Updated: Oct 28, 2022
I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard the news. It must’ve been about five am when she told me. And when she first said it, I called her a liar. Half asleep, I told her she was wrong. That I just spoke to him last night, so clearly, she must be mistaken. After that, I hung up the phone and tried going back to sleep. This was hours before my first day, and I simply did not have time for this.
Lying back down in my bed, I remember pulling the covers up to my neck and closing my eyes, but I didn’t cry.
Two days later is when all the calls really started coming in. Of course, this was back when people still called instead of texted. Back when we still had flip phones. I’d feel this thing vibrating in my pocket, and without even looking, I’d already know who was calling and what they were going to say. Almost like a clairvoyant. And to prove my newfound power, sometimes, I even mouthed the words along with them.
Patiently waiting for my turn to be silent.
Of course, I couldn’t actually hear voices, more like, everyone who called was reading off the same lousy script:
we’re so sorry for your loss
we know how close you two were
if there’s anything we can do, don’t hesitate to…
—These were like those telemarketers, only worse. At least with telemarketers you can download an app that pre-screens your calls, but not this week. No, this week, I was forced to listen. Some kind of social contract. People brought me their tears, and then I regurgitated the details. Quid pro quo.
I’ll never forget the moment when everything started to sound the same, because I was sitting on the floor when it happened. Staring through our beer-stained carpet when it suddenly occurred to me that even my own answers were starting to sound rote. Their impersonal canned responses were causing me to go into canned responses, and even though I was feeling the most lost I’d ever felt in my entire life, I still knew what my next line was supposed to be. I was supposed to say, “Thank you for calling,” but instead, I improv’d this little bit where I threw my phone against the wall at sixty miles an hour.
Most of my life, I’ve had a rather calculated and logical disposition to Being, but for this one brief second, I completely let go of everything and gave into this deep well of unadulterated anger. The four-year-old in me cried out, “It isn’t fair!” as he launched my phone into the wall as hard as he could. And after watching it shatter into a million tiny pieces, for the first time in a week, I was free.
Destroying something gave me power in a moment when I had none. Because for that one fleeting second—I chose what lived and died.
Granted, the hole in the wall wasn’t fixing anything, but the four-year-old in me didn’t care. All he wanted was justice. To destroy something perfect.
Really, he’s the one who threw it. Me, I just picked up the pieces.
If This, Then That
Everywhere you go, everywhere you carry around the skull that houses your brain, you’re coding; whether that be consciously or unconsciously. Whether you realize it or not, your brain’s constantly taking statistics, finding connections, and making associations.
To put it bluntly, you’re an unconscious learning machine.
You’re a conscious learning machine too, but since we’re exploring the unseen spectra of consciousness, I should probably go ahead and tell you that beneath your sphere of awareness, your brain is consistently forming heuristics, confirming expectations; and because we’re emotional creatures, that means making rules.
Ava used to always say, “When you get down to it, most any computer program is just a long list of “If this, then that” commands.
If (user presses “A”) execute: reward graphics and sound
If (user presses “B”) execute: wompwompwomp.wav
And the picture we’re trying to paint here is that human brain isn’t all that different, just complicated. In all honesty, we’re making If This, Then That rules all the time, it’s just we’re not conscious of it. Generally speaking, we only experience the aftermath; the resulting behavior. To explain what I mean, just think about the things that really drive human behavior: food, sex, shelter, temperature regulation, social interaction, self-actualization, emotional well-being. These can all be likened to being something like the driving forces behind our “core code.” Handed down to us through billions of years of evolution, these weren’t bits of our psyche we had to consciously work out for ourselves. And yet, there is a sense in which we get to code the way we feel about the events that happen to us, and it’s this type of emotional encoding, or interpretive encoding, that I’d like to focus on now.
One way to think about this life might be to say that we're really just an amalgamation of all the interactions we’ve ever had. And while most of these interactions are rather benign, leaving no discernible trace, some of these interactions carry the potential of changing us in ways we’ll never forget. Rewriting the rules of our source code, modifying the way we think and behave; potentially, forever.
We can think of these painful interactions as being something like the seeds of experience that give rise to a particular belief. Link a few of these traumatic experiences up in a chain and not only do you get a particular belief-filter about the world, but you also get a “pre-thought” or “pre-coded” method for how to get through. That way, when a frightening but familiar situation pops back up, there’s already a plan in place.
You’re not thinking, you’re on automatic.
However, in addition to the rules we create for ourselves, it’s also worth noting how we’re embedded in a complex web of societal rules. We’re constantly putting ourselves into contracts with other people, and whenever we do that, we simultaneously open ourselves up for the potentiality of experiencing loss, betrayal, and deceit. Otherwise stated, somebody always winds up in physical or emotional danger, and whenever this happens, the brain ends up trying to protect itself in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. On the grounds that 95-99% of our cognitive processing is unconscious, that means we’re not even aware of most of the learning that shapes our behavior.
