And that’s the thing about life: it can fork any number of ways at any given moment. We forget this sometimes. We become so wrapped up in everyday existence that we fail to see that had this or that thing occurred differently, our lives would be much different. I’m not just talking about the big decisions, like “if I wouldn’t have canceled my flight, I would’ve been on a plane that crashed into the Andes and killed everyone onboard.” Or some similarly dramatic thing. Small decisions, elongated over time, can be just as consequential as big ones.
This is true of every human being who has ever existed. But today we’re going to focus on a guy named Jameel Anderson. His case isn’t unique. In fact, quite the opposite: his case is so commonplace that it could easily be swapped for anyone else’s and nobody would know the difference. There’s a singular blood running through all of us, as Emerson noted, and because of that, the One can easily represent the Whole, in almost all instances. It’s easy, yet unwise, to forget this.
So let’s zoom in on Mr. Jameel Anderson, specifically to a pivot point in his life, a moment in which he was forced to make a decision that, in retrospect, altered his journey and ultimately turned him into a different human being. In life as we know it, the only way to move is forward. A decision is made and that decision is sealed for all time. There’s no way of knowing what would’ve happened had an alternate path been taken. But literature is different. Literature is fluid. It isn’t bound by temporal limitations. It can explore lives never lived, potential never realized. It can float in the multiverse.
So won’t you float with me for a few moments, as we check in on the Jameel of 20 years ago, as he was lying, flat drunk, in the backseat of his car in a Walmart parking lot on a rainy summer night. He had no recollection of how he’d gotten there, or why he was there to begin with, but as he stared through his car window at a blurry overhead light, he felt something swell within him. On numerous occasions, Jameel has attempted to explain to me what this swelling felt like. But he was never able to pin it down. He once told me it was akin to “God, or something like God, making a stew inside of my stomach — a meaningful stew.” I understand this isn’t particularly descriptive, but it’s as close as Jameel could get to articulating this strange feeling.
Jameel was 25 and working at a gas station when all of this happened. He wasn’t in a good place — mentally, physically, spiritually, any of that. His girlfriend was suffering from mental health issues that need not be explained here, and Jameel had internalized those issues, blaming himself when in fact it was something she needed to deal with on her own. He felt ashamed that he couldn’t do more to help her, and that shame manifested itself in excessive alcohol consumption, which in turn led to more shame, and ‘round and ‘round Jameel went until he no longer knew who he was or what he was doing. He repeated this cycle of drinking and hangovers and abuse from his girlfriend until everything felt false and bad. The only things he seemed to know for sure was that he was chronically cursed, that he hated himself, and that no matter what he did, he’d never be able to raise himself into the ranks of common humanity.
“If other humans exist on the first floor of life,” Jameel often thought to himself. “Then I’m resigned to the basement, where spiders hang in the corners and a weird stench overtakes everything. And this basement, it has no door.”
Jameel was stuck in this regressive mindset for years, fully convinced that he was fucked, until that night in the back of his car when God, or whatever it was, began stirring a soup of change. As Jameel laid there, too rot-gut hammered to recall much of anything, this visceral swell imparted the following wisdom: “you must make a choice, my friend. You can fulfill your prophecy of eternal sadness. Or you can change.” Change: it was a tough thing for Jameel to swallow. After all, if he were to truly change, that would mean admitting to himself that there was a door in the basement after all, and that he’d simply refused to see it. It would mean that he wasn’t destined to live below the rest of humanity. It would mean that it was possible to lead a more fulfilling life.
So right here! This is where the split happens! Can you see how this is the way of the universe? There are pivot points that demand action. So much of our existence is spent blindly following the path. During these bland moments, it seems like decisions are being made by an external source, and that all things have been predetermined. But then, out of nowhere, there are brief flashes of autonomy, of empowerment, where the undecided nature of our future becomes so clear that we don’t understand how we hadn’t noticed it before. The future, we realize, can be manipulated by action. We aren’t warted trolls roaming an inescapable cellar. We are the Gods of our own lives, determining which selves live and which ones die. This truth is revealed to us not in our minds, not in our hearts, but within our souls — that ambiguous non-area located somewhere on the cusp of humanity and the divine.
Jameel didn’t think all of these things as he lay in the backseat of his car. But he did feel them in some vague sense, which is why in one version of his story, he called a friend to pick him up. This decision put in motion a string of subsequent decisions that pulled Jameel out of the cellar. The next morning, after his terrible hangover melted away, he resolved to make major life changes. And this time, unlike in the past, he actually went through with them. He broke up with his girlfriend, who was in shambles for about a week before latching onto another guy and disappearing from Jameel’s life forever. The termination of this relationship made Jameel feel powerful, and it proved to him that he could commandeer his own fate.
It was a slow process (much slower than it will appear now, as I recount it to you) but Jameel eventually quit his job at the gas station and enrolled in a local community college, where he studied photography and film, two subjects he’d always enjoyed, but never pursued due to a crippling lack of confidence. It just so happened that Jameel had a knack for filmmaking, as evidenced by a short piece he created entitled My Life Before the Soup. To put it briefly, My Life… was a 12-minute art-romp about a millennial struggling to find his place within the world. Jameel’s professor noted that the project showed great potential, and that Jameel “had a natural inclination for visual expression.” The professor encouraged Jameel to continue making movies — which he did, but not in a professional capacity. Instead, he pursued his art on the side (by compiling home movies of his wife and kids into artistic projects) while working toward becoming a practicing clinical psychologist.
