Blame

When I experience frustration, anger, disappointment and fear, I often look outside myself for the cause of it. I start to tell myself stories about where that pain originates (because I can’t believe that it comes from within). I blame others, whether they are directly affecting my experience or not. I could blame the guy who cut me off in traffic, or the co-worker who is late getting his share of the work done. I could also blame people in other countries who are doing things to hurt people I’ve never met; I experience that injustice within me, feel the pain, and blame those people for my pain. I can blame individuals, or whole groups of people (like Republicans, for example).

This is how wars start. This is the root of all kinds of phobias.

What if I could allow the thought, just for now, that my pain comes from the stories I’m telling myself about my experience, and not from the experience itself? What if I could give up trying to blame and manipulate other people, because playing the victim does nothing to alleviate my pain?

What if I could allow the thought, just for now, that other people experience pain similar to my own? What if everyone in the whole world experiences pain and frustration and fear just from being human? What if, inside, we’re all suffering to some extent?

Could I then, instead of seeing others as the source of my pain, see others as people who are suffering just like me? Could I see them with empathy and compassion? Could we work together to alleviate our collective suffering?

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Burning a dead man

FADE IN

A man (39) kneels in the gravel by a shallow river, under a pedestrian bridge, in the middle of a nature reserve, on a sunny summer day.

CLOSE-UP ON MAN’S HAND

He digs a watermelon-sized hole in the gravel using a sharp rock. Beside him, two big shopping bags, one cloth and one paper, are stuffed with stacks of hand-written documents.

A young family walks by, enjoying this holiday weekend. The girl (4) stares at the man clawing in the dirt. Her father (35) tugs her along.

The digging man glances up at the family, then returns to his task. He reaches into the paper bag, which has two broken straps, and pulls out a lined piece of paper, covered both sides in handwriting. He crumples it up and puts it in the hole. He crumples more paper until the hole is full. He pulls out a barbecue lighter and pulls the trigger. Nothing. Again. Nothing.

MAN: Come on, come on.

He grows impatient. A tiny flame finally appears. His pursed lips crack a hopeful smile. Soon, the breeze whips the flames to consume the paper. The man crumples more pages and pushes them into the flames, then jerks his hand back as the flames singe his fingers. He adds more paper as fast as it burns. He ignores another family that walks by, and they ignore him.

24 HOURS EARLIER

The man sits on a couch in his highrise apartment, downtown in a major city. The open windows let in traffic noises and a beam of sunlight, which illuminates two stacks of one-inch binders on a coffee table. The man reads one of the binders, scanning the words, flipping several pages at a time. The words increasingly disturb him. He fans quickly through the rest of this binder, tosses it to the floor and grabs another…

That man… is me.

Those binders are my journals from 1989 through 2004: 15 years (60 pounds) of anxiety, philosophy, theology, commentary, short fiction, unsent love letters, and utter crap. (The journals since 2004 are still in a box somewhere.)

I confront them because the clutter in my apartment has been bugging me. As my desire for simplicity has grown the last few years, the journals have morphed from a treasure chest of personal history into just another box of old papers. I have lugged those books through about a dozen moves since I wrote the earliest of them, and now they just take up valuable space in a life that I want to make lighter.

The last time I considered getting rid of them, my ego vetoed it. Those journals provide a written record of some formative years of my life. I needed to hold onto something that could confirm my identity after the memories fade. I needed to have something to say: This is where I came from. These are the stories I’ve written. These are the people and issues I’ve cared about. To say: My life has meaning. I got somewhere, and this is how. (And to my biographers after I become famous, here is some great raw material.)

But when I went back to re-read them, I found page after page of narcissistic ponderings I could no longer identify with: college crushes, old ideology, and long-forgotten anxieties over schools and bosses. My gut tightened with each page, the shame of the past coming back to haunt me.

Those journals now reflect a persona I’ve outgrown – a past I no longer need. They say you’re supposed to live in the present, and I couldn’t do that without forgiving and releasing my past. To find who I really am, I need to let go of the false identity of my past, and wipe the slate clean. Finally, to be honest, I need to forget about anyone wanting to read my biography, because I probably won’t be famous.

It took me a while to let myself erase the record of my past limitations, but I’m ready now.

Next up was the practical part. How would I get rid of the journals? I could simply throw them in the dumpster. I could recycle them. I could burn them.

Yes, I could burn them, releasing the old energy in the heat of the flame. Yes.

A romantic vision came to me: Sitting in the mountains, tossing the pages one by one into a roaring campfire, each flame forgiving a mistake or a belief that I’d held onto for too long.

