He was a peaceful baby with a face like Buddha who grew into a sensitive toddler: enormous eyes that took in everything and missed nothing. When he fell he cried, but he always recovered after the usual spell of tears.
What a precious child, we thought. Life will be hard on him.
He endured endless teasing from the bullies (which is to say, the fearful children, the simpletons). We frowned at the bullies’ parents, who were, of course, bullies themselves, and scooping him up, covered him in kisses. And again, he recovered, because he was resilient, because he saw beauty everywhere and knew that he was blessed.
We told our children to be kind to him, and for the most part they were (though jealousy occasionally made them cruel). We did our best to raise them right. We taught them generosity and tolerance, but also to grab their fair share, because it’s a ruthless, cut-throat world out there with no safety net, and you’ve got to fight to get what you need. You may even have to step on a few heads along the way, which isn’t a pretty thing to say or do, but one must survive. Be decent, though. Respect the law, be courteous, and have pity on those who are less fortunate. It’s our duty to make the world a better place.
At thirteen he blossomed into an otherworldly creature, his soul expanding beyond our expectations.
“The trees are breathing!” he exclaimed. “The rocks and sky are alive!”
He covered his body in flowers and gave away his shoes. Insects and animals trailed his every move. Gazing into our eyes, he saw the beauty buried deep within like a seed, and we were in ecstasy as he kissed our very souls. Hope sprang up again, along with so much talk of peace, love, and universal healthcare. After the kids were in bed, we snuck out to the patio to smoke some grass, and felt twenty years younger.
We knew it wouldn’t last, though, and sure enough, the light in his eyes began to flicker like shadows in mirrors.
“Why do you pretend?” he asked, concerned, painfully innocent. “Why do you look away?”
Groaning, we thought, here we go. “You’re a teenager,” we said. “It’ll pass.”
But it didn’t pass—not with him.
He studied us with wounded confusion, as though struggling to learn a language that wouldn’t stick. And then with deep disappointment and a flash of anger, he said, “You aren’t real. You’re all a bunch of fakers wearing masks.”
We rolled our eyes good-humoredly, yet knew that we were losing him. “Life’s complicated,” we said. “Truth is relative.”
To which he shouted at the top of the lungs, “Truth is not relative!”
As though we’d slaughtered a lamb, as if we’d stabbed him in the back.
He called us hypocrites, and we knew that he was right to expose our failures: war, poverty, rape and murder, greed and corruption, vanity galore.
“We were teenagers once, too,” we argued in our defense. “We understand. We’re trying our best.”
“Cowards!” he shouted. “You have never tried!”
“Oh, but we have,” we argued. “You’re young. You’ll see. It’s not so easy.”
And we saw how every defensive word was like a nail through his heart.
Language failing, he tore down our signs and billboards, hurled Molotov cocktails through our windows, marched screaming through our streets, threw pies at our politicians… And we had to punish him. “Because it’s the law,” we explained.
“Your laws are lies,” he hissed.
“We need a semblance of order.”
“Your innate morality is dead!” he shrieked.
Depression followed. He whined about corporations, the media, celebrity culture… And we began to resent him, because one can only take so much.
“Monsters!” he shouted, as we locked him away in solitary confinement. And we shrugged our shoulders, because it was a relief to shut him up. Who could withstand that kind of endless attack on one’s character? His venting threatened our shopping sprees, family portraits, awards ceremonies, TV shows, and morning coffee. We worked hard pushing around objects all day. We deserved to eat and drink and veg out. They would pry our evening shows from our cold dead hands.
“Love me,” he moaned from his solitary cell.
“You’re killing me,” he sobbed. “You’re killing the planet!”
“We’re trying to save you,” we protested. “We’re trying to save the planet.”
He was right about the planet, though. We were killing it quickly now—in a sliver of a fraction of the time it had taken to come alive. But what could we do? There were too many higher-ups in the way.
We begged him to adjust, pointing out others who had fallen into line with jobs and cars and 401(k)s. They had embraced compromise, let go of negativity.
“Traitors,” he spat. “Sell-outs.”
Desperate not to lose him, we had a psychiatrist prescribe pills. We bought him clothes with shiny labels, a new bedroom set, and gave him a credit card with a low interest rate and generous spending limit. He spat out the pills, trashed the furniture, cut up the credit card, and made a bonfire of the clothes.
“You can’t buy me,” he said. “I’m not a whore.”
It really hurt when he said that, because what was he implying about the rest of us?
As a last-ditch effort, we bound him in jackets and padded rooms, and forced the pills down his throat. A judge made it official.
“You’re all out to get me,” he whispered, an official form officially diagnosing him with official full-blown paranoia. “You’re going to kill me. It’s what you’ve wanted from the start.”
But couldn’t he see that none of us was perfect? We took uppers and downers and drank too much; we were in miserable, sexless marriages; our children weren’t speaking to us; and we couldn’t shake a nagging emptiness despite the two cars in the garage and recently renovated guestroom.
Couldn’t he see that what he demanded was unattainable?
And then it happened: We found him with a scarf around his neck.
“Suicide” read the official cause of death.
But we knew it was more complicated.
We wept at his funeral, and poured flowers over his grave, and cursed a world that destroyed such beauty (which is to say crushed vulnerability). Our tears were of real frustration, and of a confusing guilt we could hardly bear, and, also, of relief, which brought more guilt.
It was the most authentic we’d been in years.
Afterwards, we went home, and in our agony, we tore off our faces and looked inside—something we rarely, if ever, did—because our despondency gave us courage. We stood on the threshold of ourselves and peered into the labyrinth, our hearts pounding with dread, because we wanted to know why. How had we failed? What had we done wrong this time? And we did it: we crossed the threshold and stepped inside to search for an answer.
It was a madhouse! Monstrous and chaotic, a whirlwind of confusion. Only a few steps in and we were consumed by terror and panic. Howls and snarls came from the locked rooms ahead—generations of abandonment, betrayal, violence, mountains of lies on top of lies, emotional deserts, loneliness, humiliations, hurt, and helplessness (so much helplessness)—all those internal monsters shut away for centuries, growing powerful from neglect, growing claws behind our eyes, furious from our denial.
They shrieked at us, and stomped their hooves, and we shook with terror, feeling like children in a storybook. It was like the myth of the Minotaur, only we had no golden thread to lead us back. And we had no intention of slaying any monsters. Oh, no. We had no tools to battle them, no experience, no guidance. We feared the fear would kill us, we feared the feelings would do us in. Anyway, we were old now and not up for anything so heroic.
So, we fled. We hustled on out, leaping back across the threshold. And once we were outside again, we slammed the door shut, put on our faces, and told no one.
And then we waited. We waited for another miracle to come into the world, and we prayed to the air for it to be different this time—for him to fight us harder, to slay our fears, to show us the way. To awaken us.