Stuck on 'Infinity Train' In One Awful Car

All aboard! You're in the Pandemic Car, trapped with all your old trauma and some new trauma too. Choo choo!

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John Maher

May 01 2021

11 min read

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All Aboard the Pain Train


We were boarding the train, but at first we didn't know it. Suddenly, we were on the car. Some of us were alone. Some of us were alone together. All of us, in one form or another, were trapped in the car. This car manifested differently for each of us, and yet it was the same. It felt, at first, normal, especially if it resembled home. No matter: the exit doors were locked, and we could not get them open. We knew the train was going somewhere, but we didn't know where. We barely knew why. We didn't know when we would get to wherever it was we were headed, or if we ever would, or even if we were headed anywhere.

So there we were, stuck with ourselves and whatever company and contrivances that fortune and labor and privilege had provided. And, as became increasingly obvious as time inched along incomprehensibly and often imperceptibly, we were stuck with our stress and our trauma. We were, of course, stuck with them to begin with. But now there was little else to examine as we continued our journey to nowhere and to who knows where. All the while, new stresses, and often new traumas, grew and grew. Loves and lives and livelihoods were lost. Reality felt false, or too real, or severed from itself. The more we learned of them, the more the car's reasons and rules seemed impenetrable and often unbearable. We did not know when it would end. And here we still are.

Welcome to the Pandemic Car, a very unpleasant car on the Infinity Train.

The central concept powering Infinity Train, the HBO Max series that was once a Cartoon Network series and has, as of last month—sadly, and somewhat ironically—come to its premature conclusion after four of a planned eight seasons, is so beautifully simple that the show might have gone on, like its titular locomotive, forever. People suffering from psychological trauma or other emotional distress find themselves passengers on a mysterious train filled with an unlimited array of fantastical worlds, each of which is contained within a train car. Each passenger discovers a glowing green number on one hand. As they move through the car, passengers learn and they change, for good or for ill. For those who make headway, the number decreases, and once they have fully processed and accepted their suffering, it reaches zero, whereupon they are presented with a portal off the train. For those who lose themselves to their pain, the number rises, and their time on the train continues.

The show is an anthology, with each season featuring different central characters processing different experiences. Those characters respond to the challenges of the train differently, as we all do to when forced to confront ourselves and our traumas. Some, upon discovering how their numbers work, throw themselves into the work of overcoming their traumas, undergoing remarkable journeys along the way. Others ignore the opportunity to learn, embracing the train as an escape from their lives rather than a learning opportunity. Still others, unable to accept anything about their situation, attempt to take over the train and use its mysterious powers to create a world they want to live in, a world that existed before they were hurt—to turn back the clock to exert control.

To quote another animated exploration of the traumatic, BoJack Horseman, "time's arrow neither stays still nor reverses. It merely marches forward." Mangled metaphors aside, it's true: no one gets to go back. This is the case in nearly every great animated show about trauma: BoJack can't undo his childhood of abuse; the Elric brothers of Fullmetal Alchemist can't, despite their best efforts, undo their mother's death; Shinji Ikari of Neon Genesis Evangelion can't undo either. But it's tempting, even knowing we cannot excise our traumas so much as learn to live with them, to deny them—to live only in the present, refusing to confront the past or move past it to the future.

Infinity Train's third season depicts this quite effectively. By this point in the series, it's been firmly established that the point of the train is to leave it, but its protagonists don't want to. They believe that the make-believe world in which they have found themselves, removed from the consequences of their own lives, is a gift. To remain in it and to survive, they create community among fellow passengers, which is ostensibly a good thing. But that group causes chaos wherever it goes, hurting everyone around it. And their numbers go up.

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The thesis here is pretty hard to miss: unexamined trauma hurts everyone, so, keeping kindness to yourself and those around you in mind, do the work to accept and process it and move on with your life.

Except the train in Infinity Train affords passengers a whole heap of help in doing this. I would imagine that it's much easier to accept the circumstances that have made you who you are and to go on and learn to be kind to yourself and others when your emotional training ground is, say, a Mediterranean villa populated by amiable beings whose heads are flowers, or when your companion is a royal talking corgi or an all-powerful magical deer.

We, on the other hand, have wherever we've been quarantined or locked down for months on end, and whoever we've been there with—sometimes no one. We have the Internet, which in theory gives us access to infinite wondrous worlds, but in reality is mostly access to a collective digital id spewing unhinged verbiage into the void. And the helpful tools we do have are often double-edged. We can engage with art, but that can also be an escape. We can hone our homemaking skills, but with little else to do, we can start to feel trapped while doing even that. (My mother recently mentioned to me a malaise she and her friends have felt of late surrounding meals, finding themselves exhausted at the prospect of cooking them and tired of ordering them too. At least we have them!) We can keep in touch with the people we love virtually, but some of us find that to be torturous, seeing it as more of a reminder of what we can't have than a reminder of what we do. And our lives go on: every day, we must bathe and brush our teeth, we must eat, we must work. We must exist. Sometimes that feels like all it is.

