man, I don’t want any of your voodoo.
Oh, drop the act. Who do you think you’re fooling? You try to be tough because you feel that’s what the environment requires. It hurts to be wrong about something like that. It means you’ve wasted most of your life closing yourself off to experience. You didn’t want to be vulnerable. You didn’t want those soft spots exposed, so you hid them. You covered them with an armor so thick that nothing could pierce it. You slathered yourself in repellent so offensive that no one dared come close. You don’t trust people. You hid out from the world. You refused to see the wonder, the astonishment of existence that surrounds you. The miracle of consciousness—you squandered all that. In the name of self-preservation, you crippled yourself. Look at you now. That’s what happens when you try to hide. You hide because you’re scared.
In a sense, there’s nothing much to be frightened of. Everything that has happened, is happening and will happen—all must be. The entirety of existence—a Rube-Goldberg machine. There’s no use in wishing it different and every change we impose on it is only the result of a chain reaction traceable to the beginning of the universe. I guess you have to wonder what the use is. It’s a game, I guess. You play it the best you can. You play it because there’s nothing else do to. Everything that is, must be. All the horror and wonder that comes with existence. It’s all terrible and wonderful. One can’t exist without the other. That’s how you find the beauty in the wretched and the wretchedness of beauty.
I get back in my car and go driving home. It’s Christmas out there in the woods. I got stuck in traffic for nearly an hour. The accident up ahead was bad, deadly. The glacial stream of automobiles oozed out to the off ramps and I was a participant in this because I had to be. I turned to adjust my poor sore ass as I took a look at an old colonial-era house with a sign on the front, naming its builder and first inhabitant. The year underneath marked 1767. It had stood through much more than this. Existing in the background as the rest of the world ebbed and flowed, like the constant drone of a harmonium in a raga. The place needed some repair, but it stood there beautiful in a wabi-sabi kind of way. I felt glad to be stuck there.
Time speeds up. The leaves are off the trees and the first snowfall has fallen. Another accident spins out on the highway. I tell myself that the meaning I get from all of that highbrow crap is by far worth the trouble, but it’s the trouble itself that gives it value. It’s the meaning I’ve been looking for. The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of trouble and getting to know your trouble is the true pursuit of happiness. Whatever it is, it won’t last long. There will always be a plentiful supply of dark, cold nights just up ahead. Get used to that. Pack your trusty sense of beauty. Don’t forget your sense of humor. Stop hiding and get out there.