And Saturday, August 31, was Burn Night. My friends down at Burning Man would light up a huge wooden Man as a symbol of releasing the past, burning an authority figure – whatever each of the 70,000 participants thought it represented.

I’d been there a few times myself, experiencing spiritual renewal. Burn Night would be the perfect time to release my past in flames.

For practical reasons, I decided to perform my little ceremony in a city park during daylight hours. Now, a summer long weekend is not a great time to find a public firepit. They were all booked with family barbecues. So, Plan B: I found a little barbecue stand and burned a few pages in there. It didn’t feel grand and romantic like my earlier vision. And the barbecue quickly filled up with ash. I needed another plan.

Plan C: I knew an isolated spot a mile or two down the trail, by the river, away from the crowds, in an adjoining nature reserve. I gathered my 60 pounds of memories and hiked out.

By the time I got to the base of the hill, halfway to my original destination, the straps on the paper bag started to go. The bag was not built to carry heavy documents long distance. It was built for raspberries and tortilla chips.

Meanwhile, with all these setbacks, my romantic notions of ceremonial release in a spiritual renewal quest were coming undone like the straps on my bag.

Plan D: Pull off the trail at the first bridge over the river. I found a spot by the river’s edge, crumpled up a few pages into a pile, pulled out the barbecue lighter, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing. Again. Nothing. Again again again. Nothing nothing nothing.

Another plan. Another plan. Another plan.

I was starting to snap like the straps on my heavy fucking sacks of shit from hell.

Matches. I’d brought matches as a backup. I’m a smart guy. Always prepared.

The first match flared… and died before it touched the paper. Second match: Flare. Out. Third: same. Four, five, a dozen more matches, all died cold at the paper’s edge.

It must have been the breeze.

I needed… I didn’t need another fucking plan. I needed a way to get that damned ballast of shame out of my life. And I needed to do that before lugging those damned bags back up that long lonely hill back to my car.

There was no way I was going to carry that burden back with me. I needed to release it. Immediately. Without a doubt. Forever.

But it wasn’t working this way. I needed a windbreak. So I found a dry, gravelly spot away from the river’s edge, and a triangular rock that I could dig a hole with.

I knelt under the bridge, on the bare gravel, stone-age tool in hand, and, like some crazed killer, began hewing out a pit in the dirt, to bury the body of my past.

FADE IN

Craig (39) is more determined than ever to ditch the past. Clawing at the dirt under a bridge, no longer caring about the perceptions and judgments of strangers, his knees dirty and his mind focused, he digs a grave.

In that hole, he… I… am finally able to bring a flame to that paper. I shove the next few pages in quickly, trying to keep the flame lit and the paper from blowing away in the breeze. I singe my fingers.

I need another plan, but that’s okay. I’m on the right path now. I can beat this. I find a good stick, and stab those pages into the flames so they light up and don’t escape.

I bayonet them like dying enemies on the battlefield.

Old college crush? Die! Teenage angst? Die! Useless ponderings about a god I thought I knew but totally didn’t? Die, die, die. Burn up all the old ego crap, the religious certainties, the victimhood, the blaming of friends and family, the insane depression and suicidal thoughts, the pain, the confusion, the small-minded theology and misdirected philosophy. All sacrificed to the flames, returned to primordial energy.

As the hot sun moved through the sky, I realized it would take hours to burn through all of it. I couldn’t burn the massive amounts of paper quickly enough in this small hole.

After two hours, I had emptied and burned the paper bag, and started on the cloth bag. I was too tired to finish burning it all in one afternoon, but not too tired to carry the lighter bag back up the hill, just one last time, to get rid of it safely somewhere else.

Another plan? The confidential shredding bins at the office. Perfect.

I shouldered the remainder and hiked back. Lighter this time. Bearable, for a little while. I drove home, showered the clay and ash off my body, and carried the old baggage three blocks to the office.

The last of the papers were dumped unceremoniously in a bin full of obsolete engineering drawings, misprinted spreadsheets and last week’s meeting minutes. Finally. Gone.

It turned out in the end that I didn’t need some big fireworks ceremony with cheering crowds to release my past and live in the present with less baggage. I just needed to let it go.

Because I could not carry that heavy burden up one more goddamn hill.

Posted in Ego, growth | 1 Comment

Arguing (a)theism

I found a Facebook group tonight that posts quotes about the intelligence of science and the stupidity (or worse) of religious people. I kind of agreed with a bunch of things they said. For example, I do believe that the universe has been around for billions of years, and was not created in a single week by some omnipotent being less than 10,000 years ago. But I won’t go into the rest.

