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Lonely hearts

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“Man’s happiness lies in contentment.”
- Mahatma Ghandi

“One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers.”
- Eugene O’Neill

A phenomenon of the modern world that has been documented in hundreds of studies over the last few decades is a significant, and even breathtaking, increase in cases of diagnosed clinical depression among otherwise healthy adults. Academics have proposed all sorts of theories. Epidemiologists have suggested pesticides, genetically modified foods, synthetic hormones, gluten, or perhaps a retrovirus as the cause. Sociologists think that it may have to do with the disintegration of the traditional family structure as human mobility increases. Others hold that women entering the work force and the increase in age of first child bearing has a hormonal effect that, when it happens in large enough numbers, alters the ebb and flow on a societal level. Theologians point to record high rates of divorce and record low attendance at traditional houses of worship. Capitalists point to the suffocation of opportunity by government overreach. Socialists point to an institutional decline in policies and programs that assure all people have access to the bottom rung of Maslow’s pyramid. They are all wrong.

In light of this desperate descent into despair, old practices have become trendy. Yoga. Slow food. Tai Chi. Breastfeeding. Mindfulness. Attachment parenting. Meditation. These ancient ways offer some respite for the afflicted, a path to contentment, even while mired in the filth of the modern world.

But, these praxes are little more than lifelines, buoys tossed into a stormy sea. They give the practitioner something to cling to but they are still adrift in a harsh, uncaring world. The praxes do not address the deep, abiding problem that no clinician has yet identified. The praxes do not even come close to an understanding of the true heart of the human soul.

***

Agent Abe walked into the Bureau precisely at 7 AM when his shift started. He wore an overcoat over his suit. His hat was precisely placed. He had eaten a breakfast of toast and coffee. He was ready for whatever the day threw at him.

Agent Bell, his partner, met him at the door, pulling on his own overcoat. “We have an intercept,” Bell said to him. “We have to go. Now.”

Abe glanced around the workroom. It was a large room with dozens of desks. The desks were arranged in pairs so they faced each other. Bell’s desk was easy to spot. It was a monument to his sanguine nature - cluttered with framed images of his kids and brightly-colored, shapeless lumps that Bell claimed were sculptures. Father’s day, Christmas, St. Patrick’s day, every few months another mysterious object appeared on his desk. By contrast, choleric Abe’s desk, which faced Bell’s, was an expanse of smooth wood. He prided himself on leaving it cleaned off each night.

Abe could see from across to the room that a pile of folders had been left, centered, on the desk. He frowned at the pile, but Bell was already heading to the door, so he followed his partner. He’d deal with them later.

“What do we know?” Abe asked Bell, following him down the flight of stairs that led to the foyer, past the lines of waiting citizens. Some of the citizens had been in line since yesterday.

They pushed open the glass doors and walked out onto the street. Bell tipped his hat onto his head. “Target’s name is Danny Webb. He’s an accountant at Fidelity Savings and Trust.”

“If ever there was a profession for a melancholic,” Abe commented, even though they both knew that the melancholic predisposition had been debunked. People of all temperaments were susceptible.

Bell chuckled as he held out an image. “This is Danny Webb,” he said.

Abe studied the image as they walked, committing the man’s features to memory. He handed the image back to Bell. “What stage?”

Bell shook his head. “The sensors at FS&T are crap. Borderline active.”

Abe came to a stop.

Bell took another few steps before he stopped and turned back to look at Abe. “Yeah,” Bell said. “I know. The guy has been living in full blown prodrome for months.”

Abe started forward and Bell fell in next to him. They were walking against the rush-hour pedestrian flow, heading uptown along Broadway. The throngs were headed downtown toward the business district. People streamed around them.

As they walked Abe concentrated, holding the image of Danny Webb in his mind. These moments of focus were the best part of the job. It felt like he was a flower, unfolding in the Sun. “I see him,” he said suddenly.

Bell glanced at him and then looked at the crowd. “Where?”

“Intersection of Third,” Abe said. They were crossing Fifth. Bell didn’t comment about the distance. He was used to Abe’s keen eyesight. “He seems stable,” Abe added. “For the moment.”

“Standard pass and return?” Bell asked as they crossed Fourth.

Abe nodded but he did not reply. He was concentrating on Danny Webb, excluding the crowd around him, the ranks of typicals and borderline prodromal, no danger to themselves or others. Yet.

When he finally was in actual sight of Danny Webb, Abe nudged Bell. Bell nodded. They walked past Webb, flanking him on either side. Once they were ten feet beyond Webb, they turned around and came up behind him.

