June 17, 2013
You see, the invitation was not an ordinary one. It was a box fashioned to resemble a cloth-bound 19th century book. It was decorated with brass embroidery and inside were the details of the venues and times, gold embossed in the cursive style of calligraphy. Each invitation must have cost a small fortune and I did not believe these invites were handed out lightly. It seemed ungracious and rude not to accept the invitation. But what do I buy for someone I do not know well enough?
As I searched my brain for gift ideas it struck me that my mind, deprived of real knowledge, was resorting to stereotypes about the bride and groom. I was making wild guesses about their financial status, their possible cultural tastes as far as colours and styles, judgements about their new life together based on their ethnicity. I was appalled with myself.
For most of my life I have consciously resisted generalizing people according to their membership of race, of gender, of sexuality, of ethnicity, of age, of status. I have long considered stereotyping to be lazy knowledge, but here I was effortlessly falling into the habit.
“Relax,” said a friend, “stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. There is always a grain of truth in them.” But is that really true?
Certainly there are infamous examples of politicians who are corrupt and motivated purely by self-interest, but does that mean every politician must be corrupt? No doubt a percentage of policeman are bullies or crooks, but is the percentage any greater than within the civilian population? Stereotypes are never backed up by statical data, the evidence is purely anecdotal, and yet stereotypes are irresistible and enduring.
I was once summoned for jury duty. A black man was accused of attempted murder of his girlfriend. When the potential jurors were polled, the defense lawyer asked the same question to each juror: Do you think that you will be biased in your decision because of the race of the accused? The prosecution tried to stack the jury with female jurors (so they would be sympathetic to the victim) while the defense tried to get men of colour. When the case did get started, the jurors trusted the eye witness testimonies the most, even though study after study has shown how unreliable eye witnesses are. It is not that witnesses wish to lie or pervert justice, it is simply the way our brains are wired. We do not recall events like a DVD on replay, rather we reconstruct events in our minds. With each recall, we reinterpret according to what makes sense to us at that moment in our lives. In other words, our brains re-imagines events to suit our brain’s existing stereotypes.
Without going back to the drawing at the beginning of this post, can you remember who is holding the razor? If you remembered the black man as the one holding the razor, then congratulations, you are in agreement with the majority of subjects in Allport and Postman’s (1947) experiments on reconstructive memory. Look again though, most people remembered wrongly.
It is tough to see past our own biases, but I believe we need to keep vigilant at all times. Because not all stereotypes are as broad as race, gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes they are deeply personal and have lasting effects upon relationships. I happen to know several off springs whose parents divorced and married other people. All of these off springs tell the same story: the wicked, domineering step mother, the weak, uncaring father, and of course, the poor, suffering children. As an outsider, these narratives strike me as bad literature, full of cardboard stereotypes, but to the people concerned this is the reality of their lives.
Here is where the grain of truth lies within stereotypes: stereotypes are true expressions of feelings but not of the facts. I can’t help wonder though, if the parents, step-parents, and off springs were to acknowledge that perhaps the pasts they are remembering are personal reinventions, colored by emotions and passions, would they then trust the memories and hurts quite so much? Might they even heal inside and perhaps forge new relationships with their estranged parents? I think it is possible.
Within relationships, when a couple argue, one or both might resort to the always and never declarations: “You never help around the house.” “You always go off with your friends.” These exaggerations feel truthful to the one making them because they express how he or she feels, but they are not factual. Isn’t this an example of the mind resorting to the well-worn mechanism of stereotypes?
One of the joys of meeting different kinds of people is the stories they tell about themselves and their unique worldviews. Both the elderly and the homeless are very generous about sharing their life experiences, perhaps because so few are interested. I find when I listen without re-interrupting to suit my own sensibilities, I gain a perspective I did not have before. That is their gift to me. It would be ungracious and rude not to accept.
June 10, 2013
One striking aspect about visiting terminally ill old people in hospital is their casual attitude about their imminent end. When I first began volunteering I had expected them to be depressed about death. Perhaps a rare few might offer a philosophical gem about death and dying, I thought. But none of that has happened. Instead, time after time, I come across people totally at peace with leaving the world.
For me there was a disconnect here. After all, aren’t we mortals supposed to be dogged by fear of death? Our every action is curtailed, informed in some sub-conscious way by the fact that some day we will perish. And here are people face to face with that fact and not the least bit concerned.
