The Examined Life

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Unlikely Angel

We were sitting at a table on an outdoor patio of a local restaurant. It was a sunny warm day. Across a 40-foot stretch of grass there was a busy urban street edged by an uneven strip of sidewalk. I small fence enclosed the patio which was obviously more ornamental than functional.

As we waited on our meal I noticed a young woman negotiating the uneven sidewalk beside the busy street on a battery driven motorized tricycle. She appeared to have full use of her upper body but her legs were apparently paralyzed.

Just as she neared the stretch of sidewalk along side the patio the tricycle lurched sideways and she was thrown onto the grass. Apparently unhurt but in great distress she laid on the grass struggling to pull herself back aboard the tricycle.

I had an immediate response to jump the fence and run to her aid but I found myself hesitating. I looked across the table as if to ask “what would you think if I ran to the aid of this young woman?”. I found myself wanting permission to respond to this situation.

I knew that if I acted that I was on my own. I would not receive the slightest bit of encouragement and, that in fact, I would be opening myself to criticism.

Disturbed by this lack of support but determined, I jumped the small fence and ran toward the girl. Another man and I reached her almost simultaneously. We spoke not a word and together we righted the vehicle and lifted her back onto the seat. She was an unattractive woman, unkempt, overweight and exuded a smell that matched a surly attitude. Without a word or a look of thanks, the instant she was aboard she resumed her journey like a caged animal returning to the wild.

As I returned to my seat at the table I had felt that I had been the object of intense scrutiny and criticism. As I took my seat I realized I was feeling deeply disturbed. Was it because the young woman had offered not the slightest acknowledgment for the aid she had received? No, what was bothering me was that I had hesitated and actually considered doing nothing to help the young woman. I had even felt compelled to ask permission to take the action I intensely felt was appropriate. The lack of support I had sensed filled me with trepidation and now I felt guilt as though I had done something wrong when I returned from my mission.

At that instant I realized something in my life was amiss. What had happened to the confidence I used to have to reach out to those I perceived to be in need and to act decisively and swiftly in such matters? Wasn’t this one of the parts of who I am that had been so attractive to her in the first place? Wasn’t this something I had always revered in others and myself? What self-eroding forces had been at work in my life that I now felt that this vital part of me had to ask permission to be exercised? How had the reverence I had once felt for this aspect of myself turned to shame?

That day was a turning point in my life. An unlikely angel had been sent to show me a part of my life that needed attention and persistent vigilance lest I forget who I am. She had been sent to remind me that that I am ultimately responsible for the quality of my life and my relationship with all those I care for.

Monday, October 24, 2011

It’s A Zen Thing

My neighbor had come over to ask for my help. She and her husband had been trying for most of the day to unplug their toilet. I am not a plumber but I figured I would give it a try.

They had one of those large bell shaped black rubber plungers. It certainly looked like it should be able to do the job. The toilet was certainly plugged, there was water standing in it about an inch below the rim. I dipped the plunger into the water and then I thrust it deep into the abyss. As I felt the plunger take in a huge gulp of the brindle soup I gave a mighty heave. With a great swirl and sucking sound the toilet drained its enormous draft.

Wow! How did you do that, they exclaimed! Well, you see, it’s a Zen thing. I simply remember that I am the toilet, I am the plunger, I am the water, I am the pipe and I am the poop.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Right Way to Live

I recently read several books by Daniel Quinn, notably Ishmael and the sequel My Ishmael. I found his novels both entertaining and thought provoking. Quinn has hit upon an interesting way to present his ideas about humanity through the eyes of a highly educated telepathic gorilla who wants to “save the world” and recruit people to help him with that challenge.

Admittedly Quinn’s books are not intended to leave us feeling like we are on course to peace and prosperity but instead they make a compelling case that we are indeed headed for another collapse of civilization unless we can correct the course. He challenges us to be the creative compassionate creatures we claim to be before it is too late and find a sustainable way to live in harmony with each other and the planet.

At the root of Quinn’s argument is that the agricultural revolution has been a kind of Trojan horse that appeared to be a great boon to mankind but concealed within it there was a recipe for disaster. As food shortages become more and more frequent and population continues to increase at an exponential rate the evidence that Quinn may have a valid point becomes more and more obvious.

Quinn is adamant that he is not suggesting we turn the clock back and become hunter-gatherers. What he is pointing out is that we as a species believe we have discovered the “right way to live”. But like a monkey that is held fast in a trap by his unwillingness to release the food he has in his grasp we will perish holding on to an idea that is clearly not working. If the monkey were to release the food he could easily remove his hand and go on his way. Like the monkey, we will need as a species, to release the notion that we are on the right and only course that leads to success of the species.

