Glass Cage

The boy is unhappy. We call him a boy because he acts boyish, for he is so far away that none of his features come clearly into view. We cannot tell whether that slim figure is male or female, not yet blooming out into one of the full and ripe shapes that both sexes readily bear; whether the cherubic face is awaiting a squared jaw and leaner chops or high cheekbones and a delicate chin; whether the artless brashness will develop into a mannish earnestness or a womanly vibrancy. All we can see is his actions, the acts he takes, and with the unassuming energy and the aimless vigor and the greenwood yearnings, we can say he is boyish, either the boy we would call “boy” or the girl we would call “tomboy.” There is, at the very least, nothing girlish about him, no coquettish flirtation with the world, no sly innocence, no precocious sociality. So boy he is, and boy shall we call him.


The boy is unhappy, and he cannot explain why. This is not because he has no ability to sense it, for he certainly does sense it, or because he can’t ascertain the reason, for he intuits that plainly, but because he cannot make the reason clear, to anyone else but also to himself. He is unworldly to the extreme, clumsy with language and his own feelings, so he does what he is used to doing everywhere else that finesse is required, which is to rely on his powerful intuition and guess-echo the work of someone far more accomplished. Others praise him, sign astonishment, and he is unsure whether to be proud, embarrassed, or derisive. I copied, and poorly, and you think this is good? Couldn’t you at least tell me how to do it better? But there it works, there he has something to go off of, and here he has no example and ad-libs, poorly. The result is that he sounds incoherent, to everyone else and also to himself. The truth is that also he is incoherent.


None of this matters, he says, which is the truest and falsest thing he can say. Everything is too easy. But what about getting a part-time job? It’s hard, it’s impossible, I’m trying. Nobody wants a kid with no experience. What about the projects you mysteriously never start, that you fail on? You do so many difficult things in school so easily, what’s different here? I don’t know, it’s tough. And those things in school are easy. But nobody else can do them. They’re dumb, that’s all. Everyone’s dumb. Then surely you’re at least smarter? It’s easy, I’m not that special. It’s not hard to be better. But I’m not better in ways that matter. Is anyone good at anything? How should I know?


He has his hobbies, of course. He’s better than average at them without even trying, but never great, just like (he thinks) everything else. His instincts are good, he works out basic principles in a flash, he looks up guides and puts them to good use, but he never gets past above average, never achieves something worth achieving. People tell him he’s great, but he knows better. No effort = no worth, and he never [has to] put effort in. He has no ability, and cares little for what he achieves, but he despises the people who are worse than him at things, because what kind of existence can that be? Do they try even less? Are they feeble-minded? How pathetic. But people who start out below him and become better than him, these he without-even-willing-it hates. He feels guilty about it, but the hate is still there, searing poison in his soul.


He has his hobbies, but for some reason he can’t lay his finger on, he can never really improve at them. There’s the initial arc where he’s learning from scratch, of course, but after that it feels like try as he might, he can’t get past the next wall up. He stagnates, stuck. He puts in effort, of course, but it never feels like it yields any results. It’s infuriating, and he starts to take out his anger by yelling at the hobby (as if it would yield) and hitting things associated with it or things around it. Never around other people, of course, not if he can help it, he doesn’t want to look crazy, but he feels that angry and when he’s alone he lets it out. He did the same thing when he was a kid – hitting things, sometimes biting himself, when he got frustrated. That’s what they called it then, when he was four, but when he became eight they called it anger issues, and he learned to hold back his muscles when he got angry. It was just something he’d have to live with, adapt to, learn to control, like schizophrenia or being female. It would happen every so often, and he’d have to do the best he could. No one ever considered why he might be getting angry, or what at. In the meantime, when hobbies frustrated him, he’d go and start new ones. He liked that. He liked the feeling of progress, and there was nowhere to get progress faster or easier than with starting something new.


