Yesterday I was listening to an audio book, “Crusaders Cross,” by one of my favorite authors, James Lee Burke. In the book the protagonist, Dave Robicheaux asks himself, is it possible that hell is just a place you step into on any given day. The question struck me like a car running through a stop sign. I felt myself take a step sideways, physically moved by the underlying logic hidden in the question. I ran through the question again, allowing it to submerge, maybe soften up a bit around the edges. I turned off the audio book and I thought about that for a while as I worked. I thought about the different definitions of the noun, and setting aside the obvious netherworld connotation, I settled on a more simple meaning. The inescapable and extremely unpleasant situations we find ourselves thrust into on a daily basis, and I do mean thrust into,(more like jammed into, like that last bit of dirty laundry on the floor around the already overstuffed hamper, smelling of mildewed towels and socks,) could be considered hell.
Therefore, using that as frame of reference, the answer—was yes. Not only could we step into hell, it seemed as though we could also live there for an extended period, and if we're lucky, leave again. An extended leave of absence from our normal life and a temporary residence in hell was completely possible for most, and more than we would like to admit it, actually happening for many.
Consider the man at the intersection holding the cardboard sign, his eyes dejected, his face unshaven, and his clothes wrinkled and worn. I think it would be safe to say that he probably came from a normal life. (Insert your own form of normality here.) Maybe he lived in a three-bedroom ranch, drove a nice truck and held down a good job at a shipyard. And maybe one day as life was slowly chipping away at his dreams, he realized that he could no longer live in the realm of the angels—but instead was cast out into the land behind our lives, the backend of the world, so to speak, the place where hell begins.
Was it John Steinbeck that said, “We have come to fear the man with holes in his shoes?” if you were to look at it from his perspective, wouldn’t we be the monsters that he sees in his dreams? Do the people that leave the parking lot at Applebee’s satiated and clean, filled with an inner light from the friendly conversation and alcohol buzzing in their blood, look like demons to him? Can he hear what they say as they wait for the light to change to green?
“Why doesn’t he get a job?”
“I really wish those people wouldn’t stand right here where we have to look at them.”
Why do we avert our eyes, trying with all of our might not to look at him, finding something suddenly interesting to look at on the dashboard, or the console between the seats, knowing that he’s right outside the window of our transportation back to the Elysian fields.
Why are we afraid of them? What is it that they represent that makes us turn away? I believe that he’s just about as close to hell, without being on fire, that you could possibly be. And I believe that scares the hell out of the rest of us.
So yeah, stepping into hell looks like a distinct possibility, war, hunger, watching your loved ones die, physical pain, broken hearts and mental anguish, all of that may be the hell we heard so much about as we struggled to shake off the cocoon of childhood and grow into adults, spreading our wings in the cold morning air. Each of us has a demon living within us. Each of us has an angel as well. Which one we choose to be is entirely up to us. Fate certainly has a way of knocking at the most inopportune time. You never know when you might take that step.
Let’s try to remember not to put holes in the souls of hearts, while we’re trying to not to be the ones—with the holes in the soles of our shoes.