“I want to help people who truly need help,” Jameel once told me. “And I can make more of a difference in psychology than I can in film.”
Eventually this dream became a reality: Jameel earned his masters degree. He began working as a therapist, where he had such a revelatory impact on a woman named Tonya (issue: substance abuse stemming from childhood trauma) that Tonya felt compelled to write him a letter years after she’d turned her life around. I won’t recite the letter back to you word for word, because that would be a waste of time, but I will share with you the following sentence from said letter, which made Jameel fill with pride: “you lifted me up at my lowest point. Thank God for people like you.” It was a cliche thing to say, I have to admit, but it made Jameel feel good about himself, so I’m OK with it.
As you can see, life was swell for Jameel. He never thought of the cellar, and the memory of that night in the backseat faded so far into the past that it felt like a different person altogether had lived through it. He married an artist named Brenda and they had two children, Bowie and Kendrick. One night, over a glass of red wine, Brenda asked Jameel what he’d been like before she met him. Sure, she knew generalities, but who had he really been, down to the gritty details and all that.
“We could talk about that if you’d like,” Jameel said with a smile. “But I think I’d prefer to enjoy this glass of wine, sitting here with you.”
That was a pleasant outcome for Jameel, now wasn’t it? But don’t forget: we’re living in a godforsaken multiverse. There’s another thread to Jameel’s existence in which his life unfolds quite differently. To be accurate, there are infinite versions of Jameel’s life, but I have neither the time nor patience to explore infinite wormholes. You can do that on your own time, if you feel so inclined. Instead, let’s focus on the timeline where Jameel decided to drive home from the Walmart parking lot instead of having his friend pick him up. In one string of the multiverse, Jameel wrecked and died. In another, he was arrested for driving under the influence. In this specific series of events, however, he made it home without incident. He woke up the next morning, nursing an awful hangover, but instead of taking control of his life, he let it lead him by the balls. He stayed with his girlfriend, despite his deep dissatisfaction. Cowardice made him believe that happiness was unattainable.
He woke up the next morning, nursing an awful hangover, but instead of taking control of his life, he let it lead him by the balls. He stayed with his girlfriend, despite his deep dissatisfaction. Cowardice made him believe that happiness was unattainable.
So he remained in the harmful relationship, like a wimp. He eventually impregnated his girlfriend, and man, he was really stuck up the rut then: without an education or the money to get one (thanks to the baby, whose name was Macy, by the way) he continued to work at the gas station until his mid-40s, ascending to the role of store manager — which is OK, I suppose, if you’re into that sort of thing, but at the end of the day Jameel never felt as though he was living up to the potential latent within him. Because of this feeling of — how shall we phrase it — terminal lacking, there was always a large part of Jameel that was deeply discontented. This dissatisfaction manifested itself as a glossing over of the eyes — as it is wont to do — and as wild daydreams he never had the courage to live out: visions of himself making films or helping people, instead of selling candy bars to teenagers, and cigarettes to emaciated nicotine addicts.
It wasn’t a totally unfulfilling way to live — he loved his daughter, Macy, he guessed — but the relationship with his wife never improved. Many times he’d come home late at night after closing the store, and while the rest of his family was asleep, he’d sit on the front porch with his Australian Shepherd, Beacon. He’d drink a beer — always just one beer — and stare at the moon and stars on nights when they were out. On nights they were hidden behind cloud cover, he’d glare out into the middle distance, fully immersing himself in the daydream of residing in Los Angeles and making movies — because oh, how he loved movies — or living in New York, working as a therapist and helping people better themselves. On some nights, when the temperature was just right and the beer was sitting well, he swore these visions were actually happening in a distant realm of the universe. Way out there, in some parallel something or other, Jameel Anderson was grabbing life by the taint and living it the way it was meant to be lived. Jameel would feel this truth — this vision of a better reality — swell within him, then he’d polish off the beer and go to bed. He’d wake up, repeat, yada yada yada, so on and so forth.
It was a mediocre existence.
Some of you may be inclined to believe that the first version of Jameel’s timeline is the one that unfolded in actuality, because you maintain that good things happen to good people and that Jameel, for all his flaws, seems like a solid guy who’d probably pick himself up by the bootstraps and turn mustard seeds into mustard, as it were. Others, however, will swear that the second version is how it really went down, because that version is more like real life, in the sense that all of us pine for greener pastures that never come.
The truth of the matter, however, is that Jameel never existed. This may seem disappointing at first, but it need not be, because the conundrum fictional Jameel faced in the fictional backseat of his fictional car is eternally recurring for each of us, every moment of every day. Our responsibility to choose will continue ad nauseum, forever, whether we like it or not, so best to learn from Jameel’s story and make this choosing active instead of passive. Because the thing about life is that it can fork any number of ways any given moment, and it’s absolutely imperative that we never forget this.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.