I took the N train uptown to 42nd Street, Times Square. Times Square with its flashing Vegas neon and wall-size television sets being videotaped by gawking tourists who bothered to leave their television sets long enough to take a trip to New York so they could film giant television sets to bring home to watch on television. They do this to remember and to prove to their friends and family that they, for a spell, left their television sets. This is their vacation from normal life.
In any event, Times Square was my destination. My fellow passengers were sparse in number. As always, at least one of them was mentally ill and unafraid to share that illness with the rest of us. This day the role was played by a well-dressed young man who dove right in to the normal Manhattan schitzo routine: talking to himself, spreading his belongings on the seats and floor, singing—yelling, really—to the music in his walkman. Some of us chuckled to ourselves; most were nonplussed
It wasn’t long before the man was dancing up and down the back of the car. He paused only to tell four college girls that they are beautiful and that if they’d give him their phone numbers he could sing to them on the weekend.
No, train crazies are never shy.
Our local N made a stop and the ladies fled. Our friendly neighborhood Bellevue patient held the car doors open while he called out and sang to his new girlfriends. When they turned a corner, he lost sight of them and let go the double doors. Our train lumbered onward. His thrashing, careless play flipped a page into a new act. He now entertained us by disco dancing up the length of the car and back. At one point a homeless woman I recognized shook her head at me as if to point out the tragedy of his illness. She did not panhandle the car, a first in all the times I’ve seen her.
The train shrieked to another halt. He held the doors open again, shouting to no one in particular as a handful of passengers swiftly exited underneath his outstretched right arm. I thought he might leave forgetting his briefcase and assorted articles of clothing strewn about the seats of “his” section. To my surprise and to the delight of all, he stayed onboard. His dancing grew more frantic; his singing, a definite holler. The obvious fear stiffening the remaining passengers intensified when his dancing evolved into kickboxing and finally just kicking. This entertaining spectacle of mental disconnect, this Vaudevillian song and dance man gone pluck mad, finally lost his balance when he performed a series of difficult high jump kicks on the now speeding train. He reflexively grabbed at whatever was behind him so as not to fall. He clasped a metal pole but almost grabbed an elderly woman by accident.
“I’m sorry,” he told her. His delivery of those two words was equally reflexive and strangely sane.
‘Sane?’ I thought. ‘Is this all a show?’ The answer came to me later when I stepped off the subway platform. I’ve always wondered why the chemically imbalanced are never obsessively gardening, never neurotically reading quietly to themselves, never performing random acts of kindness. What is it about mental illness that often promotes aggressive behavior and, if we’re really lucky, rabid cursing in a person?
The answer, it dawned on me, lies in this man’s apology. In his momentary flight backwards, the illusion of his security, the illusion of his confidence—all the splinters that are his personality, which we call insane and he finds normal—were instantaneously torn through by primal fear. Fear galvanized the normally misfiring synapses in his brain and he was forced to deal with the problem head-on. He experienced a moment of clarity and in that moment his actions were kind and decent. His brain stopped being a playground for impulses and acted to protect his body and exhibit compassion for those around him.
Is it not true that beneath chaos and dysfunction lie order and sanity? That when the human brain functions properly, meaning sanely and in clarity, the human being is what one calls “fundamentally good?”
Humanity’s root is not sin but compassion. Order. True, living, flowing order, not the kind of dead patterns and conformity one normally associates with that word. We live our lives as order smothered in chaos. This is what we know. Remove chaos and our true face gleams in the brilliance of its always-new actions. This we’ve never known.
True compassion is not the flipside of sin. They are totally divorced from one another yet they share the same house. The act of housecleaning only happens when we are totally open, totally vulnerable, and hence one with that act.
Or as the man on the train found out, the shortest path to clarity is one slip away.