To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

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What I Learned from Yoda

Someone I know told me a few weeks ago how they had tried calling me one night. I think it went, “I tried calling, but you I couldn’t reach you.” What, is it 1988? I check my voicemail all the time. And I carry my phone with me nearly everywhere (I actually don’t take my phone inside church, and sometimes I turn it off when we go out.)

But I am more reachable than most people, even here in the 21st century. If someone were to try to call me, I’m confident I would answer. I think what that person meant to say was, “I didn’t call you, but I meant to.” To say that you tried to do something strongly implies that you made every effort. At least you could infer that some effort was made. Some fans of “Star Wars” will recognize the reference to Episode V, “The Empire Strikes Back” where we first encounter Yoda. During Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training, he tells Yoda that he will try to lift a spaceship from the swamp, or something like that. Yoda retorts, “Do or do not; there is no try.” In its simple elegance, Yoda’s statement instructs young Skywalker that he must put his heart into anything he wishes to succeed in. Luke fails, but he at least made an effort. I think his teacher was thoroughly disappointed in him, which inspires me to talk about parents and children. That will be the subject for another post.

I used to catch myself saying “I’ll try” many times. I’m reminded of this scene in the movie every time. I think it has changed the way I speak, but also I look at problems differently, too. It’s not just Yoda’s philosophy that I credit for this shift. I can also point to Emily Post, among others, including some teachers and a priest. The message is, again, pretty simple: If you want to succeed in something, make every effort. Do the things that you expect it would take to accomplish it, including practice, study, and rest.

I told my wife that I considered moving to Denmark. She appeared to perceive it as a joke, but I think she suspected I was serious deep down. I have various reasons, notably the fact that I am allergic to many plants where we live, and there are more restrictions in Europe to what may be added to food, and we are both sensitive to these things. Also, we have friends there, so we would not be entirely alone. So I looked up immigration requirements for Denmark. One big one was the requirement to speak Danish. Long story short, Jeg lærer Dansk. I’m just in the beginning lessons, but it’s my fifth language to study, so I’m optimistic.

Like I said, I work at not saying “I’m trying to learn Danish”. Instead, I say that I am learning to speak the language. According to Yoda’s epistemology, I would either be successful or I would not. Actually, as long as I’m working toward a goal, how could I fail unless I stopped? I guess you could say that trying is working toward achieving success. But I like to think Yoda is right. Try has a connotation that implies that a person can withhold effort, leading to a strong possibility of failure. Whereas, working indicates that you intend not to fail.

Now, I often say to myself that I want to be a successful writer. What this might look like is not clear to me, but I imagine the fundamental aspect that I would earn a decent living based on things I write and publish. Would those be novels or magazine articles? Short stories? Or could I earn enough from writing blog posts? Some people do it, so it’s possible. I don’t know if magazines get enough circulation, and I think print journalism is dying anyway. (That’s probably as much my fault as anyone else’s.) But let’s say my dream is to be a novelist. I think I know what that would take. And I am confident I am not willing to do those things, at least not now. My point is that if I really wanted to do it, I would not rest until I found the answer. Perhaps that’s not what I really want to do. Maybe the timing is off.

I think I am like many people. I have big dreams, but I’m kind of lazy. I was with my dad in a modern art museum a few years ago when he noticed a painting that was nothing more than a canvas with one half painted black and the other half painted red. My dad looked at it for a minute without saying a word. Then he stretched his hand out toward the painting and turned to look at me saying, “I could do that!”

I said, “I bet you could, Dad, but you didn’t. Someone beat you to it.”

Success is whatever you want it to be, within reason. I can’t say I am a successful basketball player by any measure, even though I have played, and I can make baskets from the three-point line. But I can’t do it when someone is doing their best to prevent me from making the shot. And being 170 cm, I am not very effective on the court. But I can say that I play basketball. I don’t try. I just do.

