Finding light in others

The put down has a high profile in our culture.

One of the favourite topics around the coffee pot and the beer jug is running down other people while TV sit-coms are built around it. We chuckle when people use their wit like a rapier to impale an absent “friend.” We even talk about our spouses, parents and children in less than glowing terms.

Running down others is a popular sport played by both sexes, although men like to think women are better. We relish the thrust of the well-honed insult, the riposte of the polished slur and the flick of the slashing innuendo.

Even if we have vowed otherwise, whenever we’re in a group where someone absent is being verbally attached, we’re drawn into the action; we can’t seem to help ourselves. Even if we’re conscious enough to realize what we’re doing, we don’t always disengage even though we know we’re de-humanizing them and demeaning ourselves.

But the group attack is less harmful than the one delivered in person, eyeball to eyeball. If the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can start a hurricane in Florida, imagine how a cutting or thoughtless remark can ripple through someone’s day. It’s not hard to envision how even a little or ridicule or a little anger can adversely affect someone giving a presentation or writing an exam.

But, paradoxically, in spite of our willingness to verbally attack others, we are awed when we meet people who always has a kind word for everyone. Being in their presence raises the serotonin levels of everyone around them yet we don’t strive hard enough to be like them.

“I will speak ill or no man … and speak all the good I know of everybody,” said Ben Franklin, which might explain why so many people spoke highly of him and why history remembers him so fondly.

That should be our goal. Indeed, it’s a national avocation in China, where “face” has been one of the pillars of its civilization for more than 2,000 years.

“Face is probably the most fundamental facet of Chinese life — business, professional, personal and family,” said author Ernie Tadla, a former West Kelowna man who worked in China for seven years and married into a Chinese family.

“It is showing respect to the individual by protecting their good reputation, public dignity, prestige and self-esteem. You never disagree in public or to their face, never argue, never ridicule, joke about, confront, and denigrate another person. 

"You always present their good side, their strong points in person and behind their back.”

In the book, Bono in Conversation, the rock star tells about a meeting Martin Luther King was having with his advisers, who were complaining about the new attorney general. Finally, King ended the meeting.

“We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy because that, friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.”

Bono echoes that sentiment. “Find the light in (your opponents), because that will further your cause. And I’ve held onto that very tightly, that lesson.”

We could use the bull’s-eye approach to spreading kindness and light. We can start by speaking well of ourselves, then our children, our spouses, our parents.

As our loved ones head off to school, university or a job, we can ensure they leave with positive words ringing in their ears, and are praised for doing well rather than ridiculed when they don’t.

Too often in our desire to ensure the people we love measure up, we tear them down. We hammer at their perceived weaknesses to try to make them strong until eventually all they see are their deficiencies.

The poem Children Learn What They Live By, written by an unknown author, starts like this:

“If a child lives with criticism/He learns to condemn.

“If a child lives with hostility,/He learns to fight.

“If a child lives with ridicule/He learns to be shy.”

That’s also true of adults because the child we were is still in all of us, no matter what our age.

We can be the people who always have a kind word to say about everyone. We can be an example by our actions and our words; we can refuse to participate — but without judging — when someone is being verbally assaulted.

“We don’t see that we are all teachers,” writes San Diego Zen master Joko Beck.

“Everything we do from morning to night is a teaching; the way we speak to someone at lunch, the way we transact our business at the bank, our reaction when the paper we submit is accepted or rejected… everything we do and everything we say reflects our practice.”

The universe — and our immediate neighbourhood — would be a better place if we treat everyone as if they were perfect, whole and complete, if we see them for what they could be, if we praise their strengths rather than point out their perceived flaws.

We’re not likely to run into many perfect beings in the line-up at Tim Horton’s, but nothing in our job description says we have to judge others — or ourselves — because they don’t conform to how we think the universe should be run.

Religion and science preach that we are, at some deep level, one. We can call that spirit or energy, but we are the me that is we, and when we treat someone poorly, we do it to ourselves.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” Hebrews 10:24 proclaims.

Did you know?

