When we were young, things seemed so certain. Life has an enchanting soundtrack, the big moments glitter like the movies, the bad guys dress in menacing attire, and the atheists have horns. One day, the switch flips and you’re an adult, the next day you are standing at the altar and all of a sudden believe you are worth celebrating and understand what forever means. Our country is the best, the good guys always win, and you can clearly recognize the good and bad in the world.
Of course, as time passes, we realize that exactly none of these things are true. My knees creak a little more every day when I pull my socks on in the morning, but I am still mystified that I am old enough to have peers who are EMTs and lawyers and touring musicians and professional athletes. The people on TV talk about a quarterback’s last major contract coming due around his thirtieth birthday, a milestone that will come and go with no fanfare, and I notice my muscles in the mirror, holding tight to their definition for so long without any real use. There is no one to caress and appreciate them, no sidewalk brawl where finally my discipline pays off. I am neither a lover nor a fighter. I just do another set with my lonesome weights, cling to a routine that makes me feel good, watch in awe as the storybook of life unfolds nothing like the one I read as a kid. I wish I had read a book that talked about how lonely it is to slip straight through your prime sitting at home on a hundred Friday nights and biking alone on a thousand Saturday mornings. To not even have enough fun at the bars to feel that primal magnetism of Sunday morning salvation.
There are mental illnesses everywhere, and you can’t “see” them like in the movies. They’re in the mirror, across the table from me, on the other end of the phone. The overdevelopment of self awareness is a uniquely human trait; with it comes a myriad of pathologies and an ever-growing list of disorders. I can read the most pointed psychology book and realize in hindsight that I’ve underlined two-thirds of it, not because it explains other people, but because that person is me. The narrator is also the protagonist. And he is not above admitting his flaws, he just needs the right vocabulary to describe them.
On the television, we finally realize that our greatest enemy looks a lot like our neighbors and friends. It is not some villainous other, but a nefarious perversion of us. It is what happens when the misunderstanding deepens and the schism widens and nobody is willing to pause and talk about what they really feel. We shout about disenfranchisement and tribalism, when really it is all about loneliness and disenchantment. We do not need to fly five thousand miles away to find someone to pick a fight with. We don’t even need to take a bus to Washington, D.C. Not when we have mirrors. But you can only get so much catharsis from breaking glass.
And yet, the gulf between fantasy and reality is lightyears wide; no matter how much we crave to know the truth, most people around us stick to the script even as their very souls sink into the quicksand. It is so much easier to say “Great, what about you?” than to admit that expectations weren’t met, that morale is low, that perhaps a change and a slice of humble pie are in order.
Compounding misunderstandings build ivory towers on foundations of sand. Suddenly we are all high in the sky, guns blazing, terrified to blink and even more scared to just come down. Who will be the first to admit they’re not okay? Maybe I did get so good at being alone because I desperately wish I didn’t always feel that way. Maybe my style of caretaking actually is hurtful, because good intentions can’t polish out the flaws of an unhealed self. I don’t believe a politician can remedy my sense of inadequacy, don’t think a weapon can erase my sense of nothingness in the chaos of the cosmos. But I am not surprised that many people do. Why shouldn’t they?
We don’t stop and admit that things didn’t go the way we hoped; we never even put words to our truest hopes. We bounce blindly like the pinball, oscillating dizzyingly between jackpot and strikeout. A flood of emotions overtakes decades of reason. We love, we hate, we follow, we rage. All because we can’t find the right words to talk about a love we wish we knew. We won’t call the events of our past traumatic, because admitting weakness is too scary, because someone else had it worse.
The only way to sustainably enjoy the whimsy of feelings is to repair the foundation of reason. To look inward and find our own clawing culpability in the state of the world. It is not until we heal our own wounds that we stop wounding others to distract ourselves. Or hurting because we let our bodies mistake the adrenal response of fear for the adrenal response of anger. It is why the wounded bison turns on the hunter while the wounded deer flees. Both know their bodies are failing them, both have the same adrenal glands we do. But they react differently; evolution taught one to save the herd, the other to save itself. We flail angrily like a helpless animal when all we need is to nurse our wounds.
We have thumbs and language—we could pull the bullet out and ask for help sewing ourselves up. And yet, so often, we live with the gangrenous wound of a past battle and lash out at random when the fragments shift beneath our skin. We duck our heads and smash our horns at whatever is in our paths, because it is easier to rampage than it is to heal. And sitting with the hurt as the adrenaline fades and the pain settles in is far harder than charging forth in a blinding fury. It is why we see red when someone does something nice for us; accepting kindness reminds us of a past wound, a time when we were ambushed when our guard was down. Why we create an entire personality based on the blinding bravado of refusing to admit our hurts or taking the time to heal them.
The human species is so bad at reconciling its self awareness and its animal nature. We think of devils as having horns and tails, being more like beast than man. We do not recognize that we are both. And until we learn to watch our own subconscious unfold with the curiosity of a detached observer, we can never get a grip. We will buck like the bull in the chute while fancying ourselves the daredevil sitting atop him, will cling hamfistedly to an illusion of control when neither cowgirl nor bull has any. Nothing changes until we read the history books, study the psychology texts, stare into the mirror until something shifts deep within.
Are we so afraid of losing love that we never learn how to really ask for it? So terrified to admit that we once were wrong that we will never know the exhilaration of growing, changing, maybe one day being right? Are we so afraid to revisit a pain we felt and never healed that we will go an entire lifetime accepting subpar outcomes to bury the worse one beneath them?
The greatest sadness I feel in this life comes when I am feeling calm and centered, when my mind is quiet and my ears are attuned to hear. It is then that I can perceive the wounds of the world, can hear the cries for help behind the wicked words or the flashy houses. When I catch my breath, I am finally capacitated to hear the plaintive whispers on the wind, to recognize that my heart breaks once for the loss of love and twice more for the subject of my love.
There are only two times I feel unafraid of dying: when I am so despondent that the prospect of feeling this way for many more years is unbearable, and when I am with someone I love more than life itself. When I am so heartbroken that a mountain lion attack sounds almost merciful, and when I am so full of admiration that I would gladly step between a grizzly bear and my person so that they get to keep being the beautiful self they already are and I can feel the staticky, ringing pain of blunt force trauma with full satisfaction that I did what I could. These are the moments when mind and body aligns and wordlessly accepts our animal nature. Just end the pain. Just protect your pack. The rest of the time, I lean into my hunger for knowledge, for growth, for seeing and doing things tomorrow that I didn’t get to do today. I am aware of time and mortality, and that is the curse of being a person.
And when we are out in the woods, looking for divinity in the trickle of a stream or the song of a hawk, perhaps it finally dawns on us—the horns are not on the head of the human who believes differently, but on the lonesome bison. Life does not work like the movies nor the ancient texts. There is no uniform that identifies all the good nor all the evil in the world. Even the losers of the battle thought their cause was worth dying for.
The bison, with its strong neck and effective horns, was once a symbol of the untamable plenty of the North American continent. And in a world without the unreflective machinations of man, it existed in unfathomable numbers. Now they are but a quaint footnote that is fenced into a few select parks. There is nothing devilish about the gentle giants, but we built a society on the demonization of the other, blinded to the flaws in the self. Pushed entire peoples and species to the brink of extinction for marginal gains, under the self-congratulatory illusion of destiny.