I’ve never been a Halloween person.
When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating. My mother claimed it was a Christian holiday (I think she meant pagan) so we didn’t celebrate it, but I think the truth is that the neighborhood was getting a little dangerous. A few years before, my father had answered the door to give out some candy, and a kid about his height was standing there with an axe. That was the end of that. I couldn’t go outside, so I would don my fake leather, fringed Davy Crockett vest and stand by the kitchen window watching the other children in their costumes going by. When the latch was lifted, the peephole to our apartment door was actually open to the outside, so I took single wrapped pieces of Trident gum and tossed them through the opening, hoping kids would pick them up.
As a result, I never really got into costumes (though at sleepaway camp I painted my face, put aluminum foil on my platform shoes, stuck out my exceptionally long tongue and did a mean version of Gene Simmons from KISS), but the question of identity has always fascinated me. In yoga and meditation, we spend our time pursuing, exploring and trying to understand the truth of who we are — the energy that not only enlivens us but is in fact the thing that connects us with everyone else. That includes those walking around in, as my teacher Erich Schiffman said recently, “their scary Halloween costumes.” When he said that, it gave me pause. I suddenly thought that seeing people as merely costumed beings, masking their true selves, might make it easier for me to feel love and compassion for them — because let me tell you, here in New York City, it’s hard.
People are everywhere here, pushing their costumed selves right up against you. The mean-spirited, angry, always-ready-to-fight types. The inconsiderate ones who won’t take a simple step to the side and make it easier for others to board the train or bus. The ones who know their religion is better than yours and need to tell you about it, loudly. Kids acting rudely. Aggressive people. Misogynists. Thieves. Murderers, even. These people wear their costumes so well, they’ve come to believe themselves that it’s who they are, and they make me believe it too. I get angry, frustrated and I judge, constantly. It doesn’t feel good.
It can be hard to remember that these scary, aggravating or off-putting costumes are often covering up unimaginable pain. Fear, loss and anxiety. Trauma, abuse, and neglect. Abandonment. Lives of poverty and unfulfilled promise. These costumes become a survival technique, and a way of life. It takes an awful lot practice for me to “live in the light,” and keep my cool when the heat turns up, to say nothing of feeling compassion and love.
Still, there are moments. A young man offers me a seat on the train. Another helps a young woman up the steps with her stroller. Random conversations with strangers about everyday events. It helps.
This year, the New York City Marathon came the day after Halloween. I know of no other event that serves so effectively to strip away the feeling of disconnection between us and others. Thousands are running and thousands are cheering, all strangers but all united in a way you can almost touch. That is inspiring. The costumes are off and everyone can see, and there’s nothing scary about it.