We all respond differently to these circumstances. Like the passengers on the train, some of us are desperate to leave, while others have acclimated to the trauma to the point where they are comfortable hiding within it. Some of us seek comfort in others, desperate to reignite and refuel love and human connection and return to a world of touch, while others have withdrawn, seeking to create a solitude of their own making, and not of the pandemic's, in which they can rediscover who they are and what they need to be.

How this affects us is varied. What is not is where we have been: each alone in a car on an infinite train with locked doors on each end, separated from those just like us in the next car. For many—the vaccinated especially—doors seem to be unlocking. But the pandemic remains, and even if it didn't, we would, I expect, bring the Pandemic Car with us. It is, after all, one more weight we're all carrying now, all in our own ways.

Throughout all this, in many ways, I have been both fortunate and privileged. I quarantined often and rigorously so I could see my family safely, and they live so close to me that it was possible for me to do so. What few risks I took went without repercussions. I stayed employed. And as of this Tuesday afternoon, I will be fully vaccinated, two weeks past my second dose of the vaccine.

But I too am on the car. For the first three months of the pandemic, I did not touch another human being. I fell in love, but nearly all of our time together over the past year was spent apart. I lost, and continue to lose, people I love—to death, dementia, distance. My feelings of abandonment keep humming in the back of my brain, louder and louder as the days go by. My work feels joyless, my ambitions listless, my mind clouded and uninspired, my heart perpetually heavy. Purpose seems ungraspable.

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It probably is, at least in a cosmic sense. Yet still, here in the car, there is something to learn. Arguably, there's something quite Buddhist about it all. Here we are, wanting what we don't have (our "normal" lives back), not wanting to lose what we enjoy about what we do have (this is different for everyone, I'd wager), and wanting desperately to escape what we have and despise (guess what that is). In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell characterizes the bodhisattva as "one who knows immortality, yet voluntarily enters into the field of the fragmentation of time and participates willingly and joyfully in the sorrows of the world." Maybe that's it: we've been involuntarily dragged into a field of super-fragmented time. And the sorrows seem limitless. They seem like they are everything. How could we possibly joyfully participate in that, let alone willingly?

I am not enlightened. My number is not zero. I have no answers. Like many passengers, my only focus, for much of this time, has been on the day when I will be able to get off the train. But that's the thing: everything ends, even pandemics, but until we die, our traumas and their ripples never do. They are merely ignored, fought, or accepted. Accepting my place in the Pandemic Car has felt impossible, just as accepting suffering so often feels. Maybe that's why it feels exactly like what I must do.

Here is where we are: the Pandemic Car. The train goes speeding on—the train is infinite. The days will pass, and other cars will open. Things will change, but what we have experienced never will. We cannot go back. That is how it goes, no matter what we wish.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” the hobbit Frodo Baggins says to the wizard Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. “So do I,” Gandalf replies, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And if there is one thing the Pandemic Car has in spades, fragmented or not, it is time. There's not much else for us to do but take it.


Tips for the Tooned In

What I'm loving right now and other sundries.

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I have returned to The Sopranos after a month of being unable to focus on anything, mostly because now I have finally admitted to myself that I need to focus on something other than the infinite train (sorry) of my thoughts. This past week, I finished its third season. It's filled with memorable moments, although I have a hunch that I will need to rewatch much of it—partially because I watched it so quickly, and partially because everything in my life these days seems blurred at the edges at least. But the last few moments of its finale are on a replay loop in my brain. I could see why many might see the scene as schmaltzy, but there is something about watching aging crime lord Corrado Soprano, Jr. sing an almost unendurably lovely and heartrending canzone napoletana, "Core 'ngrato" ("Ungrateful Heart"), that affected me tremendously.

Perhaps it's because the scene provided some hint that the ailing, damned, and weary Uncle Junior is, like us, filled with hidden depths and talents—that he could have been a different sort of person altogether, if only he had been willing to look at himself and to put in the work to change. Perhaps it's because to realize this is to mourn the person Junior, and each of us, might have been. (Get off the Train, Junior! Get off the Train, dear reader!) Perhaps it's because I am predisposed to the lachrymose. Perhaps it's only because it's a stunning song.

Regardless, I was moved—and by a live-action moving picture, no less! I also immediately dug around for other versions of the song. (Actor Dominic Chianese performed another rendition outside of the context of the show that is also beautiful, albeit not quite as moving, so that's one point in favor of my first two interconnected theories, or perhaps in favor of the televisual brilliance of showrunner David Chase and company.) My favorite so far is by the Neapolitan musician Roberto Murolo: delicate, spare, and aching with longing.


Cartoon GIF of the Week

Like a newspaper cartoon, but animated.

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