We have been shaped by events and forces we don’t remember or simply didn’t recognize their importance.

As a species, we were moulded by seismic events that don’t register on any scale, but yet it made humanity what it is.

Sure, we know someone in China invented paper, that Newton “discovered” gravity and Columbus “discovered” the New World.

We know Archimedes invented the lever, specific gravity and host of other things. We know he is said to have a eureka moment and ran naked through the streets.

But we don’t remember pivotal moments that catapulted us forward, yet it is instructive to remember the forgotten and unnamed people who took us on detours that eventually became the road most travelled, just as examining our wounds and scars can tell us how we became us.

• The first “people” who decided to stand up two millions years ago certainly deserve our thanks. Shopping at the mall is bad enough without having to crawl through all the stores.

• The nomads who, 10,000 years ago, realized that farming had a better future than hunting. Nomadic life didn’t end with agriculture, but it is  rare; some use a horse or camel while others use a car or plane. The hunter in us was sublimated, but the urge to roam, to be free, was never extinguished.

• The people who domesticated the horse 5,000 years ago, and the Scythians who figured out 3,000 years later to ride it. (The centaur galloped into mythology because the Greeks believed that the horse-men thundering down on them were one creature. The Aztecs and the Inca came to the same conclusion when they saw Spaniards on horses.)

• The people who invented the plow about 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia deserve an asterisk beside their names. “This simple implement may arguably be called the most fundamental invention in the history of man, and the innovation that brought civilization into being, because it was the instrument of surplus,” James Burke wrote in Connections, a book based on his TV series.

• We could argue that humanity is a child of the plow, that many later innovations happened because of how life and civilization changed as a result. Writing, which helps us communicate across space and time – with our mother a few time zones away, with the past because we can read Tolstoy, Shakespeare and the Bible, and with the future because the words we write today can be read by our great-grandchildren – was developed in Egypt to denote who owned the surplus grain stored in the granary. At the same time arithmetic and geometry developed to aid canal building, measure fields, for taxation purposes and for calculating the amount of grain at harvest time.

• We wouldn’t be worried about the price of gas today if someone in southern Russia hadn’t invented the wheel. No wheel, no car. The wheel became a model for all motions of rotation, from grinding wheat to hauling water out of deep wells.

• The originators of the first widely used alphabet about 1100 BC. Imagine writing a romantic “letter” by scratching symbols into wet clay.

• The scribe in the eighth century BC who puzzled over a papyrus manuscript and decided that vowels would make writing easier to understand. Before A,E,I,O,U, a person reading bd, for instance, had to figure out within the context of the sentence whether it was bad, bed, bid or abide.

• Sixteen centuries later, another innovation changed how we read. Run-on sentences are confusing, but imagine a sentence without spaces between the words. Latin was meant to be read aloud and sounded out. People raised with Latin mastered “reading by ear,” but people not raised with the language couldn’t figure out where one word ended and the next began until some Saxon scribes had a eureka moment even Archimedes would have appreciated.

Those are just a few of the many forgotten events that changed humanity’s path, just as forgotten events in our life forced us to go in a different direction, to turn left when we had planned to go right – or had not planned to turn at all.

We remember the big things – finishing high school and university, getting married, getting divorced, moving across the country for a job – but after a crisis we try to understand why our lives fracture.

There comes a moment in most lives, often after a lifetime on the hamster wheel, when we wonder how we got to here. Then, we are forced to examine our path and search for the little hieroglyphics on our life line that inform us some minor episodes were more important than we thought.

“The gods play in diving paradox: what you think is a small choice is always a big one and what you think is a big one is always small,” author Caroline Myss said in a tape series on energy anatomy.

That’s when we discover ourselves and find that we are, like the laws of nature and art hidden in marble, waiting to be found if we but take the time to look.

Michelangelo claimed his masterpiece, David, was just waiting in the stone for him to chip away all that was not David. Some of his most evocative works are the half-finished pieces – of men fighting to get free of that which binds them, like a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis.