To pick an extreme example of this, I’ll never forget the first time a girl cheated on me.
The suspicions leading up to it. The interrogations with all the “friends” involved. This was one of those multi-month betrayal episodes that could really rewrite the source code of who you were going to be for the rest of your life. So when the girl did finally tell me, after months of suspicion, I physically felt pain.
Like a black hole was collapsing in the center of my chest.
Not many people get the opportunity to lose three friends over the course of one phone call, but driving home from school that day, I sure did. Their stories weren't adding up, and my interrogation was wearing her down, so finally, she confesses to everything.
At first, I can’t believe the depths a person would go to cover up their lie, but then I’m just mad I wasted the last eighteen months of my life with this person.
So what did I do?
I did the only thing I knew how to do. I destroyed something. I was driving home from school at the time, so naturally, I started punching my steering wheel.
Driving as fast as I was, I shouldn’t even be here. But in that moment, nothing mattered, because all I really wanted to do was feel something else. So I punched. And I punched. And I punched. Even after most of the casing had come off. Even after bits of the horn were flaking off into my lap. I kept slamming my fists down until the damn thing really broke, exposing the cold, hard metal underneath.
Needless to say, but about the fifth time my hands came down, the jagged metal plate won that round, and my hand started leaking out blood.
I’ll never forget glancing down, seeing my tendons and bone catching their first glimpses of sunlight, and then realizing the degree to which I’d fucked up. The knuckle of my middle finger took most of the damage, but apparently, the cold, hard metal had cut through the tops of my hand with such force that it folded the skin back in on itself.
Something like the dog eared page of a book.
This torn flap of skin, formerly known as my knuckle, was now tucked underneath the tops of my hand in a way that meant I could see bone. I remember seeing this, instantly pressing my hand into my lap to try and stop the bleeding, and then pressing both feet on the brakes hard. My car screeching to a stop. My book-bag slamming against the dash. Pens flying everywhere. Without even thinking about it, I take my good hand and roll the wheel as far as it’ll go left. I pull an illegal u-turn, right in the middle of a highly trafficked road, and then floor it heading east.
My right hand throbbing, leaking more blood into the stupid khaki shorts our principal used to make us wear to school, I end up driving myself to the hospital.
Now, whenever I look at my writing hand, I’m forced to stare at this big hook of pink skin. A cute little reminder of the time I got exactly what I deserved.
I hurt a girl and she hurt me back.
But sadly, because I was seventeen and stupid, on the way over to the emergency room, I started making myself promises. Promises like: I am never going to end up here again.
And to make sure I kept that promise, consciously and unconsciously, I began making up rules…
Rule #1 Don’t ever let a girl get close.
Rule #2 Maintain your power at any cost.
Rule #3 Don’t punch things when you’re mad.
All of that actually happened, by the way. There’s no hypothetical lens we're hiding behind on this one. That Friday, I felt the kind of pain you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy, and then I consciously made the choice to never feel that way again.
If you ever end up loving a girl again…Then never let her get close.
My entire life’s future reduced to one line of code. Black and white. Something a child might do. Write a little line of code that would protect the part of himself that died that day. Subconsciously, I probably concocted a dozen or so rules to help ensure I’d never end up feeling that kind of loss ever again, but honestly, I only remember the three. And those rules actually worked too—that is, until the fall semester of my sophomore year came around and my best friend took a turn going ninety.
Because that’s when I had to make another rule:
Never let yourself have another best friend.
‘Cause if you never let yourself have another best friend, what are the odds you’ll have to deliver two soul-crushing eulogies?
Was this a good rule to have created?
Look, none of the rules I created the day someone put thirteen stitches in my hand, or the night I called my Mom a liar, were rules for living—these were rules for surviving, and surviving’s not living.
Sure, they might’ve helped me survive the pain of the incident by giving me some kind of a roadmap for how to make it through, but they kept me closed-off and distant for years. The point is…things happen to us.
We live life, we get hurt, and then we make promises to ourselves.
“Whatever else happens,” we tell ourselves, “I’m never gonna end up here again.” But instead of dealing with the pain directly, we make contracts with the future. Promises we couldn’t possibly keep. Instead of being honest with ourselves about the kind of pain we’re in, we bury and deflect. Instead of discharging about how we really feel with a friend or a trained professional, we unconsciously cast our pain on other people.
Personally, I retreated. Which is really just a fancy word for “ran away.”
Instead of facing my problems directly and potentially resolving this deep hurt, I drank beer and smoked a bowl.
The Adult Version of sucking your thumb.
“Self-medicate” ought to be one of those esoteric terms you have to explain to people, and yet, it’s such a common practice, everyone already knows what you’re talking about.
