This is why Gratitude is not based on “Things”

We like our stuff—no surprises there.

Not only do we enjoy what we ‘‘own,’’ we try to guarantee we will always have everything we own. So we insure them at replacement value, thinking, ‘‘How dare anyone depreciate anything we have!’’

And then, stage right, enters the moth and rust to corrupt.

Things wear out. ‘‘Blue Boy,’’ the L.A. beach T-shirt is so threadbare from hundreds of washings that it can’t even be used as a car rag.

Then there’s the appliance failure of the month. The auto accident—that was the last thing we ever thought would appear on our Outlook-syncing smart phone calendar. (Where are all of our business contacts stored in there going to be eight years from now, anyway? Most of them weren’t around even three years ago.)

The damn car. The roof. The basement leaks. We need more insurance, just in case.

This inventory of stuff—our stuff—is often the object of our gratitude, but also the object of fear.

The problem with seeking gratitude through an inventory management exercise is that Mr. Rogers already taught us that Mr. All-Mine was all wrapped up in himself and made for a pretty small package.
Day after day it keeps coming to us that everything is temporary. We have it, and then we don’t. Our frantic race to keep what we have and acquire even more (in case we do lose something) is a descent into the valley of the shadow of death. It is a march in cadence to the chant, “If you’re not moving ahead, you’re falling behind!”

It is the gilded but unsustainable American Dream that can no longer serve as even a car towel.

Gratitude only occurs in the present moment.

It can’t be based on what we expect to have in the future, because that’s always going to be a maybe. Neither can it be fully based on the past, because if we are living in the past, we are missing the life before us in the present.

Gratitude is now—the Precious Present, if you will. It is an appreciation for the breath that enters our bodies and just as effortlessly leaves. It is an awareness that we are blessed to see what and who is around us now. It’s an appreciation for the birds we see and the sweeping sound of the wind passing through the trees. It is a thankfulness that the person before us now is one whom we love unconditionally. It is a sense that despite all that has transpired, in this moment, this one loves us anyway.

Gratitude is an understanding—an outlook on life. It’s the gradually expanding sense that there is an inner core within us—our soul—that is sacred. Our inner essence is holy, and no person or thing can ever take it away from us.

Gratefulness comes with an expanding awareness that our sacred core is inexorably and mystically connected to that same sacred soul within all others. We know this is true, even though most of the time our surrounding culture seems oblivious to our sacred interconnection.

Thankfulness flourishes when we are mindful of the same sacred connectedness we share with others. The real power of gratitude evokes unconditional love and acceptance. It exudes tolerance. It nurtures unquenchable curiosity and creativity. It engenders genuine love and a passion for equal justice for all.

Gratitude is in the real-time of the now. This is exactly why we live, work, and play. We feel we’ve been given a front row center seat to this vibrant and exciting richness called “life.” We are grateful by being fully alive and responsive in the present moment to all of life around us.

We find that we are rich beyond our wildest dreams because we are blessed to be authentically and meaningfully present with those around us.

With some, our time with them is only in passing moments. With others, we are with them for hours or even years. In a way, in the smallest acts of compassion, each of us are a part of the great reversal of fortunes that has threaded itself through history. We can heal the aching loneliness by being compassionately present with others. Doing so enables us to be contributing to something that is so much larger than ourselves. A compassionate presence is our purpose in life.

This is our mission.

 


Author: Philip Siddons

Image: Abi Porter/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton

Elephant Journal Permallink:

This is why Gratitude is not based on “Things.”

About Philip Siddons

Philip Siddons dabbled in serving as a minister for 15 years, but migrated to using his communication skills in marketing, computerized publishing and videography. Along the way, he tried to respond to the people he served, whether they were paying customers seeking technology support, his readers, or parishioners. He thinks any life work requires the same sensitivity and commitment to create a meaningful presence with others. He holds a BA in literature, an MDiv, and then a DMin with his dissertation on feminist studies, and is the author of several books and short stories. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Linda. Visit his website or connect with him on his blog.

 

Merry-go-round

He was alone. Last year, he wouldn’t have guessed that things would turn out as they had. And here it was again, the holidays. The calendar told him it was 2012 and his life had dramatically changed.

The change went deeper than a turn in the seasons or aging another year. It went under his skin and pervaded soul.

Life was like that, he thought. Everything could be stripped away in the blink of an eye. Yet everything could be restored. Things change.

He knew that now as he remembered his wife handing him the ticket.

For Michael, his life had hit bottom. His relationship with a colleague at work had violated his relationship with Michelle, his wife and his professional boundaries. He knew it was wrong and things went from bad to worse. Had he been in any other career than clergy, he might have been able to work it out.

The denominational officials thoroughly investigated and found no predatory behavior on his part. Just a brief and stupid consensual interoffice affair. Michael took full responsibility for what he did, resigning from the church and the denomination.

The Bishop, however, wanted to make him and his behavior an example and prepared to bring the whole matter to a public ecclesiastical trial. To save Michelle from further public humiliation, Michael defrocked himself from the ministry.

It also didn’t help that the denomination fired the Bishop. Somehow there must have been clerical consensus that though clergy screw up, they can find the redemption they proclaim but now two clergy were unemployed.

Some fitting career ending for the owner of a Doctorate of Ministry degree who had once gone on a book signing tour with his new work on the equality of women and men. Michael even had to quit his adjunct lecturer position at the university. No more feminist lectures there. “You want fries with that?” Michael was guessing to be included in his next career communication.

It did help, though, that he knew his way around computers and networks and was able to land a job. What really needed help, though, was Michael’s remorse. He had made himself and Michelle victims of nothing other than his own mindlessness. As often as he had tried to figure out his insular mindset that irrationally separated his life from his wife and the community – there he was – himself, the hypocritical Elf.

Through the months, Michelle had forgiven him. That was miraculous in itself. But nothing could get rid of the remorse that lived within Michael. Nothing could exorcise this dark visitor inhabiting his soul. Michael knew he had committed the unpardonable sin – to violate the quiet, sacred, loving trust of his soul mate. He knew too much to rationalize otherwise.

When Michelle handed him the ticket to the merry-go-round ride at the local Zoo, he laughed, a little confused.

“Here,” she said, “you need to take this ride. You’ve always been a merry-go-round freak!”

The next day, Michael stood in line at the merry-go-round. As parents corralled their excited children, he saw the unabashed joy on the parents’ faces as they watched their children fly through their air on their painted horses. They looked like cherubs.

Their joy, though, contrasted with the despair Michael felt. He was not standing next to his wife now, as they once had done in watching their daughter years ago. He was alone, in line, waiting to get on a merry-go-round like some kind of homeless outpatient looking like he was in between prescription refills.

The carney, boarding riders on this circle of brightly painted horses, looked a little rough. His beer-sculpted gut and missing tooth suggested he had experienced hard times of his own. Yet he cheerfully boarded the cherubs, their parents and Michael as the calliope music began.