There are things he hates, too. He has trouble doing them, trouble even starting them. If he tries, it feels like there’s something resisting him. He will forget about it, or ignore it, and when he tries to do it, it feels painful. He doesn’t know what to do, sometimes, or where to start. Or when to start. He feels lost, confused, hopeless. One of these things is finding work, which frightens him. If anything is a mark of worth, it is that, so being unable to find work makes him…? He struggles to finish that sentence, and so do the people he sees and who talk to him, they may be parents or teachers or something else, but all we can see from here is how they treat him, so let’s call them therapists. They call him lazy, unfocused, and smart in the same breath, which is not particularly helpful to him, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to them. We are looking from a distance, so it is obvious to us that they would have diagnosed correctly had they not (like us) already determined him to be a boy, which is that he is anxious. But that is little help to him here.


The boy is unhappy, and while he intuits reasons for it that are correct, he cannot make them cohere. He senses that things for him are either effortless or impossible, and does not recognize that this is why nothing seems real. He understands that vexation infuriates him, but has no comprehension of what is vexing him. He knows how much he struggles with what his deepest fears term, alternately, “success” and “reality,” but he utterly misplaces the locus of this struggle. And it is easy for us, from far away, to see why: although the boy is surrounded by people, who in fact never leave him alone, he has never had any parents, only caretakers. Perhaps he doesn’t know the difference, but we do. We’ve been watching, after all.


When he was young and he tried to do some task his infant body was not yet tasked for, he would cry like any child would, but when others intervened they simply did what it was which he could not manage. They did not stop, they did not evaluate the situation, see whether it was something he possibly could learn to achieve, and then act accordingly. They did not sit and wait patiently until he could accomplish it. They did not even bother to tell him the word that was filling his world, frustration, give it a name and give him power over it, and instead only reserved it for themselves when really they were exasperated. So he grew up, not knowing the difference between these two types of anger, the anger towards the world not bending to one’s will and the anger towards others not bending to one’s will, sensing an absence in his own metaphorics but lacking even the base concepts to cognize this rift in meaning.


And how could he? He was never right, after all. He quickly learned that the only method for his being was o-being, obeying, for when he did what he was told he was praised for his genius but when he did anything he thought of he was scolded. “Be yourself,” they commanded, and guilelessly he believed them, only to face their horror when he did. In ten thousand and one words they said how could you, this is unacceptable, you can’t do this, we know you’re different than this. What he heard was confusion and terror, and what they meant was: after all we’ve done for you, why aren’t you who we imagined you’d be before we even knew you? They thought: why aren’t you acting like you did before, and he thought: I was doing what you were telling me, then. There was no one who stepped in, a loving grandparent, say, to ask him what was happening and if it was wrong, to discuss the wrong on its own level, on his own level, and provide guidance but most importantly the openness for the boy to choose on his own terms, to be permitted to be human and make the first honest step into adulthood. But there was no one, and the people around him treated him like a doll and unlike a human, and so instead of the velvet-dark lesson of semiotics he got the oil-dark one and drowned in it.


So the boy, faithful student, continued with his studies, because that is what he was told to do. Doing what you are told, he thought, was easy. He couldn’t understand how others couldn’t manage. The classes always continued at (for him) a snail’s pace, and even the slightest bit of reading outside of them made him a genius compared to his peers. There was no resistance; he would write papers in one go, with no references, complete his homework in class, and never needed to study for a test. Nothing felt real. But every so often, he would be hit by something… different. He couldn’t explain the reason, not precisely, but he knew the result very well: he would be unable to do it. It would be things like applications, work, or anything else that he wasn’t quite used to, and he would look at it, and he would freeze. For his usual areas, the classwork and of course the hobbies, he could act without hesitation, instantly doing what needed to be done, but here he could not act. And perhaps it was misapprehension, perhaps it was because of how unreal everything else felt, but the things he failed at felt the most real of all. It was him that felt unreal.


