Most of us go from one day to another, seeing only what’s in front of our faces. It’s the way our society functions. We grow up being told that we need to find a career, find a mate, and then everything will be in place for our happiness.
But there is a current running in us that goes against the grain of our ordinary existence. You can find it in eastern philosophy, American films like “The Matrix”, in the writings of scholars like Joseph Campbell. It lives in all of us and, especially in middle class America; we suppress it with a will that renders it comatose. With some exceptions, our parents never told us to “follow your dreams” or “take risks” or “explore the meaning of reality”. If we who ignore that little voice in our ear asking us to find “more”, formed a brotherhood of sorts, most of us, and that includes your author, would be members.
In the Matrix, Neo chooses the “right” pill, the pill that will allow him to achieve his destiny. Had he taken the wrong pill, he would have been left to an existence that is comprised only of sleep and dreaming. The message here is that what we see as reality is just the opposite: illusion.
For some of us, at one point in our lives, we are not given the choice of whether we experience something that transforms us radically. In my novel, “The Railroad”, the main character, Mike Dobbs, is trapped in the subway, two blocks from the World Trade Center as the towers collapse. In writing this part of the book, I had wondered if I was being a vampire, sucking the blood out of a tragedy that affected the entire world. In the end I decided that it was not that at all, that I had a reason to present this tragedy as a transforming experience.
On September 11, 2001 I found myself in a north bound number four train. The train lurched to a stop north of the Wall Street station, practically knocking me and my fellow passengers off our feet. And that’s where it stayed for half an hour until we backed up into the Wall Street station, allowing us to climb the stairs to the street. My experiences are the experiences of the protagonist in my book. Mike Dobbs also gets trapped in the subway and experiences most of what I did.
World Trade Center incident. Subway in dust-filled Wall Street station is evacuated.
That experience gave life to the book and, by extension, Mike Dobbs. For both of us, this experience left deep scars. And with that type of pain comes transformation. At its core, this transformation manifests itself in question and doubt. Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to my city? How safe am I? Could this happen again? Is there any foundation to my existence that is solid?
That final question really speaks to the most damaging part of being in a tragedy of that magnitude. Security is based on consistency and a sense of place. Once that is taken away, it’s very hard to ever again think of the life in the same way. Like a child who has been abandoned by his parents, victims of tragedy feel, at least for a time, like nothing will ever be okay again.
For Mike Dobbs, his experience scars him deeply. Before his experience in the subway, Mike is a self-centered, high-powered Wall Street executive, about to reap the rewards of years of hard work in the form of a major promotion to an officer spot. Mike lives in his own universe, caring little for other people’s welfare and living off the rush of high stakes business.
When he loses his sense of invulnerability, fueled by his success in business and his wealth, Mike loses his zest for the life he had. He runs to his less than beautiful weekend house, dubbed chez Moosehead after the enormous Moose head left by the former owner. To his surprise this superstar finds that he can’t spend any time by himself. For those who are faithful to the idea of transformation through pain, this is where it begins. For Mike Dobbs, whose life was rooted in self-aggrandizement and adulation, being alone is a kind of hell.
Living in his hell, Mike hits bottom. He drinks excessively and drags himself through each day. While he doesn’t realize it, hitting his bottom opens him up to a whole new world, a world where all of his assumptions about his life become meaningless.
That is until he takes in Eileen Benoit and her daughter, Megan. Like Mike, their lives have been destroyed; in their case by Eileen’s abusive husband. Relegated to life as a fugitive, Eileen is forced to run to save her daughter from sexual abuse from her father. At first Mike is disgusted that, in the midst of his depression and misery, he’s been saddled with two females that are more damaged than he is.
And this is where the transformation begins. Mike, who has spent years thinking only of himself, is forced to think about a tragedy worse than his; back when he was big deal on “The Street”, Eileen and Megan Benoit would have been “damaged goods” and completely beneath his notice.
What I share with Mike is a similar transformation. Long before 911 I had decided to move to Tennessee to marry a woman I fell in love with. While she and her children were not plagued by the same awful circumstances as Eileen and Megan, I also took on responsibilities that I never would have considered when I lived in New York.
While our “positive thinking” and “self-help” culture teaches us otherwise, I believe that true transformation comes through trial by fire. It’s easy to be safe and decide to take the “wrong pill”. However, like “Neo” in the Matrix or “Luke Skywalker” from the Star Wars franchise, the only path to what might be their destiny is through trial by fire.
I hope you share my story of Mike Dobbs journey: “The Railroad” on Amazon.