Michael stood beside one of the stationary horses, choosing to stand and not sit as it began to move. He had always loved carousels. The movement. The colors and antiquated steam-driven calliope music from another time and land.

The carney was now standing in the unmoving inner circle of the carousel. As Michael looked ahead in the counterclockwise moving platform, the calliope music sounded like an old Public Television Masterpiece Theater song.

When the tune suddenly changed to the old Rolling Stones Song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” Michael thought something was wrong. Yet the parents and children in front of him didn’t seem to notice. He saw no one reacting to the shift in the music.

Michael turned around and looked behind him and then when it hit him. Seeing the fronts of their faces, . . . they all looked familiar. He somehow knew these people. He was looking back in time.

The one closest to him, riding on the next horse behind, was MaryJo. MaryJoe from high school. The first love of his life. Michael remembered how he dated her for months, only for her to declare she was interested in someone else. It broke his heart and he drove home, that night, crying and feeling utterly alone.

He walked over to her and saw the joy on her face as she looked ahead past him, as if he wasn’t there. He could see scenes into her life beyond high school. She had married a football star who became a business owner and politician. He saw scenes of her collecting her children from the private schools. How she helped her husband on his campaign trail of conservative values and fiscal integrity.

Michael was glad she had found happiness for herself and he understood. He was happy for her.

Michael was wondering if he was dreaming this magic ability to see people of his past and how their lives unfolded.

“No” the carney said, instantly appearing next to him, answering his thoughts. “You’re on this ride and I need your ticket. But keep looking behind for a while” he said as he took the ticket from Michael’s hand. He quickly stepped back into the carousel’s inner circle and disappeared in the arc of the moving ride.

Michael looked further back and saw his parents. They were in one of those brightly colored fixed benches.

Michael remembered when he was five, they had left him behind at his grandparents’ house, driving off and leaving him crying in the driveway. He remembered feeling abandoned, crying outside on his grandparent’s steps. When they soon came back to retrieve him, they were laughing, saying they were trying to teach him to be more prompt when they said it was time to leave.

As Michael moved closer to his parents, who couldn’t see him either, he saw snapshots of their lives. The distance between them. Their preoccupation with their jobs and he felt sorry to see their futile attempts to control so as to appear good enough by those around them. Michael forgave them.

Michel was just starting to grasp the magic of this dream-like ride. As he looked to the center of carousel’s hub, he saw the carney laughing as he looked over at him.

The carnival music tune changed to the Sam Cooke’s tune of “Wonderful World.” He moved further back and found a tall European-looking man he remembered to be Chris. He was the vice principle of his high school who had violently slapped him in his face for running down the hall into class.

This administrator never knew that Michael would feel the reverberations of his slap as it woke him from dreams decades later. But Michael also saw Principal Chris’s suffering from traumas of his own military experiences. He felt compassion and forgave him.

One after another, figures from Michael’s past appeared on the ride.

The calliope played on with the tune of the national anthem. This time it was the college Army ROTC sergeant teaching the class. He was explaining how the Army was placing artificial animal dung bombs along the Viet Nam trails to blow off the legs of hapless villagers. Women, children, hard-working and honest farmers. The sergeant said, “War is a nasty business and we’ve found this to damage their spirits so that we would gain a psychological advantage in the conflict.”

Like the others, Michael saw the Sergeant had eventually liberated himself from his career. Michael forgave the ROTC instructor.

When the music tune changed once again, it was now playing the tune to Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise.” This time, Michael saw a dejected figure sitting on a bench. Unlike the others in his past life, this figure was sitting sideways with his feet on up on the bench with his head turned away, held by his hand.

“There’s one more person to forgive, Michael” said the carney’s voice beside him. To his surprise, it wasn’t the carney standing next to him but was his Michelle. She put her arm on Michael’s shoulder as they both walked closer to the seated figure. “It’s why I gave you the ticket” she said.

The calliope organ softened and changed to the violin in the original Chapman song. Michael could hear the some of the words. “I’ll find my way back to you” were gently sung as they moved closer to the figure. Michael leaned over to see the face of the figure. It was himself. . . . “Please say you’ll be waiting . . . ”

Michael stood, looking at himself. He realized that he could forgive all of the people in his own past but he couldn’t come to terms with himself.

Michael sat down next to his own image. Scenes from his own life were already within him. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and then his wife’s warm embrace. She encircled his head with her arms. He felt the place where his own remorse had lived so many months had been vacated. Through her forgiveness, he had been released and could forgive himself. The waiting for forgiveness was over.

The music ended and the ride slowly came to a stop. As Michael and Michelle turned to exit, the carney said “Come through here” leading them both to the inner circle of the ride.

“But how do we leave?” Michael asked, looking at the carney and Michelle.

The carney had now changed in appearance, looking more like a kindly uncle. He said, “It’s not a matter of how you leave but how you return. You can come here whenever you want.”

Suddenly, Michael and his Michelle were surrounded by all the others who had been on the ride. As if participating in a centuries-old laying on of hands ordination ritual – each one reached out their hand and touched Michael. As the calliope started again, the carney said to them, “What is sacred in this dimension is how we are connected. It’s forgiveness that heals us and makes us whole.”

Immediately Michael found he was standing off to the side of the merry-go-round, watching parents and their children enveloped by the joy. He knew Michelle was back at home, waiting for his return.

As Michael drove home, he couldn’t wait to thank her for the carousel ride and for everything else she had done.

TTL

Moonset

Back at the end of the 20th century when the human genome was sequenced and mapped, genetic and biological scientists had made amazing gains in understanding human life. They came to master elements of human growth and death through the DNA sequencing. This enabled us to dramatically increase our knowledge of the human longevity.

By 2030, medical science could implant a small biometric device that counts down how much time remains for a person to live. The device was composed of miniature DNA biofeedback transducers that are attached to the skin’s surface but connected to the subdural cellular DNA material of the body’s central nervous system. These plasma diodes provided a tiny digital readout on a skin-like mesh, showing the date when the individual will expire.

The medical research teams, that first configured them, called them “TTLs.” They derived the name from the computer term TTL meaning “Time To Live.” It was the hop limit on our computer mechanisms that measured the lifespan of data on our devices. The inventors initially thought the term would soon change but for some reason, it stuck.

Today, with TTLs, no fortune tellers or spiritual guides are needed. The embedded biometric chip indicates the exact date we will expire. You’ve got, say, exactly 17 years and 14 days left to live. For your sibling, it might be only 8 years and 27 days. Your time remaining shows on the digital readout on your skin’s surface at your clavicle (hidden just under your neckline).

~

By 2035, a TTL marketing plan rolled out and with it came an enormous uproar. The influential people from organized religious circles decried it a fraud. They did so until several of them, in their dying moments, created death-bed videos, admitting they were wrong.

At this point, a few entrepreneurs begin marketing software which was said to hack past the human biological countdown mechanism. In their product launch, they “guaranteed” an extended warranty on the lifespan limits, amounting to an additional five or more years of life. While these surgical implants initially cost above 3.2 million dollars for insertion, these life-extenders, when added to the TTL implants, would add years to life and modify the digital end dates. But these biological extender implants were cost prohibitive and were kept from the public knowledge. Most people could only watch and wait out the count-down on their TTL digital readings.