I will not say that I’ll try to publish. I can’t actually say that I’ve even made an attempt. But when I decide that I want to, I will put forth my best effort. I think I really will. I will also have to make a decision about how I will accomplish that with my current schedule. But my friend, who is publishing his first novel, has managed to do it, sequestering himself for weeks at a time. If that’s what it takes, then I have some major adjustments to make. If I am going to put my whole heart into something, I will need a lot of extra time.

Okay, Master Yoda, how do I create spare time out of thin air? Tell me that.

 

Purpose

We all arrived on this plane essentially the same: naked, cold, and outraged beyond our ability to communicate our complete displeasure with being forced from the only comfort we had ever known. Mother was at a distance of eternity compared to where we had spent the first ten months, albeit mostly deaf and blind and therefore unaware what our world even looked like. And then, suddenly, there we were. Welcome to the world; this awful, horrid, dirty, smelly, noisy world.

Since the first moment any of us drew breath, we’ve been suffering. Now of course some suffer more than others, and if you live in a part of the world where you can read this nonsense, perhaps your variety of suffering is what may be commonly adorned with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. This response usually accompanies complaints about not being able to find good help, having to park in a remote lot, or not enough foam in your latte. People like to bitch about a lot of things, and our tendency to complain is not abated by our elevation in socio-economic status. There simply is no end to our suffering.

Except, there is real suffering all around us. We would notice it if we would just look up from our smartphones and tablets. Suffering is a system default of humanity. We are born suffering, and we will live with it in some degree, and people die. Some of us are lucky. My degree of suffering – I shall refrain from using that term, because I really don’t endure much – my burden is nothing in comparison. I have tmj, chronic sinusitis, hypertension, and a few other ostensibly preventable afflictions, some, like seasonal allergies, are manageable. So, I try not to complain too much.

So what shall I do with myself? As I have mentioned previously, I am quite fortunate, and undeservedly so. I didn’t earn my genetic gifts. I had nothing to do with the fate I have. So I try to be thankful all the time. Others have not been so lucky, and I don’t know what to do for them beyond treating them the way I would expected to be treated. A few generations ago, people with afflictions and disabilities were shuffled off to asylums or worse. Autism and mental illness were viewed as something of a curse, and still are in some communities. If we are all God’s children, God should be irate with us for treating the “least of these” worse than we treat stray animals. That’s the most troubling thing about our society right now. All the wars and conflicts and arms buildups are atrocious, but the way we treat people who can’t take care of themselves is deplorable. And we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I was daydreaming when I thought about what the purpose of my existence could be. Why are we all here, I asked. What’s the reason for all of this? If God was lonely, he had his angels and all the other creatures he made who weren’t afflicted with free will. Why did he have to make us? We’re a disaster. We’ve currently got a presidential candidate who is stirring up a nationalist fervor, and radical religious groups have killed and kidnapped innocent people, destroyed ancient cities, and displaced millions in the name of God. And I’m positive God does not approve. In the meantime, there’s more suffering than ever before, mainly because there are more people now living that have ever lived on this earth. It stands to reason that if there ever was suffering, it was never to this degree.

So what are we doing here? We are born, we live, and we die; and the cycle continues. And the population increases, more people fighting for less of a stake, more hunger, more diseases. I could see no solution to this equation. Then it hit me: our purpose is simple. Not why were put on this planet. That’s still a bit of a mystery. But while we’re here we might as well do some good. And what better good can we do than to bring comfort? Our purpose can’t be simply to feed our faces and leave a mound of waste for someone else to toil to clean up. I look at the producers of society, instead of its consumers. Those who have given more than they had taken. The artists, the poets, doctors, nurses, mothers, and pastors – the good ones. Nobody’s perfect, mind you, but it’s about quality, not quantity.

The mission is to soothe, to console. We are here, all of us, to ease others’ suffering.

Who are they, those who suffer? Like I said, we will not fail to notice them if we would just look up once in awhile. This coming from someone who was obsessed with Infinity Blade II. That was addicting. Had I not been so consumed, I might have come to this conclusion years before. I gave away my Ipad, my XBox, and my video games. That was a liberating experience, even though I still have a strong desire to play Skyrim (nerd alert).

