Another Middle Finger – This Time, It’s Personal

No, this post is not about my fractured middle finger from a few posts ago, though it is healing nicely, thanks for asking.

Yesterday morning, I was driving to drop off my kids at their mom’s house on my way to work. They were subdued and barely conscious, having just woken up minutes before I herded them into the car. It was a peaceful morning, and the sun was already hot as it filtered through my dirty windshield. I came to an intersection, and stopped at the red light. I tapped on the steering wheel in time with the music on the radio, waiting for the light to change.

I was in the third of four lanes of traffic, so there were two lanes between me and the curb on the right. I had a few cars in front of me, but no cars to my right, so I had a clear view of the bus stop at the corner. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything, just waiting for the light to change, as I glanced at the people waiting on the bench for their bus.

Then I saw him. Young man, mid-twenties, sitting away from the rest of the people at the bus stop. Scowl on his face, arm extended, middle finger raised in the air. Both the scowl and the finger were directed at me.

This bus stop stranger was flipping me off. Read Whole Post

The “V” Word

I post a lot of personal stuff on this blog. I try to write honestly here in pursuit of my truth. And while some people might say that there’s a difference between ‘My Truth’ and ‘The Truth’, it’s my blog so as far as I’m concerned, my truth IS the truth. But honesty prevents me from getting all revisionist here and telling outright lies. What’s the point of lying on a blog? It’s about as useful as cheating at solitaire.

Anyway, frequent readers of this blog have read some deeply personal accounts and have been witness to some real growth over the past year. Most probably find it as interesting as watching a plant grow, but from the feedback I’ve received, my ramblings here have helped at least a few people to relax and watch the blinking lights.

Regular readers of my blog have read two previous posts that dealt with something intensely difficult, painful, yet also revelatory to me. The posts “A Flourish of Hate” and “A Flourish of Hate Redux” dealt with someone who –in my judgment– betrayed me. The essays did not focus so much on the betrayal as the effects that it had on me. After all, it would be –I don’t know, ‘wrong’, somehow– to use this blog as a platform to bag on someone who isn’t here to defend himself. So I focused not on the act of betrayal but the aftereffects — and the incredible lessons I received as a result. Read On

The Lunch Box Oracle

If a kid’s lunch box reveals something about their future personality development, then for me, the writing was on the wall pretty early: I was gonna be an odd guy.

Back when I was young, lunch boxes were metal, rectangular containers, like miniature suitcases, usually with an accompanying thermos for a beverage. The paint used to decorate them was probably lead based and fully toxic, but they were cool, they were fun, and they were much sturdier than the old brown paper sack option.

Go on eBay and you can find classic, retro lunch boxes going for hundreds of dollars to grownups yearning to possess them, either for the sentimental value or to add to a collection of related memorabilia. It’s not often that I see children with the metal rectangular suitcase lunch boxes anymore – nowadays it seems everyone is going for the miniature thermal coolers or flexible nylon bags to take their lunches to school, complete with frozen ice packs and plastic bottles to hold the beverage. No themes, no characters, no imagination – but the Gogurt stays cold.

I remember having lunch box envy. Some kids had superheroes like Batman or Superman or The Incredible Hulk on theirs. Some kids had their favorite baseball or football teams on them. Some kids had them with cartoon characters or favorite TV shows. They might change each year, the kids coming to school in September with a new box bearing a different theme; and some kids just kept the same one year after year. They were a reflection of the kids’ interests, their hobbies, their characters.

I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but the lunch box I ended up with was adorned with images of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Kids actually saw me carrying my lunch in this.

As the youngest of four kids, I was the recipient of a lot of hand-me-down stuff – clothes, toys, butt-kickings…  But I honestly don’t remember any of my siblings ever using this lunch box. Which means I must have gotten it new. I have no memory of picking it out; I have no memory of requesting it. I didn’t even know who the hell Jonathan Livingston Seagull was. If I had a hand in selecting this lunch box, I’ve clearly blocked out the memory.