Within several months of the introduction of the TTL life-extender devices, the FTC exposed the fraud. These “life-extension” add-ons were only a programming modification of the logarithm of the TTL biometers, temporarily replacing the true expiration date for a later one.

After all the hoaxes and con artists were prosecuted, most people slowly began to adjust to the reality of knowing the true brevity of their lives.

~

Initially TTLs were a boom for the life insurance industry. Their sales soared or dipped according to the number of years remaining on people’s TTLs. Eventually, though, people stopped purchasing life insurance altogether and the industry collapsed.

Yet people are reluctant in accepting the inevitability of their death. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross correctly suggested in her 1969 landmark book On Death and Dying.

Most people tend to avoid looking at their TTL readout. It is only when their TTL date enters the last decade of their life span that they actively make some changes their lives.

As expected, many quit their careers and ventured into entirely new fields. Currently, on all corporate resignation forms there are check boxes to indicate “Approaching TTL Date” under the reason for quitting.

In their final decade, some divest themselves of unneeded wealth while others gamble their life’s savings away, just to see how much they can accumulate.

Some abuse drugs and alcohol and venture into dangerous experimental nihilistic lifestyles. Many self-medicate and prematurely die of liver failure. To whatever extent that people shorten their lives through neglect, their TTL is a constant and fixed date.

Many flock to religious institutions and groups, seeking meaning for their lives as they near life’s end. After all, NOW is the only meaningful event or tangible commodity that seems to matter. Most of the population is exclusively focused on who they are with and the quality of their relationships. Medical offices frequently have Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” as part of their standard office Mosaic® playlist.

In the last TTL decades, some engage in risk-taking. Some try skydiving, scuba diving or mountain climbing while others try to brave public speaking. Comedy clubs find that their ‘Open Mike’ sessions have hundreds signed up well in advance. One club in San Diego calls itself “I’m Dying Up Here” and broadcasts live performances.

With the deployment of TTLs, the travel industry has skyrocketed. Thousands seem to be fulfilling their ‘bucket list’ as they travel around the world. There is considerably less worry about traveling to suspected terrorist-affiliated countries. If your TTL still shows a number of years remaining, you book your travel, knowing that it won’t be during this coming trip that you expire.

~

TTL specialists typically give Ted talks about achieving excellence in focusing on the present moment. They’ll frequently admonish their audiences to direct compassion toward people in need – particularly those who struggle in coping with their coming endpoint.

News reports have turned from what a particular national leader is threatening other to more positive stories. The focus is more on the things the TTL people are doing in society to make a difference for the better. Awards and honorariums change to TTL behavior which brings society new methodologies of physical, social or spiritual healing. Award nominations are no longer based on box office revenues or the numbers of previous popular nominations.

For recent years, “TTL Specialists” have appeared on talk shows explaining their theories about overcoming the drawbacks of death. Doctoral theses, accompanying books and programs have proliferated on the subjects like “Managing Our Endpoint.” New social science fields teach why we should no longer be anxious or striving. Doing so, it is said, robs us of energy and focus on the being present with the remaining life that is before us. Those who used to say “have a blessed day” more commonly say “have a precious present.”

Faith-based organizations have migrated to new leadership of the laity. Almost as if they are ad-hoc gatherings of passengers on a sinking ship, organized religion has become characterized by open sharing sessions instead of liturgy and fixed readings. Life stories and philosophical learnings are regularly shared, giving speaking priority to those with quickly approaching TTL dates.

Out of those faith-based gatherings have emerged groups who called themselves “Visitors.” These are TTL-mindful people who simply visit people. They come to be with those in prison or they eat their lunches at the soup kitchens with the homeless and indigent. Members of “Visitor” groups share how they have divested themselves of their excess resources, sharing with the needy and compassionately treat others like brothers and sisters.

Young adults, with several decades remaining until their TTL date, stop aggressively competing in the office for the manager positions. Instead, they personally try to become the technical support and customer service center for all of their colleagues as well as their clients. They intentionally try to empower their colleagues around them by sharing their own talents and knowledge to help them excel in what they do. They display marvelous levels of creativity and innovation – just for the joy of it.

~

The TTL readout on our clavicle bone has been the start of new social consciousness that is transforming our society. The social change has begun because it is unmistakably clear that we can’t take things, money or power with us beyond our own TTL date.

For the most part, those within the final decade of their end date, tend to be uninterested in how much money or power or social influence they have. Instead, they tend to use their energy and resources in trying to make life somehow better for those who suffer. They spontaneously grab a hammer and nails and join the neighborhood kids in building a treehouse. They create a website for the folks in Brentwood who are trying to save the Coral Trees. They transport some wheelchair-bound seniors across the street from their rest home on Ocean Boulevard so they can see the exquisite Palisades Park view of the ocean. They buy them an ice cream cone when taking them to the Prominade.

~

In time, societies benefitting from the TTL readouts will continue to evolve. Segments of society will become known as the ‘Places of Paradise.’ They will be countries and cultures known by the current generations as the most favorable places in which to dwell. That is because no matter what is going on in the world, the people who are most conscious of their time to live will be more fully living in the present. They, and the communities they create, will be considered the most elevated humans ever to inhabit the earth.

Near large shopping centers, unneeded automobiles and previews of the available homes are on display. Anyone needing transportation or shelter is able to access these regional auction centers which distribute homes and cars donated by those with expiring TTLs. Homelessness has largely disappeared. Automobile and home prices have plunged.

In proximity to the auction centers are also so-called “Final Word Studios.” The studios are be staffed by volunteer camera crews and set designers to help people record their final parting words before their death. One franchise calling itself “Finally” has as many locations as McDonalds or Starbucks. These studios work with soon-to-expire people who want to create a final last-words video for their family, friends and posterity.

A person nearing their TTL date are able to sit down and work with the studio crew on creating their final video. People can say their last words from their favorite mountain top view, in the comfort of their own home or with almost any background set of props they can imagine.

They can write and choreograph the scene as they imagine but producers and writers are available to help with them with their script. Volunteer actors and actresses are also on hand to add to the production. They can do a final monologue or soliloquy. They can narrate pictures from their own family scrap books. They can read their poetry or curse at their Ex. They can get out whatever it is they wish to express, knowing that this is what they are leaving as their sign post of their life’s experiences. The only stipulation is that at the time of the taping, their TTL reading must be within the final few weeks before their expiration date.

~

This author’s TTL device now shows only hours remaining. So I simply wish you a precious present, hoping you live your remaining time with the fullest mindfulness of the incredible beauty that resides within you and those around you. Know that as your remaining time transpires, all that you are and have been has been part of the height of humankind’s universal beauty and celestial nobility. Good job.

