….which could, I’m sure, be applied to our possessions….let them go, gracefully……x
Here’s an account of a chance introductory encounter between two economists and a dentist, from Nick Powdthavee’s book ‘The Happiness Equation’. It’s a small mind-blower:
‘So tell me, are you happy being a dentist?’
‘Happy? I’m miserable as a dentist’, replied the man.
Chuck smiled to himself. ‘What? If you’re so unhappy, why on earth did you choose to become a dentist in the first place?’
‘I didn’t choose to become a dentist.’ The man took another swig of his drink before delivering the final hammer blow. ‘Its that stupid kid eighteen years ago that chose to become a dentist. Not me.’
Here’s the thing; as children we go about growing up. Much of that process is working out who we are. We find out what we like. We search for what we’re good at, and we use that information to form our habits. And that’s where we start messing up, because we look for external indicators. We watch our mum, dad, teachers and friends to see where our talents lie (we’ve not been on this planet long, so it makes perfect sense). We listen, and form our self-view; I’m this and that. I’m not that. If I work hard I could be this…ok I’ll do that. We move from I-like-animals to she-thinks-I-like-animals to I’d-make-a-good-vet.
Job done. I’m a vet. Or a dentist.
All from what we perceive others can see in us. It’s all perception. And perception is as tenuous as the wind.
This week was a small mind-blower for me. I don’t promote my blogs on facebook (I forayed. It felt wrong). But my friend Tony did for a recent post, and two others took up the mantle. It blew me away. The icing on the cake was a beautiful, generous comment a friend added, that came from nowhere and left me standing gob-smacked with my shoes half a kilometre on the road behind me.
I had no idea she ever reads my posts because, as she said, she hadn’t ever commented.
That’s the thing. We don’t know, because we don’t say. But the things we don’t say could have been the things that make the enormous difference; the things that take people off the path of being a dentist and on to the path of being a trapeze artist, or economist. The small comments that can take our breath away.
Thank you so much Claire. Thank you Charlie, Laura and Tony. It makes all the difference. And that’s well worth sharing 🙂
F.E.A.R. False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s a helpful tool at times, when our minds take us to scary places.
Stories can be great illuminators too. Here’s a lovely one to illustrate how our thoughts can affect our everyday lives. And I do mean every day. You may have heard it before. This version is from Philippa Perry. I like Philippa, not least because she’s married to Grayson. It’s from her book How to Stay Sane, a pocket-sized jewel.
The Jack Story
The deserts of America are lonely places; miles can go by without any other cars or a single house. In one of these wildernesses a driver heard his tyre blow. He was more annoyed than worried, knowing that he kept a spare tyre and a jack in his car boot. Then he remembered; he got the jack out last week and forgot to put it back. He had no jack. But things could be worse, because he passed a garage about three miles back. As he started walking, he talked to himself: ‘There aren’t any other garages around here. I’m at the garage man’s mercy. He could really rip me off just for lending me a jack. He could charge me what he wanted. He could charge $50. There is nothing I could do about it. Goddamn, he could even charge $150. People are terrible to take advantage of others like that. Hell, what bastards people are.’ He continued absentmindedly telling himself this story until he got to the garage. The attendant came out and said in a friendly way “How can I help you?” and the traveller said “You can take your damned jack and you can stuff it.’
We all carry personal versions of this story with us. The trick is to recognise them when they rear their heads. If we did, the world we experience could be a very different place.
In Africa I learnt how ancestors live on until their name is forgotten, which resonated with me. This story is by Philippa Perry, with a similar theme. I’ve lifted it word for word from her gorgeous book ‘How to Stay Sane’ published as part of a series by the School of Life. It’s my kind of story, now shared 🙂 I hope you like it.
My Wooden Spoon
I sometimes look at a busy street and think: in a hundred years, we will all be dead. On this same street a hundred years ago, perhaps another woman thought the same thing. Perhaps, however, like me, she consoled herself with the thought that love is generative and lives on in the next generation, passed on in the habits of love we inculcate in our pupils, children and friends. I have my late aunt’s paintings around me, my late mother’s ring on my finger and her words inside me still urging me to tell my daughter to ‘be careful’ every time she leaves the house. My grandfather’s gruff sarcasm lives on in my father and in me, so he is not really dead. When my daughter lays out a sewing pattern, my fondness for needlework lives on in her.
