July 29, 2013
Ursula and I load our cart each week with DVDs, games, and magazines. Each week we roam the patient wards and the waiting areas of the cancer hospital offering a chat, a sympathetic ear and the contents of our cart. We are peddlers of distraction for people burdened by waiting. Mrs. B. might be waiting for her procedure. Mr. C. might be waiting for the results. Some wait for loved ones to feel better, while others await their own death.
No one likes waiting. They all wear that fixed-upon-nothing stare. I find it curious that no matter how educated or professional, waiting people pick out the tabloid gossip rags most often from our trolley. It makes sense when you think about it. These people are waiting for something significant to happen; some turn of fate they can grip their teeth into. Gossip magazines are filled with the highlights of other people’s significant events (even if they be untrue).
When I finish my shift I recognize that same foggy, unfocussed look on the people in the streets and in the subways. The world is like this huge airport lounge, people frantically waiting to get somewhere: waiting for one thing to end, waiting to finish another, waiting for others to do whatever thing for them. Most office workers at day’s end are tired of work, not with work(unlike labourers). I wonder, are we really tired because of waiting for something meaningful to happen?
Looking back at my own life also, I think it is ironic that even though we hate waiting but we spend most of our lives doing exactly that. In youth we can’t wait to grow up, we dream of the day our perfect mate might turn up, in working life we count the months and years to retirement. Once in a while there are significant moments where we are wholly engaged, fully living, the rest of the time, it seems, is about waiting.
And just like the patients at the hospital, we fill that wait with distractions. We learn hobbies, we gossip, we surf the net, we watch TV, etc.. “What do you do in your spare time?” people ask. Don’t they really mean: how do you occupy yourself while you are waiting for life to happen?
The bride at the wedding reception I attended gave a moving speech and something she said has stayed with me. She described the moment after her wedding as the most perfect moment of her life. A moment she had dreamt of all of her life, she said. And she wished she could somehow live in that moment forever. That, seemed to me, summed up nicely the tragedy of our lives. We desire, we dream of the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect people saying and doing the most perfect things. But aren’t our desires, our dreams, our ambitions all a form of waiting? When you think about it, desires and ambitions are postponements of happiness. When I get this, or when she goes, then I will be more happy than now. We set conditions for happiness. We put up limits. Then we wait for those conditions to be met, putting our happiness on hold while we wait. Why do we do that to ourselves?
Of course a few times in our lives we get to experience a moment as perfect as the one we had imagined. All limitations and conditions satisfied. Abraham Maslow called these Peak Experiences.
Peak experiences leave a person joyous, alive, whole, fulfilled and integrated. They can occur through art, spiritual events, or those rare moments when life aligns itself in a perfectly desirable way. As it did for that young bride on her wedding day.
In my work with the geriatrics I have come to realize that Peak Experiences are not always conducive, and sometimes they are not even desired. Yet they leave that same indelible mark upon the individual as the experiences of rapture. I believe I will always remember Luka, aged ninety-four and a half (he insisted on adding the half). He loves to speak of his experiences during the Second World War when he was captured by the Germans and held at a POW camp in the Ukraine. He and his colleagues escaped after a visitor smuggled in wire-cutters by baking them inside a cake (seriously, it actually worked). Luka then hid from the Germans under their very noses by escaping into Berlin. He tells his story with such animation, such detail, one feels one is experiencing a big budget Hollywood movie. He does not talk about his life before or since much, there is little doubt to me that those years of living on the edge of danger were Peak Experiences for him. He was alert, he was wholly present in the here and now. He was fully alive.
Instead of waiting, one has to wonder if there is a way to rewire the brain to be always alive to the moment? To be truly awake and alert and enjoying all the small, non-events that make up most of daily living? I believe it can be done right now, right here, through awareness and attention. I have made it a hobby to notice quiet moments of perfection within mundane, routine events. In my experience, to wholly and truly realize the absurdity of waiting is to slowly let it go.
July 22, 2013
The banquet hall was spacious with high ceilings. Round, white-clad tables were scattered across the dark floor like dappled pools of sunlight. A glittery gaggle of youths gyrated to bhangra beats on the dance floor, their jeweled and embroidered outfits shimmered with the strobe lights. This was an Indo-Canadian wedding as lavish as any in India. I was overcome by feelings of detachment, even isolation. They were first generation from India whereas I am fourth. While they looked like me, they spoke differently, moved differently, and had somewhat different cultural values than I was raised with.
It turned out I was not alone in feeling alone. Others there felt equally disconnected. Some were less wealthy, others felt self-conscious about their age and disability, and a few kept to themselves because either they had married into this ethnicity, or they were of mixed raced.