… Philip Siddons

Compassionate Presence

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of sadness around us. As Buddhists would point out, that’s because of the almost constant attempts to control, predict, grasp or fearfully run away from (or avoid) it all. They also teach that everything is temporary but not to the point of existential meaningless where nothing seems to be connected or to have meaning. It is to teach that whatever is, will ultimately change. “Where moth and rust corrupt” in the tradition of your early years of teaching.

To say that compassion is the only thing that is ‘permanent’ is probably better understood if it is said that when all things and people are gone, what seems to endure is compassion.

We remember a person’s character of caring and self-sacrificial love for others. That seems to stay with us when they are gone. It won’t be their temporary ownership of a Heisman trophy in the trophy shelf of the back room of the mansion (that the next mansion owner will likely try to sell to the highest bidder on EBay). Neither will it be the amount of political or financial power one accumulates during this relatively short lifespan.

Instead, what will endure will be the extent we are able to be truly present in the moment with others in such a way that we can fully accept and take them in a loving and unconditional way. It is in those moments we find avenues of reaching out and truly connecting, as kindred spirits, so that we can be agents of compassion and healing. As we form a community (which knows no boundaries), we join in something that is greater than ourselves and become more fully mindful that we are truly connected with all others and all living things.

We gain a keener sense of this in the practice of meditation. That’s because in this sedentary activity, we first learn to be fully present with ourselves. (How many people in your life are really there with you – who aren’t frantically eying their Blackberry or looking at their watch while they speak at you with no eye contact?) Learning to be fully present in the moment with ourselves yields learning to be fully present with others. We need then learn to be open and present with the Spirit Who created us.

Now all of that sounds like a Hallmark card on steroids but a lifestyle of being truly present in the moment, . . . being at home with yourself, others and your Source . . . brings you to compassion. I believe this life of compassionate mindfulness is at the core of all world religions that seem authentic.

These core teachings are present in all religions but are more, in my opinion, intentionally taught in Buddhism. If you’re interested in reading some more on this, take a look at Jack Cornfield’s The Wise Heart. ISBN: 978-0-553-80347-1 (0-553-80347-6)

Pivotal Moments

October 11, 2010

In retrospect, we’ve all had pivotal moments. Like the time you proposed or graduated or it dawned upon you that circumstances have changed so thoroughly that your life has taken a new course.

For me, there was one of these moments at the end of a Baltimore, Maryland 9th grade after school junior varsity lacrosse team practice. An older, bigger, Norwegian-looking team captain run up to me and said, “Do you want to run a few extra laps around the field to keep in shape?”

I looked at him and wondered what planet from which he had arrived and said, “No” and began to walk into the locker room to change. I saw he had gathered about three others and his group began to jog around the perimeter of the lacrosse field as they slowly were rocking the hard rubber balls in the cradle of their sticks as they ran.

I could do this running while cradling the ball but was catching my breath from the practice that had just ended. I had gone out for the team pretty much because I thought lacrosse was cool but I was no athlete. Without motivation or any sense of wanting to develop my skill and meld that into a team contribution, I wouldn’t have made much of a team player. I would need to grow grew up considerably and come “dressed to play” or be willing to “give it 110%.” Which is why the coach came up to me on my way out and told me that he had to cut me from the team.

In that moment, when I did not have the gumption to stop and recognize that this was a pivotal moment, I simply said, “Oh.” After the coach gracefully rattled off a few apologetic sentences about only being allowed to have a certain number of players on the team, I walked off to the bus to home where I would put my lacrosse stick in the basement until it met its fate in a future garage sale. I somehow knew that the coach had asked this team captain to give me one last chance to show some potential for sportsmanship by seeing if I would take a few extra laps.

Had I recognized the pivotal moment and come of age, I would have said, “Coach, you know, I want to play on the team and if you give me one more chance, I’ll show you that I’m here to play – to give all of myself for the team and become your highest scoring forward on the team.”

So it was manifest destiny and I never entered into years of successful lacrosse playing, becoming MVP of my high school team. (The high school in Lancaster Pennsylvania, my family moved me to a year later, barely had a football team and definitely had never heard of lacrosse.) That moment in time didn’t morph into full scholarships for college lacrosse, All-American sports titles nor a lifetime of fame on professional lacrosse sports team. The Seattle Slashers. The Detroit Dominators. How my life would have been different.

Instead, I’m in the basement, scooping out three trays of kitty litter, using disposable latex gloves and my handy slotted stainless steel spoon that I got from a Dansk Factory Outlet in Niagara on the Lake, Canada. But there’s a connection to lacrosse that always comes to my mind during this task.

There are a few nanoseconds when you are digging through the mounds of litter, scooping and then slightly rocking the spoon to allow the litter to seep out the spoon’s holes until you drop the chunks into the garbage bag. There’s an art, if you will, to efficiently cleaning the litter box.

When you stop and think about it, how much is your life is diminished because you don’t play lacrosse? In contrast, how many of us in our culture scoop out cat litter? Have a group of respected business associates invited you to go out for a friendly game of lacrosse lately? Have relatives given you trash cans for your birthday with lacrosse sticks and helmets on the side? At your last family reunion, did you bring your lacrosse stick and one of those frightfully hard and heavy steel balls encased in hard rubber and a helmet with a metal wire cage to protect your face from a certain broken nose or a gouged eye socket in case one of your cousins wants to toss around a ball?

Because I got cut from the lacrosse team in 9th grade, I can now teach my patented technique of lacrosse-style-litter-cleaning in seminars at my new Alliteration Training Center. “ATC, Inc.” it would say on the natural wood sign, in a waspy-looking manicured artificial garden around it, out front of the spacious cul-de-sac of the training and retreat training center in the suburbs. It would actually be a franchise, duplicated all over the country.

Pivotal moments can happen by the litter box or anywhere because it is all connected. It’s a matter of being fully present in the moment – in the now. And in THIS moment, if you complete the enclosed application, you can transform our special low franchise fee of $500 into a multi-million dollar ATC training center of your own in your home town.Imagine coming into a trendy restaurant in your town and people turning and saying about you, “Here comes the ‘Scoopster.’ Who would have ever guessed that almost overnight, they’ve developed this fool-proof system for cleaning out the litter that everyone in town is using. I only wish I would have thought of it myself.”

So however the new year unfolds for you, know that the future awaits you with fabulous promise. Even the private act of scratching in unseemly places on your body can evolve into an enormously popular technique that will yield franchise fees and best-selling books. Runway models and TV talk show hosts will be doing it and paying you royalty fees for the privilege. It’s only a matter of being present in the moment and realizing that every moment is a pivotal moment because it is all connected. Pleasantries for your new year.

Holy Moments

(Written when I was Interim Executive Director of Canopy of Neighbors):


I work for an organization which enables seniors to remain in their homes or apartments as long as possible. We help them thrive and remain relatively independent – preventing them from having to go into an assisted-living institution.

It’s called Canopy of Neighbors.