Having just recovered from a bout of illness myself, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the feeling of being sick and how it changes awareness. Naturally there is much attention upon the body and its aches and pains, but look a bit deeper and you notice something is missing. Gone is the mundane chatter of daily concerns: the worry about this and that, the concern with what is happening on the street, etc. When I am sick I do not care to log into my e mail, the news does not interest me, I don’t care who has phoned, in fact, nothing much of the world seems as important as it did before. Not money, not pleasures, not even eating. The attention is solely upon the basics, the breathing and heart beat.
I found this interesting because this is exactly the technique of meditation. Most styles of meditation teach suspending the outside world in some way. Find a quiet spot to practice meditation, they say. Close your eyes to shut out distractions, they advice. Now turn your attention to your breathing, simply watch the in flow and out flow.
During my illness, all this happened effortlessly. Because the breathing was laboured, my attention naturally fell upon its ebb and flow. I found it curious how it affected my sense of “me.” When the breathing was near-normal, this feeling of “I” was at its strongest. When the breathing was faltering, the “I” lost significance, and along with it, all the things “I” considers important. The fact of being alive, the life within my body was the one and only constant.
It made me wonder if illness can be perhaps be a natural form of meditation?
The other odd thing about fever is the vivid and surreal dreams. In fact, even normal thinking has that phantasy characteristic when in the grips of fever. It is no coincidence then that many great artists and writers had bouts of prolong illness, particularly in their youth. Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, James Joyce, the Bronte sisters, among others, all retreated into their imagination during their illnesses, as did artist Frieda Kahlo. While none of them were saints, all of them did plunge deep into their psyches and explored the underbelly of daily living with insight. Isn’t that a kind of meditation?
Once the fever broke and normal thinking resumed, it struck me that the images of daily thinking are just as unreal and surreal, only we take them oh so seriously. I was reminded of the classic descriptions of near-death experiences, you know, the beings of light that appear before you. They do. Except they appear before you even when you are not dying. They appear before you nightly in dreams as well as in routine thinking. Imagine anyone you love. Isn’t that presence of him or her in your mind made up of a kind of light? The light of you own awareness?
I believe this explains why prolonged illness is so profound, so life transforming for people who survive it. In effect, we are in a prolonged state of meditation. It not only affords a person the time to reflect and contemplate upon his life, it affords attention. Normally we are too burdened, too distracted, too entertained by the ideas and plans of our own mind. Illness enforces a lovely letting go, a temporary freedom from the cares of the world.
It may explain why seniors in hospitals, who usually experience multiple illnesses in the final years, are so at peace with dying.
A painful body is no picnic but it does compel a person to find a centre within where there is no pain. If this is done with awareness, then you quickly realize the body is a shell which houses your essence. Even done without awareness, this knowledge grips hold at some level, without being verbalized.
Finally, I had an idea about that other classic NDE, the tunnel with the light at the opening. In my opinion, the light people see is one’s own essence, only the mind objectifies it as out there. The darkness of the tunnel is the stillness of an unfettered mind. The light you see in NDE is your true self.
None of us are immune to sickness of the body. While I do all I can to remain healthy — eat right, moderate exercise and take reasonable safety precautions, I no longer fear being overwhelmed by a virus or worse. As age advances, and with it the decline of the body, I take comfort in what someone said to a friend on his seventy-fifth birthday: When you get over the hill, the view is so much more spectacular.
June 3, 2013
My neighbor Frank is young, successful, and good-looking. He drives a nice car, has a lovely condo, good friends. You’d expect he should be happy, care-free and content? But no. The other day he was parking his car in our building’s underground when he noticed a room he did not recognize. Has this been newly installed, he thought? The door was painted green and appeared to have a peep hole at the centre of it. Very strange.
As he lay in bed that night he just could not fall asleep. What was in the room? Why is it there all of a sudden? Who uses it?
The next morning, on his way to work, he pulled out his cellphone and snapped a few pictures of it. He showed the pictures to a few of the neighbours but none of us offered any explanations that satiated him. “Why don’t you ask the front desk, Frank?” we said. Frank couldn’t do that, for he suspected the purpose of the room was nefarious. We shrugged our shoulders and carried on with our lives. But not Frank.
He has decided that the room is a secret bar used by our building’s management, all of course on the residents’ dime. Seriously, that is what he believes. He is quiet sane otherwise, but this conspiracy theory has really robbed him of his sense. He has now made it his mission to expose management’s dirty little secret. He brought it up at the Annual General Meeting in front of most of the building’s residents. Oh we snickered and mocked, but Frank kept grilling the management as though he were Jimmy Stewart determined to get at the truth.
