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Starting Point

A place to ponder, then get out, move on


I was thinking earlier during Vespers about the past -- in part about a man in a big hole in New York. Most of us are afraid to fall into holes -- financial holes, misery pits, the chilly voids of dead relationships, various existential orifices that threaten to gobble up what little happiness we manage to muster as we forage through these concrete and glass jungles of life.

Some years back I was having my morning coffee at the kitchen table and had before me the metropolitan page of The New York Times. There was a man staring back at me from a photograph. He was sitting in a big hole in midtown Manhattan. He had decided to live there. He was making some sort of a profound existential statement of angst, and it was duly recorded in the story that accompanied the photograph. Word began to spread about him, and some reporter from the Times deemed him newsworthy, fit for print.

He was a No-Man of sorts, a drifter who reached a point where he saw avoiding holes as pointless and so he jumped into one and stayed there. He said something to the effect that he decided that it was best to “live out of his nothingness” and a big hole seemed to be the best place to do just that. If I remember correctly, he was into a bit of Zen and that life is a going-to-nowhere kind of thing. So he stepped off the treadmill and jumped into a big hole. He realized Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. He made The New York Times.

I doubt he is still there. Big holes do not last all that long in New York City. Like most holes in life, they eventually get filled in. There were also other considerations that surely prompted him to rethink his position in life. Privacy, for one.

It struck me as funny that people would pay up to $100 dollars for a theater ticket to see a Beckett play about the void, the waiting for the big nothing, the “life is a big, aching hole” theme, and there it was in real life right on a street in New York. Something Kierkegaardian about that -- where living in a hole is raised to an art form, a statement of profundity. Something deep.

I knew a woman who had a lot of money and was seeking a way to heal some bad memories. She called her therapist every day, and he charged $125 an hour, which she faithfully paid by credit card. She called him three times a week for an hour each time. This had gone on for years. She once told me, and of course I did not charge her, that what she really felt like doing was giving away all she had and jumping into a big hole and letting life just pass her by. I do not know if her memories ever healed. Nor do I know if she ever went the route of the man in New York. I doubt it. I hope she is doing OK and does not have bad memories anymore, including the memory of all she paid to that therapist when a few good friends could have helped her just as much.

I was playing my guitar last night and now I am thinking about the hole in the guitar and how it is needed to make the notes rich and resonant. The music falls into that round space of nowhere and comes out again all the richer for it. Pretty deep, huh?

It is not good to stay in holes. We all get into them, but they are meant to be lived with and moved through. Makes for better music, wiser lives, and, if need be, the kindness to extend a hopeful hand or encouraging word when one we love decides it is time to jump into the nearest crater of utter meaninglessness. Holes are for something, that is for sure. Places to ponder. Magical sources of resonance. Places to emerge from and move on.

Trappist Fr. James Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery, Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002