***

A child, it is said, is like clay. At first, he is soft and malleable, able to be shaped and reshaped, formed and reformed, until a pleasing figure emerges from shapelessness. His rough edges can be smoothed away and an oh-so-precious bubble can be lovingly stored deep within the soul. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, the child hardens into an adult form, ready for the fires that will turn him from dried mud – brittle and weak – to stone – strong and impervious.

In the kiln, each of the four great elements plays a role in shaping the final form. Fire drives Water from the clay and later causes the Earth itself to melt and fuse. That tiny pocket of Air heats and expands until it eventually bursts forth, releasing a burst of steamed Water into the heat, and cracking the Earth. The child’s smooth surface is marred. If the bubble was not skillfully placed, perhaps even the shape of the vessel itself is changed, leaving it broken and jagged.

Others would argue that a child is nothing like clay. Clay has infinite possibilities. It can take on any shape. A child can take on just one. He can grow into a man. There are no other shapes possible.

***

Danny Webb was walking to work. It was a nice day, but he was not really paying attention. His mind was already on the tasks of the day. Quarterlies were due at the end of the week, and then there was that issue with Moka-Coka that landed on his desk yesterday.

It was easier to think about work than let himself dwell on the dreams. He did not really remember them. All he knew was that he had bolted awake two or three times last night, his heart racing, flashes of brightly colored images fading rapidly from memory. It had been the third time in as many nights that this had happened. It left him deeply unsettled. He had heard the stories, of course. Night terrors were a symptom. He told himself, whatever he was experiencing, it could not be that. The dreams were not that scary. It would go away. He was just under a lot of stress.

When the men grabbed him, he was startled at first. He tried to pull back, but their grip was firm. The startle turned to fear when he could not break free. Adrenalin pounded through his body. His heart was racing. One of the men put a hand on his shoulder; the other grabbed his other arm. “Mr. Webb,” one of them said. “Come with us, please.”

He twisted his head from side to side, looking. Two men. Hats. Coats. Danny recognized them, of course. They were Bureau Agents. “What?” he said, struggling to free himself from their grasp. “Who are you?”

“You need to come with us,” the Agent said again.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he insisted. “I have to get to work.”

The one who had put a hand on his shoulder took his briefcase from his hand. Danny looked at him.

“Not today,” the other one said. Danny looked back at him, his head swiveling from side to side.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Danny insisted, trying again to pull free.

The other one, the one who had taken his briefcase, spoke. His voice was deep and gravelly. “You need help, Mr. Webb.”

“I don’t need help! Let me go!”

“Come along,” the first one said.

“The dreams don’t mean anything.” Danny blurted, knowing immediately that it was the wrong thing to say.

There were hundreds of people on the street with them. No one stopped to help him. The people hustled along, not wanting to get any closer. The two agents gripped his arms tighter and started walking, dragging him along. “Let me go!” He tried to struggle free.

“It’s for your own good, Mr. Webb,” said the man with the gravelly voice.

It’s for your own good,. The words echoed in Danny’s head.

He remembered being a small child. He had been drawing with chalk in the driveway with another child who lived across the street. A babysitter watched them, a scary old lady he did not like. She had fallen asleep in the sun and after a while, he and his friend had started drawing on each other. When she woke, she had found him covered in pastels – pinks and blues and purples, smeared on his face, his hair, his clothes. He had even colored his teeth. “Look!” he had exclaimed. “I’m a butterfly!” “You are a nasty, dirty boy,” she had said. She had bundled him under her arm and taken him to the bath, kicking and screaming. “It’s for your own good,” she had told him as she wrestled him out of his clothes and washed the chalk from his face.

He remembered being ten and watching as his mother had packed his sleeping bag and suitcase. She had packed his shorts, shirts, swim suit, bug repellent and sunscreen. She had loaded it all in the car next to her suitcase. When it was time to go, he had stood in the walkway and refused to get in the car. “I’m a tree,” he had told her. “You can’t move me.” So his mother had pulled off and left him standing there, alone. At first he had thought he had won, but his mother hadn’t come back. The house was locked. He had no way to get in. She had been gone for a really long time. He had thought that maybe she had left on her business trip and he was going to be standing on the sidewalk for a week with no food and nowhere to sleep. When she had finally come back, he was sobbing, terrified of having to live under a bush with the raccoons. He had gotten in the car. Later, after the long car ride, he remembered standing in the door to his cabin, stoically refusing to cry in front of the other boys. “It’s for your own good,” his mother had told him before she left.