I remember seeing the paperback book when I was little. The book had a different design than the one on the lunchbox, and someone in my family had brought a copy of it into the house at some point. I knew nothing about the story, but at the time assumed it was a tale about certain sea birds. I had no interest in reading it, and in fact, did not read it at all until I was in my twenties – and then only because I realized I had no idea what the hell the book was about, and wanted to satisfy my curiosity about why on earth someone bought me that lunch box in the first place.

After reading it, I still didn’t know why I had that lunch box. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a straight story; it was more like a fable, in that it had a “message”. I thought the message was pretty lame at the time, but that is more a commentary on where I was, spiritually, than any slight against the book itself.

The book is about a seagull (named Jonathan, of course) that grows tired of conforming to the limitations of traditional seagull life – wanting to give up the daily food squabbles in favor of perfecting his flying skills. In return for his lack of conformity, he is booted out of his flock. He continues to pursue greater flight goals on his own, and is eventually introduced to a new society of gulls who take him to a higher plane of existence. He meets a wise seagull who becomes his teacher, and he learns the importance of being true to himself. His teacher’s last words to him are “keep working on love.” Jonathan finally comes to understand that the spirit cannot be free without the ability to forgive.

As I mentioned, when I first read the story I was appalled that I had been duped into reading what ended up being a story “with a message” – it felt like propaganda at the time. “Sentimental hogwash”, as old man Potter would have said. I was so defensive against anything remotely spiritual, likely because at the time I was spiritually bankrupt. But it was fairly easy to ridicule the novella – I mean, it was a story about birds seeking self-improvement, after all.

Of course, I now see that – however simplistic or banal the book might have been – the message it carried is universal. I get it today. It’s a message that could benefit anyone and everyone: forgiveness yields freedom.

But my inner child says “Come on, honestly – could a six year old be expected to get that? Who picked out this damn lunch box?” (Yes, my inner child casually swears a lot.)  “I want to know whose idea that was! Hey – I loved cartoons – where was my Scooby-Doo lunch box? How about a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner lunch box? Flintstones? Jetsons? Was anyone paying attention to what I was actually interested in? I just wanna know who picked Jonathan Freakin’ Livingston Seagull!” (Apparently, my inner child is also a bit of a punk.)

Given the lessons I’ve received in the last few years, and how they resonated with me – hit me at my core – it would seem that the instruction to “keep working on love” is a message I was meant to receive at some point during this lifetime. It just seems strange that the message would technically be conveyed to me through something as ridiculous as a child’s lunch box. I suppose it’s better than a Magic Eight Ball. I am reminded of another message that I’ve received very recently: “We don’t get to choose the messenger”.

Maybe it’s one of those “it wasn’t the lunch box that I wanted, but it was the lunch box I needed” scenarios. Perhaps nobody picked it. Perhaps it picked me. It seems kinda cool when I look at it that way.

A Scooby-Doo lunch box would have been a lot cooler, though. I’m just sayin’.

A Flourish of Hate Redux

What would have to happen before you could love your enemy?

I was asked this question several months ago. Is it possible to get beyond my own resentment against a person to find their humanity, and thereby demonstrate my empathy, sympathy, or even kindness? Could I love my enemy?

Many religions preach the virtue of forgiveness, of practicing peace, of turning the other cheek. I get it – it’s a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do, it’s what a loving God does, yeah yeah yeah, I get it. But I’m not God and I’m entirely mortal and sometimes I just want to revel in my flawed humanity and be pissed off and judgmental. And, as I have previously written in this blog, sometimes I just want to hate.

But the question remained: can I ever show love for someone I have chosen to hate? Can I rise above the animosity and resentment and reach a level of grace or kindness for someone I absolutely despise?

I had thought no, I can’t demonstrate kindness to my enemy. I thought the best I could do would be to just leave him alone; to not wish him any particular harm; to just see him and his actions another way. I thought that was the best I could do, and I was pretty sure I was right – I could never do more than that. Not creating any “wreckage of the present” by saying or doing things I will regret was the highest level of my ability to show any courtesy, acknowledgment, or respect to my enemy.