This deeply moving process, that connects human to human in a cascade of memory passing through generations, can be symbolised by particular objects that are passed down along with the knowledge of our ancestors. I am the proud owner of a wooden spoon that is worn into an un-spoonlike stump. In the pre-electric whisk days of the 1960s, my aunt taught me to cream the butter and sugar for a cake mixture; we always used the same spoon. Even then the spoon was worn out. My aunt had, in her turn, used it as a child. I use a whisk now; but the sight of that spoon in the drawer brings tears to my eyes if it catches me unawares on an hormonal day. My aunt will be forgotten eventually; my daughter will teach her own children to make cakes. Along with cake recipes she will pass down the love I received first from my aunt. Oh yes, my aunt will live on, even if her name gets mentioned less and less and her spoon is thrown away.
Remember the end of Thelma and Louise? When they drove off the cliff?
It was gut-wrenching tragedy, understated glory, hand-on-heart, of-the-moment completion. That final scene left them, and the viewer, suspended over a chasm.
There was no right way, but there was a way that felt right. However hard.
I wouldn’t advocate anything quite as bleak (it still haunts me now). I’m more of a Waltons girl; give me an all-rounded happy ending any day, all cornfields and turquoise dragonflies. But there’s nothing as achingly, hauntingly satisfying as a space, or an action, created in honour of a truth.
Truth might not be comfortable, like an episode of the Waltons. But it lasts. It hangs in the air. I’d be pushed to justify two women driving off a cliff, or even to explain how it was a fitting ending for a film. It wasn’t an ending. It was an open space.
There aren’t many open spaces in our culture. We have right actions and wrong actions. Correct and incorrect answers. We’re not comfortable with the unresolvable. We don’t chew much. We want an answer, and to be the first one with our hand up. We even try hard to meditate correctly.
Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise resonated. Because that space we were left with, that openness, left a big wide space where we could suspend what we think we know. A space where our assumptions, our beliefs, our cause-and-effect, our moral high-ground, all got scattered about a bit. A space for review. For looking afresh. For revisiting truth.
That’s a lot of long-winded thinking. The Dalai Lama says something more simple here:
But be prepared. It can feel like this:
All my life I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that I never really knew what was going on.
Instead of dissipating, (which I hoped/ expected to be the case), the further I progress along the mortal coil, the more this observation holds. In fact there’s a recognition of such massive complexities around me that any given situation seems so far beyond comprehension or opinion as to be almost out the other side.
The enormities of my un-knowing have reached so far that I stopped watching the news several years ago. Now it seems radio too is so steeped in judgement that all I pick up is the judgement itself, and not the content. So again, I reach for the ‘off’ button.
Conversation on current affairs sees me backing into corners. Asked for an opinion, all I can offer is ‘it’s more complicated than that’. Because I know it is. There are truths, more truths, individual and collective truths. And all the feeding and steering in between, that we participate in and strengthen with each opinion voiced.
I’m conscious that this could sound like an anti-propaganda rant; an anti-them, us-against-the-state stream of bitterness. But it’s not that.
I’m looking at the judgement we seem to enjoy so greatly.
How would it look if our urgency to express an opinion, to belong in a camp of thought, to be on this side or that, wasn’t such a driving force? I’ll bet the content of articles on our news programmes would change. It seems to me that each news article exists primarily to create judgement, to generate strong feeling. And I suspect that without this driving force, the programmes might disappear altogether. I wonder.
My son is saturating himself with history. He knows so much about world war 2. More, and differently, I suspect, than those who participated in much of it. How confusing that must be to them. We talk about war crimes. We discuss judgement, and punishment. The need people have to punish for a crime committed in a different time, a different place, an altogether different set up, that we really can’t comprehend, in the here and now.
I wonder about that.
I wonder if the reason we object so strongly call so vehemently, isn’t purely the fight to have one’s opinions venerated and accepted. And if it has anything at all to do with the crime itself.
I hear there’s a Buddhist philosophy of ‘no blame’.
I like that. No blame. If we removed blame, what are we left with? A little empathy, perhaps, some compassion, an effort to understand, to deal with, to mend, learn, and grow? Is that really so scary?
I don’t know. I know less and less. But it’s worth considering.