While his plight is amusing, sadly he is not alone. Everyone of us at some time or other finds we are taken over by an idea. An idea entirely fabricated by our imagination. An idea that is preposterous to others, but it is an indelible truth as far as we are concerned. It is idiomatically known as making a Frankenstein’s Monster. And just as the monster the Dr. Frankenstein created got out of control and destroyed its creator, we saw Frank being overwhelmed and undermined by his own fabrication. It reminded me of those feelings from when I was student.
There was one teacher I was convinced hated and loathed me. I was used to being the teacher’s pet so I was very unsettled at this idea. This teacher was extra strict with me. I was chided for the most minor transgressions. Other students would stroll in late and he would say nothing. I was late the once and he walked out of the class “because if no one is interested I will not waste my time.” I took it all very personally. It caused me untold distress. I found it hard to concentrate on the subject during his class. All I could think about was, ‘why does he hate me?”
It took me years to understand that he never hated me, nor disliked me. I had been such a model pupil that he found my transgressions less tolerable than those of the lost causes. In affect, he was biased towards me. He saw my strengths as punctuality, doing the right thing, never making waves. The other students had other strengths but these were mine and it distressed him to see me neglect them. I could have had a happier time in his class had I not created that Frankenstein’s Monster. Monsters are always scary to the point they leave you unable to function. When that monster is of your creation, it is particularly unfortunate. My grades suffered, I was deeply unhappy, I felt falling sick. It was a monster indeed.
None of us are immune. I know of a woman whose marriage ended because she suspected her husband was cheating on her. It turns out he wasn’t but her paranoia drove a wedge in the marriage nevertheless. I now wonder what is the engine driving this process? Is it perhaps a type of vanity? Underneath that paranoia is a notion of uniqueness. That I know something no one else was smart enough to figure out. I am being singled out for unfair (special) treatment. That zeal to unmask the conspiracy is really the veracity of pride, with its subliminal sense of self-superiority. Secret liquor rooms, hateful teachers, unfaithful spouses, the conspiracies may be many, but the outcome is always the same. We end up defeated, humiliated, and drained of energy.
It is impossible to ever be free of them, nor is it desirable. You could be right: there might actually be a liquor stash, a bigoted teacher, a cheating spouse. But what is possible is to learn from these past episodes. Having gone through that one years ago has made me vigilant to them. Now I question their validity more stringently. I see them more objectively. For that I am grateful to that teacher.
May 27, 2013
Greg Noack was an adolescent, out for a stroll on a park bridge one night when two thugs came up form behind and battered him with a baseball bat to within an inch of his life for no apparent reason. Greg survived this terrible assault but it left him with critical and chronic brain injury.
Today he is a therapist who helps others with acute brain injury. A deeply thoughtful and spiritual man, he is inspirational speaker and motivator.
When he had done telling us about his assault and subsequent journey into recovery, I asked him how he had managed to forgive the thugs who did this to him.
Greg was silent, at a loss for words.
It occurred to me that perhaps I had made a wrong assumption. Perhaps he had not forgiven the thugs. Maybe forgiveness from victims is asking too much?
I often wonder about other victims such as the three young Cleveland women recently rescued from years of brutal captivity. Can they ever well and truly forgive their perpetrators? Or does a piece of the criminal permanently reside within the victims?
“Forgive and forget” is almost a cliche. People say it to others without realizing the enormity of what they are expecting from the victims.
From a metaphysical perspective, all of our actions, even the smallest, affects others in someone way. You know, the old if a butterfly fluters its wings a star falls somewhere poetic idea. In daily life I know that we are all so intricately woven together that even a stranger’s remark can leave our mood altered for the rest of the day. Why is it then that we should expect acts of sustained and planned cruelty be erasable? Of course the criminals have changed the course of Greg’s life. Of course they have a left a legacy within him. Why wouldn’t he think about them from time to time?
I think that when we have been the victims of horrific crimes, our recovery is a process not dissimilar to grief. The classic stages of grief recovery are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Nowhere is the word forgiveness used.
I think that acceptance of what happened to you, and that it was undeserved and unasked is the best we can expect.
Greg was gracious enough to give me an answer. After some thought he recalled how much better his life was now because of the injury. He was in a much better place emotionally and spiritually. He said he took comfort from that, and it allowed him not be too bitter about those thugs who did this to him.
