Screaming for Comfort

Some people — many people, actually — scream a lot. They don’t necessarily make any noise or open their mouths; their faces may be blank or even rigidly pleasant, but inside themselves they’re screaming. They howl to the moon: for safety … or fortune, love, health, food, a clear conscience, respite from grief, a relief from terror — an infinite number of things they wish they had but don’t. People you pass on the street are bent over double even as they walk upright.

I scream for common sense, of which I have little. I’m not a very intelligent guy. I’m glib, but not intelligent. There are so many little things in life that most people confront and deal with daily; whereas I flounder like a drunk duck in the face of life’s little teachable moments. I thank God every day I’m married to the wife I have, for many reasons, but one aspect of our relationship that comes into play every day is the yin and yang of it. I don’t fix the kitchen sink drain; she does. (I write the songs.) Going to Home Depot and buying the right hex nut is beyond my seeming capabilities. John Lennon said he hoped to die before Yoko because he was terrified of life without her to take care of him. I can relate.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” and that is true. Of course, some people don’t feel that way. Some people are carefree, but not many. Many people put on their resumes that they relish challenges and are great fans of problem-solving, and they’re full of crap. Challenges are a pain in the neck. Others say problems are disguised opportunities, and they say that because they read it in a self-help book somewhere. It pumps them up with a measure of enthusiasm to read some aphorisms from Tony Robbins or Norman Vincent Peale, and those aphorisms help people. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Without fear — and inward screaming — there would be no religion. Why would we need it if everyone felt serene and confident all the time? Millions (me included) live with the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads: the fear of dying and then frying in a lake of fire for eternity like a slice of country ham. To a lot of people that’s silly — what kind of god would permit such a thing? But when you’re raised to think that way, as I was, the feeling never quite leaves you. For thousands of years now people in power have used fear as leverage to keep people in line. And with good reason: It works.

So people go to church, or drink, or both, or take Xanax, or write songs, or sing loudly in traffic stopped at a red light, or jog, lift weights, pursue coitus at every turn, hug their kitty cats while zoning out in front of the TV — whatever it takes to cope in a world that is not so much cruel as it is indifferent. Many others simply do nothing. Scientists have placed dogs in crates separated down the middle by a short wall. The floor on one side would be electrified, and the dogs jolted by an electric shock, which they learned to avoid by leaping over the wall to the other side of the crate, which was not electrified. Then both sides would be electrified, and the dogs learned they were screwed no matter what. Then the scientists would turn the electricity back off on one side, but the dogs no longer hopped over the wall to avoid it; they sat there and took the shocks without moving. Learned helplessness, they call it. Quiet desperation.

So, Tommy, you’re depressing the hell out of me. Don’t you have anything positive to say? Isn’t there a way out? Perhaps. The Buddhist monastic student said, “Master, what do I need to do in order to be enlightened?” The master asked, “Have you eaten breakfast yet?” “Yes,” said the student. The master yelled, “Then wash your dishes!”  And the student was enlightened. From my vantage, that’s about all there is to it. Feeling afraid? Wash your truck. And talk to somebody. It’s important to know you’re not alone. People scream, but some learn to do it together in silent harmony, and in that there is comfort.