A good friend of mine is going through a pretty difficult time. He’s approaching his mid-30s and is saddled with two young children. He is the sole bread winner in his family, but he pays the bills with a job he hates. He is deeply in debt. He feels trapped, and scared, and entirely without options. He is not only laying down the tracks in front of himself, but the rest of his family, too. Meanwhile, he can hear the train coming. The sound never goes away.
I am equally close with my friend’s wife. The three of us were inseparable in college, thanks to the fact that she basically moved into our two-man dorm room five weeks into first semester. She texted me about my friend yesterday, and she, too, feels scared, and trapped, and alone. Her husband is deeply depressed, and she doesn’t know what else to do.
None of us do. This is a battle he’s been fighting for a long time.
I tried, as best I could, to give her some advice. I think it helped, if only for that day. Sometimes that’s all we need. Something to get us to the next day. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it, what I could have said.
Today, I was reminded about my favourite passage from one of my favourite novels, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. While it doesn’t provide any answers in terms of what my friend can do to help himself, it definitely gives it some context: most of us get to the point he is at right now. Most of adulthood is about disillusionment.
“You spend your whole childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will one day win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg—that your future will not be the roller coaster you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’. Now, with every day that passes, another door seems to close, the one marked ‘professional stuntman’ or ‘fight evil robot’, until as the weeks go by and the doors —’get bitten by snake’, ‘save world from asteroid’, ‘dismantle bombs with seconds to spare’—keep closing, you begin to hear the sound as a good thing, and start closing some yourself, even ones that didn’t necessarily need to be closed.”
— Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
My friend’s biggest challenge is the fact that he seems incapable of feeling any tangible amount of hope. Why? Some of it is almost certainly chemical, some of it is the chemicals he willingly puts into his body every day. Some of it, no doubt, is the result of an overprotective mother and an overly distant father.
But this passage, specifically the part about closing doors, struck a chord because it hit on something that’s been worrying me. Not just with my friend, but with myself, too. This idea of growing up and willingly closing doors, out of habit or lack of confidence. By the time you’re a certain age, you think you know everything about who you are and what you’re capable of. Which can be a good thing, but it’s also extremely limiting. It certainly is in my friend’s case.
He constantly looks around him and sees his peers with better jobs or more money or bigger houses or happier marriages. He does the calculations, and deems himself a failure. But the real problem isn’t that he’s “lost,” it’s that this feeling of losing makes him stand still.
There’s a wonderful Jewish proverb about two people climbing two ladders. One person is near the top of his ladder, but he’s stopped climbing. The other person is much lower, but is on his way up. The question, then, is “who’s winning?”
The rabbi’s answer: the one who’s still moving.
I don’t know if I can help my friend. I don’t know if he can help himself. But I’m reminding myself to keep trying, and to stop closing doors. We’ve all been where my friend is right now: stuck in a rut, seemingly unable to get ourselves out. But most of the time we can, as long as we keep climbing.