What he said sounded familiar to me. Greg has made the best of a bad situation which was no fault of his own. Perhaps forgiveness means exactly that.
I can think of dozens of victims of senseless violence who became bitter, vengeful and mean-spirited. Their lives close in around them instead of opening up. Can we say that such people have chosen not to forgive their perpetrators? I think so.
Making the best of the damage done to you is an act of forgiveness but does that mean there are no regrets, no blame? If Greg could turn back the clock with full hindsight, would he undergo the experience? Does he wish the thugs would have not done that to him?
Each person must answer that according to his own reflection. For me I am beginning to see within my own life that some of the worst tragedies have been turning points. Because of my grief over my mother’s death, I discovered spirituality and my guru. Despite that, would I rather have my mother alive today?
My near-death, as physical and emotional traumatic as it was, remains the most profound experience of my life. But if I could go back and change some things, would I now undo it? Absolutely not.
Traumas are always life-altering events. I have watched my sisters endure the trauma of childbirth and then grow into wiser and more mature human beings. When they are hugging their children, I am sure none of them regret the trauma of labor, nor the pain and worry of the children’s growing years. Because motherhood is so immediately rewarding, they quickly realize that in the grand scheme of things the pain of childbirth and subsequent sleepless nights are insignificant in the bigger picture.
But that same perspective is lost when we are assaulted, robbed, injured, or left for dead. Yes there is much, much pain, but these events also change the trajectory of our lives, often for the better (depending upon the choices we subsequently make). But it takes so much longer that we sometimes get mired by resentment and blame for the perpetrator.
To me perfect forgiveness means no resentment. Forgiveness is accepting what happened and leveraging it to your advantage. But I don’t think that it is possible to be free from regret about what happened. Not while we are functioning through the mind. Any process of the mind fluctuates. There are days we have no regrets, no blame, and other days we are soaking in regret. The only way to have no regrets is to live beyond the mind, in pure awareness.
And all traumas are great aids in getting there.
May 13, 2013
I have been volunteering at a Christian homeless shelter for more than a couple of years. As a non-Christian, I was prepared for turning the other cheek to the various Bible quotes plastered on walls. I routinely declined invitations to join their Sunday church service. I even tolerated a few not-so-subtle digs at ‘my philosophy’. I consider myself very accepting of different faiths and creeds, if (and it is a giant if) they respect mine. In other words, I do not tolerate intolerance.
Sometimes it is hard to determine if a faith group is merely being themselves, or are they acting upon an evangelical impulse.
I have been in the throws of such a dilemma with this homeless shelter. For me a life of awareness means being conscious of my biases within my relationships. I always try to be objective about my motives. I question my attachments and expectations. I challenge my fears, I scrutinize my prejudices. I think these things make being a mature adult so rewarding. In my youth I lived by my passions. Some people and situations would repulse me, while I would become obsessed by others. Not an intelligent way to live.
Just when I thought I had it all figured out, the shelter decided to play gospel tapes over the loud speaker while I was cutting hair in that room. My objection to that was on several levels. I prefer silence because I enjoy listening to the men as they open up about themselves in the barber’s chair. It is the main reason I do this. But what bothered me more was this uneasy sense that I was being targeted for proselytization.
After each session, they would “praise Jesus” for the “fine work you are doing.” I grew uncomfortable with the way the food restrictions of the clients were dismissed. Men who did not eat pork were given no consideration, neither were vegetarians. “We are a Christian organization and we serve according to the Gospel.”
I really had to have a long hard think about why I was feeling so uneasy going there nowadays. Was I becoming intolerant of their right to practice their faith? Was I turning anti-Christian? Or was it that I had observed one incident too many where they had breached the boundary of respectful behavior?
I have to admit it was not easy to separate out my personal emotions from the altruistic ones. If it were boundary issues, I knew the thing to do was re-negotiate. I attempted to speak to those in charge about my feelings and, to a man, everyone of them was dismissive of my concerns. “You knew what we were before you joined. If you don’t like it, leave.” I was told in more padded language, but it amounted to that.
If I left, would I be abandoning the men? Was it fair to punish them for the wrongs of others? And so I gritted my teeth and kept coming back, each time less and less happy to be there.
