Does this ever happen to you?
You are sitting at a red light in morning traffic, half-listening to the news on the radio, half-trying to decide how to juggle the elements of an ordinary day: the meetings, the appointments, the overscheduled children, the dirty house, the dreaded phone calls: the insurance company, the plumber, the cable provider. Which to do first, which second, which can be put off, which to axe entirely — oh wait, you need some cash, and there’s an ATM in the next block, should you stop now or get cash at the grocery store later —
and click, something shifts.
The sun comes from behind a cloud, or slips behind a cloud, or the light doesn’t change at all but your perspective somehow slips a notch out of alignment, and suddenly, the personality and situation that is so continually and thoroughly you seems arbitrary: separate from who you actually are. The mundane decisions that are the fabric of your day and your life seem like choosing between entrees for dinner on Mars.
What is this thing you call an insurance company?
You look around at the cars and the construction crew and the trees, and not just the things in your line of sight, it’s all flooding in, language, books, cars, families, food allergies, massacres in distant lands, all the suffering in the world and all the babies born into it, and also the sweetness of nature and the possibility of joy, and you think how did this happen? How did I end up a mote of consciousness at this particular intersection of the million strands?
Is it endorphins from your workout? Is it a flashback of some sort? Didn’t the Talking Heads write a song about this?
For a moment, you can see how the world will be when you are not in it, when you are just a misremembered character in the dreams of your grandchildren, when everyone you ever knew is gone. There will be mornings, there will be cars, and there will be decisions, and none of them will be yours. It’s almost as if, for a microsecond, you have visited that you-less place.
Wait, you think, am I now an enlightened being? Is this cosmic consciousness, the goal of meditation and yoga, here at the corner of North Charles Street and Towsontown Boulevard? Or did I just forget to order decaf?
Before you can go home and write your inspirational book and start your cult, it is gone. And you’ve driven right past the ATM.
Then all the rest of it is back in a flash: the decisions, the errands, the to-do list and the schedule, the internal soundtrack of unfinished arguments and replayed conversations, of things you cannot believe you said that you must now agonize over for days or weeks, misunderstandings that can never be perfectly corrected. Plans, fears, wicked urges, vows of self-improvement. Everything that makes you you, more than half of which goes on below the surface, known only to you, and half of that so neurotic you can hardly put up with it.
Your body moving constantly into the future while your mind sorts endlessly through the past, a paranoid old lady reading discarded sections of yesterday’s newspaper.
Be happy, you tell yourself. Be grateful. You have this car, you have this family, you have this grocery list and this ATM card. Some of the bad things that have happened to you are over and are not hurting you anymore. What more can you want?
But, you say, how can I be happy in this royal court of unfair destiny, this mad Sun King world of Shake Shacks and heated seats and bachelor parties in Jamaica, when three miles away from here there is broken glass and rata tat tat and yellow tape, a high-pitched wail. On the other hand, how can I be sad when I have no right to be anything but happy? How can I stop worrying so much about how I feel?
The moments of respite tend to be random, and often come in traffic, though you once felt something similar in a very old convent you visited in France, and also upon waking up after anesthesia. Which is not to say you haven’t tried a lot of other approaches, but transcendence often hides when you chase it.
Here comes the sun.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for a monthly email with links to new installments of this column, other essays and book reviews.