We do this through a network of volunteers and groups which give their time to do the kinds of things you and I already do to help well-aged friends and loved ones. We give them rides to doctor’s or therapist appointments. Help them get their prescriptions. Sometimes we help them with confusing bank-account or bill-paying tasks. We flip their mattresses or set their clocks ahead or behind twice a year. We change a light bulb that is out of reach – anything to prevent them from stacking kitchen chairs and making a perilous climb and risking a fall.

We also enable them to come to free yoga classes and coffee gatherings where there are featured speakers on health and aging topics. There’s even a monthly luncheon at a local restaurant which offers a low-cost fee for everyone.

I spent a couple of hours this week talking with a couple in their 90s, answering their questions about joining the membership. They are impressed with Canopy. They live in a grand old home in a neighborhood where, in time, only the wealthiest could afford. Homes of doctors, senators and CEOs. Their home was full of life. Paintings filled their home, his paintings. Their furnishings reflected world travels and a lifelong engagement with their children, their careers and themselves. They even have a beautiful Australian border collie who has been part of their household for years.

As I summarized my organization’s services and patiently answered their questions, in my peripheral vision, I could see their daughter. She was in from out-of-town, looking a little frustrated. She’s been here before with them, I suspect. Their hesitancy. Their resistance to get involve with anyone outside of their family for their personal needs. And yet they knew they could use some assistance here and there.

I couldn’t help but think that they only reason they were a little hesitant to join is that it might imply an inability to be independent. Perhaps some giving up of control. Having ‘outsiders’ involved in potentially unknown changes in their lifestyle.

They are truly dear people. Talented and very intelligent. But my heart goes out to them because they seem so frail. He’s a retired but working artist, still holding an office with studio privileges in the local university. But his Parkinson’s is already affecting his mind-to-speech abilities. He drools as he tries to construct his sentences.

In another room, he’s got an unplugged collection of turntable, amp, radio, tuner unplugged and he hasn’t been able to reconnect them. It would take me or another volunteer probably half a day to rewire it. In other rooms, they say their computers are giving them problems and they claim not able to get back into using them. They can’t get their email working.

Her physical condition has left her barely able to move. She has had some disfiguring strokes and yet she is fully engaged in conversations. Reflective, insightful and empathetic toward others. But she says ‘I know we are vulnerable.’

I already know that whatever my organization can offer them, they will need more. Much more. They’ll soon have to contract with outside healthcare organizations for in-home nursing and home-care aids. How much longer can they remain in their lovely home? Who will take care of their dog?

They will be thinking their membership over and will let me know in their own time.

They both have had me thinking, today, of how frail we humans are and temporariness of life. We can get to the point in life where we are blessed with good minds, more-than-adequate resources and all the time we need to pursue anything we’d like. Yet our bodies wear out, out of our control. There is no Toyota to replace parts, even beyond their usual warranty. Our bodies die out from under us. They slip away from us, as do many of our component parts. ‘Moth and rust doth corrupt.

So today, I’m mindful that being present with others, in the moment, is the only place where the meaning and authenticity in life resides for any of us. When I left them, I touched their shoulders and genuinely told them it was a pleasure being with them.

When I got home, I embraced my wife as if it was our anniversary and said I had a great day at work because there were holy moments. ♦

Hierarchical Thinking and The Myth of Redemptive Violence

April 13, 2011

Where did we get the idea that some people have more worth than others? The “we” in that sentence means you and me. For some reasons, you and I seem to believe that some people deserve more than others while others, conversely, deserve less.

Living in America, we acan’t excape the power of of capitalism over our thinking. Those who work harder and are more creative and innovative deserve rewards for their efforts beyond the medioachre. So we have “self-made men” who have “picked themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of themselves.” The assumption, here, is that those who haven’t received rewards for their efforts are medioachre, lazzy and less productive. “People who have made bad choices” in the words of one political executive in our region.

A close companion (and perhaps lover) to this simplistic, self-satisfied, judgmental and completely compassionless outlook on life of the mythic “American Dream” is Soocial Darwinism. This philosohy was brought to us in the mid 20th centry by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Darwin’s insight in biological evolution through adaptation of species who were judged as more fit for their changing environment came to be applied to sociological points of view. The poor and the disadvantaged came to be judged as mal-adapters, unmotivated, lazy. The rich and prosperious came to be judged as better adapters, more evolved in society. Better.

So in various societies, particularly in the US, there are those who believe that there isn’t enough to go around and that it is up to the more evolved to preserve what they have, protecting their things from those who haven’t adapted and propered as well as they have. The other group of people seem to be those who believe that there are enough goods and services in the planet for all to not only survive but thrive. Karl Marx knew of this dicatomy in societies and warned that if the few affluent dictators with power and wealth oppressed the masses, there would be revolutions.

Unfortunately, accompanying this class warfare, there is the myth of redemptive violence. I quote a large section of Walter Wink, The Powers That Be because I believe you find it to be profound.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

“The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. I myself first became aware of it, oddly enough, by watching children’s cartoon shows. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. This was in the 1960s, when the “death of God” theologians were being feted on talk shows, and secular humanity’s tolerance for religious myth and mystery were touted as having been exhausted. I distinctly remember hearing God’s death being announced on the morning news, and then seeing, in a cartoon show moments later, Hercules descending from heaven to earth, an incarnate god doing good to mortals. I began to examine the structure of other cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructi­ble hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and. equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three-quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.

Thankfully, not all children’s programs feature explicit violence. But the vast majority perpetuate the mythic pattern of redemptive violence in all its brutality. Examples would include the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the X-Men, Transformers, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Ice Man, the Superman family, Captain America, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and Tom and Jerry (plus the Power Rangers, where real people act out cartoon characters). A variation on the classic theme is provided by hu­morous antiheroes, whose bumbling incompetence guarantees their victory despite themselves (Underdog, Super Chicken). Then there is a more recent twist, where an evil or failed indi­vidual is transformed by a technological accident into a mon­strous creature who—amazingly—does good (Spider-Man, The Hulk and She-Hulk, Ghost Rider). It is almost as if people no longer believe that heroes of sterling character can be produced by our society, and that goodness can transpire only by a freak of technology (such as electrocution or radioactive poisoning). In all these shows, however, the mythic structure is rigidly ad­hered to, no matter how cleverly or originally it is re-presented.

Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a scream­ing and kicking Olive Oil, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oil, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth. Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honor Olive Oil’s humanity and repeated pummelings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.

Something about this mythic structure rang familiar. Suddenly I remembered: this cartoon pattern mirrored one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world, the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 B.C.E. The merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god. We are the outcome of deicide.

Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people. Unquestioning obedience is the highest virtue, and order the highest religious value. Nor are we created to subdue the earth and have dominion over it as God’s regents; we exist but to serve as slaves of the gods and of their earthly regents. The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city Babylon, and to fight and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.

Later, Marduk was fused with Tammuz, a god of vegetation whose death and resuscitation was enacted in the humiliation and revival of Marduk, an element that is preserved in cartoon shows by the initial defeat of the “good guy” and his eventual victory over evil, as it were, out of the very jaws of death. The only detail in our modern rendition that is different is that the enemy has generally ceased to be female.