Confused about my feelings, I turned to the homeless men themselves for advice. It was they who told me about how powerless they felt with what they were subjected to. Most of the shelters in the city are faith-based and each offers help to the needy tinged by their biases. While none are overtly discriminatory, they express it in the choices they offer, and the biases towards whom they help the most. No dogs. You can’t sleep here unless you are sober. Preferential treatment for the guys who attend bible study.
Of the dozens of shelters, only a couple were secular. I decided to check them out. Both these shelters provide vegetarian as well as non-pork options for the men. Both places had a spontaneous, chaotic energy about them. They were more flexible than the faith-based shelters, more willing to improvise in doing the needful. I felt at home with them. It occurred to me that this was because these secular workers had no other agenda than to help those who were in need of help. Because they were helping as one human being towards another, without a middle “man”, there was more of a willingness to accommodate. The faith-based charities defer to rules and authority. That Christian shelter was always quick with a reason why something could not be done.
I realized that there is close kinship between bias and belief. I don’t even know if the two can be segregated. While I strive in my spiritual journey to be free of all biases, embracing the world exactly as it is, l also acknowledge that there are times when I need to take a stand. While I still respect all religions, I cannot tolerate discrimination, cruelty or violence in the name of any religion. Even when that violence is subtle and unintentional.
It is my core belief that faith is a matter of personal choice. No one should impose his or her religion upon another. The one true path is the one that works for you.
I have resigned from the faith-based shelter. I am not abandoning the men, I will cut hair at one of the secular homeless shelters instead. That may be a personal bias of mine, but for now it fits my belief.
April 29, 2013
If there were some secret formula for happiness, whoever discovers it would surely make a fortune. The MBA grads had written their final exam. One more day of classes remained. So the students and their prof attempted to tabulate the formula for human happiness. Philosophers have pondered it, poets have mused over it and psychologists have analyzed it. Now the number-crunchers have come up with a profit and loss statement where the bottom line is happiness.
They decided there were three sources of happiness revenue: Genetic, Circumstantial, and Relationships.
Circumstantial happiness was defined as that happiness derived from the accident of birth, such as being born in a well-off country. It was assigned a meagre 10% of the happiness quotient. I know from my own observation that people in the slums of Mumbai are as happy, if not happier, than the residents of Beverly Hills. As long as the basics of food, shelter and security are met, the luxury with which these are addressed only adds an incremental percentage to overall happiness. Other circumstantial factors might included being born male in a patriarchal society. Being heterosexual almost anywhere. Being tall, good looking, and is many places, white.
It turns out that in study after study, these types of factors certainly contribute to an easier life, but they do not in themselves make a person happier or more miserable. I am always amused by people who invest in new noses, boobs, even increasing their height. Initially they experience a boost in happiness, but it declines sharply. It is ironic that their return of happiness turns out to be more short lived than the torturous pain and the financial burden.
In my family we have strong cultural myth that marrying into a good family is vital for a happy life. But now we have the spectacular example Princess Diana to answer that. Despite her high status marriage, we know she was far from happy. It is far preferable being single than trapped in a miserable marriage.
Other common circumstances widely believed as necessary for happiness include: a suitable education, a respectable career (which of course brings with it designer clothes and fancy cars). Yes, they add something to the happiness quotient initially, but soon the novelty wears out. The human brain is highly elastic, hence it adapts to the new circumstances. I was impressed that these newly minted MBAs were aware that the euphoria of their achievement will fade. I am glad they are prepared for the reality that in a few years they will be no happier than they were prior to spending the $100 grand in tuition.
Having children then, will that make a person fulfilled for life? It seems the happiness that children bring is offset by the lifelong worry for their safety, the stress of good parenting and financial worries of providing for them. I cannot imagine the horror of those parents whose children go missing. Add to that fear, parents have to worry about what kind of world their children are about to inherit. Food shortages, water shortages, even breathable air will be a luxury in the not too distant future. On balance, the asset of having children are entirely offset by the liabilities. Childless people live as long as parents, and they report being just as fulfilled.
Relationships: The grads decided that a whopping 40% of the happiness revenue comes from non-material things such as being connected to others through family, friendships, and hobbies. This includes volunteer work which feeds a feeling of worth and of giving back to the community.
Genetic: To which they assigned the remaining 50% of happiness revenue. Basically, they argued, some people are born psychologically better equipped to be more happy than others. Some are naturally optimistic, cheerful, easy-going, while others are more serious, rigid, predisposed to depression or anger. The grads saw these as unchangeable, and hence genetic.
