It's All in Your Hands
I’m not one who struggles to just keep going, as so many people do, but I come closest when I think of this: that there are gentle people to whom the world is not gentle. It hits me like a does of Haldol, every time - a slap to the face that clarifies and makes you feel worse. I’ll be in the supermarket minding my own business, wondering who exactly names the varieties of apple, when suddenly it occurs to me that many exist who walk around the world undefended, reaching out unthinkingly to others without cool or irony or aggression, those without savvy or a plan, and they’re treated with cold and harsh behavior that they receive with hurt and, worse, surprise. That’s the part I can’t bear - thinking of someone expecting the world to be soft the way that they’re soft, and finding that it isn’t. It makes me want to sprinkle magic powder into the water and walk foot by foot on a gelatinous sea, gingerly moving across its undulating face in search of a place where no open heart is ever met with the sandpaper touch of human unkindness. It’s also the case that I’m never more moved to commit violence than when I think of the way vulnerable people suffer for the callousness of others, which I think is what they call a paradox, or perhaps merely the wages of sadness.
I, of course, am not vulnerable, though I would like to be gentle. I could never be harmed, the way others are harmed. I cannot be wounded. I am impregnable. I have developed the instincts of one who expects nothing of others not through a low opinion of them but through a low opinion of himself. I think of the world’s feeble insults and I feel worse about not suffering from them than I would feel if I did. The book of life is not a set of wan aphorisms and petty wisdoms but a detailed set of IKEA directions for building armor. The condition of life makes you hard, the conditions of the disordered mind make you harder still, and the medications you use to treat them both makes you hardest of all. (Chemistry is stronger than character.) The trick is that “hardness” has no value in a planet strewn with bark and rocks. Once or twice in my life people with quiet voices have asked me, is there not some insult in seeing people as vulnerable this way, condescension? Maybe. I don’t know. Real gentleness just seems so incredibly precious, to me, and my own inability to feel is the opposite of precious. The way the cultural romanticizes my kind of emotionlessness is a joke; to live without emotion is to be weak, just weak, and not the kind of weakness that deserves defending. People tell me, wistfully, ah, all those milligrams to render yourself inhuman, sounds lovely…. It’s not. It’s to be a lump of useless callous on the beautiful skin of humanity.
My hatred of a certain kind of man has grown florid, unreasonable. I think of them stuttering around the city, chin permanently raised in the air, eyeballing you in the bar or the gym. I see their shuffling, self-amused gaits, the way they keep their forearms unnaturally raised across their bodies, and the whole game seems so obvious to me: if there was such a thing as the masculinity they aspire to, it would stand against nothing so intensely as the performance that dominates their lives. The “pre-modern man” they worship would find them bizarre, ridiculous, and in fact effeminate. I would like to answer their implicit question “are you game?” with the answer, yes, yes I am. But only in response and never for myself, for the other people who have to deal with them and their sad, virginal drama of intimidation. If nothing else is universal, across race, class, religion, time, they are: men who think that to be a man is to want to do harm, to wait only for that opportunity. I wish I could break them across my knee. I want to take a heavy stone to their ugly thoughtless skulls. Because they wish to do violence.
It’s a curious thing, you know, to live right on the knife’s edge of being terribly dangerous to others and utterly fragile yourself. That night I ran barefoot on torn Brooklyn asphalt. The August weather was cool but my heart was beating out of my chest and my whole body felt the heat that pushed out of my pores. By dawn I was back at the park, which I had orbited around like a wobbly comet, wandering further and further in concentric rings as if the park was home plate, a fire a pack of bored teens gather around on a chilly beach. I was hunted and felt the sick pleasure of moving with the purpose of staying alive. Months had built to this moment. In the preceding weeks I had stalked and threatened and defamed innocent people. That’s all bad, if it isn’t clear, and whatever you’re assuming, it was worse. I was worse. All was done in service of self-preservation, and if those urges towards self-preservation were done in the light of delusion, a malfunctioning threat-detection system, that’s only another way to say that I was acting for selfish motives. I am ugly, in that state. I do harm, and I do it for my own good. And if you can scratch out some spare sympathy for that person who moved stumbling past joggers and fishermen that morning, do so for what else he might have been, which is a prayer for all of us and not for me.
The sun was barely up and I was alone in the most popular park in the most populated borough in the city. At the boathouse a heron stood on the tile next to the dock. He stalked around, alien, prehistoric, and though I couldn’t really, from the distance of the bridge, I told myself I could hear the clatter of ancient claws on weathered tile. The sight of him terrified me. I had seen him or birds like him some five or ten yards away from the spot where he moved so stiffly, craning his head to consider the world, but never on the tile. Never on the tile. It was wrong; water birds did not walk on tile on wobbly thin legs but stood at the banks and scan for fish or frog dumb enough to wander into the arc of their violence. That heron struck me like a conspiracy theorist finally finding the smoking gun, in awe and terror. When you’re suffering from paranoia at this scale, this was both the best and worst of all things - it was confirmation. Something really was broken. Someone really was after me. The logic of the universe really had gone askew and I had to run or die. Only I didn’t run, after a night of running. I fought to tear my eyes away from the bird, and when I did I found a bench to collapse onto. And I apprehended myself. I knew myself. And what I knew was awful. Though I could not have put it into words then, I think I knew in that moment that some of us have to simply throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. We cannot be good enough. And I, perhaps opportunistically, have developed this critique of the idea that the good requires the concept of enough.
What had that bird to do with standing on human tile, waiting for a boat he didn’t need and would never board?
Sometimes, the raw appeal to the patience and compassion of others gets you where I am now: fat, rapidly aging, a joke to many, but financially secure, slowly chipping away, loved and in love, four walls and a roof. And sometimes that leaves you dead on the floor of the F train, limbs splayed out in filthy jeans, your body supine, slightly rocking, moving only as the train moves, shaking just as the train shakes. And around you pass the busy people, not unkind, just mute and useless, those who would do nothing to harm you but who can’t imagine a world in which they might save people like you. I would think that the image of your corpse would be arresting, but the people on the subway had somewhere to get to, and so did the subway, and the city did too. This is the city that never stops. Not for something as prosaic as a body. Ah but, ah but, ah but, the tedious literalists say, he was nothing like gentle, note this body’s record, it’s written down in the Great Log, he was dangerous, he was unfit, it is known! I guess he had it coming. The question really is who “he” is, how many people it covers, how many bodies that walk around now might someday be brought to the floor with the careful application of forearm to neck. “He was sick” is not meant as evidence that he was blameless. It’s God’s gentle reminder that He deals marked cards. And if you can’t see some error in that emaciated body twitching on a filthy subway floor, maybe you can ask the universe to unload its dice. And anyway, what if he wasn’t sick? So what? What then?
Call it what you like and set the killer free, I can’t stop you. When I see the body I see only, like the man wrote, an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing. If he wasn’t before his death, that’s what he became. In death we are all joined in becoming harmless.
Mother, be with me now, the world belongs to the stupid and cruel, I have grown ugly with time, my words are weak, every building I pass looks like a crumbling and underfunded hospital, I write and write and no one cares. Let me remember the plant growing from a coconut shell in the surf, the white city at the end of an immaculate beam.