Most of the time, we think we’re the worm, or encased in a cocoon of pain waiting for that transformative moment, but the wise know we are all butterflies.

Who wrote your life script?

Hollywood scriptwriters are paid well to write movies we want to see.

We don’t get paid as well as those people who come with the great story and great lines, and we don’t get invited to parties with Brad, George and Angelina, but we’ve all written at least one script — the movie of our life.

And, just like the Academy Award winners, we have a lot of help with the script, often people we don’t acknowledge.

Parents, teachers, friends, relatives told us how we should behave, what we should do, who we should be. They suggested labels and beliefs that we wrote into the storyline.

Our script sets the direction of our life and tells us what we can or can’t do. It’s marked up, edited and re-written as we decided what we should do, what we couldn’t do and what we wouldn’t do. And some things we thought we could do, tried, failed and decided we would never do again.

Our grand epic — whether drama, comedy or tragedy — is still being filmed, but the script was written long ago. Every decision, every act, every choice changes us, but slight changes over 20 or 30 years can add up to a big transformation.

At 40, 50, 60, or 70, we’re not the same character we were at 20, yet many of us are playing who we used to be.

“The script of life that you are living builds on and draws its strength from certain cornerstones called fixed beliefs,” Dr. Phil McGraw writes in Self Matters. “Your fixed beliefs tell you what role you are playing. You have practised your script so much and for so long that the beliefs you have about you, about your possibilities, about your responsibilities, do in fact become fixed. They become set in stone.”

If we don’t rewrite the script, there’s little chance of growth because we already know what will happen, even if it’s unconsciously. If we have know we can’t do this, and aren’t good at that, we don’t even bother to try.

We choose a role, a method of thinking and acting, never considering playing against type.

We choose to typecast ourselves.

The body-mind is a feedback loop. A thought produces a reaction in the brain, which releases chemical signals that are transmitted to the body as thoughts. They produce chemicals in the body that allows our body to feel the way we’re thinking.

And around and around it goes, and where it stops, who know?

But if we have the same thoughts every day with the same reaction, we become human versions of a show that is always in syndication — nothing ever changes.

“It takes awareness and effort to break the cycle of a thinking process that has become unconscious,” writes Dr. Joe Dispenza in Evolve Your Brain. “First, we need to step out of our routine so we can look at our life, through contemplation and self-reflection we can become aware of our unconscious scripts.

“Then, we must observe these thoughts without responding to them, so that they no longer initiate the automatic chemical responses that produce habitual behaviours.”

We’re so accustomed to living from the script — even if we don’t know have one — that we’re uncomfortable if we’re forced to ad lib or improvise. We would never have accepted a guest spot on Drew Carey’s old show, What My Line Anyway?

Too scary.

Even when we have the opportunity to play a bigger role, we question our ability, skill and worth and are afraid to stretch. Granted, it’s not much fun being booed for what some consider a bad performance, but that’s how we learn.

Henry Fonda still suffered from stage fright at 75 and threw up before each performance, but he didn’t let his fear hold him back. He won an Oscar and is considered one of the greatest actors of all time.

Can we toss away the script and jump in the flow of life?

If we can’t, we can at least re-write the script and, instead of playing second banana, move up to a starring role; stop playing the straight man and go for the laughs. Dean Martin shone brighter after leaving Jerry Lewis’s shadow.

“Mind is cause, and experience is effect; and so long as your mind remains unchanged, it will continue to produce just those effects or experiences of which you are anxious to be rid,” wrote Matthew Fox.

“If you do not like the experience or the effect that you are getting, the obvious remedy is to alter the cause and then the effect will naturally alter, too.”

Quantum physics says everything, is possibility until we make a choice. As many philosophers, priest and pundits have proclaimed, all we have to do to change our life right now is change our mind – and our script — and keep it changed.

A life lived consciously will have problems and pain, but that’s a better than playing a minor role until the director yells cut and wondering, as did a character in an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent: “What happened to my life?”

Planting in the garden of life

This is a weekend for the beach, the golf course and the garden — to be in nature. After what seems like a long, hard winter and a so-so spring, finally, wonderful weather.