Yikes! A bit too fatalistic. Perhaps we do not come into this world with our personality traits cast in stone. Perhaps we learn them as a response to whatever happens to us in life. But that does not mean they are unchangeable. The grads had assigned a whopping 40% share of happiness to Relationships, but I wonder if they had stopped to dig a little deeper? Don’t all relationships (not just romantic ones) teach us much about ourselves and our character traits? Relationships shed a light on our unconscious habits, traits, feelings and bias. In that dance to make relationships work, we are compelled to examine and change, to adapt, to learn new skills and traits. We mature because of our spouses, we grow to appreciate diversity because of our colleagues and neighbours.
Our minds, if we give them attention, can be rewired and reprogrammed. The grads themselves admitted that the human brain is highly elastic. So why would the disposition to happiness be an exception to this?
Rather, isn’t happiness the default setting of the human mind? Whenever an emotion or situation takes us away from this default we describe ourselves as being “upset”, “disturbed.” When we are angry, we are “unbalanced”. Fear makes us “unhinged.” Insults make us “out-of sorts.” Just as health is the default of the body, happiness is the default of the mind.
If that is true, then surely happiness lies somewhere below the surface turbulence of the mind. Rather than trying to quell the disturbances, shouldn’t we be searching the still, calm depths of awareness? Isn’t that where we might discover happiness?
April 15, 2013
Undoubtedly, all of us have been moved by compassion at one time or another: a little girl walking silently with a bruised eye, an old lady collapsing in front you. An aching rises from deep within and it compels our hands to aide. Overwhelmed by sadness for another, we forget ourselves. We scarcely notice that the wall between ‘me’ and the ‘other’ is gone. His pain is my pain. Moving beyond the dictionary definition, I wonder if compassion can bring about a sharing of emotions other than sympathy and pity? Perhaps even, joy?
I now know that it can.
There I was in the small-town campus of an esteemed university. The fresh batch of MBAs, already suited and heeled for the graduation ceremony, were showing off to their families the rooms where they had garnered their expensive education. Mostly South Asian immigrant families much like mine. Mothers in saris with proud, glinting eyes. Paunchy fathers with worn-down limbs, no doubt, from years of loving sacrifice. I have seen these types of looks many times before. Their glowing smiles proclaim: my son the doctor, my daughter the Harvard Ph.D. And yet, amidst all this obvious joy, I was struck by a profound grief.
While I understood their emotions, I was an outsiders to them. Something prevented me from fully empathizing. I had no experience of parents supportive enough to cough up 100 grand in tuition. I do not know what it is to be encouraged at home to succeed. In high school I had been academically gifted. All of my teachers unanimously agreed that I had great potential for worldly success. But it never happened. The grief I was feeling was for that high school teen still trapped inside of me. The emotion was that of self-pity–an impotent and indulgent emotion, at once isolating and debilitating.
As I sat in the convocation hall, listening to the well-prepared speeches, I thought to myself: Is there a way in which this uncomfortable feeling of self-pity can be channelled into something positive? Is there a way to so wholly empathize with their joy? To use this group sense of accomplishment to extinguish my long-denied desire?
It turns out there is. And it wasn’t even difficult.
Luckily, in my volunteer work I am used to putting myself in others’ shoes. During the practice of empathy, there is wonderful self-forgetting that happens. It brings about a call to action without the pettiness of the ego. So why not empathize consciously, I thought? Why not deliberately burst the bubble between ‘me’ and ‘them’? I summoned every fiber of my awareness to this very idea. A surge of joy immediately filled me. My hands moved, as though by compassion, not to aide, but compelled to applaud wholeheartedly the accomplishments of these strangers. For a moment, all of their joy was also my joy. That teenager inside me had his wish fulfilled. (And it didn’t cost me a 100 grand either.)
When you think about it, this is not a very difficult skill to master. In fact we all do it without realizing it. Sports fan routinely break that bubble with the players and share their rapture. Skilled actors on the stage or on screen are able to make us feel what they feel. The other day on the subway I saw a sleazy, old man leering at a teenage couple in the throes of passion. He was visibly aroused and I realized that he was using the mechanics of compassion as, well, literally, co-passion.
I bet we all remember where we were during 9-11. On that day we North Americans were as though one mind. While we are not strangers to this bursting of the ‘me’ bubble and sharing the feeling of those around us, it happens to us because of forces beyond our control. We depend on others to make it happen.