Generally, I don’t put energy into trying to prove or disprove the existence of God in any particular form. I have a conscience that tells me what’s right and wrong, and when I follow my conscience, I feel better. So I try to do what feels good. I figure, if there is a god who created me and created my conscience, then this is the best course of action anyway. And if there is no god, then what better life than doing what feels good to me and feels good for the people around me? I can’t imagine that any sane god would have created people that feel bad when they do something right. And if god is insane, then there’s no point in doing what that god wants.

At the same time, I have lots of friends and family members who believe very strongly in God and in Jesus Christ. I no longer share their beliefs, but we love and respect each other anyway. I’m fine with that. They don’t need to convert me, and I don’t need to convert them. Besides, I suspect there is some kind of Spirit out there, some kind of God, although I don’t know what that Spirit looks like. So I have nothing substantial to convert anyone to even if I wanted to.

And the religious people I know are still good people. They are kind, and try to do the right thing. They try to live good lives with good morals. We’re kind of the same that way. They aren’t hurting anyone with their beliefs, so I don’t need to tease them or argue with them or make them forsake their beliefs. It’s a free country, and if their religion inspires them to be good, kind and generous, then that’s fine. Let them follow the teachings of Jesus, who wanted everyone to be kind and loving and generous and nonjudgmental. There’s no harm in that.

I think when atheists loudly proclaim how stupid religious people are, they are thinking of the minority of Christians who like to picket funerals and protest in the streets and go knocking on doors trying to convert their neighbours. It seems to me that the majority of Christians are just like the ones I know personally, who quietly and humbly seek to do what their consciences tell them to do, to live lives of gratitude and love. If they are wrong about where they are going after their lives are over, well, at least they tried to make the world a better place while they were alive.

I’m not saying that militant atheists are wrong for calling out the idiocy of unchecked dogma. As I said in an earlier post, we need that thoughtful voice of opposition, the voice of reason in a world where so many people are unreasonable.

I guess we’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

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Flood of compassion

Over the last week, my city of Calgary, Alberta, has seen unprecedented flooding. About 75,000 people had to evacuate. The downtown core became a ghost town. Major transit routes stopped running. Bridges and train tracks were closed down or even washed out. Some of my friends are still without electricity after seven days. Some people may not be able to return home for weeks, as structures became unsound or unfit for habitation. Cars left in secure underground parking were submerged and written off. So many people lost so much.

I was lucky. Although I live only four blocks from the river, my building is not on the flood plain, and my apartment is on the 26th floor. I had power the whole time. I was inconvenienced with road closures, but not hurt. Although a handful of people died in the flood, it could have been a lot worse. So many of us are lucky in so many ways.

Not only are we lucky that it wasn’t worse, we are also lucky to live in a place where people help each other. Thousands of volunteers have stepped up to help their neighbours in any way they can – offering shelter, food, clothes and help with the clean-up. Many local businesses are donating equipment and supplies. Pump truck operators are showing up to pump out basements free of charge. City workers are pulling double shifts to clean up garbage, communicate information and patrol evacuated neighbourhoods. And the other day, I got to see an entire hockey rink filled with donated clothing and household goods out at Siksika Nation, a Native reserve. I joined dozens of volunteers from all over to help them sort it out.

In the midst of all this disaster and heroism, there was only one news story that shocked me: Cambodian orphans, some of the poorest of the poor, scraped together $900 out of donations they had received, and sent it to Alberta to help us out with flood relief.

Now, it’s hard to write about this, because I have no words to describe the feelings of humility and gratitude that come up.

My first reaction to the story was resistance. Alberta has billions of dollars, and these kids have almost nothing. It’s just not right that we should accept anything from them. We should be giving them money! I mean, while some Albertans have lost so much, the rest of us still have more than enough. We should be able to take care of our own.

Then I realized: This gift is theirs to give. They have the right to give it to whomever they choose. They chose us.

They also have the right to experience the joy of giving. Doesn’t it feel good to give? Why should we deny them that right? Why not let them experience that joy?

Here in Alberta, we get to learn some beautiful lessons from this:

It’s a beautiful lesson in grace. We don’t deserve to receive anything from them. But we did. Sometimes the Universe just throws something extra your way to remind you of the ridiculous abundance that love creates.

It’s a beautiful lesson in compassion. They saw that Albertans were suffering, and chose to do what they could to alleviate that suffering. They didn’t stop to ask how effective it would be. They didn’t ask if we really needed it. They didn’t stop to consider, that if you give money to Albertans, they’ll just spend it on alcohol anyway. (It’s true. We drink a lot.)

Those Cambodian orphans didn’t give rationally. They gave because they could.

Finally, this is a beautiful lesson in humility. If someone who has nothing can give something, then what can I give, when I have so much?

Posted in compassion, gratitude, service | 1 Comment

Am I a racist?