As Marduk’s representative on earth, the king’s task is to subdue all those enemies who threaten the tranquility that he has established on behalf of the god. The whole cosmos is a state, and the god rules through the king. Politics arises within the divine sphere itself. Salvation is politics: the masses identify with the god of order against the god of chaos, and offer them­selves up for the Holy War that imposes order and rule on the peoples round about.

Walter Wink, The Powers That BeA Theology for a New Millennium, ISBN: 0-385-48752-5 (Galilee/Doubleday; New York; 1998) Pages 44-48.

That said, the folks who influence us from the Buddhist outlook on things, suggest that the first place of discerning mindfulness happens in our heads. Here are a few questions:

  1. What groups of people do we judge to be of less worth than us?
  2. What gives us (you and me) our worth?
  3. If our circumstances (yours or mine) changed because of war, disease, natural disasters or our own ineptitude, would our worth change in any way?
  4. Isn’t the worth we attribute to ourselves or others actually a value we have in our head?
  5. Who taught us that value system?
  6. What is the value system of your faith expression?
  7. What is the value system of the people who have and do nurture your life, somehow impacting on your current lifestyle, beliefs and activity?

Only you have answers for those seven questions. But here’s one last question for your consideration.

Life is pretty short. When you come to the end of your gig in, as Ira Glass terms it, “This American Life,” what affect will your existence had on people where you’ve been?

Try wrestling with these questions. We’d benefit from hearing from you because we are all in this together for what seems to be a very short time. We are open to learning.

Being Present in the Transitions

We do a lot of grasping throughout our lives  We like our stuff. We want to hold on to our things. We want to keep our activities and surroundings the same. We maintain the way we do things, the way we think and what we value. We go from day to day as if we will always have and control our life’s experiences. ‘To have and to hold to cherish’ suggest our wedding vows. “My Precious” said J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Gollum in  The Lord of the Rings.

But what is it that we hold on to? Pretty much everything. We prefer things around us to stay the way they are. We’re often ‘change-resistant.’ The way things are have become the way we do things around here. That goes for how we stack dishes in the cupboard, where we store things in the closet, the people we strangely judge as not as equal to us because of their differences. My gosh, we’ve put our socks in the same place in our dresser for years.

It’s probably why couples, at least in the first couple of years of marriage, fight over the way toothpaste tubes are squeezed, cars are parked in the garage and the lopsidedness of perception of household chore responsibilities. It is a miracle that two people can amiably negotiate the ordering of their household. Then there is the use of how we handle power. The extent that we can create an environment of fair and consensus-based decisions. If nobody ever modeled it or taught us or we never learned how to use our power and influence in decisions in an egalitarian way, we are doomed to a life of loneliness.

Not to mention that all this grasping and controlling, unfortunately, has a lot to do with how we measure our self-worth. We mysteriously think that if we have a lot of things or financial power, we are doing pretty well. House. Car. Gadgets. Job. Things, you know, <strong>my</strong> drill, <strong>my</strong> lawnmower, <strong>my</strong> position in the company. Keeping up with the Jones. Maintaining a lifestyle that approximates the TV and movie characters with whom we seem to identify.

This is immediately fertile ground for the topics related to personal growth and fulfillment. If we relentlessly strive to hold on to the way we do things and what we now possess, we don’t grow or mature. We wall ourselves into a nice little box. A person wrapped up in themselves makes for a pretty small package.

But our lives are full of transitions. Everything changes. This is why we cry at marker events like weddings, births, graduations and funerals. Things keep changing and the ceremonies frame the transitions to new changes.

There are few circumstances that bring us to face the temporariness of life more obvious than the first day of retirement or walking out of the courtroom after the divorce is finalized. This is because we’ve programmed ourselves to define who we are in our introductions. Like, Hello, my name is Bill and I am the Vice President at BigBox Corporation. Or Hi, I’m Sharon and I’m <strong>married</strong> <strong>to</strong> Bill and we have 2.3 children, we <strong>own</strong> a house in the burbs and I’m <strong>a member</strong> of the PTA and <strong>work</strong> as an investment broker for Too Big To Fail Bank, LLC.

We broadcast who we are by defining ourselves by what we do and with whom we are in relationship. Somehow, just us and our own interests, likes, passions and allergies and phobias aren’t enough. We even tend hold on to the things we don’t have but aspire to have or do. We spend years holding on to our careers (and roles) because we think that if we keep doing the same thing with ourselves, things won’t change. We won’t have to give up anything.

Career wise, we pursue excellence in what we do. We pursue further training. We try to meet company goals. We seek to excel and win the approval and admiration of those who are higher up on the corporate latter. Throughout our lives, we seek to hold on to our position, our title, our salary level. We pursue tenure as if craving for oxygen.

Frankly, there isn’t much in life that we don’t strive to keep the same. So unless we are creative artists and musicians seeking new venues and textures in our work or performances, we strive to keep things as they already are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This brings us to transitions.  There are changes foisted upon us or self-chosen migrations to different experiences we feel we must make. We resist change and frankly haven’t cultivated pursuing change in our lives in order to grow.

If we define our sense of who we are by what we do and with whom we are in relationship, when those things change, our life can seem to unravel – at least in our mind. Like it or not, despite our overwhelming predisposition to prefer things to stay the same, they don’t.

But what happens when the people who once related to us only by our position in the company are not there. The social circumstances, once resulting from relationships we had, may disappear. We’re now looking at different visual imagery throughout our day. Our daily communication with others has remarkably changed – maybe stopped in several ways. The phone. The emails. The conversations, the meetings, the written reports. Say, presentations, deadlines, calendar management. Social obligations.

  1. Who we are in the company has no significance (although who we are as a person is huge).
  2. What we do for an external group is no longer a valid means of weighing our self-worth.

The fact is, a corporate position, salary and power doesn’t add anything to our worth. (But note that nobody in America thinks this. That’s why we seem to be obsessed with holding on and adding to what we have and can control.)

The absolutely transforming thing you get when you are beyond your full-time career years or are experiencing less of a socially connected life is that you can come home to yourself – to be at home with yourself.

Come home? you ask as you fiddle through your now empty calendar on your smart phone in vain. Come home as if I’ve been away? you continue to muse. But where I have I been that I would come home?

Well, that’s the point. Where have we been all these years? Chances are that we’ve not been real present with our spouse or significant other. That’s because we’ve put so much more of ourselves in our careers because we thought that would bring ups more or ensure that we keep the level of money we needed to maintain control of our lives. More of what we like – what we’re used to. ‘Keeping things the way we like them.’

But sometimes at transitions, we find that we haven’t been very present in our lives to begin with. Some of us couldn’t be present in the moment with our spouse for the time it takes to eat a meal. We’d feel uncomfortable with moments of silence (as if is mandatory that one or the other of us has to be laying down a bed of words to dispel the silence).

Check this out. When you are in the room with your significant other for ten minutes, do you know how they feel? At the end of the day, if you were magically transported to a college classroom and you were asked to write an essay on what is most important to your spouse, how many sentences would you be able to scribble out?