As I sat in that surreal surrounding it occurred to me that I had lived most of life with this type of conflict. It is a basic human paradox that we need to fit in socially but simultaneously we want to be authentic to our uniqueness. We value our individuality (because that is what makes us human) but we also require that our uniqueness be validated by the others.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too! But we try. One common way we resolve this conflict is by seeking out others who are similarly unique. We form sub-cultures, little brotherhoods of uniform quirkiness. We show allegiance to our brotherhood by adopting a similar style of clothing, gestures and lingo. In my distant youth we youngsters expressed our individuality by streaking our mullets with fuchsia, back then even the boys wore eyeliner. Hey, it was the Eighties. Frankie Says…. Well, we did whatever Frankie told us to. But of course our expressions of individuality were actually submitting to the uniform of fashion.
This kind of seeking out ‘oddballs like me’ never quiet satisfies because our individual differences arise no matter who we team up with. Take any sub-culture, such as gay men, while they find validation for their sexuality within the gay community, there is little room for validation of diversity of race, of religion. I know one very political gay man (now in his sixties) who fought fiercely for gay rights back in the Seventies and Eighties. He now feels invisible within the very community he helped to create. This is because the reasons we feel like outsiders is always in a flux. Our uniqueness changes with our age and the situations we find ourselves in.
At this stage in my life, when I think I am personally at peace with my uniqueness, I still find myself resisting outside pressure to conform. As a visible minority, almost every stranger I meet seems to require some kind of narrative from me about my skin tone. They require a label, some group they can equate me to. If, out of politeness, I tell them my heritage is Indian, I usually get small talk centered around that and nothing else. They tell me about that nice Indian restaurant they ate at last week. Or they chat about some headline from the news about India: Wasn’t it terrible about that flooding? they might ask, as though I must have some personal connection to the event.
People do the same with my disability. They want to understand my confidential medical history, some quick and easy story they can understand. I have now learned how to deflect the attention back to the person making that unwelcome inquiry. I deftly shift the attention back to them. People love talking about themselves and all it takes is a small nudge to get them speaking. They soon forget about you and their intrusive query.
As I sat in that banquet hall with this uncomfortable but familiar conflict it occurred to me that perhaps my approach was all wrong. Embracing our uniqueness, I gotta be me, being true to myself, etc. aren’t all these just assertions of the the ego? When you think about it, isn’t the urge to blend in, to conform to the dress, the language and the lifestyles of the majority also artificial and acquired?
What if I was to give attention to the more authentic commonalities I had with the five hundred or so people in the room? All of them: men, women, youths, babies, shared the same air as me. Each of us was united in time and space, we shared common sounds, sights, tastes and smells. Most wonderfully, each of us was alive with the same light of consciousness. To give attention to that was wholly satisfying, completely unifying. And it did not disrespect my authentic self.
July 9, 2013
This department store was once a North American institution. My local branch is in financial hardship, much the same as other stores with this famous name. Staff are few and indifferent. I was shopping on the children’s floor and would have loved some guidance in finding the perfect gift for my niece. Unable to locate a salesclerk, I walked over to the cash desk. A man was already waiting there with a heavy tricycle, ready to pay. Alas there was no cashier in sight. I don’t know how long he had been waiting but from his frustrated demeanor, I suspect a long time. There was a CCTV pointing at him, but evidently it was not functioning or it was unattended. After about ten minutes, the man walked out of the store, with the unpaid tricycle still in his hands. I am certain he is not a habitual thief because he waited a long time for the chance to pay. I do not believe he saw me hovering behind him, and even if he did, it was of no importance to him because I was a stranger. I think he only stole because no one was watching. He was an anonymous man in an anonymous store with anonymous personnel.
I wonder, did his true personality come through because there were no accountability, no consequences?
I did not steal anything from that store, despite this man’s carefree getaway. I have never shoplifted in my entire life, though there might have been countless opportunities. Partly it is because I am the son of a shopkeeper, but mostly it is because I live by my conscience. I do not believe I am ever alone because I am there watching. I have to live with myself (and I am my toughest critic). For me that trumps all laws and all penalties.
I find it fascinating that in this age of internet, when blogs are ubiquitous, people are able post their opinions, their comments without revealing their identity. It seems to give them permission to be rude, to be offensive, to insult people whom they will never meet or know personally. Isn’t it ironic then, that because of the cloak of anonymity these people are actually revealing more about their deepest personalities than they ever would to a co-worker, a friend or partner?
