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057 - On Outrunning Yourself - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Though we travel to the ends of the earth, we cannot outrun ourselves. Rather than looking to travel in more luxury and greater style, we should sit still with ourselves and consider whether we are running to something or running away from it.
Green fields, pine forest, and mountains - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Departure day and I am on the road again! I aim always to be a sincere student, Deuteros, and this means learning the lessons from my trials. Hence it was that I made my way by foot from the doors of my Times Square hotel and down the broad sidewalks flanking Broadway. No taxi to lure me in like a Venus flytrap only to hold me immobile and despairing of escape. I walk on past the stairways leading into the steamy depths of the subway, for there is nowhere they can transport me I want to go. And none of JKF, LaGuardia, or Newark will tempt me today only to leave me sitting. For there are only waiting gates and delayed gates, but no departure gates.

“How then,” you ask, “did you plan to make your escape from the city, if you were avoiding all these means of transport?” Ah, my clever plan was this: take to my own two feet, which have never failed me. I journeyed south down Seventh, west on 42nd, and there avoided the first shoals of my journey. The Port Authority Bus Terminal was not my plan, for I was seeking to make my escape from madness, and not to become mired in the quicksand of lost souls. Safely past to the corner of Eighth, and I strode on down to Penn Station. The iron rails were my last refuge, Deuteros, a hitherto reliable link to the state capitol, where Albany’s little airport beckoned.

Though I am unwillingly online, I knew enough from prior journeys to both order my ticket in advance on Amtrack.com and to reserve a seat on the grandly named Empire Service. Past the lingering lines of the lost snaking their way to ticket windows, the self-service kiosk cheerfully spit out my ticket with no more than a passing greeting from my credit card. Oh to see the great hall of Penn Station, where travelers direct their gazes up to the screens overhead, eagerly awaiting announcement of their track. Don’t watch the people, play with your cell phone, or let your attention wander. Suddenly a group takes off at a sprint, dragging suitcases and clutching loose bags to their side, their number has been called! If you have positioned yourself on the wrong end of the station, if you hesitate, you are left behind.

Past trips have left the bitter taste of experience in my mouth, for I know that though the Empire Service may originate on a different track each time, the line for boarding always forms in the same place. On the side of the great hall, in sniffing distance of the Dunkin Donuts if not quite close enough to touch, you must wait. Line up an hour before your train is to depart, and you will not be too early.

Book in hand, your hour flies by, and you are on the train moments after the boarding has begun. Locate your seat, tend to your bags. Then begins my favorite part of the journey: the first half hour as the train haltingly navigates the secret underground corridors of New York and emerges into the wide open Hudson valley. The lights on the train flicker on and off as the train shunts from track to track. Is the train supposed to lurch from side to side that much? Periodically you hear the static of a conductor’s announcement, the crackle a hint that something is being said, but I have never deciphered a single word.

In those moments when the train is dark and you are still underground, sometimes a beam of light thrusts in from an improbable angle above, lighting up fantastic and ever-changing manmade landscapes. Graffiti, of course. I cannot look away. I will not be surprised if the first sign of non-human intelligent life we find is a graffiti tag left behind by a bored alien teenager at the base of a red cliff on Mars. Then there are the detritus of human existence, some expected, like bottles and cans, filthy blankets, paper scraps blown in from the streets above, a mattress, rats, both living and not, but other things so unexpected that you marvel at what extremity brought them to these places: the shopping cart at least has wheels, I guess someone could have wheeled it there, but the refrigerator, the set of dining chairs?

Though your eyes strain in the dark, and you almost imagine you saw a shadow receding into the corner, I have never seen the citizens who must make their homes here, or at least pass some time among the dusty cinders. How do they access these realms, and how again do they alight? And what do they think when they see the lit windows of the Amtrack car? The faces of all within reflecting the blue glow of their phones and tablets, for am I the only one looking out?

I think the reason people so readily focus on outward appearances, Deuteros, is that they are afraid to look within. When I tell you that the worth of a person is not to be found in the clothes draped on their shoulders, or the car they adorn themselves with, think for a moment how hard we two work to ensure reason holds pride of place in our minds. Think how much toil is required to achieve this ease. Many all too willingly embrace the external to avoid facing the internal. For how many would find within themselves well-ordered and well-lit rooms instead of scattered debris, cast off possessions, and wild-haired inhabitants lurking in dark corners?

Though we travel to the ends of the earth, we cannot outrun ourselves. Rather than looking to travel in more luxury and greater style, we should sit still with ourselves and consider whether we are running to something or running away from it. If we work to clear away the weeds from a portion of our mind, and carefully pick up and discard the broken glass of poor decisions in our past, we may create a place of rest and calm within us that we can retreat to at will.

Be well.

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