I’m not telling you this because I want to be lauded, or that I want others to do this. It was something I needed to do, because I realized it was consuming me, devouring me. I still spend hours in front of a computer, if not working to manage huge amounts of data, then to continue to write about the things I think about when I am able to capture a moment to myself. And in between all those minutes of the day that are crammed full of the ephemera of living in the 21st century, I am able to look around me and make discoveries around me. I see people, instead of looking at my phone. I notice individuals on the verge of breakdown. I see worry and fear in people’s faces. I hear trembling in a person’s voice.

How can I possible ease their suffering and pain? It’s something I have learned to do, and I am in no way an expert. But I do make an effort to not make things worse. I have often said entirely the wrong thing. I’ve laughed when I shouldn’t have. I have looked uninterested, yawning, being distracted. But I learned. And I suppose it was because I was to endure some hardship, small though it would be. It is through suffering that we become empathic. You would think this ought to be universal, but some people are complete assholes, and they have suffered much. Still others are complete jewels. Go figure.

Want to make a difference? I do. It’s kind of a passion of mine. I feel compelled to make some impact on humanity through my writing or photography. I dream of becoming a journalist, traveling and hearing people’s stories, learning about their plight or their joys. I did photograph a wedding once. It was very festive, even if a little unconventional. I loved being part of the experience. If I were a full-time wedding photographer, I would like to photograph unusual weddings, celebrations of people rather than exhibitions of wealth. Those seem to be a little sad to me. And I don’t understand why. I guess it’s because it cost so much, and the stress was about to kill the bride’s parents.

How can we ease this suffering, this first-world problem? Is it worth any effort? Perhaps. I intend to make a difference wherever I am able. Maybe it’s not in being a writer. Maybe I can make my impact just being around people and bringing them happiness. Can we spread joy even if we are not joyful? Have you ever tried to make someone laugh and not laugh yourself? The easing of suffering would therefore be reciprocal, and hat better reason would you want to spread some cheer?

Since we are all in this together, why not make the best of it? I see people who are miserable fucks. And I ask myself why they would want to be in that state. Many people feel stuck. They feel like they can’t escape their circumstances. Perhaps that is true for some. But I have seen some really cheerful people in desperate situations. What then is happiness, and how do we find it? Well, that’s a topic for another time. I’ll sign off now, but I will visit the idea of happiness, and perhaps I’ll write a book on the subject.

In the meantime, be joyful, and don’t cause any harm. The world is already a better place just by our thinking about it.

 

Dogs and Climate Change

Dogs don’t believe in global warming. Of course they don’t, because they don’t give a shit. So why should we? About 27,000 years ago, domestic breeds of dogs began to emerge from ancient ancestors of modern wolves. It is thought that “gentler” wolves that were better adapted to human activity and were able to acclimate themselves to us were eventually domesticated and bred into the many breeds we know today. It’s hard to believe, but Pomeranians and Rottweilers have the same genome, and they are genetically more similar than the between six and 11 distinct giraffe species. I mean, I look at a giraffe and I think, “giraffe”. It’s a little hard to accept that a chihuahua can’t be a different species from a mastiff, but okay.

I have to admit to my anxiety over hearing increasingly grim news about how humans may be “the asteroid, not the dinosaurs” in the assertion that we are not just looking at – but may be part of the problem in the Sixth Mass Extinction in earth’s long history, according to the Daily Beast. Well, this isn’t such a new idea. Apparently, Charles Darwin entertained such an idea in The Origin of Species back in the 19th century. Yet this is just as hotly debated as it ever was, and Americans seem to be polarized over this issue. But to me, it’s a simple question of whether humans could possibly have ever made lasting changes to our environment. The argument against this position maintains that there are many factors, and man is not solely responsible for the apparent change in earth’s climate, if it is indeed changing. To wit: many scientists agree that the earth’s average temperature is rising, as are sea levels. Ice caps are shrinking, and habitats are dwindling. Opponents have argued that there is not sufficient data to prove any of this. I call bullshit, but we can agree to disagree, at least until the next ice age. Apparently, some are willing to hold their breath instead of listening to reason, and they will not be convinced.

