Some days it’s possible to maintain an awareness that we’re really here to connect with that divine spark inside our fellow human beings and all of creation, to notice the miracle in the profoundly pink blossoms of a silk floss tree, to be kind, be kind, be kind. Some days, I might even see the value in loving my enemies. And other days, it’s all I can do to keep from throttling my friends.
I used to think the friend-almost-throttling days were a failure, but maybe not; maybe, for that day, they’re a tremendous success. After all, no strangulation occurred. Maybe grinding my teeth and doing nothing on the less enlightened days is as much a step toward loving my enemies as being kind is on the easier days.
Ronald Rolheiser said the first thing that ever made sense to me about Jesus on the cross, which is that he demonstrated how to hold, carry and transform whatever hurtful energy is directed at us. We are a mirroring species. If someone glances up to see a passing bird, we glance up, too. If someone likes us, we tend to like them, and if they dislike us, we usually return the favor.
So to really change anything rather than just reflect back what we get, we have to hold, carry and transform that energy. I don’t know why, but I think our capacity to do that is not the same every day. My conception of my best used to be that every day I would be the most efficient, disciplined and intelligent achiever of things that I could imagine. Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ll never reach what I can imagine, and I’m convinced that some days will be impressive and some will be of the not throttling variety.
But not throttling still contains an iota of holding, carrying and transforming, and it’s a lot better than the alternative.
Thursday surprised me. There are a lot of ways to be surprised by a day, I suppose. The one I experience most often is “Holy expletive, Thursday is over and I still have so much to do.” (Isn’t it nice that expletives can be holy? They remind me of Robin: “Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods, Batman!”)
You could be surprised by the beauty of a day or the quietness of it or by something that happens during it, like a friend bringing you a giant hot fudge sundae for no reason at all. (This has not happened to me…yet; I like nuts on my sundaes if you ever get the inclination.) But I was surprised by the 6:13 p.m., October 9, 2014-ness of it.
I was driving past the In ‘n Out near my vanpool’s park and ride when an awareness arrived that this moment in time existed and I existed as part of it. It seems odd to be surprised that we exist, but I spend very little time in the here and now, which, as a lot of people have said before me, is the only place and time in which we do exist.
So when the here and now reached out and got in touch with me, it was different. It was also immediately and obviously the place I’d prefer to spend all my time because it was alive and beautiful and nothing was missing. For lack of a better word, I’d call it holy, no expletive necessary.
Perhaps the surprise came only after I lost contact with the present moment, which was approximately a nanosecond after it arrived. I started thinking, ooh, this would make a good blog post, thus catapulting myself several hours into an imagined future. But I remember that feeling of awareness, and I’m looking forward to our next meeting.
Note: This idea of presence is old and can be found in a lot of places. I want to give credit to my most recent encounter of it in someone else’s writing, which was a mention of John Duns Scotus’s term “thisness” in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation.
There are things that you know you shouldn’t do, that you pretend to resist doing, but that you know you’re going to do anyway. Like opening a bag of chocolate chips with no intention of baking. On a day when you’ve already eaten frozen yogurt and an almond croissant.
Or sliding oh so casually from semi-upright to horizontal on the couch instead of going upstairs and brushing your teeth when it’s very near bedtime. Or clicking on Facebook in the middle of writing a blog post. Not this blog post, no, surely not.
Our resistance, though futile, is well-intentioned. We might not enjoy the results of these things. Our pants might be a little tighter or our work a little sloppier for lack of sleep, but sometimes, I think, it’s OK. In fact, a little celebration may be in order.
We have an unending litany of things to get right in this culture—health, career, appearance, family, house, garden, etc.—and we need to take it easy on ourselves once in a while. Letting something mostly harmless shift from not OK to OK now and then could help us realize that life might actually be OK much more of the time than we think.
I don’t mean eat the entire bag of chocolate chips—unless it’s the day you really need to—or give up on flossing all together. I think this is another area where David Roche’s Church of 80% Sincerity has the right idea. Being human, we can only strive for self improvement about eighty percent of the time. For the other twenty, pass the chocolate chips.
When I logged on last night, WordPress informed me that on that very date four years ago I started writing these reflections every week-ish. This is the kind of fact I wouldn’t have believed if a computer didn’t say it because four years is a long time.
Or it used to be. College was four years, and college lasted a long time, as I recall. As previously noted, this whole age thing alters either the space-time continuum or our perception of it. I know the latter is more likely, but I’m not ruling out the former.
Another reason it doesn’t feel as if it’s been a long time is you. Every time I wanted to spend the evening streaming an entire season of Arrested Development or scrolling through Facebook, I remembered that, miraculously, there are people on the other end of the ether who find this blog helpful.