As nature awakens, even the world-weary cannot help but be thrilled with the buttercup and the butterfly, the hyacinth and the hawk, the spider and the sparrow.

We marvel at the multiplicity of life, but just as amazing is its tenacity and resilience. During the Great Die-off 250 million years ago when a large meteor slammed into Antarctica, almost all life was wiped out.

Then, 65 million years ago, another meteor — a much smaller one — splashed down just off Mexico. It caused the eradication of the dinosaurs and allowed our ancestors to grow, flourish and evolve into someone out in the garden this weekend celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday.

Life blooms and bursts forth all around us as we putter and pot. The mind slows as we dig, plant and replant. Gardening allows us to listen to a sermon in stone, to engage spider consciousness and follow the way of the butterfly, to feel the web that connects all things.

“Listening not to me, but to the Logos (the way of things), it is wise to agree that all things are one,” Heraclitus wrote almost 2,500 years ago.

Gardening allows life-enhancing thoughts to bloom, rather than the negative ones, the mental weeds: what we shouldn’t have done yesterday and what we’re going to do tomorrow. As we plant our knees on terra firma and plunge our hands into nature’s entrails, we’re reminded that life is an inward-outward process.

Away from the garden, we like to think things happen outside us. We project our concepts of the world outward and proclaim them real. Thought precedes action, but if we don’t like what happens, we try to fix the result, rather than change the thought.

“There is really nothing external, so I must spin my thread from my own bowels,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.

Gardening gives us the time to contemplate the big questions — not what we’re going to have for dinner or whether we should go for a run — of purpose, life and death. While we’re at the office, in traffic or paying the bills, we forget the magnificence of life and the wonder of it all.

But as we watch buds unfolding, flowers reaching toward the sun, an ant dragging its prey toward the nest, or a spider munching on a fly, it grounds us in the now and reminds us life isn’t static, that it fills atoms, molecules, cells, planets, stars, galaxies, universe, multiverse and beyond.

We — this collection of virtues, vices, memories and aching, arthritic  bones — are only here for awhile. But we’re also infinity in a bag and when the bag breaks, the energy is released back from whence it came. The essence of who we are moves on.

Thousands of books have been written, numerous sermons delivered, countless points argued about the first cause, but we don’t know whether the primeval particle that banged 13.8 billion years ago was ignited by something or was just one in an endless series of big bangs. And how it happened doesn’t matter how we live today.

But in the garden, there are numerous examples of how to live written more plainly than any book and more convincing and insightful than any Sunday sermon. Nature has its lessons to teach.

We could learn from the Monarch as it dipsy doodles by. It started as an egg; as a caterpillar it shed its skin — and ate it — a few times before creating a chrysalis out of itself. When the time was ripe, without any help — because help would kill it — it emerged as a butterfly and then headed for a place it had never seen.

Two generations die on the journey, but yet the Monarch flies, mates, re-produces and dies so life can keep going.

In the garden, it all makes sense — this faith, this commitment, this dedication, this longing.

“The first, essential step in becoming a butterfly is to recognize that we can’t make it as a worm,” wrote Zen master Joko Beck. “We have to see through our pursuit of the false god of comfort and pleasure.

“We have to recognize that we cannot manipulate life to satisfy ourselves, and that finding fault with ourselves or others is not an effective way of helping anyone. We slowly abandon our basic arrogance.”

Unlike the butterfly, we have a choice in how we live and who we will become. While certain physical imperatives drive us, we choose how we act in the process. Each day, we emerge anew and can decide how we will behave.

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill,” Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, wrote in Meditations.

“I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together.”

In the garden, not of good and evil, not of duality, not of separation, we can see through the delusion into what is real and what we should honour about ourselves, others and life itself.

“There is no need of struggles, convulsions, and despairs, of the wringing of hands and the gnashing of the teeth; that we miscreate our own evils,” Emerson wrote in Spiritual Laws. “We interfere with the optimism of nature.”

That’s a thought worth planting in the garden of our life.

More Transitions articles

About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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