January 22, 2010
January 10, 2010
December 11, 2009
Coindidence? (I think not...)
Several months ago in a moment of distraction, I drove away from the 76-Station with the gas hose still attached to my car. This is an embarrassing and potentially expensive boo-boo. I phoned my wife almost immediately, and as I was bemoaning my misfortune, she interrupted breathlessly and demanded the where-when details. Amazingly, she had just pulled the same bullwinkle twenty miles away at a gas station in the Valley. We estimated the two incidents occurred within five minutes of each other.
I have often heard “there are no coincidences”, usually from people with an I-know-something-you-don’t gravitas who dabble in a particular religious, spiritual or mystical belief system. Their differing philosophical inclinations notwithstanding, the denominator is that no coincidence should be ignored. They are designed and staged either to facilitate a dynamic intervention or to impart a message. All are significant and meaningful -- perhaps critical -- to our present and future lives.
I buy that. For me, it feels careless at best, arrogant at worst to trivialize everyday coincidences as kismet, which is to discount their significance altogether. In my own life, the most common is receiving a call from an estranged friend at the exact moment I am thinking about him. I have also had the experience of being in a foreign city and sitting down at a barstool next to my high school history teacher. In my mid-20’s, unemployed and short $500 dollars for rent, I found an old scratch-off lottery ticket in my wallet and won exactly that amount. Last year – for no particular reason -- I phoned an estranged friend who suffered untreated bipoloar disorder and had become reclusive. I learned later that he had removed a gun from his mouth in order to answer the phone. Quite a coincidence, that one.
I know there are other coincidences in my life that I do not immediately realize or appreciate. I may have a moment of clarity in the rearview mirror, but in the moment, I am usually too distracted by the fairy dust to pause and divine a message. In reality, I imagine there is so much coincidence in all our lives that we simply do not have the capacity to acknowledge, process or sort it out. The biggie, of course, is the very fact of human life. Without going into the science of it all (which I don’t pretend to fully understand), I know enough to appreciate that the odds against our very existence are astronomically high -- like being hit by lightening twice, winning the tri-state lottery, and being identified as the next Dalai Lama all in one week.
Closer to home, what are the chances – with the billions of people in the world – that I would meet and marry my wife? On paper it would be impossible to calculate, no? Yet we now have twenty plus years of shared history and three children. Am I to believe it was mere coincidence that we were in the same place at the same time and just happened to strike up a conversation? Please.
I would describe coincidence as an impossibly unlikely moment or convergence of events. By that definition, coincidence cannot be meaningless. See, if a moment is impossible, then the fact of it is miraculous, and if it is miraculous, then divine intervention has occurred, and we had better sit up and take notice. Simplistic logic, yes, but it’s my logic.
And I have more! Try to create your own coincidence... Can’t do it, can you? Therefore…
But back to the gas station and the miraculous synchronicity of my wife’s and my blunders. What’s the message? I have burned a lot of brain cells trying to figure this one out. What I have come up with is weak and unsatisfying:
a) Slow down (stop and smell the diesel).
b) Carpool (cuts risk and emissions in half).
c) The Universe has its own whacked sense of humor.
I am open to theories.
And one last thing. As I was finishing this piece, I received an unsolicited e-mail (okay, spam) with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous." Cue the spooky music. Or fanfare. Whatever.
My wife has a parenting blog: http://www.janetlansbury.com/
Child care expert and parenting teacher Janet Lansbury has a parenting blog. She writes about infants and toddlers, RIE, and offers expert parenting advice to parents and caregivers. She is a pretty lady. Every parent or caregiver who wants to do the best for her infant or toddler and wants to learn about parenting and child care should go to http://www.janetlansbury.com/ for child care education and expert advice.
July 23, 2008
Maybe Next Time, Brother
The new-and-improved Me imagines an evolved spiritual self whose shortcomings have been identified, confronted and subjugated. So, you will appreciate that what I am going to share is profoundly uncomfortable. Taking personal inventory always is. But I am savvy enough to know discomfort is a clear sign that what’s on my mind must be aired out. Mold cannot grow in the sunlight. I will try to make this long story short...
I received a phone call late one Saturday night from a casual friend, Walter, a single 60-something I met a few years ago. Walter and I have little in common and no history, but he is good company and a roving fixture in most of the local coffee shops, migrating over the course of a day from one to the other, following some internal social compass. This is how we met – over conversation and coffee with mutual friends. It is my impression that Walter is tangentially acquainted with everyone in town by a degree or two of separation -- if you do not know him personally, certainly someone you know knows him.
Last year Walter was ill and spent almost nine months at the VA Hospital in Westwood. I was among many who visited with him – weekly, in my case, and by default. Somehow I ended up with his key ring, so it was left to me to bring him his mail and start his car periodically. For the most part, I embraced these simple acts as opportunities to be of service. At times, I regarded them as chores.
Walter’s call that Saturday night started out very how’re-you-doing casual but quickly became bizarre. In a calm voice, he explained that he had maybe done something stupid. His sister was coming to visit, and his small house was infested by earwigs. He had spent the afternoon sweeping them up. When he had collected a pile, he sprayed them with Raid, and they had emitted small clouds of white powder. Furthermore, armies of little earwigs – the offspring -- had crawled out and taken over the house. Thousands of them. Some crawled up his legs and were now lost in his body hair. Several had found a cut on his forearm and actually entered his body.