If he had thought to think through, he might have noticed what happened when he faced these challenges: they were always, without hesitation, taken from him and handled by another. For even the simplest thing, he was never permitted to try that which he did not know how to do, but was simply told how to do things. His ideas were carefully sanitized, put into the delicate formaldehyde of unreal scenarios, and left there as brilliant specimens. Desires to achieve and prove were vexed, even unusual opinions gainsaid, but most of all, he was gently smothered like a butterfly by the quiet orderliness of others. He never could do, for it was always done for him. No time to observe, no space to reflect, only things done for him and orders on high. The caretakers around him, for we still cannot recognize a parent among them, were far too skilled, far too efficient, to put up for a moment with the slow awkwardness of a child. They never gave him the end of the task and sat by patiently as he fumbled with unfamiliar muscles, never gave gentle advice spaced out to develop him at his pace, never bit their tongues and accepted an inferior result as a welcome sacrifice for the betterment of a human. And so he never learned betterment, never learned the pleasures of failure, never learned that a monster to be vanquished starts with the smallest and tenderest steps. He was told the tale of Heracles and the Hydra, because those around him wanted to give him a classical education, but the reason they failed is not that they did not tell him what it meant, it was that they did not understand it themselves. They knew nothing about proper methods and that the good that is sought can be decades out, and he learned that a task that proved challenging was clearly impossible.


Having no power, how could the boy be anything but anxious? But nobody taught him the meaning of that word, for everyone had become lazy with words. They chose the simplest ones to tussle over, the most elementary terms, ones that could be proven or disproven, ones that accepted the underlying forms, rather than arguing about the words which lie underneath and support the cathedrals of thought. If the boy talked about the simple words, they argued gamely, but if he talked about the deep words, they blinked at him with piscine vapidity and told him not to be so pedantic. For they spoke knowledge over wisdom, and got caught up in meaningless tangents like this one rather than realizing what we want so hard to say, which is that the boy felt terrifyingly powerless and nobody wanted to help.


The boy is unhappy, and although it is dark enough under his skies, we are distant enough to see further, where the last lights dim. Though his lot in life is pathetic now, it is propped up by the overbearing support of his countless caretakers, who do care for him, in their misguided way. But they shelter him, accidentally, from what we might gloss (as he does) reality, and the real is uncaring and it does not care for him. He may be sheltered by others, but the cold world (as his caretakers haphazardly realize) has no patience for the useless. Those who cannot fend off nature must perish for it, or else slave themselves to one who can. This is the eternal truth: that it is not merely that it can’t go on like this, but far more terrifying, it can – until the end. Life can limp along hollowly, unchanging, until finally our line of credit runs out and we must returned what is owed to the dark, with interest. The only hope, the only one, is that we can make some gains that death cannot tax, and so capture a piece of reality from the shadows surrounding our precious candle. The boy, as he is now, will take everything to his grave, every one of his hopes and dreams and aspirations, for the truth is not that “you can’t take it with you” but that you should do anything you can to leave it all behind. He will die, it is inevitable, but it is equally inevitable that he will never grow old.


We can see this, for we are like him, all humans, all farsighted. The eyes are lenses guiding light from without, not mirrors reflecting it from within, and this is for the best. If it were the other way, if the distant were blurred and the nearby were clear, then we might never learn discipline in resisting the lure of our own wisdom or enduring the discomfort of looking at something too close in. But since we are distant, equally our voices are past reaching him, so perhaps the best we can hope for is to scratch down the words we would like him to say on our own sandy hearts and see if they can survive the tides.


I am lost, says the boy we now dream. I am angry, I am frightened. I do not feel that I have a place in this world. I do not know what I should do. Nothing feels real. I don’t feel real. It feels like I can do anything, but accomplish nothing. When I try to accomplish things, I fail for reasons I don’t understand in the slightest, and that is incredibly frustrating. Is the task impossible? Am I impossible? I don’t know. I don’t know how to make things better, either. So when I look at tasks, they feel impossible. I don’t know how to get started. I’m not even sure I should get started. I feel paralyzed, and massively anxious. Even the simplest problems can trigger this in me. I’m left helpless by this uncertainty, and I feel worthless because of it. Meanwhile, the things I can do, and can do easily, are so simple as to be despicable. I can’t pride myself on any of it. I don’t know if I’m even good at any of it. People say I’m good at certain things, but I have no way of knowing whether it’s true or false. I don’t know the first thing about any of it. I hate this feeling. I don’t know if I even am anyone, and that’s the worst feeling of all.