Complicating almost any transition is our lives is that we haven’t been very present with ourselves, those closest people to us or even the transitions and changes themselves. How present are you with yourself, those around you and what is happening in your life in this very moment?

“Riley, do you love me? “Peg asked.

Riley responded: “Well I live here, don’t It?

Do you feel that who you are, without any career position or social relationship, is just as it (you) should be? Do you feel that if you suddenly found yourself living in a totally new context, that whoever you’d meet would find a good and worthwhile person in you? Do you feel that in whatever context you’d find yourself in, others would find you to be a worthwhile human being who positively contributes to their existence?

This is a far cry, another planet or cosmos if you will, from the daily striving to get, hold on to and protect what we have and have been for all our previous years. It’s an entirely different orientation to life.

It’s not the money. It’s not the investments that may or may not be working for us while we’re sleeping. It’s not the house, the car, the boat, the property, the career. That’s because when all of the ownerships and responsibilities into which we’ve placed our energies are gone,  all we have left is ourselves. To whatever extent we’ve been able to be present in the lives of our most significant others, it comes down to< now. What we’re left with is just us. Can we even be present, in a comfortable and loving way, with ourselves?

You see, it comes down to this moment. Be present in the transitions. Our lives are full of them.

The good news is that you’ve got a wonderful and noble person along with you in all of these transitions and change – you.

How Connected Do We Need To Be?

It is 2005. It’s been a technologicalogical year so far. I taught a class for the Religious Studies Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo on Paul’s strange first letter to the Corinthians. I’ve been able to experiment with the use of their relatively new online course software called CourseInfo.® 1 It has a quiz generator which the students loved because they could take the tests at home without leaving the squalor of their meager abodes. With virtually all the time in the world to take the quizzes, they could look up any answer in their class notes or the web-stored lectures.

Actually, the quizzes have served as a forced
review of the class material, achieving my original
goal: that they never sit in a church and hear a talk on 1st Corinthians and not be aware of the historical, religious, cultural and linguistic things prompting Paul to write such a diverse and difficult response to their problems. If their ministers ever fail to do their homework before their Sunday presentations on Corinthians, they’ll know it.

Yet many of these students won’t because
churches, by in large, aren’t making that connection with the 20’s age group. The clergy and the staunch leaders of the denominational franchises may get their second chance when these young adults return for the wedding and baptism certifications.

It’s odd to me that some people spend their
lifetime having nothing at all to do with a local
church and yet be hell-bent-to-leather to make sure they participate in two church rituals – baptism and a wedding in a church building. It’s almost like they have to have these two good luck charms in order to move ahead several squares on their Americana board game of life.

But when the pager on my hip starts to vibrate, it reminds me that I have succumbed to the lure of yet another gadget. This time, it’s the Motorola “Talkabout”® pager. Perhaps their Marketing department wanted to create an image of a 1  made by Blackboard.com.© “walkabout” in the Australian “outback.” . . . Tie me kangaroo
down sport, . . . whatever.

My last pager stopped functioning and the
service provider suggested I subscribe to paging and email services with the cell phone I already own. This, I figured, would dictate that I have to leave the phone on all the time to get pages. The attractive young woman behind the counter suggested I also purchase a vibrating cell phone battery so the whole phone can vibrate.

What they fail to realize is that cell phones are
too big to be pagers. Can you imagine carrying around a beeper the size of a banana and have it suddenly begin vibrating in your pocket or purse? Good grief, you could get arrested or something. Perhaps I could use it in an audition for the cast of Ally McBeal.

“Excuse me but I think there is a phone over
on your desk that is having a seizure.”

This little technological wonder looks like a
miniature computer from a kid’s gum ball machine
with a keyboard small enough to be operated by a
touch typist eight inches tall. It is the width and
thickness of the palm of your hand. The little screen displays the telephone number of the individual paging you if the caller chose option number one but it can do more.

Those calling my pager number can also choose option two, allowing them to leave a  voicemail message. When a voice message is left, the display indicates a voice message is waiting, prompting me to dial the number on the nearest phone and listen to the message.

Option number three of this paging service
connects the caller with a live operator who will type whatever the caller dictates and that message appears on the pager screen.

“Pick up eggs on your way home.”

“I am sorry I missed the class quiz on line but my computer isn’t working and I couldn’t get on one at the school library because my car wouldn’t start.”

Imagine standing in line, looking down at
your pager and it says, “My divorce lawyer has
documented all of your shenanigans and we’ll see you in court.”

You look up and respond to the person behind
the counter, “I’d like a cheeseburger, a fries,
chocolate milkshake and several aspirin please.”

There is even an internet address assigned to
this device so people can type a note directly to my pager from their computer. Since I can read these messages anywhere I am, I’ve also instructed my Outlook Express© email software on our computer to forward all received communications to my pager. Since the pager uses wireless and internet technology, I can actually type a response to the text messages sent to the pager and there isn’t a cost-per minute fee.

But with this much accessibility, I wonder
just who I think I am? The Almighty? There are not
that many people who need my immediate attention. Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis?
Someday, into the not too distant future when they add the live video function, are we going to have to rent a small locker into which to put these things to get a little privacy? Someday, will we be surprised to see Leno or Letterman trying to have a video conversation with us from our pocket when we reach for change to pay the paper carrier? “Are you truly happy with your cellular carrier?” one of them might say.

Perhaps it’s our loneliness that prompts us to
want to be so accessible in our cellular and internet connectedness. Frankly, I would like it if God would send me a digital message once in a while.

“Nice going on how you handled that road-raged jerk of a driver” God might type to me.

“Buy Lucent Technologies stock – now!” God might advise.

“Missed you in worship services yesterday” I’d be
reminded.

“Stop everything and go back and apologize. She was right and you completely missed the most important thing. I don’t know why I ask her to stay with you.”

Maybe it’s fear. Perhaps we’re hoping someone will send us the one little encouragement or bit of information that will come at just the right time.
Maybe the Almighty has been sending messages
we’ve ignored. Missed any messages lately?

With today’s much more powerful cell phones and wireless palm devices, we are now able to be so connected that we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time, do business anywhere. But has you noticed that, in the process, we run
the risk of never being in touch with ourselves? In the overall seduction, we can easily forget that our primary connection to life is through our own
interiority – the experiencing of our own body and all our senses, including the mind, which allow us to touch and be touched by the world, and to act
appropriately in response to it. . . .

“With all this talk about connectivity, what about connectivity to ourselves? Are we becoming so
connected to everybody else that we are never where we actually are? We are at the beach on the cell phone, so are we there?” (See John Kabat-Zinn, p.152=153. Coming To Our Senses, Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, (New York: Hyperion, 2005) ISBN: 0-7868-6756-6.

How Much Space Do You Need To Be Happy?

It seems that we don’t think much about our space requirements unless we see the inside of a multi-million dollar mansion in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or we’re in a Zillow research for an apartment in New York City, Boston, Atlanta or Chicago. Or a nursing home where they aim to plant us in a tiny room with another disabled person so we don’t stray and cause more work than we already do for their staff.