The other day I arrived at the train platform downtown just as my train arrived, and also just as a pair of slow-moving, poorly dressed and possibly intoxicated male Natives also arrived in time to board the train. When they got on the first car, I got on the second.

Why? The thought that went through my mind was that I’m tired of being approached by homeless and poor people that look exactly like these guys, and have them ask me for money. I’m tired of them trying to make conversation about something they’re pissed off about. I’m tired of sitting politely and trying to decide whether or not to interfere when they bother other passengers.

I wanted to avoid being around people that look like these people, because I had a bunch of prejudiced ideas about how they might act based on their appearance. In short, I’m probably, on some level, a racist.

I don’t like racists. I think racism is stupid. I get very angry when I read news stories about cops picking on people just because they’re not white. I’m angry that Native Canadians have been abused by the government and the church for hundreds of years, and I feel bad that they suffer with so much poverty and illness.

But when faced with a real, live Native, I let my discomfort take over. If I had more courage, I would be compassionate. I would see that the poverty and alcoholism that so many of them suffer from was handed down to them by the systemic problems they were born into – a system that favours me because I’m white and male.

I can talk about these things in theory. A lot of people can. The question is, do I let fear motivate me when I see someone that has the same appearance as someone else that once made me uncomfortable?

And how can I change?

I don’t have the answer. And I realize that putting something like this on the internet is practically begging for the trolls to attack me, because it’s easy to troll, and hard to fix the systemic problems.

But I also need to take an honest look at this, and I invite thoughtful comments.

Posted in accountability, compassion, politics | 2 Comments

A Safe Kind of Life

Once upon a time there was a girl named Rachel. She lived a simple life as the daughter of a bus driver and a secretary in a middle-class neighborhood. She had friends. She was relatively content.

One day, her fairy godmother showed up in a shower of sparks and gave her a great quest. “You are destined for great things, young Rachel,” said the fairy godmother.

“Wow, that’s really cool,” Rachel replied. “But it looks terribly hard. I don’t think I’m good enough to do it.”

“Oh, but I can help you!” said the fairy godmother.

“Um, no thanks,” Rachel said. And she went back to her math homework.

“Well, I can’t force you then,” said the fairy godmother, and disappeared.

Rachel went on to live an average, safe life in a middle-class neighborhood. She had a family. She was relatively content. She never lost the nagging feeling that she was supposed to do more with her life. She felt kind of bad for not doing it, and always wondered how her life might have been different if she had accepted the quest.

She died in a nursing home at the age of 93, in a puddle of her own urine, surrounded by other catatonic old people who couldn’t remember her name. It was kind of sad.

Posted in growth, story | 4 Comments

Sometimes giving up is the only hope

I’ve been feeling rather resentful lately, struggling with a bunch of petty crap. Really, my life isn’t so bad. I live in a great city, with good friends and a job that pays well. The only suffering I experience is what goes on in my head.

But anyway: I suffer. Depression has caught up with me again. I don’t feel like I’m contributing anything to society. I’m not living my passion (as my Facebook friends continually exhort me to do by posting inspiring picture-quotes). I feel like my job is slow and tedious. People are getting on my nerves. I just want to hide away. Last night I had a dream that a sketchy-looking guy on a waterfront pier told me he could help me disappear and start a new life. I almost took him up on it.

Today was World Suicide Prevention Day. At the local library, a panel of five people from five religions gathered to talk about forgiveness and its effect on wellness, in the context of mental health and suicide prevention. I’m glad I went.

A question came up that got me thinking: How does forgiveness help us find hope for a better future (and thus prevent suicide)?

That’s when I heard Jack Nicholson in my head: “What if this is as good as it gets?”

What if there is no hope for a better future? What if the circumstances of my life won’t get any better? What if I will always have problems? What if life never stops being annoying?

What if the only way to end my suffering is either to end my life, or to forgive my life for being what it is?

To forgive everyone in my life for being imperfect. To forgive myself for making mistakes. To forgive traffic lights and annoying co-workers and inconvenient weather.

What if I can forgive and accept my life and everyone and everything in it, exactly as it is, exactly as we all are? I don’t think that would be “hope” in the traditional sense. Hope demands that circumstances change. Forgiveness does not.

So, if I could completely forgive everyone and everything, could I find relief from the suffering of resistance to life? Could I even find bliss?

Something in me knows this is the only way out: to find peace and joy in forgiveness and acceptance.

Something else in me knows I’ll forget this truth the next time I get stuck at some idiot traffic light.

But I can make an attempt today.

And maybe another one… the day after tomorrow.

(And forgive myself for the suffering I cause myself in between.)

Posted in compassion, gratitude, healing | 10 Comments