Existential Graffiti

     When I am on a roll…when I am doing well in life, I can be found in the gym at 6am most mornings.  That’s the only time of day that it’s realistic I will get my workout in.  I like to use the exercise bike so I can read while I sweat.  I have tried this on the treadmill and it doesn’t work.  For some reason the only thing I can do on the treadmill is walk and concentrate on not falling off.  So I have settled for the bike and a good book.

     Lately, I have been re-reading J.D. Salinger’s, “Catcher in the Rye.”  Geez, there’s a reason it is a modern classic.  I know many people don’t care for it and still more just don’t get it.  I’m not arrogant enough to think I have totally grasped all of what Salinger was trying to convey.  But here’s why I find it valuable.  The principle character, Holden Caulfield is often dismissed as a disrespectful, “rebel without a cause.”  I think this is a tragic misrepresentation and underestimation of this complex character.  Holden, in my opinion, is the mouthpiece for all the things I think, day-to-day, but dare not speak.  He is graphic and irreverent and down right coarse at times yet when I read him I experience some kind of private, guilty catharsis…as if I am boldly speaking vicariously through him.  But here’s the thing, as he muddles through a confusing couple of days wandering around New York, skipping school and expressing his anger at myriad people and institutions, Salinger allows his vulnerability to seep out ever-so-slightly and beneath the youthful impertinence is a scared little boy wanting to believe that someone really cares…that someone out there really is authentic.  Listen to this excerpt I recently copied into my journal:

     “I went down by a different staircase and I saw another ‘Fuck you’ on the wall.  I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something.  It wouldn’t come off.  It’s hopeless anyway.  If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world…That’s the whole trouble.  You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any.  You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write, ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose.”

     Why in the world am I drawn to this passage?  While not entirely sure, two things come to mind.  First, I think I feel his disappointment with life’s tarnish.  It seems like there is no place that is pure…no where one can go and not see the damage that humanity wreaks on itself.  I have spent my life listening to people’s stories…mostly their pain and disillusionment and I have often said that I wished that I could go home, take a “shower” and wash it all away.  Not the after affects of the people themselves but the struggle and despair that they convey.  It makes me sad and reminds me that there is so much that I cannot fix.  I can rub and rub for the rest of my life but there will always be another ‘Fuck you’ sprayed on somewhere.  And yet, unexpectedly I had another thought: every single ‘Fuck you’ is actually someone, somewhere trying to say something.  No, I am not trying to romanticize graffiti though I do believe it can be, at times, a legitimate art form…a legitimate form of self-expression.  What I am trying to say is that we are surrounded by masses of people who are secretly depressed and anxious but are actively working to bury this so deeply that no one knows they are falling short of the “American Dream.”  We smile when we want to cry; we scream when we want to be heard; we push away when we really want to be held tightly.  We are so afraid of anyone seeing our vulnerability that we go to great lengths to hide any trace of these deep longings in our lives…to the point that after a while, we begin to fool ourselves into believing the lies as well.  We can gripe and complain about the ‘Fuck you’ messages we seem to encounter at every turn but maybe the reason we are so disturbed by them is that in all truth, we want to write them ourselves!  On my worst day, if I could ever release the iron grip of control that I impose on myself, I wonder if it wouldn’t feel really good to rent a large billboard and with a gigantic can of spray paint, write my own ‘Fuck you!”  Of course whatever release it would give me would be short-lived because my desperate declaration would be decried out-of-hand by my fellow citizens with no one understanding that below the frustration and anger they assume motivated my vandalous act there exists an honest plea for someone to listen to my pain. 

     Maybe the answer is not to keep rubbing out the ‘Fuck you’ messages of the world.  As Holden indicated, that would be impossible.  Maybe if we were all willing to risk speaking the truth and we were equally committed to listening to one another, the existential graffiti of our lives – the mad etchings of an unheard populace — would disappear on their own…

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