As I was growing up, no one ever warned me that if I walk too close to the edge of the curb on a busy road, each passing car ends up stealing away a little bit of my soul. Although there had been plenty of rumours over the years about the link between microwaves, radio waves and the risk of developing cancer and neurological disorders, there was nothing about cars passing by in close proximity to pedestrians.
But you can very clearly see the symptoms of the mysterious, slow-advancing yet devastating “soul-killing” car disease — especially when you observe those who have lived for many years in blocks of flats right next to the highway. They often present as late-stage patients, suffering from the cumulative effect of years of repeated exposure to high-volume traffic: millions, perhaps billions of cars passing by their property over their lifetime, each one causing a tiny, imperceptible increment of damage to their soul as they unsuspectingly go on about their daily lives. The exact details of how the soul-killing disease operates are still under investigation.
You can usually tell straight away which of the city’s dwellers have the disease. All you need to do is observe them carefully when they come out in their dusty balconies: they hesitantly shuffle their feet as they emerge, like shy zombies, perhaps not yet aware that they died a long time ago. They will appear directionless at first, wondering where they are, almost as if trying to find random pieces of themselves that they lost. But they quickly remember where they are, as they begin to potter around the confined space of the balcony. They tend to pause quite often, for a few minutes at a time, usually standing motionless at the edge of the balcony for a while, holding on to the rail as they stare into the vastness of the concrete jungle. The view seems to have a sedating effect on them: however much they try to focus their eyes in the distance, they are unable to concentrate on any one object, anything specific that will help them cut through the thick haze in their mind. Whatever day dream or system malfunction has taken over them, it is much too powerful to overcome. Like with any true zombie, their eyes just seem to have been completely disconnected from their consciousness: they have been reduced down to simple, basic navigational devices.
Yes, it is their eyes that are by far the biggest giveaway symptom. Over the years they have become huge, vacant black holes: either as a result of insomnia, spending too much time indoors, or perhaps out of a chronic deficiency of eye contact with other humans or fellow zombies. Just like a heart that sometimes grows in size the more sick it gets, in order to compensate for its inability to pump blood, their eyes have become larger and larger over time, in order to try and absorb light the more blind they progressively become. You can see that often times they appear to be stuck in some kind of a movie that rotates on constant replay: perhaps a nostalgia or an unfulfilled longing that probably died a long time ago, in their pre-zombie days. Deep down they are longing for the time before cars, before streets full of humans were replaced by 50 mph superhighways, a relentless day and night onslaught of hard, shiny steel cages. That was when the first cases of the disease began to emerge.
Confined in their balconies, the zombies get on with their day as the raging sea of steel below continues its journey. They turn their attention to the new friends they’ve adopted: a geranium, a yucca, maybe even a jasmine. Their vast, hollow eyes can still show compassion as they mechanically go about watering each flower pot, meticulously looking out for any leaf diseases that their friends may have picked up from the diesel exhaust particulate cloud that dusts every surface it comes in contact with: the leaves, the soil, the zombie’s apartment. The diesel cloud is just a part of life that they have had to accept. It is part of the syndrome of the soul disease itself. Like microscopic black sponges, the suspended tar particulates of the cloud attract and trap pieces of soul from the aura of any life form that may happen to be in their vicinity. Luckily, the progression of the disease in the vast majority of cases is slow. But as they fall to the ground, the microscopic trapped souls may have to wait forever before they can be reincarnated, free again to connect with each other and form whole, new souls again.
Since cars arrived, people see each other differently. A pedestrian doesn’t see the driver behind the wheel, but a cruel, lifeless machine. Similarly, the driver doesn’t see pedestrians, but obstacles. In the US, where driving into protester crowds has now become commonplace, cars have finally revealed their true colours, what they always stood for: armour.
The soul-killing disease has affected pedestrians and drivers equally. Inside their cars, humans have become hostages since childhood, learning the lesson of the industrial revolution: it’s not about the journey, but the destination. Unable to pay attention to time, buildings, and trees on the way, they use their cars to desperately try and catch up to the goals that the system has set out for them: it is a series of ever-shifting goal posts that they need to reach. They don’t realise that the goal posts keep shifting further and further out of reach, because they are too preoccupied and panicked trying to reach them. So they buy a faster car, a bigger house, get a new job for which they have to sacrifice more of their soul. The humans may think that they are in charge, that they are the ones driving the car. But the reality is that the car is driving them.
I try to stay away from cars as much as I can, but it is difficult. I can feel my own soul eroded each time a fast car zooms past me. It’s like a feeling of being left behind, of feeling empty and dehumanised, as the steel beast disappears into the distance. The car is the steel exoskeleton that stops us from interacting with other humans as humans: fully vulnerable, fully human. Instead, we speed through: leaving behind people, relationships, and most of all, ourselves. In our speed frenzy to reach new heights, new goals, we took off in a hurry, leaving behind the one piece of luggage that was most important: our humanity.
Yet even the car itself is nothing without the souls powering it. Every time we burn fossil fuel we are burning the unearthed corpses of billions of plants that died millions of years ago. Plants that Earth had already put to rest a long time ago. CO2 is the curse for our sacrilege. The toxic by-product of our greed.
(From the book Photographic Heart)