Nor is Quinn suggesting that we reduce the population, although his detractors have accused him of doing so. He is merely pointing out that it is not a kind compassionate world we have created [or allowed] where only 1% of the population control 40% of the wealth on a planet and where many people starve to death every day.

Also Quinn does not suggest that there is something inherently wrong with human beings as a species but sees the state of our current world civilization as simply one of many evolutionary courses that could have been taken albeit one that is headed for demise. He points out that based on the results so far there is nothing superior about human beings or we would demonstrated that wisdom long ago and be living in harmony on the planet both with nature and each other.

This disaster scenario can’t possibly be our destiny, people argue. We are too intelligent. We aren’t just animals! Unfortunately Quinn points out that there is abundant anthropological evidence to the contrary, plenty of civilizations that have just died out.

One answer to this dilemma is to just accept that these cycles are inevitable. The past certainly bears this out. But no one I know wants to accept that a huge percentage of the human species must die off so that a cycle of thousands of years can begin again from scratch. So we continue to insist that this time it will be different even though we refuse to give up the idea that we have discovered the “right way to live”.

The message of Ishmael is that there is no right way to live and that when we refuse to be willing to continually reinvent ourselves we are headed for extinction. I am taking the time to expound on this theme because I think this unwillingness to reinvent our lives when they are clearly not working is endemic in western culture on an individual basis. The more our lives become uncertain and insecure the tighter we cling to ways of being and political leaders that move us closer and closer to disaster.

Daniel Quinn tells us that we, as a culture, have bought into the idea that we have discovered and are living the “Right Way”. Could it be that the reason we are convinced that our civilization is the only possible civilization we could have created is because we as individuals want to believe that it is not necessary or desirable to continually re-invent ourselves.

Could it be that we, as individuals, are afraid to admit that we could be wrong, afraid to admit that just maybe we don’t know the right way to live? Could it be that we refuse to accept that there is no such thing as the right way to live? Could it be that we have become so intolerant of others that we are incapable of learning anything from each other and evolving?

Quinn is not trying to answer any of these questions. He leaves that to us. From his point of view this latest version of civilization has merely evolved in a way that has created a problem that, so far, we are unable to solve. It looks like we are headed for yet another contraction if civilization, this time on a worldwide scale. Quinn is obviously not one for magical thinking either. He never mentions that any interventions may be on the horizon, divine or otherwise. I think this is why his views are so often met with disfavor. In times like these it is comforting to hope that God or extra terrestrials might come and save us.

Could it be that if enough people don’t become conscious of this situation soon enough that we will, as a species, become extinct? Daniel Quinn simply gives us this possibility to consider. He is pointing to evidence. He is telling us to “wake up” before it is too late. Will history repeat itself once again? It is in our hands. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Seeker of Truth

This poem, "Seeker of Truth", was written by a fifteen year old girl. It was sent to be by mail on my 17th birthday.

The words she wrote describing so poignantly and precisely the innate characteristics that prefigured my life are as astonishing and awe inspiring for me now, over forty-five years later, as the day I first read them.

I have always been a seeker of truth. It took me a lifetime to come to understand and fully appreciate what this meant. But somehow my destiny had already been written into the akashic record leaving only the details for me to fill in.


Seeker of Truth
you stand
on the edge of Life
And reach a greedy hand
toward Something you can not explain.
You reach for this Something
Like a child
Reaches for a Bright Red
But unlike that child
you will not be Content
with a Shovel,
some Dirt
and a Bucket
if perchance the Balloon pops....
You will wait
and dream
and hope
in the Meantime
that another Bright Red
may float by


Seeker of Truth
idealism becomes you
Like a flower
in a Woman's hair
Your humanistic qualities
are Smiled upon, tolerated
But never Understood, or Felt
by Anyone
But you.
For the Trust you put in
eats your heart out
And a gaping hole
replaces Whatever was once
You will wait
and dream
and hope
in the Meantime
that another
may pass by


Seeker of Truth
your god is Good
Let others clutch their rosary beads
and rustle the pages of their bibles
Let others go to the church
of their Choice
All the while damning under their breath
their Fellow human beings
Watching this all
You will wait
and dream
and hope
in the Meantime
that another
may pass by