But here’s something interesting: dogs. Dogs would not exist if not for human intervention. The same may be said for cattle, pigs, cats, and chickens. Sure, there are wild varieties of each of these animals. But my docile, domestic Siamese cat in no way resembles his erstwhile wild cousins. I saw one of them, while mountain biking one October day. Ahead on the trail I saw a large cat, probably a bobcat. It was hunched over something it had captured, perhaps a rabbit. I slowed, and when it saw me, it picked up its prey and ran off into the forest. My cat would hardly be able to catch a bunny. His instincts might lead him to kill it, perhaps even try to eat it. But I doubt it. What’s the difference between my kitty and that wild predator I encountered? Human intervention. Anyone who thinks humans have not made dramatic changes to our planet has perhaps not been paying attention.

With this knowledge, you might think the human race would start paying closer attention to our impact on this planet. It behooves us to take better care of our environment. Is it going to prevent extinction? Probably not. But we should start taking more responsibility for our actions. We were taught that in kindergarten. Tell the truth, clean up after yourself, and share with others. Later in my life, a teacher and pastor taught me about stewardship. He said we are called to be good stewards over everything we’ve been given: our health, our minds and bodies, our relationships, our finances, and our environment. It was a surprising message coming from the church. But I appreciated it. I took it to heart, and I try to live by this philosophy. It’s a concept I’ve heard from others: we were not given this world by our parents; instead, we are borrowing it from our children, or something to that effect.

I was reading an article about the Observer Effect. The principle can best be described as one’s inability to precisely measure something without changing the conditions. For example, let’s say I want to know the temperature of a cup of coffee. The coffee in the cup may be 50ºC, near scalding. So I dip a thermometer into the piping hot liquid, but the thermometer is not already the same temperature as the coffee; thus, the coffee loses heat, and we can’t know what the temperature was before I started my test. In the real world, this would hardly be noticeable. But there are many examples where observing a system changed the results. I bring this up because it’s important to realize that small changes make big differences down the line. You can really see this if you’ve ever tried shooting baskets from the free-throw line. You can have almost the same posture and movement each time you shoot, but the results can vary dramatically. Humans have been making small changes for tens of thousands of years. Actually, there have been huge changes, like the extinction of North American prehistoric horses, or massive deforestation. Humans have been altering this planet’s trajectory, ecologically speaking, all along. And the earth may not be able to recover quickly enough. It wasn’t too long ago that the city of London was shrouded in pollution from coal fires. Factories around the world continue to spew God-knows-what from huge smokestacks. And rivers and oceans are choked with medical waste and toxic runoff.

So, I recycle a lot of household waste. Otherwise, I like to compost things that are suitable. The rest is garbage. We produce a lot of trash. I think I’ve posted about this before, but at least I delivered a speech about it recently. I tend to get a little preachy with this subject, but we all have our passions, I suppose. Is it too much to ask that I should be able to breathe clean air and drink safe water? I don’t take these things for granted, because there are places like Beijing and Flint.

Hopefully, we will not be on the extinction list. I wish we could say that about other organisms. But we can do something, small though it may be. We’re already making positive changes, and perhaps the planet will recover this time.

So the next time someone says we’re not responsible for climate change, ask him if he believes in dog.

The Good Old Days?

I am not an old man. That being said, the 1990’s were a long time ago – not in grand, geological terms, nor to most “boomers”, but the flow of time continues with no hint of slowing, and we who are left to suffer under its tyranny are forced to watch the suffering of those who were caught under the wheels of this temporal juggernaut. Then again, 25 years ago isn’t such a very long time now, is it?

