Does New York City point to the very meaning of life?

The traffic in New York City is always flowing. Sometimes there are cars, trucks, buses, cabs and pedestrians everywhere. All the time. Sometimes it slows down. But it never becomes truly quiet. Standing on the High Line in Manhattan, I was looking at this movement below. I was filled with wonder. So, this is the city that many describe as the centre of the world? I tried to imagine all the individual lives of the people. It made me ask myself: why are we always going somewhere? Why did I come to NYC? Is life happening here more meaningful than anywhere else?

New York City, here I come! 
When I knew that I was going to Seattle for half a year I was very happy. First of all, because I was about to stay at the Buddhist centre NalandaWest to serve as a volunteer, practice meditation, study and with serious time (finally!) to write. Secondly, because I got to visit the United States of America for the very first time! Taking a look at the map, I realised New York City was about half-way between Amsterdam and Seattle. What if I can find a good flight-ticket, stopping there for about a week before I continue? It turned out there was. Even cheaper than a direct flight-ticket. – which, till this day, I still struggle with to understand. So, I booked it. It reminded me of an advertisement I once saw: ‘New York City, here I come.’ I noticed a lot of excitement. But why? I could not really tell. 

The centre of the world?
Growing up in The Netherlands (located in the Northwest of Europe) since the 80’s I became familiar with the United Stated of America early in my life. As a kid I watched the Flintstones and it’s counterpart The Jetsons. At school we learned about Europe, the French Revolution, both World Wars in the first half of the 20th century – and every time there was a connection with the USA. Often simply ‘America’, despite that being both historically incorrect and technically a reference to only a part of an entire continent. 

The USA, or US to make it even shorter, was often presented as a strong power, a great country and part of the highly civilized European culture. Going through higher education, travel to ‘non-western’ parts of the world and a little bit more life experience those three ‘claims’ now seem highly problematic. Nonetheless, the image of New York City as the very capital of the US and at least one of the centres of the world is still in my mind. A place, I felt, I must see when I get the chance. A feeling supported by friends & family that encouraged me to do so. Thus, I flew to JFK Airport just after Christmas – to departure on January 3rd in the New Year. 

High Line and traffic invoking reflections
So. Here I was. At the High Line – because my brother Tom suggested it to me. He was right: this was indeed a wonderful place. It used to be a freight rail line, just above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Since the mid-1800s it had a function in the bustling industry of this fast-growing city of the US – upcoming on the stage of the world. However, in the course of the 20th century the use of the high line declined and eventually came to a full stop. Which itself is a reminder of one of the four noble truths in buddhist tradition: everything is constantly changing. Life is like the traffic that was passing underneath my feet: flowing continuously. This no different for structures and industries. 

Residents saved the High Line, or what was left of it, from demolition and turned it into a public space full of nature, art and design. To me it felt like a 180 degrees different world up there, compared to streets below. It almost automatically invokes reflections on how we live our lives. The different works of art also try to achieve that – pointing to struggles for rights, the need to organize for specific causes and consider how the world around us reflects what we value in life. As an individual, as a society and nowadays also as a global community. 

Continuing to look at the traffic I wondered: is this the ideal world we all want to live in? If you believe the housing prices one would need to say absolutely ‘yes!’. But I noticed some strong doubts and questions. 

New Year’s Eve: Allan and caring for our fellow-man
On New Year’s Eve I was walking through Central Park. Another part that offers some peace and quiet to the city that never sleeps. Just a little bit earlier I came across huge groups of people, lining up to get to Times Square and see ’the ball-dropping’. I felt no interest, especially with such a crowd, but looking at the fireworks from Central Park was attractive to me. However, it rained and was cold. I was looking for a bit of shelter – a building with a roof or something. Which I found, around 8pm, with a few more hours to go. It is here that I met Allan. A 58-year old man that found himself becoming homeless since five months ago. Being a bit cautious in the beginning, we slowly started to talk more and ended up sitting next to each other. Looking at the tall buildings around us in the direction of Times Square, we spoke about his life, mine and this city.