I call him my enemy, but that’s a bit of melodrama. He’s just a man. An average, everyday, flawed creature just like me. I’ve called him other names — boy, have I called him names. I’ve called him just about every name in the book. But he’s just a man. Any greater significance assigned to him by me is just a measure of my own obsessive thoughts. My “enemy” is just a man. I used to call him my friend.

The details are unimportant, and the data is simple: a friendship that spanned 20 years was undone by one man’s choice. One man made a choice, and another man was hurt by it. Unremarkable, really – happens a million times a day on this planet. The only thing “remarkable” here is that it involved me – and since I’m the one writing this blog, I can blow it way the hell out of proportion and add all manner of dark and sinister shadows to the story to spin it in my favor, to cast the other man as the villain and provide multiple forms of character assassination, but when you take away the smoke and mirrors, you basically have two men, one choice, and a 20-year friendship that was collateral damage.

It’s probably obvious that I was the one who experienced pain as a result of the choice made – I don’t think anyone reading this blog is surprised by that.  In my earlier post, “A Flourish of Hate”, I wrote about the burning wrath that nearly did me in. That deadly sin poisoned my mind and turned my world to black. A “sin”, says my friend Rich, is simply something that takes us away from God, and I saw firsthand that there was no room in my heart for God when I was dwelling in wrath. “A heart cannot be grateful and hateful at the same time”, I heard it said, and I came to know this as the truth.

The flame of that hate was directed at this man who was no longer my friend, but I was the one who was torched by it, who was burned from it, who tasted bitter ashes as a result of it. I finally reached a point where I realized this was  happening, and I decided that I was not going to let that one choice burn me anymore. I was given the power to see it another way, and I finally let go and moved on. But the man –while finally seen as being nothing more than the ordinary man that he is– was still banished to the dark corner of my heart, and he was locked there like a political prisoner in a gulag.

Days passed. Weeks passed. Months passed. Life got up, and life went on, and eventually I reached a place where I no longer thought of the man with venom and fury. I was actually starting to recognize that, while I would not have made the choice he made, I benefitted from his choice. I could see how the man had actually done me a favor. Sunlight entered the dark corner of the heart, and while he was never officially released from the gulag, the door was unlocked and he was free to go.

Today I learned that this man, who was once my friend but is now just a man, has leukemia.

The news shocked me, and much to my surprise, the news saddened me. I had thought that I was beyond all sense of caring for this man, that I was past anything resembling concern for his well-being. I had stopped denying his humanness, but I hadn’t started affirming it. He was just in a sort of limbo, beyond reach, out of sight, out of mind, out of heart.

But the sadness I felt upon hearing the news – my first thought was literally, “Oh no, not that”. And despite the nasty voice (the one belonging to Attila, the demonic little pissant that is my lower self) saying things like “Karma is a bitch, isn’t it?”, the true and prevailing voice – the voice of my Higher Self – was one of sadness, of sympathy. I was friends with this man for 20 years – that either means that there is something good in him, or I’m just a really poor judge of character. I’m a good judge of character, and for 20  years I judged this man as good and decent and worthy of friendship.

Is this what it takes? Does it take a potential death sentence to get through to me that life is far too short to hate? Does it require envisioning the grief of his children mourning their Dad to get me to wake up to the fact that every man is deserving of a second chance? Do I need to be faced with sadness and loss before I am willing to forgive as I am forgiven? What more will it take for me to fully and truly forgive this man?

I don’t want to see this man dead, as I once did. I don’t want him to die a painful, agonizing death, as I once did. I don’t want him to vanish from the earth, as I once did. I have been granted the ability to reduce my hatred. But can it be eliminated entirely? Can I empty my heart of the hatred I have held for this man?

A heart cannot be grateful and hateful at the same time…

Can I love this man as my friend, as I had for two decades? Can I forgive him for being human and making a choice that I would not have made? Can I stop blaming him and wrongly identifying him as the source of the great pain that I felt? Can I recognize that God’s will is being done in both of our lives?

I don’t  know. I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. But the truth is, today I don’t want him to die, and that is progress. I have been shown this far – I can ask to be shown the rest of the way. More will be revealed.

I do know this: it is time for me to lay down the heavy baggage that is hate, and just watch the blinking lights.