It’s a Wonder We Can Think at All

“When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall”
[ from the Simon And Garfunkel 1973 song “Kodachrome”]

Remember our priorities back in high school? The things we did to achieve recognition or our own self-worth? We’ve forgotten the very people we tried to please in order to fit in and be accepted.

By our thirties, we had grown out of our myopic high-school view of the world around us. It was like a now too-small suit that our parents had given us, in which we wouldn’t be caught dead. Those adolescent world views and judgments on large swaths of humanity. All these opinions and pronouncements are now gone – vanishing like someone else’s overheard burp from another room. It’s like the vicious radio talk show host who is forced into retirement after society, and all his former show’s sponsors, have moved on with other, more enlightened value systems.

What caused us to disregard what had once been at the center of our values?

Certainly it was exposure to new people and their broader perspectives in life. Likely, it was the pain of suffering – ours and theirs. The test of time ground down the inadequacies of oversimplified religion and ideologies. It was, as Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggested, a transition of our minds from black and white to ‘those nice bright colors and their greens of summers, that make us think all the world’s a sunny day.’ Most of us emerged from a childhood where we are shown the world through a black and white lens. Perhaps out of our parent’s exhaustion and inadequate teacher credentialing, they did the best they could but wanted to keep it simple. They wanted to control things, or at least appear to be in control. To them, there were the good and the bad; the angels and the demons – “them” and “us.”

By the time we found ourselves in college, we were truly embarrassed to discover that we had actually believed what we had been told. Those millions of people, labeled as “Communists” by our parental units, turned out to just like us – only with a different political system. We discovered that everyone who is poor had not brought it upon themselves (from their lack of adapting, in a Social Darwinist scheme of ‘making it’). To our dismay, the people and institutions, in whom and in which we were taught to trust for our religion and spirituality, were sometimes false idols themselves. They actually believed that they were the only ones right and everyone else was wrong and headed toward hell in a hand basket. We discovered, in time, that the values we have been carrying around, as if precious and holy, were woefully threadbare – contradictory to the core teachings of all of the world’s wisdom traditions.

“Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is”
[Pebby Lee, 1969 ‘Is That All There Is’]

“Seargeant O’Leary is walking the beat.
At night, he becomes a bartender.
He works at Mr. Cacciatorre’s down on Sullivant Street,
Across from the medical center,
And he’s trading in his Chevy for a Cadillac, lac, lac, lac;
You oughtta know by now,
If he can’t drive with a broken back,
At least he can polish the fenders.
And it seems such a waste of time,
If that’s what it’s all about…
Momma, if that’s moving up, then I’m moving out.”
[Billy Joel, 1977 ‘Movin’ Out’]

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
” [Bob Dylan’s 1965 It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)]

When we did begin to pull ourselves away from “all that crap we learned in high school,” we probably spent a number of years proclaiming what we don’t want for our lives. We expressed our dissatisfaction with the bigotry, prejudice and the painful social injustice. We did it with the clothing we wore, the language we used and our lifestyles. For some of us, we are lucky to be alive from risking drugs, alcohol and Californication. We were hell-bent on stating, with the canvas of our lives, that we were not our parents. We did this with our lifestyle, language and how we spend our time. We were defiantly not what we were raised to be. Or so we thought.

But we were busted. In the course of every day conversation, work-place exchanges and patterns of how we actually did things, we ended up becoming not that different than our parents. We found ourselves riddled and driven by the same fears as our parents. We overused the personal strengths that served us in the past in compensating for our fears. Tara Bennett Goleman (Emotional Alchemy) provided us, and our therapists, our task list of schemas which get us caught up in some of the same unhealthy over-compensations as those who raised us. This is not your father’s Buick but it’s a Toyota .- so what?

Genetics? Probably not, except for our body types. But fear drives us to it. We write off people by the millions who approach life differently than us. We fear them and we fear change. We fear the kind of learning that forces us to set aside the old and pick up the new.

Consider how they used to catch monkeys for zoos. They carved out a coconut, attached a chain to one end of the coconut and the other end to a tree. Next, they put fruit in the coconut. When monkeys come along, they’d grab the fruit inside the coconut but refuse to unclench their fist that is holding the fruit inside. Unwilling to let go, they remained stuck to the coconut, chained to the tree.

In potential teaching moments, we are somewhat like the monkeys. We won’t let go of what we know and believe. That’s because it requires us to do the work of stopping and reflecting outside of our usual patterns of interpreting and compensating for our fears. It requires the work and energy to empathize with others – embracing their experiences and perspectives. We aggressively surround ourselves with people who look, act, dress, think and speak just like us. It’s fortunate we all don’t become hermits and wall ourselves away from society – refusing to talk with or read about anyone else. Some people, we guess, actually die of stubbornness and ignorance. We all have bouts with it.

If you enjoy developmental psychology, reflect on what we did with ourselves during our twenties. The school degrees. The striving for certifications. We climbed up rungs up the corporate ladder. The PTA meetings and how we drove our children to “succeed.” Like lemmings, we flocked along, trying to get our self-worth out of our careers or who we are married to, our money or power. We insured everything in sight so that we can replace anything.

But when do we stop talking about what we don’t want for our lives and pursue what we want? At what point, in the short linear path of our lives, do we get down to the business of pursuing what is truly most important to the core of our being? What is most important to our life? What is the meaning of our life and where are we headed? Who and where is our source of learning how to pursue a life of greater meaning? Is there an app for that?

Maybe you’re in the process of discovering that now?

About

Not counting the criminally insane psychopaths, each one of us has at least one thing in common. We go through much of our lives firmly believing and living as if everything we have and do will continue forever. We can’t picture losing anything we have or not always doing things the way we are. That’s exactly why we are so quick so say, in a judging way, “But we’ve never done it that way before.”