Allan told me he found NYC a very strange place. People are always busy, go shopping and spend a lot of money. “They even,” he said, “go to watch a ball drop from the sky.” We both burst out into laughter when he said that. “But,” he continued, “do they care about their fellow-man? Do they see how dirty the city is? Do they stand up against poverty, discrimination and make an end to people being homeless?” His answer was a simple “no” to all these questions. People were busy, for sure, but they did not live a good, meaningful life. According to Allan at least. I told Allan I trust people do try and, certainly, have the potential of being a good person. It is just that we sometimes take the wrong turn in life. But Allan pointed out: look at the homeless people and you know this is not true. Knowing that the buddhist perspective holds everyone to be open & compassionate by nature, it made me contemplate. How do the things Allan shared with me go together with this teaching?

Just before midnight we could hear the crowd counting down and a huge scream of celebrating the New Year followed the ball that must have dropped. Watching the fireworks together, reflecting in the many windows of the buildings around us, we wished each other a happy new year. After another hour of talking, laughing and crying, we said goodbye. 

What attracts people to go to NYC?
The next few days I continued to explore NYC. Thinking about the time I lived in Jerusalem and feeling of being at home there, I went to the Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Which I enjoyed a lot and made me miss my friends and life in Israel/Palestine. Leaving from my AirBnB in Queens I visited Harlem, The Bronx but also the 9/11 memorial and other places. Eventually, on my day before departure to Seattle, I felt I needed to go to Times Square. 

As I approached Times Square I felt amazed already and could not stop laughing. This felt like one of the craziest places I have ever seen! Remembering Allan, I noticed how a young lady sat down on the sidewalk. Homeless. Almost completely ignored by the never-ending crowd of people walking the streets. Huge advertisements, mostly digital screens, screaming for attention. And a lot of shops trying to get people inside to buy their goods. If NYC was the centre of the world, and this was the very heart of it, the world had become a strange place indeed. For a moment I could feel where Allan was coming from with his ideas. Yet, something in me resisted the pessimistic implications of that. 

True, Times Square felt more like a dystopia. As New York City appeared to me as a place of stone & steel at first. But I also remembered the lovely host of my AirBnB in Queens. The people in Harlem making music on the streets. All the couples in Central Park and groups of people walking their dog or jogging together. The many rivers and bridges. And everywhere I came, whether it was the St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church (where many people found shelter at and support after 9/11), the Empire Kosher supermarket in Brooklyn, or the coffeeshops at Times Square – I was always greeted kindly and with a smile. Suddenly I realised something that I personally found intriguing and wonderful about New York: it’s enormous diversity. Perhaps it is this very diversity that attracts people to this city? 

Living a good and meaningful life – together
I imagined to be back at the High Line, watching the always flowing traffic. Something I had been able to capture on camera for a few minutes. Apart from the ever-changing nature of things, I also considered: all these people in their cars and trucks, or crossing once the light went green, had their own individual lives. Here, in NYC, they have so many different opportunities how to live their life. Maybe the speed, the focus on competition, and thinking life is in material things or swiftly passing experiences like a ball-dropping, is all problematic. In that sense the city seems far from pointing to the meaning of life. Yet, the diversity of life, the different opportunities, can be celebrated. Certainly if we make sure everyone has an equal chance to pursue a good and meaningful life. And for each person, like Allan, that – for whatever reason – is not able to find it: let us reach out and help. Whether it is out of fear of God, as it is for Allan, or within ourselves, he is right: let’s take care of our fellow-man and all other living beings that suffer. 

What a good and meaningful life is, you might still wonder. Well, I suggest you come and visit NYC and find out for yourself. And if you can not find it there, you can always visit NalandaWest in Seattle. Or any other place in the world, really. Not because ‘meaning’ is connected to a place. Or specific circumstances. Neither can ‘goodness’ only be learned in one specific way. We try to find it elsewhere. But despite Allan his remarks, I still have the impression we can all find and develop it from within. So, what is your next destination? More importantly: why? Why are you looking for? 

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