Knowing that is humbling, in the truest sense of the word, that is, it reminds me that what happens here doesn’t so much come from me as through me but that I need to keep showing up. It keeps me honest, which means you keep me honest. You move me to look inside, beyond complaint, beyond self criticism (OK, usually) to say something I hope is useful. I have to give up my perfectionist streak and hit publish even on the days when I think, this is really not my best one. Almost every time, those posts receive the most likes and comments.
I saw a quote recently that said, “No one can do it for you, and you can’t get there alone.” That is absolutely true of this blog. Thank you.
Planning is a strange thing—delusional and necessary at the same time. I recently spent a day at El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. To quote the monument’s website, “The primeval black basalt terrain of El Malpais [which means the badlands] was created by volcanic forces over the past million years. Molten lava spread out over the high desert from dozens of eruptions to create cinder cones, shield volcanos, collapses, trenches, caves, and other eerie formations.”
Because the ground is solid rock, there’s no way to make a trail other than to mark it with cairns. As a directionally-challenged person, I felt somewhat unnerved heading out into this place where I was one cairn away from being lost. In reality, an always visible sandstone ridge indicated the direction of the road, but when I looked ahead and didn’t see the next cairn immediately, my mind started creating stories of being lost in the lava wilderness. “Unprepared hiker dies half mile from the road,” the headlines read.
The next cairn often wasn’t visible until I’d reached the one immediately preceding it. It reminded me of that E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I think all of life is like this. We can plan all we want, but we usually can’t see the next cairn when we’re making the plan. The trail rarely follows the course we prescribe in advance.
But without a plan, without some sense of our eventual destination, we don’t know what direction to set out in, and we might not recognize our cairns along the way. We might even forget to look for them all together.
I often choose to be annoyed by the tag line people attach to this or that online profile, but a few weeks ago, I saw one I liked: “Just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing.”
A friend at work recently said that he often thinks about how huge the odds against his existence are. I once heard that if the timing at the Big Bang had been off by a trillionth of a second, particles would never have formed, much less stars, planets, and living beings. (This is one of those “I heard it somewhere” scientific facts rather than my usual “thoroughly researched on Google” scientific facts.)
He pointed out that you don’t have to get cosmic to be boggled by your good fortune. You only have to go a few branches back in your family tree because all of these people throughout history had to not only meet but also get together and feel frisky at an exact moment for your genome to come into existence. Not to mention all the twists and turns evolution didn’t take.
And then he said, “And what do we do with it? Play video games.” My internal response to this kind of reminder used to be, wow, I really need to change what I do. But trying to force myself to change my actions through guilt and mental chastisement has never really worked. The more effective question for me right now is “How do we do whatever we’re doing?”
If I could wake up every morning wildly grateful for and astonished by my existence, if I could maintain that reverence and wonder throughout the day whether I was doing dishes, working, or playing video games, I think my actions would change effortlessly, as a natural extension of my approach to life. If, with the psalmist, I could remember to sing, “I praise you, Lord, for I am wonderfully made,” I might start to do more of what I was made to do.
Some people become Zen masters after a slap upside the head. As befits a Californian, my uncle found enlightenment when we were learning to surf a couple of weeks ago. This was his insight: “The board doesn’t become more stable; you become more used to instability.” I confess to being skeptical at first, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
Probably me on one of my more successful rides.
I spent most of the first day of lessons learning not to be alarmed that the board was rushing with all possible speed toward the shore. (A shout out to our excellent instructor, Nick, from 2 Mile Surf Shop in Bolinas, who pushed us into the waves, which was the only reason I was speeding toward shore.) In retrospect, alarmed was an interesting reaction because I hadn’t jumped out of a plane and I wasn’t headed toward a rock wall. The worst possible outcome ended with the board running into the sand. Still, it took a goodly number of waves before I believed the sand wasn’t going to hurt me.
The second day consisted of trying to get from my knees to my feet and failing—instability galore. It’s easy to understand the idea of keeping your feet in the middle of the board and a lot harder to do it.
On the third day came acceptance of instability, just as my uncle had said. I doubt my feet were much closer to the middle of the board than the previous day, but similar to overcoming my fear of running headlong into the menacing sand, I stopped freaking out as soon as the board wobbled. This had the miraculous effect of keeping the board from tipping over—at least not immediately—thus giving me more time to teeter back and forth and get my feet under me. I don’t think it was pretty, but I did stand all the way up and get off the board on purpose twice.
Riding the wobble is a lot like getting friendly with the “A” word—acceptance. If we stopped wishing for everything to be perfect and smooth, we might find that we can get a nice ride in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. If you master that, let me know. I think I’m still on day two.