Living in Tunnels

Once when I was twenty-two, I went a little crazy and followed a girl to New York City. We fought often and said mean things to one another because on a fundamental level we were unhappy with where our lives were going. I remember standing on a subway platform one June evening, shouting over the screeching breaks of a train, suddenly aware that sweat was pouring off of everyone like the water at a carwash, and I became distracted by the tropical atmosphere of this urban cavern. “Why is it like this?” I asked her, and I meant the heat. “I can’t even talk to you anymore,” she told me. She got on the train. I stayed in that tunnel for a long time.

The New York Subway: Sitting you uncomfortably close to people with itchy rashes since 1904!

A few years later, I learned about the New York subway system in a book by Jaron Lanier. I learned that the width of the tunnels was determined by the width of 19th century tracks, which complicated the installation of certain modern technologies, including air conditioning. There are some subways in New York, London, and France serviced by state-of-the-art, 21st century trains that are unable to operate at full capacity because the corridors through which they pass can never be altered. And so the platforms stay balmy, the trains move slow, and people shrug it off because, man, those tunnels aren’t ever going to get wider.

I am telling you all this — about subways and failed relationships — because the feeling of this moment is that we’ve built our walls too tight. In the streets people cry and protest, and we cower behind our screens, righteously pecking away our rebuttals. It feels plastic, unyielding, and I worry about it calcifying my children. The tragedies come so fast now, and our responses to them are so numbingly predictable that it feels as though nothing will change. These are our tracks.

I am no different. When I think about my own life, there aren’t many times when I acted shockingly out of character. I have always drifted towards laughter, literature, and service, and in many ways am the same person I was when I was seven, 17, and 27. I’m not getting any taller (*sigh*), and so I’ve gotten used to seeing the world from a particular vantage.

But one time I ran off after a girl to New York. That was unlike me. And though I see more clearly now in memory than I did in the moment, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I got on that train, if I’d set down my jealousy and obduracy and instead summoned compassion and forgiveness. But I didn’t want to surrender. I wanted to fight. We were never going to make it because the space we’d built together was too narrow, too unyielding, and wouldn’t allow us to grow.

The future must belong to those who see the limits of the old patterns. It’s easier if you’re young. You’re going to want to chase a girl, ride a fast train, do something bold and out of character. You’re going to want to break free of your tracks, to rocket towards the horizon at speeds set by the urgency of imminent joy. You can’t do that if the walls you’ve put up are dense and unbending. Even if you’re older, there’s still time to grab a pick and start digging in a different direction.

People build their tunnels thick and snug because it feels safer that way. But we’re not supposed to live in tunnels. The point is to get through them, to find out what’s waiting for us in the wide open light.