The other day, I was listening to streaming music – unavailable in the old days – when Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” began to play. A great song – not her very best, but a good one, nonetheless. I decided to look up the song to get some details, and there it was: release date, August 13, 1991. 25 years ago. Now this song has been around a long time, but I wouldn’t have considered it an “oldie”. But back when I was in high school, we listened to “classic rock” from the 60’s – less than 20 years earlier. Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I think it’s funny, or strange, that I perceive the late 60’s as such a long time ago, but more time has passed from the advent of the web (not the internet – that has been around a lot longer than people realize) to the present day than from Nixon’s inauguration to my high school graduation. Yes, when I graduated from high school, it had only been 16 years since Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the US. The first website was launched more than 25 years ago.

A lot of us can remember the world before websites and mobile phones. We can remember having to use pay phones and going to the library to look things up, because even if you had a computer in your home back then, it probably wasn’t connected to other computers. That was kind of normal back then. I wonder what the world will be like 25 years from now. Will we have RFID’s implanted in our bodies? Will self-driving cars be a thing, or will that plan fizzle like Beta-Max and New Coke? Nowadays, the things I miss are strange to think about. Like going to a record store, or being unreachable by phone. There was a time when no one could text you. It just wasn’t an option. When you wanted to be out of reach, all you had to do was leave your house and go to the movies. Oh, that will probably disappear soon, too.

Now, people get upset with me if I don’t respond in a timely fashion. What’s “timely”? Well, some of my acquaintances get miffed if they have to wait more than a few minutes for me to respond to a text message. And these are people my age or older! Don’t they remember the “good old days?”

The 90’s were a long time ago. An entire generation exists with no memory of that decade. My niece is about to graduate from high school, and she was born in 1998. She only knows a world where the web was well-established, and most people had mobile devices. Her generation has never used a pay phone or had to reference an almanac. It might sound like I’m complaining, but in reality, I’m looking ahead with optimism, and a little concern. No one can predict what will come next. Could anyone have predicted reality television, or better yet, the obsolescence of that medium? It looks like the new wave of our culture will be to elect personalities rather than candidates. Fame will be instant – the term “viral” is already part of our lexicon.

Do I miss the 90’s? No. Nor do I miss any other time before. I miss long lost friends. I miss those who are gone. I miss cool rainy days in the heat of summer. If I could go to any other time in history, I would hesitate to go because I rather like it here. It can be scary at times, and aging is a bitch. But looking forward provides a better vantage point; that’s why I love road trips. I like to see what’s just over the horizon. I look forward to seeing the future. But forgive me if you find me listening to some “oldies” on Spotify. It’s not nostalgia; I just like the sound.

Things are getting better all the time. This medium allows me to publish, when in the past I would have to find someone to print it and distribute it. And I would have no idea if it reached anyone. In the 90’s you had to rewind your VHS tapes or be charged a fee when you returned them. Now, we have streaming, on-demand video. Oh, I missed SNL. No problem, it’s on Hulu. That’s some righteous shit! Really, things are better now. Yes, there’s still a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace. People are still being denied basic human rights all over the world, even here. And there is exploitation and discrimination the same as before. But anyone can serve in the military now. Anyone can get married now. And anyone can have a voice, instantly, globally.

What do I look forward to for the next 25 years? Everyone pays their fair share in taxes. No corporate golden parachutes. An end to predatory banking. Real campaign finance reform. Affordable higher education. And equal wages. Just to name a few. These are the good new days. Is it perfect? Hell no. But the world will change. It always has, and nothing seems to have ever gotten in the way of change. Just be prepared and embrace it. But don’t forget how we got here.

Happiness is …

Many years ago, when I still watched broadcast television (oh, you can probably guess my age because I say “television” and not not “TV”, and I publish in a serif font, and I know what that means) I was watching an episode of “Frasier” when Niles, played by David Hyde Pierce, asked the title character if he was happy. Frasier then spent the entire episode exploring whether he was or was not happy, and how anyone could be happy, or that happiness existed.

I’ve wondered this myself. Many people tell me I am happy, but I don’t know how they could possibly know this. My wife insists that anyone who laughs out loud in his sleep is, deep down, a happy person. She has known me longer than most people on the planet, and I trust her assessments of most things, notably, my choice of attire on a contextual basis. “Does this look okay to you,” I ask.