Seeker of Truth
strive Higher
reach Higher
than Anyone has ever Thought
about doing.
(reality becomes an idle Pastime)
Though in your striving
in your reaching
you Trip
and fall
(reality is painFul)
Pick yourself up
and take a good hard look Around
All is NOT Good about you
See man as a Mass
See man
Stoop to perverted beliefs
and discard his Ideals
while licking his captor's Feet....
You will feel Sad
for a while
But. . .
You will wait
and dream
and hope
in the Meantime
that another
may pass by

May 10, 1965

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Stand Up

There was a time I thought respect was something that had to be earned and the only way I could earn it was by doing the "right" things. Back then I worked hard to earn respect which was, more often than not, not forthcoming. It has taken me a lifetime to finally get that we all deserve respect by virtue of just "being" human beings and just showing up in our lives regardless of what we do, think or say.

There is a favorite scene for me from the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird" where an old black man asks Scout to "stand up" with all the black people out of respect as her father leaves the court room. All the white people have already left the room and have no respect for a lawyer that would defend a black man. This scene always leaves me with s lump in my throat.

Now I know that respect is something we are privileged to feel not a commodity to be portioned out to or won from others on a whim. As such, we would be well advised to look for ways to feel respect for every human being that graces us with their presence in our lives as often as possible. And that includes respecting ourselves.

Stand Up - Originally written January 1990

When I was a young boy my mother read and told me many stories. In one of the stories she told, a man adopted a boy who had lost his family and raised him as his own. Throughout my life I have often thought about the story and wondered about its significance and impact on my own life. Now I find myself in a situation where I am raising a boy that has come to me in a similar way. I don't know why I never had children of my own. I don't understand why I attach the importance I do to the task I have drawn unto myself. I only know that I feel that I have drawn to myself an opportunity to create a loving relationship in the life of one small boy that was destined for all the hardships created by the lack of a father.

Maybe my mother's story instilled in me a certain reverence for the image of a man large enough to focus his intent on facing all the challenges of raising a boy whose father was gone. Right from the first time I had heard the story I was filled with a reverence for this man, a reverence that far exceeded that which I held even for my own father.

And now as a man myself, I realize that I, for whatever reason have created for myself the opportunity and indeed become that man in the story my mother told. I must now attribute to myself the reverence that I held as small child for the image of the man that I was to one day become. And from this reverence draw the strength and belief in myself to walk the path I have chosen. I must resist the temptation to cripple myself with the guilt of failures that are not mine and to tap into that reservoir of love that causes a man to reach out to a child.

I must remain steadfast on the course I have chosen, for who knows better my destiny, than my heart of hearts, whose wisdom far exceeds the capacity of my mind to find rhyme or reason in my life. I must not be too proud to ask the way as I travel my path and to open my heart to all inputs and not discount the wisdom to be derived from the smile of a child.

On a cold night in January I made my way to a gathering of men. I came, as instructed, with the intent of my mission scrawled in haste, in pencil on a small slip of paper. There on that paper were written the words "to discover the meaning of my situation". It could have said, "to discover the meaning of life" or ".... of my life", but no, my intent was much more humble. To write such a phrase obviously, I felt I had lost my way and could not understand how I had arrived at where I was, much less venture with any certainty another step.

As I drove, the all to familiar highway, my mind conjured up fears of being misunderstood and ridiculed as I imagined myself standing naked in a room of strange men with accusing fingers pointing at the privates of my heart and mind.

As the street lamps whizzed by me I felt the loneliness and despair as one guilty of all the transgressions leading to human failure. My 12-year-old stepson lay behind me home with two broken legs suffered in a collision with an automobile three weeks before. And here was I, driving out in the cold dark night in search of the answer of what it all meant, heavy with the guilt of not having been able to create the kind of family where such of a thing could not have happened. Where had I gone wrong? Why did I not have the connection with him my heart longed for? So many times I told myself "Accidents Happen", but that was not what was eating away at my insides. If only I had been able to have that connection he might have heard all the warnings to "slow down", to walk through life a little more gently to be just a little more careful and just maybe the event of that day, three weeks ago, might have passed our family by unrealized. Deep inside me the ugly truth was that knew I hadn't been able to do what I had intended to do, I felt I had failed. The message could not have been more clear. In my mind, “the accident” was his message to me. This was the source of my guilt and my shame.

I sat in the circle of men quietly as I listened to the other men proclaim their intent loudly, each carefully selecting words which conjured up images more lofty than those proclaimed before. I stared at my scrap of paper. Try as I might I could not make the words sufficiently lofty in my mind to utter them from my lips. I sat in dumb silence alone, afraid to speak.