Considering this method of coping, does it surprise you to learn that for the next six years, I didn’t have a best friend? I mean, how could I? I wouldn’t let myself.
Now, I want to pause for a second to point out that this wasn’t something I was consciously doing. In fact, it’s only because of hindsight, time, and an altered state of consciousness that I’m even able to look back and retrospectively analyze my own behavior. So when that day did finally come—the day I realized why I was the way that I was; why I kept people at a distance; why I had trouble making guy friends—I realized it was because, deep down, I was scared.
So afraid I was going to get hurt, I didn’t dare let anyone in.
Subconsciously, my friend’s death was still operating me. Now it’s a story, but it used to be my story, if that makes any sense. A piece of pain I unconsciously clung to the way a kid clings to a blanket. Left to our own devices, human beings will run away from most anything; and despite what the cute little saying says, but time does not heal all wounds. Only truth does. Which includes being honest with yourself.
That day, standing behind the pulpit, the four-year-old in me promised himself, “Whatever else happens…I’m never gonna end up here again,” and he kept it too. But sadly, that meant James was going to be closed off and bitter.
That he was going to inflict his pain upon others.
That somehow, in a machiavellian sense, he was going to get his justice.
Growing up where I grew up, crying was somehow seen as less human. You couldn’t be a boy that cried. You could be a girl…or a nance…but you couldn’t be a boy, that cried.
Apparently, those things were mutually exclusive.
The wisdom of the time was: Girls cry, men got angry.
Turns out Nature’s pressure release valve—that thing you instinctively do when you’re experiencing an emotional overload—was only sanctioned for use by women and children. This is one of those societal rules your Dad either taught you early on in life, or you risked finding out the hard way. The wisdom of the time was: detach and avoid. Ignore and repress. Confront a bully; ignore a feeling.
Of course, you could always be the one who tried to challenge the status quo, but all that ever really amounted to was you finding out just how savage a pack of nine-year-olds could be. There was the societal contract in place, and it’s always been that way, who were you to change things?
Girls cry. Men get angry. That was the deal.
From the dugout, you could hear the kids preaching the gospel, “Walk it off…Get up!” Sure, you might be paralyzed on the ground with the wind knocked out of you, but you could still hear them parroting back all the wisdom they’d absorbed. “Come on…get up!” Their pre-pubescent voices starting to harmonize, and if you were lucky, the coach would run over and tell it to you straight.
“Look,” he says, “There’s people watching.”
Between his teeth, he says, “Come on…get up.” The line drive to your chest didn’t hurt that bad. Come on. Get up.
So you do. You stuff it down. You take your base. What else can I say, that’s life. Girls feel, men deal.
The moment after everything started to sound the same is the moment I decided to flip the script. The moment after the girl tells me, “Everything happens for a reason,” I pull the phone away from my face and just stare at it.
Twelve inches from my face and I can still hear this girl’s stupid voice say, “Look,” lighting up a cigarette, she says, “I know how you feel, alright.”
But instead of saying, “Thank you for calling,” which is what I was supposed to say, I leave the phone open and lean back on one leg. Twisting at my torso, I pull my right arm back as far as it’ll go. And like a rubber band, I snap. I pitch the phone against the wall as hard as I possibly can—and I follow through.
Coach would’ve been proud.
Hurdling at 60 miles an hour into our shared townhome wall, I watch as my only connection to the outside world explodes into a million pieces.
A piñata of drywall and plastic.
Then I clench my fists and scream so loud I break my voice. The light fixtures shake. The neighbor’s dog barks. But still, I don’t cry.
Finally going over to the hole in our townhome wall, I snatch up the biggest pieces of dry wall first. Them, I chuck in the trash can just as hard. The rubber keyboard, the plastic antenna, I shove all that shit in my good hand. Bending over at the waist, I’m picking up all these small shards of glass with just my bare fingers, but those really tiny bits, just keep getting pushed deeper and deeper into the carpet. Almost like they’re running away from me. I’m actually bent over for so long, I’m starting to see stars. Next thing I know, my face gets all hot and my nose starts to run. Insistent on getting every last piece, I go to wipe my nose with the backs of my hand, but when I do a huge breath falls out of me. An image of my friend flashes through my mind and there’s so much pain I have to shut my eyes and scream.
Only when I go to scream, nothing comes out.
What’s worse, no air is going in either.
I’m completely frozen; unable to speak or breathe; move or sit still. Collapsing to one knee, I try and force some air down into my lungs, only when it finally makes it in, something’s wrong. It’s all staccato. Something like a reverse laugh of breath. Followed by a sound no man’s supposed to make.
Finally, after letting myself feel the loss of my friend with the deepest part of my soul, I drop everything I’m holding and take my place on the floor.
There, on the ground, I cry for twenty minutes straight.