Danny tried to pull away from the Agents again, but they gripped him harder, bruising his arms. “Don’t make a spectacle, Mr. Webb,” one said. “You don’t want to hurt anyone else.”

“I haven’t hurt anyone!” Danny protested.

The gravelly voiced one growled, “Haven’t you?”

“No!” he insisted.

They were walking into the Bureau headquarters, a large building that Danny had not been in for years. He had registered here, of course. Everyone did. But since he hadn’t married, hadn’t had children, hadn’t even had an infraction, he had never been back. It was like he remembered it, with lines of citizens, waiting.

He remembered waiting in those lines for hours. He remembered Bureau Agents coming and going. He remembered one vividly. It had been a young woman dressed in a yellow dress. She had been dragged up the stairs, one agent on each shoulder. She had kicked and struggled, screaming nonsense. Everyone in line had stared at her. Danny had felt sorry for her.

Danny did not want pity. He stopped fighting and let the agents guide him up the stairs and through the door. “What is going to happen?” he asked the agents. This was all a mistake. He was sure of it. He’d be at work by lunch. The dreams were nothing.

“You will see the Adjudicator,” the one of the Agents said.

“And then?” Danny asked. They were walking through a hall. Since he had stopped fighting, the Agents had relaxed their grip. Their hands were just barely on his arms.

With no warning at all, he was no longer in the hall. He was in the shower. He was naked. There was a snake wrapped around his neck.

He started to scream, to try and pull the snake from his body.

He was back in the hall, pulling back, trying to tear away a snake that wasn’t there. And then he was not sure. Was he the man? Or had he been the snake with his smooth coils sliding along the warm mammalian skin?

He shook himself as the Agents gripped more firmly and propelled him forward. He raised his hand to his face. Snakes do not have hands, he told himself. After a few steps, he started walking with them again. This was all a mistake, he reaffirmed to himself.

They came to another room. This room had rows of full benches and a desk with a uniformed officer behind it. The gravelly voiced agent said to the officer, “Daniel Webb, for the Adjudicator.” Danny turned and looked at the crowd waiting. A severe looking woman stared at him. A mother tried to quiet a screaming baby. A kid sat on a bench next to an old man, her knees drawn up under her chin. The agents’ hands were on him again, pulling him forward. He turned back, unable to stop staring at the crying baby. A thought occurred to him, out of nowhere. This is the moment, he thought. Then he wondered, What moment? The baby was different than everyone else in the room. Everyone, that is, but the agent with the gravelly voice. His head whipped around and he stared at the agent, wide-eyed. What was he sensing?

“Move along,” the other agent said. “Let’s get this over with.”

They were walking through a room full of clerks when suddenly he was an eagle, landing on the back of a sleeping man. He could feel the air under his wings and the way his claws dug into the man’s back. He could feel the claws dig into his own back.

He was back in the room with the clerks, the agents by his side.

He took a step. And then he was a lizard, perched on a ledge, tasting the air with a flick of his long tongue.

The agents grabbed at him with both hands, forcing him forward.

The images were coming fast now. He was a tarantula. He was a snake. He cried out. He was a man with a tickling feeling on his back. He lost track of his feet. He stumbled and fell to his knees. He was a scorpion. A cat. The agents were dragging him. He was an entire cluster of bugs, wiggling against each other. He was a man, his face scrunched up as dozens of creepy things crawled on his eyes. One of them gripped him around his neck and pulled him back to his feet. He was a snake. He was standing in a large room in front of a Adjudicator.

***

A long time ago, the world was not so populous. The people lived far apart, choosing to group themselves for a purpose: to hunt, to procreate, to tell the stories of those who came before. In those days, the human heart was unfettered and free. It was a time of great deeds - of people who ran with the wild creatures, of tricksters who stole fire from the gods, of heroes who pulled islands from the sea and of foolish lovers whose foot-stamping spats built great mountains.

As the years went by and humans begat more humans, people lived together, not by choice, but through necessity. Decisions were made and changes occurred. The wild heart of their forefathers had to be brought into abeyance. Eventually humans became so structured, so civilized, that it became necessary to break the heart outright. Usually done in childhood, the breaking is a painful moment. There are tears and a sense of betrayal, but given time, the young person moves on. It is called growing up.

There are always some who, despite having entirely unremarkable childhoods, kept some part of the wild heart intact. These unfortunate souls live their lives with a sense of unattainable longing. They never achieve contentment. A well-matched marriage, a slew of children, a successful career, hoards of friends, cannot touch this loneliness. They live in a sea of broken hearts, yearning for the companionship of wild souls and the experience of great deeds. They struggle through life. Some find mentors and learn to channel their wildness into a useful function and that gives them a sense of fulfillment. Others go mad as their wild heart breaks free with all of the exuberant chaos of the early days.