Paradoxically, we are fascinated – if not mystified – in reading stories of “famous” or “wealthy” or “powerful” people meeting some sort of demise. They lose their careers. They lose their fortunes. Eventually they can’t hit the high notes they once did when they were at the top of the charts. They lose their spouses or lovers. They lose their lives.

No matter how much we believe in ultimately “making it” in life and eventually getting and doing whatever we want for as long as we want, that ain’t reality. We should know this every time we read about a change of fortunes – but we don’t seem to get it. No matter how many times we read the headlines, there’s this recording going on in our heads that says “it only happens to others, not me.” “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end!” (Closing Time, written by Dan Wilson) But we live, from day to day, as if there will always be a new beginning – whatever it is that needs a new one after it ends.

This writing space is about learning to let go. Yea, I know, this is America where we’re supposed to maximize our potential. Where ‘if we’re not pulling ahead, we’re falling behind.’ America, the land of milk and honey and iPhones, gated communities and tour buses regularly passing the mansions of the rich and famous. The land where we can dance with the stars in some enchanted evening. The band “The Tubes” got it right with their “What Do You Want Out of Life” song:

“What do you want from life
To kidnap an heiress
or threaten her with a knife
What do you want from life
To get cable TV
and watch it every night

There you sit
a lump in your chair
Where do you sleep
and what do you wear
when you’re sleeping

What do you want from life
An Indian guru
to show you the inner light
What do you want from life
a meaningless love affair
with a girl that you met tonight

How can you tell when you’re doin’ alright
Does your bank account swell
While you’re dreaming at night
How do know when you’re really in love
Do violins play when you’re touching the one
That you’re loving

What do you want from life
Someone to love
and somebody that you can trust
What do you want from life
To try and be happy
while you do the nasty things you must

Well, you can’t have that, but if you’re an American citizen you are entitled to:
a heated kidney shaped pool,
a microwave oven–don’t watch the food cook,
a Dyna-Gym–I’ll personally demonstrate it in the privacy of your own home,
a king-size Titanic unsinkable Molly Brown waterbed with polybendum,
a foolproof plan and an airtight alibi,
real simulated Indian jewelry,
a Gucci shoetree,
a year’s supply of antibiotics,
a personally autographed picture of Randy Mantooth
and Bob Dylan’s new unlisted phone number,
a beautifully restored 3rd Reich swizzle stick,
Rosemary’s baby,
a dream date in kneepads with Paul Williams,
a new Matador, a new mastodon,
a Maverick, a Mustang, a Montego,
a Merc Montclair, a Mark IV, a meteor,
a Mercedes, an MG, or a Malibu,
a Mort Moriarty, a Maserati, a Mac truck,
a Mazda, a new Monza, or a moped,
a Winnebago–Hell, a herd of Winnebago’s we’re giving ’em away,
or how about a McCulloch chainsaw,
a Las Vegas wedding,
a Mexican divorce,
a solid gold Kama Sutra coffee pot,
or a baby’s arm holding an apple?”

If we stop and reflect, for even a nanosecond, while we are multitasking ourselves from one productive activity to another, we have to admit it. Our ever-consuming, polluting and hoarding dominance on this planet is not sustainable. And, although they’ve come up with some pretty great manuals for this model of human body we are indwelling, it is headed for the scrap yard with all the others. We are all circling the drain. [Term used in medical circles to describe a patient for whom death is impending and yet continues to cling to life” (Urban Dictionary) or A rather grim and morbid term for people, generally elderly, who are living out their last few weeks of life, generally in a painful and sad state. (Jargon Database.com]

Now as soon as you get that out there, the Norman Vincent Peal devotees of the powerful positive thinking start grabbing their hats and heading for the door. Sooner or later, though, whether it takes a near death or significant emotional experience, even they have to face the music. Sooner or later, we all must deal with the temporariness of life. But why wait until near death to learn about these crucially important aspects of meaning?

The redemptive and enriching thing about being mindful of life’s temporary nature is that it quickly changes our values. The brevity of life makes us more appreciative of the present. We can stop getting caught up in the past. We can stop leaking energy over worrying about the future. If anything, we can become more alive to what is in our lives now. We can become more alive to everything we are taking in through all of our senses.

If the Dalai Lama were reading this, I suspect he might laugh and say ‘Of course. Because when you are focused on the present moment, you are less distracted and this moment becomes richer for all that is embodied in it.’

The thousands of years of the wisdom of the Eastern philosophies and all the major world religions are saturated with the teachings about true contentment. The compendium of wisdom teachings suggest that happiness in life has to do with less striving, grasping and longing and more about fully living in the moment. (“Excuse me but give me a minute so I can move my avatar up to the next level so that I can get an extra 500 points.” See what I mean.

This writing space deals with letting go of a lot of the temporary things in our lives. It also has to do with embracing the present. It’s going to be dealing with what we all must face: the temporariness of almost everything in our lives. It will try to ask the questions we all must face about the meaning of our lives. Our sense of worth. The worth of all others. About how you and I spend our energies and talents and for what end. It will be, in a way, a collaborative quest where we can hopefully learn from one another.

It’s not going to be about creating a moral or spiritual manual for life. Rather, it will hopefully be a place where you and I can be more present with how we are doing with the temporary aspects of our lives. Perhaps, from what transpires here, we will be able to be of support and encouragement in times of suffering. I hope we can make one another laugh.

This will be a moderated Blog but do jump in here. We are all circling together but even though we forget this so often, we have so much in common. We are in this together, for a while, anyway.