“Where are you going, and I’ll tell you.”

People like to assume that happiness and joy are intertwined. Most dictionary definitions of happiness use words like “contentment” and “satisfaction”, as well as “joy” and “pleasure”. We say things like, “I’m happy to meet you” which is interchangeable with “pleased to make your acquaintance.” (That last one is probably a little old-fashioned for us 21st-century types.) I find myself saying that I’m “pleased” lately, but that’s probably because I’ve been watching a lot of BBC on Netflix, and I tend to pick things up from people around me or stuff I hear. Right now, I’m hearing Matthew Perry speaking these words in my head as I’m typing them, because I just watched an episode of “Studio 60”. (Great show, by the way.)

Am I happy? It’s a hard question to answer, because we’re told all our lives that we should be happy, especially in ads. Fast food ads are the most pervasive. They show really attractive kids enjoying life in a slightly less-than-gentrified ambiance. It’s like everyone wants to live in the East Village. Ask the average person if they’re happy. They’ll probably jump right to that Bobby McFerrin song in their heads. “In every life we have some trouble,” the song says, but tells us not to worry, and to be happy. If it were only that simple.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

But maybe that’s the secret. Just will yourself to be happy. Like the song says, none of us is without suffering. This is a concept I first came to understand in Catholic school. We must all “take up our cross” and bear it, as Christ did, so the teaching goes. In truth, everyone will suffer in their lifetime, some more than others. This was so commonplace in times past that people looked for some cause for their suffering, be it as punishment for something they or their parents did, or as a curse, being playthings for the gods, we.

No one is immune from human suffering. And yet, people are happy, some of us. McFerrin’s lyrics say we should just be happy no matter what is happening to us, because, well, shit happens. Life, it turns out, is unfair. But we’re admonished for complaining too much. You may have heard the saying, “I used to complain that I had no shoes, until I met someone who had no feet.” What we’re to take from this is that we shouldn’t complain because there’s always someone worse off. Well, this kind of pisses me off, and it makes me want to complain further that I had to listen to this horrible advice. My answer has been that everyone has a right to bitch about their particular degree of suffering, even though they are destined to be outdone by the next miserable sod.

Many people equate wealth with happiness. The opposite seems to be the case, as a report that draws a link between expensive weddings and shorter, unhappier marriages states. But poverty is no picnic, either. It’s just that having heat and a fast internet connection helps in a lot of ways, and I rarely complain about it. Money can make you comfortable if not happy.

There’s always going to be something to make us miserable. I have my own share of trouble, but I think I am happy. You would have to catch me at the right moment before you ask, but for the most part, I am content, and I have joy in my life. I know people who could never say that, and I would probably declare them unhappy, but I don’t know what’s inside these people. I only know what I see on the outside. Sometimes, I am not pleased with things. I rant about how everyone seems to be meth addicts, and I would be okay if certain places on the map just were not there anymore. But I laugh often, sometimes in my sleep, and I sing when I’m feeling good, or when I’m being paid. Am I happy? Generally, yes. I wish more people were.

 

Flawless

Things are getting weird.

About a month ago, in a fit of frustration, I decided to indefinitely disable my Facebook account, but before I finally clicked that button, I mentioned to someone that I had an epiphany recently, one that I believed would change my life forever. At the risk of sounding a little overly dramatic, please bear with me while I explain.

I’m a nature-lover, and my wife and I love camping and hiking and bicycling. Basically, the outdoors is our living room. As I’ve observed nature, I remembered hearing others’ descriptions of the natural world in quite superlative terms: “purple mountains majesty”, and “God’s country” to name a couple. Every waterfall was a masterpiece, every mighty river a jewel eclipsed by nothing man could ever render. And it just goes on and on. But seeing a mountain in the hazy distance with a lake in the foreground might be enough for some people to start believing in God if they never had any inclination to do so previously. God, I’m sure, appreciates the compliment.