Needless to say, such moments are extremely dangerous and, for the safety of all, they are prevented at all costs.

***

The Chief Adjudicator entered the chambers alone. He did not wear the robes of state. He was not followed by his colleagues who joined him on civil and criminal matters. The case they were bringing in was for him, alone. It required his immediate attention.

These sessions were not so much secret as unspoken. They happened often enough that there were procedures and paperwork but they occurred outside the regular legal structure. There was no jury. There were no attorneys. There were no witnesses. He would evaluate the evidence, alone. He would pass judgment, alone. There would be no appeal.

The public seating in the chambers was empty. The bailiffs and clerks waited, shuffling papers. He took his seat, a tall backed throne centered and above the raised dais where the panel of judges sat on typical cases. He opened the docket that had been left on his desk. Daniel Webb he read. Age: 34. Unmarried. No children. Graduate of City College. B.S. with honors in accounting. He continued to scan the page while he waited, but none of it really mattered. Nothing that was on the paper would influence his conclusions.

He had years of legal training. He possessed a keenly analytical mind. He worked from facts. He was impartial. He liked to think himself an astute observer of the human condition. He prided himself on finding fair solutions.

Even so, when he was honest with himself, he knew that the reason he held this position, the reason he sat in judgment over these unfortunate souls, was because of something that amounted to little more than intuition. He could not explain the conclusions he reached and he did not try. In fact, the whole thing was disquieting. The less he thought about it, the less he examined the issue, the more content he was.

His mentor had once told him that the role of the Chief Adjudicator was to “listen to his heart”. He had privately sneered at the idea, dismissing the concept as sanguine nonsense. He liked evidence he could touch. He liked logic and reason. He liked clear-cut answers. Sitting in this chair, he saw the absolute worst parts of the human experience. He sat in judgment over the most vulnerable parts of people’s lives. Over the years, the weight of that responsibility had changed him.

What set the Chief Adjudicator apart from other judges is that he had developed a finely tuned sense of the hidden burdens that slept within the people around him. For most, their burdens were minor, latent and irrelevant, easily born, like a flea on a dog’s back. For a few, their burdens were significant – like an oxpecker standing between the ears of an ox, picking the bugs out of the sores that it had inflicted on the animal itself – their burdens were noticeable, but, with training, could be channeled into a useful purpose. (He, himself had once stood before a Chief Adjudicator, flanked by agents.) For an even smaller number, their burdens were vast and wild and uncontrollable. Like a virulent disease, they had to be ruthlessly quarantined lest they shatter the fragile balance that held modern society together. This, he knew to be true.

From the sounds of ruckus in the hallway, this Danny Webb was about to be brought in. The Chief Adjudicator watched from his perch as the agents wrestled the otherwise ordinary looking man down the aisle.

Danny Webb took a few steps, looking confused and disoriented. Without warning, he stopped. The Agents urged him on. He took another few steps and he stumbled. The Agents dragged him forward to the bar.

The Chief Adjudicator spared a glance at the agents. They looked like any other agents, but one of them he recognized as a kindred spirit, another ox, burdened as he was.

The bailiff leaned over the Chief Adjudicator and said, “Danny Webb, Sir. Detected by workplace sensors.” The Chief Adjudicator did not acknowledge the bailiff. He was staring at Danny Webb.

The clerks and bailiffs exchanged paperwork, but that did not concern the Chief Adjudicator. Danny Webb shook his head from side to side, saying over and over again, “No, no, no.” In the Chief Adjudicator’s eyes, Danny Webb burned like a small sun.

The chief clerk must have read the Code because Danny Webb was twisting around, raving that there was a mistake, that this was wrong.

There was no doubt in the Chief Adjudicator’s eyes. Whatever Danny Webb had once been, Danny Webb was now dangerous. He would only get more dangerous. With a curt wave of his head, he sent Danny Webb away.

Once the Agents had dragged Danny Webb away, the Chief Adjudicator glanced at the Bailiff. “Just the one?”

The Bailiff nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

***

On the most basic level, people require that their biological needs for food, water, sleep and air be satisfied. Once they have secured their biological requirements, the next thing they look for is a sense of safety. Unlike the basic biological needs, safety is not a thing. Safety cannot be counted. Safety is a feeling deep in the gut that lets someone know that he will persist: he will wake from sleep, he will have food to eat and water to drink and air to breath. Safety is a state of mind. It is a feeling someone has when there is order. It is the reassurance that there are rules to follow. It is a sense of boundaries, of edges, of lines that are never to be crossed.