Then from across the room there was a voice unlike the others. It was the voice of a boy but he spoke as a man, unafraid and without hesitation. Suddenly it was as if there were only he and I in the room although the room was filled with men talking in loud voices. Carefully I drew near to hear his story.

His story was the story of a boy who had had to face the world without a father. He spoke of the kind of wound that goes so deep that it seems it can never heal. When he was just a baby his father had left his family. Before me once again was the story that my mother had told. I listened quietly. My mind pictured images of the struggling that must have taken place in his family. It was then I knew why I had come. For despite all my failures there was success to which I had become blind in my desperate guilt at not having fully achieved the monumental task which I had set out for myself.

It was then that I knew where I was in my life and what I needed. My only failure had been the loss of belief in myself. I had lost sight of the value of myself. I had negated all I had accomplished. I had negated years of my continuous presence in the life of my stepson and his mother. I had come to doubt my consistent love for them even as I stared at an abundance of evidence for its presence. And in that moment I knew that I become indeed that man in the story so long ago my mother had told. In that instant I forgave myself all the mistakes I had made and I rejoiced in my triumphs, for I and I alone had had the courage to dare to face all the trials that had been placed before me in those years and I and my family had all survived.

But no, in that moment my life was not suddenly transformed into Nirvana. No, all my questions have not been answered. All my trials are not now complete. Yet I am filled with thanksgiving. I am thankful that my stepson is alive and that my wife is by my side. And that I have been given the courage and the wisdom to begin again from right from where I am, to live my life with all its joys and sorrows and trials and rough edges. I don't know what more any man can ask than this opportunity.

I want to thank Christopher for sharing his story. I want to thank the men's group for being there. I want to promise my self to remain ever mindful of the value of my life which was given to me on an "as is" basis to make of it all I can. I want to always remember that I am worthy of some measure of reverence for having the courage to create even the smallest amount of love with the life I have been given.

So, stand up, your [step]father is passing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A Tale of Two Dogs

Maaddee was quite old when I met her. Some people regarded her as a “wise women” but the members of her family were always acting embarrassed by the things she said and did. No one said anything but I think they thought she was a bit off. Maaddee has been gone many years now. I will always remember how she always had a unique way of looking at things.

One time I was telling Maaddee the story of how I had met a villager in Peru who lived along a river with his family and an assortment of animals including dogs, monkeys and birds. None of the animals were kept in cages.

"We used to have two dogs", the man explained, "but one of the dogs chased and worried the other animals so, we ate him for dinner."

I explained to Maaddee that I could not understand why he had not tried to train the dog instead. Maaddee looked at me, smiled, and said…

"The man knew that he need not waste his time trying to train the dog, and the dog knew he was not going to be around long. That's why he worried the other animals so fiercely while he still could."

Monday, October 03, 2011

God's Plan

I had a friend named Ernie, when I was 20, who was several years older than me. I enjoyed Ernie because he often asked philosophical questions of me that really made me think. One afternoon I had dropped over to talk and he said. “Michael, what is it you really want to do with your life? Do you have a plan for your life?” I thought for a minute and I said, “I want to be able to go anywhere, and do anything with anybody.

After a few seconds Ernie looked at me and said “It sounds like you want to be like a sailor who sails the world with a girl in every port.” His response was not a surprise because Ernie and I often talked about girls. “No Ernie”, I said, “It’s bigger than that, I meant it exactly as I said.”

There is a creation myth that tells us how before there was anything, there was only Oneness.

In the myth Oneness is alone. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to do it with?

So Oneness thought, I will make a plan, I will create an endless universe of infinite wonder and fill it with beings of infinite curiosity. I will endow each of those beings with the power to create unlimited possibility. I will create a game of hide and seek and hide myself in every corner of the universe and in every being in the universe. I will pretend that each of those beings is not me. I will make love and connectedness the goal of the game. And to make the game seem absolutely real I will forget where I have hidden myself. The game will play out through eternity until all the pieces, through seeking love and connectedness, have again found that they are all just me playing a game of separateness with myself. Then I will not feel alone.

Several eons passed and Oneness thought, what if I make a mistake?

Several eons passed and Oneness thought…

If all is Oneness and Love there cannot be a mistake.

Several eons passed and Oneness declared…

"Let there be a universe where I can go anywhere, and do anything with anybody."

Several eons passed and it was so.