I should tell those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis that I actually have two sets of memoirs. One contains my most intimate thoughts that I don’t expect anyone to read while I’m alive. What you have been reading are my thoughts that are entirely appropriate for public consumption, on issues we all think about on a daily basis. Today I feel moved to intermingle the two out of my commitment to say publicly that which I think would be helpful in giving the reader a perspective that may in some way be helpful as you move along in life. It will be more personal than public or political, but hopefully, you’ll agree after reading it that the few lines of political comment are entirely appropriate for this post. Here goes.
Today I caught myself being especially kind and caring to my wife. It was almost like I had an out of body experience where I was watching myself displaying the utmost patience and gentleness in the way I spoke to and cared for her as she struggled to clearly communicate her intentions about what ever she was trying to do at the time. My wife has been struggling mightily to overcome the ravages of her breast cancer over the past five years or so. It has wreaked havoc on her mental faculties and she has quite a bite of difficulty communicating at times. I saw myself listening patiently while she transposed pronouns and adjectives, and changed the tense of incidents she described, such as saying mother when she meant daughter and up when she meant down. I listened carefully, gently correcting her in a completely nonjudgmental way as though there was nothing unusual about the way she was speaking. And then there was the care and quality by which I did her laundry and prepared her meals, which was only lessened in magnitude when compared to the joy I felt as I was doing those things for her.
I can’t help thinking in retrospect how great things might have been if I had exercised that same loving kindness throughout the years of our marriage before she was stricken with illness. We’ve had a good marriage and have been each other’s best friend through all the years. However, like any marriage, we’ve had our ups and downs and contentious moments when we’ve allowed our worst tendencies to get the best of us. I my case, I’ve always had a terrible temper and have said terrible things to her in fits of anger. I’ve also at times been insecure of my inherent value and self-worth as a human being, leading me to abuse my gift of language and wit by being overly critical of her shortcomings, in ways that I know at times made her feel nervous and even abused, even when I did such things in jest. I wonder if during those youthful years when we were both strong and beautiful, if I had been as considerate then as I am now, all of the cells in her body would have been happier cells, affording her a more effective immune system, and less likely for her cells to rebel in the form of cancer. I suppose that’s why I feel so much such joy in taking care of her now. I guess on some level I do so as a kind of penance for all the mean and hateful things I’ve said in years past, like a monk who has dedicated his life to humble service to mankind as payment for past offenses against mankind. I tell you this. If I could go back in time and do things differently, I surely would. Of course, I’m sure every human being on Earth feels the same, no matter what their current life circumstances.
As an older man, given what I now know of what really matters in life and what doesn’t, when I reflect on my attitudes and beliefs as a young man, I can think of a single word that sums up my entire existence in life. That word is childish. I have come to understand every human being on Earth, no matter his or her age, is a child. From the day we are born until the day we die, we struggle to understand this life we were given and how we should use it. This journey through life is made all the more difficult by the fact that we live it from the perspective of us being the center of the universe. That perspective is called self-centeredness. It is the perspective of an infant and it never changes no matter how old we get to be. On some level we all feel that what’s best for us is what’s best for the world. It is that feeling that is the source of all our troubles and sorrows. That feeling is what leads us to make decisions we come to regret later in life. A child learns to make better decisions as he/she progresses in life, but the lessons never end and he or she remains a child.
Wise men, theologians, philosophers and behavioral scientists of all kinds have attempted to describe what it is we are all striving for in life. Eastern philosophers have called it things like nirvana and the Tao; western philosophers have described it as self-actualization and living in the moment and of course theologians call it God. At this point in my life, I call it peace. I define peace as being free from fear, anxiety, pain and hatred. Some like to feel that the individual’s thinking and state of mind are what determines if that individual is at peace, and not the circumstances that person is enduring. I have no doubt it is possible to for a person to transcend the environment to feel peace. Such a person can meditate in a war zone in the middle of a firefight and be at peace. But real peace is a reflection of how we are interacting with each other. It is how secure we are in the belief that my neighbor is just as concerned for my health and wellbeing as I am. As human beings, we are social in nature. We survive through mutual cooperation. A society in the midst of breaking down is one in which I see myself as in competition with my neighbor and I win when my neighbor loses.
At this point in time, life appears to be teaching me that relationships are the most valuable commodity in the life of a human being. It’s telling me that as a society, we Americans began to get into trouble when we began to empower material wealth over relationships. I know at the times I’ve lost my cool, it has usually been a result of my reaction to the belief that someone was getting in the way of me acquiring the material wealth I happened to be pursuing at the time. Starting in the 1980s we began to act on the premise that I doesn’t matter who you are as a person and the only thing that truly matters in life is what you have acquired. We’ve been making all of the important decisions in our lives since then based on that premise. Even when we’re telling ourselves we’re acting on behalf of our family, for their benefit, often we are regarding our family as an extension of our own ego.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that America, like each one of us, is still learning. From my point of view, it appears that America is in the midst of learning the painful lesson that we either have liberty and justice for all, or we have it for none. As a result of the attempted bombings, the synagog massacre, gerrymandering and evidence of voter suppression we’ve experienced in the past few weeks, it appeared to me that a substantial number of Americans are acting on the belief that if somehow ethic and religious minorities and minorities of color can be expatriated or exterminated, all of America’s problems would come to an end. But when you think about what would be required to make that happen, you start to realize that such forces are never turned off. The very people who the necessary atrocities would supposedly benefit would quickly be subjected to those same atrocities once the “undesirables” were eliminated. Our kinship as countrymen must supersede our devotion to religion, ethnic origin or race if we are to find true happiness, self-actualization, nirvana or whatever we choose to call our heart’s desire as a country. We are at the ultimate fork in the road. One path leads to a society that mankind has dreamed about since the first human tribe was organized. The other leads to our worst Orwellian nightmares and the end of the dream of America the beautiful. Like in all our relationships, we can choose the path that requires the necessary change in attitude and paradigm in order to realize a more satisfying future or we can choose to continue the same way of thinking and seeing the world, which is responsible for our current state of unhappiness and historically has destroyed all great civilizations before us – the way cancer destroys our love ones. The choice is ours.