Some Threshold of Despair

These words are not new, but they are my own.

I was recently arrested for refusing to stop skateboarding on a bike trail near the shores of some nameless American commonwealth. I spent nineteen days in jail.

The absurdity of it all aside, I was held without bond for some time due to my having been from out of state, being deemed a “flight risk.” After two appeals, I was granted permission to leave jail on condition that I remain in the state until my court date, which, as it would happen, was also nineteen days away.

I had only planned on—and saved up for—a two-day vacation.

Naturally, posting bond, getting my vehicle out of tow, renting a hotel, and buying the necessities for two weeks were of considerable cost, depleting my funds and forcing me to rely upon the charity of my sister two time zones away.

The least expensive inn crouched 45 minutes from the jail and the city wherein I had committed the “crime,” providing a healthy cushion from the place where hundreds of onlookers had viewed my unwarranted and overly aggressive detainment.

Nineteen days thence, I drove to court in early in the morning, anxious to face court and go home, but fell victim to my first three-vehicle car accident. As the gods would have it, only my car was mangled. I received two tickets; the other two drivers drove off scot-free.

My car had to be towed, at no inconsiderable expense, and I was dropped off at court—fifteen minutes late.

Not only was I late to court, but I was facing four charges from my skateboarding incident: skateboarding on a bike path, resisting arrest, and failure to identify myself. For simply asking an officer whether I was under arrest after being told to identify myself, I was immediately placed under arrest: Two officers approached me, took an arm each, slammed me to the ground, jammed a knee on my head and my face into the dirt, and twisted my wrists into overtight cuffs.

For good measure, it seems, one cop choked me as they led me to a police vehicle, all the while I was restrained in handcuffs—a tactic that made headlines across the U.S. when a man recently died from its use. Later, somehow I was hit with the fourth charge: assault.

Back in the court I faced a judge and the law enforcement officers who had arrested me. It was 9:30 a.m., and I was already out $200 for a car tow, plus damages for repair, and the judge told me I was facing even more time in jail.

Thankfully, I successfully defended the assault charge, but was still convicted of the other three. I would accrue considerable fees and spend the afternoon in jail. Upon my release, I had about $20 in my pocket, and no car—but I was free.

My car was being held two cities away, a five-hour walk, according to my phone. They closed in four hours. Each day held in tow added $45 to the cost. My sister and I had already stretched our bank accounts thin; one more day would cripple us both. She could pay to get it out of tow, but I would have to make it there on my own somehow.

I waited for a bus towards the city in question. After and hour of no bus, in heavy frustration I rose to make that long journey. I was wearing black pants and two t-shirts, carrying a drink and a book in a plastic bag. I was tired. My shirts drowned in sweat. I lied to myself that I would make it in time.

If I didn’t make it to that lot before they closed, I’d have to sleep outside somewhere. In the remaining hour before closing time, I was still three hours from my destination. It was hopeless. Psychologically, something snapped.

And I laughed.

All this was too much. It seemed a cosmic joke to ladle despair upon despair. A thousand miles from home, broke, car-less, fresh out of jail, and considering safe places to hide and sleep, I had breached the threshold of despair.

I was not going to make it to the towing lot. Once I accepted that the day must boast of yet another disappointment, I changed. The situation was absurdSo absurd, it was comical.

“Humans,” wrote philosopher Thomas Nagel, “have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand. Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis — and the view is at once sobering and comical.”

In some sense what we have here is the powerful effect of perspective upon emotions. Yet in another we have a final consideration to make, which is illuminated by the following stanza of the poem “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

We look before and after,
                And pine for what is not:
         Our sincerest laughter
                With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

We can agree that there are degrees of emotion, such as irritation -> frustration -> anger -> rage, etc., yet can we feel the sting of but a single emotion at a time, or do emotions exist along a continuum, where the barriers between them blur and mingle? Do emotions have thresholds, which, upon their breach, can morph into a different feeling altogether?

In his song “Over My Dead Body,” Canadian rapper Drake observes, “Jealously is just love and hate at the same time.” I am also inclined to believe in the mingling of certain emotions, but as concerns the threshold issue, such is still a mystery to me.