What if we were able to unite with the minds of others at will? At even the most mundane of events? Might we then be able to override other useless emotion? Blow them apart forever? Emotions such as jealousy, boredom, disgust, loathing and contempt. Self-centered emotions which serve no purpose but they drain our energy all the same. Emotions such as self-pity seem attractive because they make us feel special, but really all they do is isolate us.
To be always connected and never lonely, no matter where, no matter when–now that really is special.
April 8, 2013
I thought I saw George Clooney last week in the Emergency Room at my local hospital. There he was, in his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, all six-feet of him, towering above the rest of the staff. This doctor was so unspeakably handsome that for a moment I thought I was on the set of the old T.V. show, E.R.
From his speech and manner it was obvious this doctor was well born. With all that going for him, did he further need the status of ‘doctor’? In a moment of envy, I questioned whether this young man deserved so very much in life?
For that matter, do any of us ever deserve what we get in life? ”Why me?” we ask whenever something tragic happens. The unspoken other half of that is, “Why not to someone else?” (Perhaps to that young, good-looking doctor).
Because the reality is, bad things do happen to good people. Compassionate people sometimes get cheated. Kindergarten children are massacred for no reason. Good guys do finish last. And people do get away with murder. Crime does pay (why else would so many people indulge in it?).
It feels like no one ever gets his just desserts. All of which is unsettling because we have an irrefutable sense that we are good and thus deserve all the good things in life, but none of its negativity.
If however, one has lived life for a number of years, one comes to realize how utterly selfish and utterly irrational that notion is. If we are lucky, we have matured enough to admit our imperfections. We are gracious enough to accept that others are also good and deserving.
However, it takes a huge leap to accept that life is just not fair. Cosmically, all life is random chance. People are not perfect. I have always liked how the weavers of Oriental carpets deliberately leave an imperfection in its design because, “Only Allah is perfect.” Then am I wrong to pursue perfection? Am I simply being vain? Perhaps it is envy of people like that young doctor that compels me to always better myself?
I have decided it is neither. See, the problem with the George Clooney types and the Princess Diana types is that their perfection seems unearned. There were born perfect. They won the genetic lottery in terms of physical beauty, as well as social status. Were I to sit here and do nothing but resent them, that would be envy. It is also envy that makes judgements about whether they deserve what they have or not. Oh, it would be easy to emulate them in superficial ways–copy the hairstyle, his clothes sense, and speech. Those types of pursuits would be an act of vanity.
But to strive to be the best you that you can possibly be, to my mind, falls into another league altogether. One where there is striving to learn from whatever life throws at you. Where there is that drive that pushes you to pick up newer and fresher coping skills. To me that type of pursuit of perfection is about survival.
This was really brought home this week at the homeless shelter. Some of the men there are destitute because they are just out of prison. They usually request severe haircuts in the barber’s chair: Mohawks, bald heads– one man even wanted his eyebrows shaved off. He fussed and preened over his Mohawk, making me adjust it four times. I first thought it was vanity, but then I realized looking menacing is a survival necessity for them. They live the law of the jungle at every moment. So perhaps the quest for perfection is hard wired into us by evolution, and not about vanity or envy.
Out of the jungle we compete for grades, we compete for jobs, for spouses. We are compelled to be faster, stronger, smarter, prettier just to keep connected.
I have been lucky enough to meet, every once in a while, patients as inspiring as Mr. Lewis. He is in his eighties and this is his fourth long-term hospitalization within the past two years. The nurses fight to have him in their care. Why? He is never not cheerful. He is by no means passive or fatalistic, he simply chooses to accept his misfortune with a positive, undefeated attitude.
Mr. Lewis is more perfect in my mind than that handsome, young doctor. He reminds me somewhat of that great poem by that Indian born Englishman, Rudyard Kipling, If.-
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too….
….Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son!
His poem, echoes word for word the passages from the Bhagwad Geeta on the “Man of Perfection.” (Chapter II) (Except for the bit about you’ll be a man, my son.)
It seems reasonable to me that if life is inherently unfair, random, and a mixture of positivity and negatively, the only choice we have left to us is what we do with what is thrown our way. To strive for perfection, for me, is to evolve and learn from my particular circumstance. The way I see it, the misfortunes of life are your pre-payment for wisdom. If you forfeit your right to wisdom, you have squandered your misery.
If my near-death has taught me anything it is that perfection of character is the only pursuit without envy or vanity. It is purely about survival. It is the only type of perfection that can never be snatched away from you.