Personal space. How much do we really need? And how does that need relate to our happiness?Initially, when we fantasize about winning a mega lottery, we’d go for one of those Beverly Hills mansions with three-story vaulted ceilings and every opulent room looking like it came out of a coffee table magazine. The long walks from any one of the several living rooms all the way back through a kitchen large enough to park several cars and eight walk-in refrigerator-freezers. The exercise in going from one end of the house back past the indoor pool, the six- bedroom suite for guests and the polo field beyond the outdoor tennis courts would get us half way to our Fitbit step goal for the day. “Now THAT would make me happy!” we tell ourselves.

But throughout life, we’ve already heard “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” (The Beatles) or “You can’t take it with you” (a comedic play in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; film with Jimmy Stewart; album by As Tall as Lions or “This World Is Not My Home I’m just a-passin’ through” (by Albert E. Brumley 1952).

Our mansion fantasy fades with our first real pay check. Our dram of having an extravagant and luxurious living space is left to live out its short existence on the rectangular television screen. And even though those video actresses and actors are raking in a million dollars an episode, have you ever noticed the apartments and hallways just outside of their studio set living spaces? Think “Friends.” Think “The Big Bang Theory.” Even these hallway studio props are plan, small, drab and a little dingy – nothing memorable. They’re just like what we end up with when we have to rent.

I have loved ones living in apartments in LA. Neither they, nor anyone they know, could ever affordto purchase housing there without direct and committed involvement with the criminal elements of society. If you move to the convenience and stimulation of urban living, downsizing is a way of life.
You know that you end up with less as change comes. You figure that what you lose in living space, perhaps, you’ll gain in career and social stimulation. Otherwise, why would we sell our mostly owned houses and move to a lifestyle we can’t afford with dramatically less space?

Observation #1

We will not achieve happiness by getting more space in which to live.Then there’s the life-long commitment to the idea that we want to stay in one place while we are aging. I’m not talking about wobbling geriatrics who live in constant fear of teetering down to the ground to break a hip or pelvis, followed by 6 months in a tiny rehabilitation room for five grand a week and no bandwidth.

I mean young and agile yoga-sculpted twenty-somethings who finally get their own apartment but quickly embrace the familiarity of the new surroundings, making it their new “home.” “Home” being defined by accumulating familiarity with the friendly coffee shop server; the drug store pharmacist who seems to know your name; the organic grocery market manager who smiles at you when answering your question; the clothing shop sales person who shared her story of her scare with breast cancer or our postal carrier who made small talk by jokingly apologizing about delivering only bills.The familiarity of all of these things and people seem to be the fabric which gives substance to our sense of “home” and happiness.

Observation #2

We interpret our happiness by the level of our familiarity with things and people.We are thinking that it isn’t the amount of space we have that brings us happiness. We may be thinking that familiarity is supposed to make us happy. That’s why, in every poll of the aging population, we all say that we want to “age in place.” To stay where we are. Avoid moving. Keep everything as it is, the way we know it is (and should be) simply because we are used to it being that way. But a parakeet in a cage lives that way!

But familiarity breeds contempt. “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful. For example, Ten years at the same job and now he hates it – familiarity breeds contempt. The idea is much older but the first recorded use of this expression was in Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee (c. 1386).” (From the Free Dictionary.com)

But when we’ve been striving for something new and different, we are grasping, looking for something else. But then, “Nothing lasts forever!” Consider: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, …” (Matthew 6:19). From the wings of the stage come the Buddhists dancing in their red robed kick line chorus, singing: “Everything is temporary!”

‘Ok, we get that’ you say. ‘But you can’t live that way! Shouldn’t we try to live in happiness? What is this ‘circling the drain’ theme you have for a title of your blog? Are you some sort of manic depressive?

One of our problems with clinging to keeping everything the same as we’ve always had it is that everything changes, no matter what we or anyone else does. The changing world is totally independent of our preferences, our desires, our plans and our investments. Change is out of our control. We can only manage our response to it.

Yet we live as if we can control what happens in our lives. We are all a little schizophrenic in that way. We think or pretend that we can actually control most of the world around us. The folks who think they can (and should be able to control the world around them) are incapable of growing intellectually, socially and spiritually.

Put another way, people who frequently say, judgmentally, ‘We’ve never done it that way before!” are, sooner or later, abandoned by people around them.

People who continually treat those who are different from them as “The Other” are living examples of a “Wacky Plaks” post card I saw in the 1950’s: “People who are wrapped up in themselves make a pretty small package.”

The people who try to control spirituality and religious inquiry by imposing their dogma and creedal formulations on others – are, sadly, needy and boring control freaks who quickly drain all the joy, human compassion and creative beauty out of any moment in the atmosphere. They justify their social and intellectual death spiral judgmental behavior by claiming that they are earnestly trying to do “the right thing” while they lacerate to shreds the self-worth of the unfortunate others whom they lambast. Avoid watching FOX (so-called) ‘News!’

Observation #3

We don’t get our happiness through having more space or stuff. Neither do we attain happiness through familiarity or knowing, in a predictive and controlling way, how everything is going to turn out – as if we can know and control everything. Therefore, it must have to do with being content with what is and bestowing compassion.

This isn’t being complacent with what is. If that is all it amounts to, then we should just take our “Soma” pills, as in Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World dystopian work. “What about social justice? … Are you suggesting that we tacitly sit back and let bad and evil continue to oppress and ravage humanity?”

Contentment has to do with a complex presence of a number of things in our own head.For one, it is the understanding that everything changes.For another, it is the awareness that we don’t have the resources or the influence to change or even have an impact on most things or people.

The most power we have is over ourselves, our thinking, our feeling and our own behavior.But we can’t skip off singing: “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be; the future’s not ours to see; que sera, sera; what will be, will be” (Roy Evans, 1956). We are not isolated robots, sputtering off in our unique programmed behavior, doomed to run out of our battery power and cease viability at some random end point before our parts are relegated to the scrap yard.

We find contentment, and therefore meaning, as we approach each moment of our lives with what Andy Puddicombe (of Headspace.com) explains as “beginner’s mind.” It is that space or openness within our consciousness that approaches everything with wonder and acceptance. It is that mindfulness and awareness that no matter what physical spaciousness or material opulence that may or may not be around us, we can find delight, contentment and breath-taking creativity in any moment as we approach whatever it is that is our next thing.

Some think of this as spontaneity. Some call it intellectual curiosity. Some see it in looking for outlets of compassion for anyone we meet. It’s all the opposite of living a life where you’re trying to control, compete, judge, frantically escape or hoard in order to vainly try to find happiness.

That’s the “Space” in which we will find happiness or contentment. It is the space that possesses an unlimited amount of compassion. That compassion, by the way, is what will change the world and transform people and things that have gone awry. That is the space we need to ‘be happy’ but each of us already have that space within us. We just need to be present in it, from moment to moment.