Safety cannot be bought in a store but it still has a price. Its price cannot be paid in paper currency. The coin we use to pay for safety in is our freedom.

Before we choose to cripple our children’s true hearts, before we turned our back on fantastic deeds, we were adventurers. We took risks, we crossed the vast unknowns, we dared undone feats, we ran wild with the animals and shaped the very form of the Earth. Our will knew no boundaries. We were truly free.

Safety is knowing what is expected. Safety is knowing our boundaries. Safety is finding contentment within the choices allowed our contained wills.

Free will knows no bounds. Free will is unpredictable. Free will is the domain of the wild heart. Free will is not safe.

***

The Agents threw Danny Webb into the elevator. By the time he regained his feet, the doors were closed. He banged and banged. Of course it did no good. The elevator vibrated as it moved, but there was no indicator, no sense of how far or how fast. The doors abruptly opened and he fell forward.

Someone grabbed his coat by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet. Danny twisted, trying to see who was behind him, but he only got a brief glimpse of a grizzled, sweaty man before he was shoved forward again. He stumbled through a doorway into a large, swelteringly hot room. The sweaty man had him by the coat again and was pushing him along between crates. “Move along,” the man growled. “Move along.”

“Where?” Danny asked.

The shriek of metal being cut tore through the air.

The sweaty man forced Danny forward. Danny staggered, struggling to keep his feet. His head was spinning. Was he even late to work yet? Where was he?

A spray of sparks shot through the air.

They came into a space between the crates. Somewhere behind him, a deep rumble caused the floor to vibrate. The sweaty man growled, “Take off that coat, ‘fore you die of heat.”

Danny Webb looked around, bewildered. How had he gotten here? He had been walking to work. The agents had come. There had been the disturbing visions, of being a snake, a cat, a scorpion, but they were all wrong. He was none of those things.

The sweaty man was waiting. Danny looked at him, and like with the agent and the adjudicator, he did not understand what he saw. The agent and adjudicator were like the embers of a fire that had burned all night. With tinder and air, they could be coaxed back into a roaring blaze. This man was something else. Deformed. Broken. Like a bird that had had its wings cut off, something vital had been torn from this man’s being.

His mind was swirling. He tried to piece together the morning. He had had breakfast. Taken the train to work. He was a snake, slithering along the pavement. No, that was not right. He tried again. He had gotten up and eaten breakfast. He had soared into the city, flying high over the stopped traffic, automatically adjusting his wings as the wind shifted. He took off his coat automatically, because that is what he did. In his experience, if you just went along with the world, things turned out okay.

As he was taking his coat off, a thought came to him. The thought burst forth from the confusion of his mind, fully formed. It resonated with him as something that was true, in a way that nothing in his life had ever been true. He realized that if he went along with this, if he did what he was told, he’d become a broken thing, just like the man.

He had never been so certain of anything in his life as he was in this moment. He had to get out of here. He had to get into open air. The stifling heat and the incessant noise made it feel like the ceiling was smashing down on him. He had never been in a fight in his life, but he took a swing at the man. The man was so surprised, it took him a moment to react and Danny got in another punch before the man slammed him against a wall. “Don’t be a fool,” the man growled.

The man was stronger, but Danny was desperate. He swung wildly, connecting sometimes, until the man went down. Danny ran. He was not running towards anything. When he saw the ladder, he knew he had to go up. He started climbing.

Step after step, he pushed upwards. His hands ached. He didn’t look down. He climbed up inside an elevator shaft. The shaft turned into some sort of a vent. He emerged on a roof.

He ran from one side of the roof to the other. He looked wildly around. There was no way down. He was trapped. It was only a matter of time before the Agents found him again. They were probably already looking for him. They would drag him back into that horrible place. He’d become that crippled thing.

He turned and he was not alone on the roof.

One. Two. Three. Four men in suits. They surrounded him. They were closing in on him. There was no where to go.

It only took him a moment to realize that they were not Agents. They blazed, powerful and free. As he looked at them, he recognized them. The cat. The snake. The lizard. The bird. From his visions.

Just as he could see them, he could feel the approach of the agents. He didn’t understand how. They’d be on the roof in a moment. He had to get off.

He spun around, looking around again for an exit he had missed, and suddenly he understood the way off. His crazy spin became a twirl. The four men in suits were his witnesses. He ran for the roof edge and with a faith he did not know he had, he leapt into the air.

***

In the end, we make our choices. I made mine years ago, now it is your turn.