Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Beggar Who Blessed Me

I was recently in Columbia, spending time visiting loved ones and seeing the sights. When travelling somewhere for the first time, especially for someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to travel much, figuring out how much cash to bring and how much to convert to local currency can be a guessing game that doesn’t go very well.

So after a couple of days bumming around I was out of pesos. Which, added to the fact that my credit card wasn’t working, left me in a rather foul mood. It wasn’t because of a compulsion to shop and consume, but because I felt a bit of a drag on those in my company because I didn’t feel like I was contributing my part. Worse than that, I wasn’t able to give a pittance to help the local economy. In Columbia there are a lot of street performers and vendors who aren’t shy about looking to do business. On two separate occasions I had street rappers decide to do their rap in front of me. It would have been convenient to throw them a few thousand pesos and have them move on to the next sap. More importantly, it would have made me feel good to support those vendors who are out there all day hustling to earn an existence. Buying an arepa from a local for the price of a U.S. dollar would have been a mutually beneficial exchange. But there was an even greater reason I was feeling bad about not having cash on hand.

Coming from a small city in the United States, I am not used to witnessing homelessness and poverty so close up. There was a fair amount of that on display in the areas of Columbia I visited. And while I’m past the age of believing I am morally obliged to fix every bit of suffering, I am also past the age where I'm comfortable turning away and pretending I don’t see it. But having no cash on hand, I had no other choice. It made me feel bad.

The first time you turn away from the misfortune of others is hard, but it becomes increasingly easier thereafter. It is a habit that forms quickly, and pretty soon you are able to walk past those people in need as if they don’t really exist.

There are plenty of good explanations and rationalizations for doing so. “They’re just playing upon your sympathies.” “They’re not really that bad off, they’ve just found an easy way to make a buck.” “If you give to one, the others will take you for an easy mark.” “You’re not really helping them, you’re just contributing to their problems.” And there are plenty of people who are eager to share these explanations with you, those who have experienced the same discomfort and found easy explanations in order to relieve themselves of this discomfort. People you trust, people you like, friends, family. But it’s just a way of avoiding real problems in order to live in a more comforting, imaginary world. I’ve come to realize this is not a good way to go through life, that reality can only be walled off for so long.

Fortunately, my wife woke up early one morning and managed to find an ATM, allowing me to carry some pesos along with me. The first thing I did was to give a meager amount to a man sleeping in a doorway across the street from our Airbnb. I thought at first that he was one who had so tugged at my heartstrings the night before when he pled with me for a little something and I had nothing to give, but it turned out to be someone else. There is no shortage of the truly needy. Nonetheless, I gave this man a few dollars and he gave me a “God bless you” in return. It was a greater blessing to me than any that could have been given by any spiritual or religious leader, and I have no doubt as to who got the better of that transaction. I was not expecting that. I was expecting a strictly financial transaction, but found myself dealing with a real human being capable of touching me as I did him.

It wasn’t much, and I certainly was no one’s savior, but I was now able to give a few coins to the indigent I met in the streets, was now able to see them as human beings, part of the same community and world I inhabited. The pull to resist such an attitude was strong both from myself and others, as if I was threatening to pull apart the very fabric of reality. And in a way, it was. It was the smallest participation in the message that Jesus delivered two millennia ago, it was the faith of a mustard seed which moved our perception of the world undiscernibly but undeniably. The mountain hadn’t moved much, but it had shifted, at least within my understanding. It’s an understanding that is threatening to the accepted way of viewing the world.

Cast your bread upon the water and you will anger those you call family and friends. Embrace ever so slightly the vision that our hope for security rests not in what we can gather for ourselves and loved ones from a harsh world but instead in our shared humanity, and you will witness just how radical Christ’s example was.

I can understand why people are afraid of Christ’s teaching, because it rips you away from all you’ve known, takes you away even from the security of family and friends and offers only the unseen and unproven community of humanity. But even the smallest taste of the reward of seeing Christ even in the eyes of the humblest among us will have you desiring more. And I understand the fear of believing in a sky god, so if that’s your hang-up, get rid of it for now. Embrace instead the idea of loving others as yourself, fearlessly. There is something to that notion that is real as gravity, though both are invisible forces. “Ah,” you say, “but science has proven gravity exists, it has not proven Christ’s message.” That may be true, but gravity did not require science’s blessing to exist, it had been doing its thing long before Sir Isaac Newton. It existed when man’s scientific understanding of the world they lived on could not fathom the Earth as a sphere but merely a flat plain. But the laws of gravity were obeyed despite the fact they were not understood, were intuited though not explored.

I invite you to investigate the radical notion of Christ’s teaching as a scientist would an unexplained natural phenomenon. With an open heart and an open mind. Not with a preconceived idea of what it is or is not, but with a curiosity for a force that has existed for millennia, an undeniable though as yet unexplainable something. I do not ask you to believe, in fact I think it is preferable that beliefs be left behind for this voyage. I ask only that you leave yourself open to the possibility of the experience, the seeing of the divine in even the least of your fellow human beings.

I could have done more, should probably always be doing more. Like I said before, I wasn’t anybody’s savior. But I do think perhaps we can all be each other’s saviors, each of us helping to save one another and humanity as a whole. And we can do so by always making the effort to see the humanity that exists in even the least of us.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Think Twice Before Finding Something To Do

Hamlet Contemplates Doing Something

It has come to my attention that the less tasks I undertake the less busy I am and the more time I have for other things, such as relaxing. As a matter of fact, the only logical explanation for doing anything at all is to get it out of the way so that later you can relax. And the truth is, most things don’t need doing in the first place so you’re just putting one extra step in between you and relaxation time.

