The tunnel near my old house led to a dry reservoir. It ran right under my high school, and sometimes if you were very quiet you could hear the footfalls and voices of students above. The strange curvature of the rusted metal walls would twist voices until they were as faded and warped as memories.
Every day of my sophomore year I would retreat there to eat lunch. It stank, and on rainy days there would be about a half foot of rancid water trickling down the center, filling the air with a ripe petrichor that burned the eyes. It was there that the edgy aggravation of human interaction finally ebbed away, and all the social stipulations I was forced to endure on the surface vanished. The cobwebs which dampened my spirit were cleared away, and in that dank darkness I shone. Sometimes I would bring my friends down there, and they would smoke and we would talk about girls and laugh like hyenas. They would never stay long, and I didn’t want them to. The tunnels were mine, as surely as if I had beveled them from the earth myself. Near the end of the school year, I would go down there for longer and longer periods of time, until I was skipping half of my classes to that lonely darkness. It was that loneliness that I treasured. I was not alone, of course. There were always the blind scavengers down there, waiting for me.
It was down there that I would work on my masterpieces. Grandiose, vibrant spray-paintings that would take up spans of the rusted wall. I would paint them in darkness, with only the wan were-light of my cell phone carving a hole of light into which I worked my wonders. Dragons and minotaurs, unspeakable horrors and men of abomination, gods of darkness and blind spiders would do battle against proud heroes, bold knights, and the champions of day. The frustrations and desperations of the world outside would compound themselves into abstract masterpieces to which I would devote an hour, a day, a week. Sometimes I would emerge from the tunnel into the dried up reservoir behind the school, thinking I had only been down there a couple hours, and would be surprised to see stars littering the sky about me. I knew that there may be a day in which I would walk into the tunnel and never come out. The notion frightened me, though not horribly.
As time went on, I began painting erratically, even throwing pails about or bathing myself in colors and slamming myself against the walls. Then I stopped painting altogether. It was at this time that I quietly descended into madness. My madness manifested itself into two forms. The first was in the notion that I was nothing more than a mass of interacting organisms. Each of my limbs, organs, veins, and cells were different beings, for which my brain merely served as a tenuous master controlling unwilling vassals with tiny shocks of electricity. Each of the tiny organisms which made up the bag of meat which I defined as my “self” were themselves composed of smaller organisms, my cells and the microbes which filled my digestive organs. These in turn were constructed of atoms, which, being the structures composing everything that defines me, must hold some life themselves. Atoms are composed of particles of positive and negative energy, held together by a force so mysterious and so ubiquitous that scientists have not yet discovered an explanation for its existence. The particles that compose subatomic particles are more mysterious still, to the point that it is believed that their very presence or absence determines the existence of matter in the universe itself. But I digress.
The point is that I no longer believed in myself as an individual, but as the composition of thousands of tiny individuals, which themselves were the compositions of thousands of smaller individuals. My death would mean no more to the organisms which compose me then the little death of falling into sleep every night. One by one, these organisms would leave me, finding homes in other locations, to serve other purposes and masters. The only thing keeping this from happening was the active effort of my mind, which was slowly weakening.
My second manifestation of madness was the search for some form of objective truth. Having realized that my existence as an individual is no more concrete then a half-pound of pink mush, I turned desperately to the lofty notion of a higher universe in a desperate attempt to battle suicidal hopelessness. For all my existential listlessness and useless intelligence, the instinctive will to survive prevailed, and I became restless to find anything concrete enough to give me a sense of perspective. Down in the depths of the world, I howled into the darkness and fumbled with my rapidly decaying mind. Although it was a terrifying time and a true bottom to the well of my life, I cannot say it was as horrible as you may think. It was a simple existence, and the fear I felt was a definable fear, concrete and legitimate.
It could not last, of course. In the tunnels I howled and raged against reality, but on the surface I was tapioca pudding, bland and pleasant yet unremarkable. When I was present in class, I was the perfect student. Although I was often absent, I was able to stay on track with schoolwork without much trouble. Slowly but surely, my mind regained its grip on sanity and I began visiting the tunnels less and less. This happened for a multitude of reasons. For one thing, I became the captain of my school’s swimming team, and the nauseating task left me unwilling to return to my solemn darkness. For another, I found myself engaged in a relationship. It was hard to wallow in existential misery with ripe breasts rubbing against your chest and the cooing voice of a lover whispering life into your loins. Soon, I left the tunnels altogether, and it was as if I had never experienced that pure, raw insanity. I rejoiced, and felt a deep sadness, and I rejoiced in that sadness, for I no longer knew the words to its song.
Years passed. The relationship I once held so dear became a stagnant mess, and I began to pursue other passions. The simple, terrible fear of the tunnel became more distant than a memory. A memory of a memory, replaced by a dull, undefinable dread that eats away at the stomach and creeps behind the eyes at night. I cannot say that I ever want to return to the tunnels, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t yearn for simplicity again. But life goes on.
If the value of life is measured by raw emotion, I have never lived as fully as I did in those dark days. If the value of life is measured by the result of that life, I was a ghost throughout sophomore year, for all the fantastic works of art with which I daubed the walls during that year were washed away in the storm of the following spring. In a sense, the person who made those drawings is gone as well, long dead and well forgotten, for I can no longer relate to the poor diseased soul who howled into that darkness any more then I can relate to the old friend who killed himself on the train tracks earlier that year.
If I have taken anything from those days of darkness, it is that we all live many lives, literally and figuratively. Literally, because our cells die and are replaced at such a rate that by the age of twenty we are an entirely different composition then we are at the age of ten, and figuratively, because as we change, we let our old selves die to make way for new ones. I have lived more lives then I can count, each as unique and undefinable as the universe in which they resided. During the life I lived in those tunnels during Sophomore year, my audience were the sewer rats and pale spiders who considered that tunnel far more of a home then I could ever claim. I think that I enjoyed their company because I no longer wished to be seen as an individual, as a person. Rather, I enjoyed being viewed only as Man, the enigmatic being which the sewer rat both fears and cherishes. They fear us, because we slaughter them as vermin, yet cherish us because we feed them with the excess of our rampant consumerism. I enjoyed becoming the symbol of their savior and scourge more than I realized back then, and probably more than I realize even now. I was unwilling to emerge from the tunnel because I was unwilling to return to being an individual in a sea of individuals. I was unaware of it, but I was unready to face the burden of insignificance.
As my life evolved away from those tunnels, my audience evolved as well. If life is no more then conscious thought, then life begins some time after conception, and ends at brain death. Life is so much more then thought alone, however. I once believed that there was some objective truth that I could discover if I looked hard enough, but I now know the folly in that belief. There can be no objective truth, for we live in a subjective universe. To put it as Carl Sagan would, we are the universe, experiencing itself subjectively. Therefore, every act I commit is to myself, for myself, and viewed by myself, and myself alone. In this knowledge I take comfort, in the same way that some men take comfort in religion. My failures, my successes, my lives and my deaths are all experiences, and in the end, experiences are the only things we can truly treasure.