If I had to say, he says for our sake, in a word, what I’m missing, it would be power. Not power as in “coming to power,” but a simpler kind, more personal. I have no ability to choose things, especially not for myself, and no power to achieve things. The things I can do, I am told to do. The things I cannot do, I do not know where the doing begins. If I wish to have a good day, what ability do I have to ensure it? If I wish to avoid hardship, what skills can I leverage to accomplish that? This is why I am anxious: I fear my own lack of power. This is why I am frustrated: I hate my own lack of power. This is why nothing feels real: for without the power to act, how can I be real? If I can do nothing, am I anyone? This is the dream I have found myself trapped in. This is why I am not free.


If I were to have power, what would that look like? I would be able to act without fear – but wouldn’t some things be beyond me? I would not have failures to spark my rage – but can I expect to succeed always? I would be real enough to affect the world – but do I lose that reality when my strength does not suffice? I want power over the outside to be someone, but am I no one if I am not a god?


But I know what I hate, and it is slipperiness. It is not that the world defeats me, it is that the world eludes me. I can do, or I can not do, but in neither case do I touch what is real. It is either effortless or impossible, and I have no traction. There is no growth, development, I may do new things but I do not become a new person. Details may change, but that is all, I know there is some delta, but I can sense who I am and it does not change, I just learn new tricks in my existing forte. What I seek isn’t power over the outside, because if I don’t mind the limitations of my current life I can line up accolades until my heart stops beating, but the very thought of that makes me want to stop it myself. I desire power over myself, to be able to change myself, because my own self is what divides between what I can do and what I can’t. It is the cause of my failed traction, because being as I am now is effortless but changing is impossible. If I fail, that can be endured if I am not beyond change. This is the power I desire.


But if failure is not what I should fear, then what is different between what I have and what I want? Or to invert the question, if I fail, is that not proof that I’m failing to change? Will not each failure reaffirm my lack of power over self? But surely there are things which are impossible to do, where failure speaks nothing of character. So how do I differentiate between the two? If I misjudge an impossibility to be a failure, then I will be unhappy because of my failure, but if I misjudge a failure to be an impossibility, then I will be unhappy because I will have designated myself weak. Failure, then, cannot be the defining point, but instead it must be my ability to judge: the things I can do, the things which are impossible for me, and the things which I can do through gaining power over myself, by growing. These are the possible categories that these actions can fall into, and my judgment is what discerns between them. It is through, and within, my own esteem that I may grow.


So where can this judgment originate? It might come from comparing my attempts to their outcomes, which has basis in reality. If the world rejects, then I fail; if it accepts, I succeed. The things I should attempt, then, come from my desires, for that is the basest wellspring of direction. But isn’t that what I do already? I resist doing things that are painful, which are where I fail, and then do those things which are gratifyingly easy, which I can achieve without effort. There is no growth or change there. So the motive force must come elsewhere than from desire, from a sense of “ought.” Outside of what I want, I should have an idea of what I should do. This should is not universal, for the universal covers what everyone should do under any situation and is thus limited to the negation, the should not, for that is infinitely available, but instead the should must be tied to one’s power. So this should must be relative to the linked judgment of one’s ability, which grants me the method: I attempt the minimum effort for the should, the lowest possible effort that can be made for that should, and then work my way up. In raising my sights, I grow stronger, and I change, gaining power over myself.


This is the method, but I am lacking the direction, the what which I wish to change into. This has only one form, the question: who do I want to become?


We applaud the boy of our dreams, wipe away a tear, and then, wake up.

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