Now, admittedly, I am often slow on the uptake, so I accepted most of Walter’s story under the heading of Realm of Possibility. I have never sprayed an earwig with anything, so who knows? Maybe it’s earwig-breeding season, and the shock of the poison convulsed the mommies, and the little buggers were released in a cloud of white dust? It could happen.
But there was more. Walter had gone to the VA Hospital for treatment. He said they had kept him waiting for hours, that the waiting area was crowded with ‘McCains’ (recognizable by a particular t-shirt they all wore), and the hospital staff was seeing them before Walter, even though he had been waiting longer.
As I said, I am slow, but I am not a complete numbskull. Eventually, it registered that Walter was likely experiencing a psychotic episode, complete with hallucinations and paranoid delusions.
And so the dilemma presented itself: was I prepared to play hero at that moment, to chuck all other considerations and take charge of Walter’s psychotic episode? The last time I stepped up to help this man I unwittingly bought a six-month commitment.
So, I considered the situation practically. He wasn’t sounding particularly distressed. I knew he had scores of other local people he could call. Perhaps he already had. And he told me his sister had phoned from Topanga and was 20-minutes away. Twice. I desperately wanted to believe this last bit of information. On the other hand, now that I had made my amateur diagnosis, could I trust anything Walter told me? Wouldn’t the right thing be to grab a sleeping bag and baby sit Walter and the earwigs for the night?
Of course. But that is not what I did. I told Walter to call me back if his sister didn’t show, and that’s how I left it with him. And then I was left with myself. He did not call back, which was relief and torment in the same package. I spent the night thrashing myself over my failure to take the most obvious and basic Christian action.
Happily, I learned the next day that Walter’s sister did arrive that night. She brought him to a neurologist and a shrink. He was prescribed reserpine (an anti-psychotic), and he quickly recovered his faculties. So, mercifully, my conscience was spared any further baggage. No harm, no foul, right?
I wish it were that simple. I remain disturbed by my lack of action and by what it betrays about me. While I like to think that I am a reliable, charitable and fundamentally good person, apparently this is a delusion. This is a blow, not simply to my manufactured self-image, but to something very deep somewhere dangerously close to my soul.
Surely, this was one of those crossroad moments for which we gird ourselves with church services and personal prayers? Spiritual preparation for that moment we are called to act. Well, apparently you have to catch me in the right mood, and only when it’s convenient.
I do not have to whip out the Book to know this is basic human failure. The knowledge that I am imperfect and ‘only human’ is not a news flash. But nor is it solace. I accept it, of course, but applying it as a catchall, especially in this case, feels like a cop out. It is self-serving and shamefully lame.
So, that’s what I’m wrestling with lately, and I don’t expect closure any time soon. Perhaps never. There is a spiritual ideal I recognize intellectually where goodness is instinctual, and where right actions are not trumped by practical considerations and rationalization. You don’t think -- you act. Right actions become habits. Habits become character. And character, ultimately, becomes your legacy.
I am left worrying about mine.
January 30, 2008
Keats famously wrote that beauty is truth and vice-versa (“…that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”). I do not believe he was referring to everyday honesty like ‘I’ve always hated your mother’, but rather the fundamental truths of God’s universe that bring us rare, extraordinary moments of clarity and peace. Truth is a valued piece of real estate on the moral high ground and telling it is promoted in our culture as a godly virtue. We’re assured that we’ll sleep better, that it can set us free, and that it is good for us to hear, even when it hurts.
Personally, my world of truth is more complicated than that -- I am not always sure when to share it, or how much I really want to hear. Sure, I can tolerate someone pointing out the glob of spinach in my teeth. After the first pang of humiliation, I am usually grateful for this information because I can rectify the situation. On the other hand, I do not appreciate being told I am tone deaf and sing too loudly in church, because my options are limited. And do I really want to hear from my neighbor that my 16-year old daughter’s alter ego on MySpace is 2Easy? Or, do I want to tell that neighbor the rumor I heard about his son hanging out behind the supermarket brandishing a quart of malt liquor?
The answer to the first question is an unequivocal ‘yes’. I may not want to know the truth (ouch, it does hurt), but that is my job -- to know everything and anything that involves my family, no matter how painful, humiliating or hurtful, and to deal with it as best as I am able. The operational word is ‘deal’. But when it comes to my neighbor’s son, I am less certain. My instinct is to speak up, but I must check my motives. Am I gossiping under the banner of Truth, maybe relishing the thought of shattering my pompous friend’s image of his perfect son? Or am I truly concerned for the boy’s health and safety? Truthfully, the answer is probably somewhere in between (ouch again).
And then there’s the question of my friendship with that neighbor. What is the quality of that relationship? Do I trust it enough to tell the truth and to receive it? Do we regularly share our most personal truths, or just the latest box scores? Do I really want to test it? I worry for the messenger. By sharing the truth with my neighbor, I risk an end to our Thursday night barbecues, and he makes such great chicken. And what about my tolerance for the truth? Perhaps if my neighbor tells me something deeply humiliating – albeit true -- our relationship will be irreparably damaged by resentment. Publius Terentius Afer (Terence to his friends) warned, “Obsequiousness begets friends, truth hatred.” There is more than a grain of truth in that statement.
It seems to me that honesty has wiggle room. Truth does not. So, maybe if any beauty is to be found in everyday truth, then how it is delivered, and how it is received makes all the difference. I like to think my moral compass functions pretty well where everyday honesty is involved. I also like to think I can digest anything served up with loving intention and good will. I like to think that. Just don’t tell me I can’t sing, because that really hurts.