When you look outside your window any summer day, you will probably see God’s handiwork in yours or your neighbor’s garden. But that’s not nature, that’s human activity imposed on nature to make it more pleasing to our eye. Gardening is synthetic. Nature is wild and unkempt. But, on your cultivated rose, you will notice a butterfly, quite a wild thing. It emerged from its cocoon and is now a mature insect preparing to lay eggs for a new generation of caterpillars that will devour your garden. But looking at that butterfly outside your window, you say to yourself, “it’s perfect.”

“Perfect”, we say of butterflies and oak trees and wildflowers and horses. We say that nature is perfect, even though we recognize the imperfections, and we do not label them as flaws. A crack in a rock is not a flaw, but a subtle deviation from its otherwise regular surface. A four-leaf clover is a mutant, a freak. But we don’t label it as such. To us, it brings good luck and a reminder of our youth. Perfect is in the eye of the beholder. Imperfection and defect are as well. We humans are the only critics of our being. Do we imagine that a horse or a dog has any opinion or judgement on our existence? We sure are quick to judge ourselves and others. This is the entire rationale behind fashion magazines and beauty pageants. It also explains a lot of literary characters like Quasimodo, Boo Radley, Don Quixote. From one perspective we can say these characters are flawed. Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback” was physically flawed, being born with a disfigured face and body, and being deaf. Radley was a recluse, and rumours of his past swirled around him to a point that people believed he was a monster. And Quixote was simply a neurotic fool (but I certainly identify with him).

When we look at ourselves in the mirror we find fault with almost everything we see. I see that my gut sticks out too much. Others might not like the shape of their ass. Still others will see imperfections with their hair, the size of their nose, or anything else that actually makes us truly unique. But we are not satisfied, and so we shake our heads in disgust. Such is to be human. After all, as it is said, nobody is perfect.

But why can we declare that a tree is perfect? Or a butterfly? Or a rainbow? Surely there are discernable differences among all the butterflies in the world. Can it be that every one of them is perfect? On what can we base this claim, by the way? Under a microscope, I’m sure we could find some flaws. Maybe we don’t have to look that far. Walking through a forest in the Smoky Mountains last year, I found a tree that had been struck by lightning long before, and as a result, it was growing askew, with some branches stunted form the trauma. Perfect? Why not? I mean, the lightning strike was a one in a million chance, perfection from a sports perspective. The best golfer in the world couldn’t manage to hit a target like that. But we don’t call it perfect, but some might recognize beauty in it. And so it is with us.

I know some deeply flawed people. I am one of them. But no one would declare us perfect. Why? Because we hold ourselves to an impossible standard, looking to television or movie stars, supermodels or pop stars. We have defined the “perfect” body. And music gurus recognize “perfect pitch”. Perfect images, perfect sounds, perfect days. Nobody’s perfect? I’m not so sure.

What if you could be perfect? What if you already were? My Roman Catholic upbringing tells me perfection is not mine to possess in this life. I was tought that I would have a perfect “glorified” body in the afterlife. I doubt that. But I do believe in something beyond this life, this world, this dimension. But why can we not be perfect here and now? What is perfection? If we live by the teachings of all the great prophets and Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama and others, can we achieve perfection as prescribed in their words? Is that what perfection is?

Maybe we are already perfect. Maybe we are like the butterfly outside your window, like no other, but just as beautiful. If perfection is simply a state of being satisfied in one’s own skin, that could be fairly simple. This is easier said than done, however. But who is anyone to judge? I’m not sure if we are even qualified to judge ourselves. Is the voice of Karen Carpenter any more or less perfect than that of Joe Cocker? Is Van Gogh’s “Terrace of a café at night” any more or less perfect? Van Gogh was flawed, by some judgements, but we regard his creations and others like them as the best examples of what humans are capable of. You know. Perfect.

I think we can be as perfect as anything else. We’re unnecessarily hard on ourselves. We deserve a break, but don’t slack off. You have a lot of work to do.

Next time, we’ll discuss how none of us is really free.