Always put off until tomorrow what can be done today, because by tomorrow conditions might change. If they do not, you will it least have an extra day to come up with a reason you shouldn’t have to do it tomorrow, either. If you follow in this advice long enough it is very likely that some busybody will tire of waiting for you and do it himself, or else people will adapt and forget a problem exists at all. People adjust rather quickly once realistic hope fades from the equation.

Thinking about doing something is okay, but it's a step in the wrong direction. If you do it properly, it is a nice form of relaxation to contemplate actually accomplishing something. But sometimes such flights of fancy lead to inspiration, which is quite dangerous, in that it leads to actually start something, and that is the kiss of death. Starting something is like signing a piece of paper an Army recruiter puts in front of you: you’ve committed to a long stretch of time in which you will suddenly find yourself wed to work you have no interest in performing.

There has never been a time when I started a project that my inspiration has outlasted the task. 15 minutes into even the simplest job will reveal complications I never imagined possible. But there’s no stopping at that point: even stopping will require work just to get back to where you were before you started. If you quit and walk away then you’ll be left with a mess of tools lying around that were neatly packed away before motivation got the better of you. Not only will you have yet another messy area in your house, you will have that sense of failure hanging over you as you settle into your place on the couch and try to watch television. There will be a sense of guilt you cannot shake, and guilt is a very dangerous thing, because it will lead in the future to you trying to redeem yourself by starting some other unnecessary project and seeing it through to completion.

And say you do carry a project to completion, what then? Say you’ve found the intestinal fortitude to build a garage or a swimming pool: it’s only going to lead to more work. That pool will have to be cleaned frequently, that garage will need painting and repairs. Whereas if you had simply sat on your couch for the amount of time it took you to accomplish something, you would now have far more time to sit around now. Not only that, you’ve established a very bad precedent, one which others will then try to hold you to.

Now you may ask me if it was worth all the energy it took me to write this. I would say that if it stopped a single person from doing some unnecessary task, then yes it was. And writing about work is really no different from talking about work, and as we know talk is cheap. I would go so far as to say that thinking about work is the finest ways to react to work. One has never dirtied one’s hands thinking about work, never had to make multiple trips to the hardware store, never cracked one’s knuckles or made a mess by thinking. As a matter of fact, the more you think about doing something, the less likely you will find the time to actually start on it. Just ask Hamlet. It was thinking too much that prevented him from killing his uncle. More than that, he thought himself out of killing himself with a dagger. And that would have made a mess which someone would have had to clean up.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Improving On Miracles

I wanna love you and treat you right
I wanna love you every day and every night
We'll be together with a roof right over our heads
We'll share the shelter of my single bed
We'll share the same room, yeah! - for Jah provide the bread
Is this love - is this love - is this love
Is this love that I'm feelin'?
-Bob Marley

Is This Love? By Bob Marley was playing in my head at work today, and as it did I contemplated the innocent joy contained in the lyrics. And whether or not it was intended, the impression I got was that the life the singer was offering to his lover was one of modest creature comforts: a roof, a single bed, and daily bread. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Doesn’t sound like the American dream, that’s for sure. How many women nowadays would accept such a meager proposal, and how many men would be comfortable offering no more. Women are expected to view themselves as princesses, and men as conquerors.

But I couldn’t help getting the impression that what Marley was singing about was love in its purest form, the simple idea of two people coming together and appreciating the other and wanting to commit their lives to each other. This is one of the true joys in life, and all else is adornment. More than that, I would say it distracts from the miracle which is best experienced when stripped of all baser elements. Love without expectations of other things is love unadulterated, is love fully experienced. It is participation in the miracle of existence.

Love is not improved by silken sheets, it is made decadent. It is no longer the merging of two souls but a sensory experience augmented by material possessions. It is not a miracle found but a hunger never to be satisfied.

Our problem is that we are always trying to improve those things which by themselves are miracles. We are given gifts and experiences of inexplicable beauty and we ask ourselves how we can make them better.

We pride ourselves in creating a society where we can purchase asparagus at our local supermarket any time of the year, but we have lost the connection to the season, have no idea what it must have felt like to have survived a long winter and experience the first blessings of spring. There was a sacredness and connectedness in our existence that we can no longer begin to imagine. We have created for ourselves a reality where words like sacredness and blessings and miracles are alien concepts. But they were words that were created to express genuine human feelings and ways of seeing and being. We use the word awesome when so few of us have ever come close to experiencing awe. We experience the most profound of miracles and all we can think of is how can we improve upon them.

I can’t help thinking the lowliest peasant in the most backwards of nations has experienced life’s true joys more than most of us ever will. Surely there was something life offered to primitive humans to make them want to endure and reproduce, because they lacked all that we hold most dear and yet it seems we ourselves are barely holding on to any sort of happiness, any sort of hope for future generations.

Think to the times when you felt happy, content, connected. Think of those moments when you were closest to finding real meaning and joy. I’m willing to bet such memories are accompanied by the smell of something your grandmother was cooking, the sound of waves lapping on the shore, or the touch of the sun upon your skin. I’m guessing they involve staring up at the stars and contemplating life with friends of your youth, or staring at the daytime sky and wondering if you’ve ever seen it so blue.

Our lives are non-stop explosions of miracles, each instant a potential connection to both mystery and contentedness. And the more simply we live the more connected we are to such miracles. A bowl of vegetable soup or a discovered patch of strawberries gives to us a gift we can never repay, and in feeling gratitude and an awareness of being blessed, our joy is increased yet further. Yet we continue to seek ways to augment our experience, pile up more blessings not only in fear for the future, but because we cannot sufficiently appreciate the present. And in wanting, in desiring, we reach past what gives us true happiness. We endlessly chase our own misery, even as miracles abound.

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