Reflections on my ride on Kafka’s train
Have you ever noticed that every year seems to race by twice as fast as the previous one?
Surely, I’ll be dead by tomorrow!
It’s like a Kafka novel. (For readers not familiar with Franz Kafka – he’s the author of some wonderfully strange novels and short stories such as The Castle, The Trial and “Metamorphosis.” He is one of my favorite fictional writers. His stories always leave one very disoriented.)
We just wake up at some moment and we’re on a train. We didn’t choose to get on this train. We have no recollection of a life prior to this train. And we don’t understand the first thing about this train. We just find ourselves here. (The German philosopher Heidegger referred to this as our sense of “having-been-thrown” into existence).
The only thing we are sure of is that this train is picking up speed at an alarming rate, there’s nothing we can do to slow it down, and we’re certain it’s going to fatally smash into a brick wall at any moment, but we have no idea when.
How utterly peculiar. Who would have thought?
Well, statistically speaking, I’m more than two-thirds of the way to the great wall of the Grim Reaper. But for all I know, I may be mere seconds away from it. And while I feel like I know less about this train with each passing day, here’s three things I’m quite sure of.
First, we obviously board this train alone. And we obviously smash unpredictably into the great wall alone. But we can, if we choose, share large portions of our ride with others.
Kafka’s train can be experienced as a nightmare, or as a great adventure. And I’ve found that one of the main things that prevents the former and encourages the latter is riding with close friends. When shared with others, the very bizarreness of the ride becomes a force that binds us together at a profound level. And when this happens, the strangeness of the ride becomes something more beautiful than terrifying.
Reach out. Share the ride. Take risks. Make friends. Stay committed over the long haul.
Second, the monotony of this train ride can rock us to sleep, and to death, if we’re not careful. We start this ride like excited little children staring out the window in wonder at the mystery of the train and the passing scenery. But if we’re not careful, we can gradually become more like cattle staring mindlessly out of a cattle car. While this numbs the pain of the loneliness and fear this ride can cause, it is, in fact, the worst nightmare of all. Like the man-turned-beatle in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the greatest horror is becoming something grotesquely less than we are meant to be.
Resist the lull. Stay awake. Never stop wondering. Notice the beautiful strangeness of every moment.
Finally, though many try to ignore it, every passenger on Kafka’s train wonders why they are on the train, and why the train exists in the first place. We try so hard to be shallow, because it hurts less. But our innate depth gnaws at us. We try to act like this train ride is “normal,” but our deeper selves know it’s anything but. Wake up. Admit it.
I have found that the quality of one’s ride largely depends on whether or not they believe the train they’re on has a destination. In fact, I honestly believe it’s possible to come to know the train’s destination by entering into an experiential relationship with the train’s creator and conductor.
And that, my friends, gives the Kafka train an entirely different feel. It’s still bizarre to the extreme—but it’s bizarreness with a beautiful purpose.
So, whether I’m half way to the great wall, or almost there, it honestly doesn’t concern me much. Its unpredictability and seeming finality is part of the grand adventure.
So, as the train speeds up and the great wall somewhere out there quickly approaches, I’m going to keep sharing the mystery with friends, commit to staying awake with childlike amazement, and do all I can do to know and serve the magnificent conductor.