A friend of mine is single and hating it. She started looking for romance on the internet. She tells me there is a whole subculture of anonymous dating, and most of it is lewd, uncivil and disrespectful. Men lie about their age, their looks, even their location. They certainly lie about their intentions. After a number of times being stood-up, she ceased her experiment with the internet dating. “Why are men such jerks,” she exclaimed. Were it not a rhetorical question, I would answered: It is because these men are anonymous. No one will hold them accountable for their bad manners. (And they don’t live with a conscience.)
I find the same when dealing with bureaucrats. A friend had contacted City Hall by telephone and the clerk had no problem in fobbing him off without helping. I suggested he show up in person. When he looked her in the eye, stated his problem one person to another, she could not do enough. I know e mails are the main means of communication but I still prefer face to face. I find people behave better, are more courteous when the cloak of anonymity is removed. I suppose this is the reason why people in small towns are more civil than in large metropolises.
In my volunteer work I hear and observe so much of people’s secret selves because as a volunteer I am anonymous and the clients feel no accountability. Patients may put on masks for their families but they confide in me, they have permission to feel lousy, to show their true feelings because I hold no expectations of them. (On the other hand, sometimes the homeless guys show me their worst sides because I am not a social worker or shelter staff).
For me the most precious time of day is upon waking. I try to stretch that brief time before I am this guy or that guy, my day’s roles are yet undefined. Alone in my bed I am with myself and no one else to judge me. Nothing to become, no expectations. This is the time to observe my true self. Over time, I have lost some of my dependence on the approval of others. As a teenager I used to look at myself in the mirror to see if I liked myself. Now I look at myself when I am alone (without a mirror) to see if I still like myself.
I was once told that if you want to see a man’s real character, watch him in small things. I disagree. If you want to see a man’s real character, watch him when he thinks he is alone.
July 1, 2013
Mr. Chan was slouched on the chair at the foot of his bed. His elbows bore the brunt of his body’s weight because his back could not touch the chair’s back. Yet he refused to lie down on the hospital bed. “As long as you have the ability to sit, you should sit,” he said with a broad grin. I suspected that sentence was incomplete. As long as you have the ability to move, you should dance, he might well have added. This was a man I wanted to know. I asked him if I could sit beside him.
Then he said something that has stayed with me all week long: “Eighty-five is the best age you can be.”
This went against everything I had ever been told. In my childhood I was told those were the best years of my life. I remember thinking that was a very sad thing to say to me. Were the adults implying that the rest of life would be more unhappy?
At my niece’s sweet sixteen the grown-ups spoke out in unabashed envy: “I wish I were sweet sixteen again.” To which my niece grimaced. She knew very well that sixteen is a confusing age, on the threshold of adulthood, one has few of the coping skills and less of the wisdom to navigate adult life. Of course what the adults meant was, if I could be sixteen again but know what I now know.
I remember during my college years some of the guys saying, “These are the best years of our lives.” I remember thinking, how can anyone make that statement except on his deathbed? Surely it is better to believe that the best is yet to come?
My sister just worked the last day of her working life. After forty years of setting the alarm, forty years of elbow-to-elbow commutes, those stresses are over. All month long workers from her office building, most of whom she had no previous dealings with, have been passing by her desk to wish her well. They can barely disguise their utter jealousy. Is sixty-five the best age?
Recently my family celebrated my grand-nephew’s first birthday. He is lucky enough to belong to a large extended family. He has no shortage of adults eager to hold and cuddle him. His every move, the minutiae of his experiments in eating, walking, speaking are breaking news for dozens of us relatives. Are these the best years? He is so completely loved, just for who he is. Yet he unaware of this fact. He will have no memory of these years and down the years. He will even have moments of doubt when he will question whether his parents even loved him at all.
Fifty is supposed to be the age of wisdom and, according to the World Happiness Database, older people are happier because they are wiser. But eighty-five? I asked Mr. Chan why this was the best age of his life. “Well,” he said confidently, “I have no more worries.” I was stunned. I knew a little of his medical history, he wasn’t in hospital to have fun. In my speechless silence, I looked at his peaceful eyes, and the joyful energy of his being. I realized his age had afforded him detachment from the cares of the world. There was so much more I wanted to ask him: Had he perhaps achieved all he had ever dreamed? Is there nothing to to be done, nothing more to gain? But we were interrupted by the arrival of his daughter, a dutiful and caring woman who came with containers of lovingly prepared home meals. Could his obvious sense of completeness have something to do with being so loved, and more importantly, being aware of being loved?
A wise man once said to me: “To love and to be loved is true success in life.”
Had Mr Chan, at age eighty-five, achieved success?
I don’t know when is the best age in life. It is one of those questions where the answer is less important than the query. All I know is that Mr. Chan’s confident statement will stay with me for a long, long time.