Appearances

At a busy intersection near the mall I often see a man standing on the medial strip begging for money from passing motorists. This is not your typical out-of-work guy, street person or welfare mother asking for charity. This is a black man who has been crippled and scarred, probably from a fire. His legs are skinny and bowed, a hand is missing one finger and bent back at a ninety degree angle to his wrist; his head is bald and the skin discolored in patches; his mask-like face is grotesque and deformed. He hobbles when he walks and his arms stick out at angles.

When he comes up to my car window and I hand him a dollar, he mumbles, “Sorry to bother you,” and stumbles to the next car. As I drive away I ponder his comment. Did he mean he was sorry to ask for money? Did he think his appearance was so frightening, he was sorry to show his face? Was he being ironic and making a comment on charity?

This incident also reminds me about the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawkins who has motor neuron disease (ALS) and can do nothing on his own. In an interview he was asked about his life. He replied, “Who could have asked for more!” When I heard this I was at first astounded. Yes, he had fame, his name would be listed in history, he was probably wealthy, but how could that in any way compensate for the state of his health, his life. I would be asking for a lot more, I thought.

It is instances like this that may cause us to ponder why things happen to people. Is it karma? Is it just bad luck? Is there a way we can act, believe, intend that may keep such a fate from our own lives? This then led me to remember a Sufi story in which a beggar dies in the street while a rich man is passing in his carriage. An angel explains that the whole purpose in the beggar’s life (who was a very evolved soul) was to awaken compassion in the rich man’s heart.

In both the street beggar and the physicist we must be careful not to judge the quality of their lives by how they look, their place in society, the state of the physical body. We really do not know what goes on in each person’s soul, the state of grace they may enjoy, the peace of mind they may have. Before we feel sorry for someone in a mistaken feeling of compassion, we should examine the beam in our own eye.

Who knows why things happen the way they do? Who can understand the meaning of life or the depth of eternity? Why is one person born healthy, rich and handsome while another has so little? To say it is karma is a facile explanation but most likely not true. As in the Sufi story, maybe those who in our eyes are less fortunate than ourselves have a different and higher mission that we cannot understand.

THE PHONE CALL

phoneA dear friend of mine is going through the hell of waiting to hear if she has cancer. There was a funny spot on her chest x-ray – that was a few days ago – and since then it has been a series of doctor visits and tests and sleepless nights.

She is the same person she was two weeks ago but now the knowledge that she may have a serious illness is always present in her mind, never leaves her heart – and all because that fearful thought has been planted in her mind.

We have all experienced that kind of anxiety. We hear in our mind the words that will bring comfort or terror. We review what we did or did not do to create this condition. We imagine all the scenarios and outcomes.

In any crisis, the worst part is the waiting, the not knowing. It may be as simple waiting for news about the pet who is missing and has not been home for two days or as complex as the final days of a relative. After a while, just to end the excruciating pain of waiting is enough – whatever the outcome.

At one time or another we all get that phone call – it may come in the middle of the night or late in the afternoon. It is the call that tells us about an accident, a death, a diagnosis – and when we hang up the phone our reality has changed and will never be the same again.

When the loss of the known is threatened, the mind can be filled with terror. How to react, what to do, where to go, who to turn to?

We are told to … pray for a miracle, heal our inner child, exorcise our demons, be a vegetarian, lose/gain weight, take vitamins, exercise, have our chakras balanced, get our aura cleansed, be more positive, be more humble, be more determined, fight harder, start envisioning, try to surrender, stop smoking, stop drinking, start meditating, fast, have our colon irrigated, do drugs, don’t do drugs, etc.

When it comes to serious crisis everybody has an opinion but nobody has an answer – because there is none. I know people talk a lot about the power of positive thinking and the healing power of prayer and I believe that both are true – but it doesn’t happen all the time for everyone no matter how much they want it or deserve it.

Maybe we get sick because it’s genetic, maybe it’s from our lifestyle or our environment, maybe it’s stress and pressure, maybe it’s poor mental health, or maybe it’s ‘just because.’ We don’t always know the answer, know the cause. Ultimately, the why of it doesn’t matter.

All that any of us have is this moment, this day and the challenge is to live it as deeply and joyfully as possible. I think anyone who is a human deserves a lot of credit just for staying here. Life can be hard and a heart-breaker. It takes a lot of courage to keep on and even those who aren’t living a so-called good life deserve compassion.

Some people say that this earth is a classroom and we are here to learn lessons. If this is true as far as I can see there are only two lessons being taught here; to learn what love is and to learn to have courage.

No matter how well we take care of the body, it will eventually start to fail. Everything of form eventually changes to the formless. Even the sun will die. That is the part we don’t like to talk about, think about, look at, because we are powerless to change the inevitable. Yes, I know I’ll have to die … but not yet!

All of the great saints and avatars have told us that life is eternal but the life they are talking about is not this life on this earth or in these bodies. I think we have another body that some call a soul and that is the part that never dies, that is never frightened, that is the source of this love and courage.

And so my dear friend to you I say no matter what happens in the future you are not alone. All of your friends are here standing with you to lend you courage and to celebrate life.

THE GRACE OF GOD

There has been a topic running through my head since moving back to Sacramento. Because it is a ‘real’ city, Sacramento has a full range of people and lifestyles. The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly are all on view.

Everyday I see men and women in wheelchairs – some missing a leg, others carrying an extra 100 or 200 pounds in weight – rolling down the side walk to their destinations. I see elderly ladies loaded down with grocery bags and young mothers pushing prams waiting for the city bus. I see a blind man with a white cane tapping his way across the street and I gasp.

There are military vets at the intersections with signs saying “will work for food” or “everybody needs help sometime.” There are overturned trash cans along the sidewalks and walls with graffiti staking out territories. There is the background wail of ambulances and police cars, and silent alley ways are littered with broken syringes and cardboard boxes.

In the clean, quiet and middle class, suburban neighborhoods I have frequently lived in, all unpleasantness is hidden away, along with the cemeteries, halfway houses and methadone clinics. These neighborhoods have the resources to hide their imperfections from the common view, and are reminded to be charitable by walk-a-thons and occasional money-raising appeals.

But when the less fortunate are not included in the communal photo, all suffer. Those in need do not receive the help and attention they require, and those who are temporarily blessed lose an opportunity to learn gratitude and compassion. For if life teaches us anything, it is that it is a cyclic and this Wheel of Fortune is constantly turning.

The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike which means that forces greater than our personal desires, affirmations and actions have the power to change the course of our lives. Today’s socialite can become tomorrow’s drug addict; today’s athlete can tomorrow be struggling with cancer; today’s suburban family can tomorrow be living in a car.

When I was younger, two close friends and I used to believe that as soon as this or that crisis was over, every thing will be okay. We didn’t realize at that time that nothing is constant – the good or the bad. We kept waiting – and waiting – for things to stablize. But when one part of our lives would get better, some other area would disintegrate.

Eventually, and reluctantly, I learned to appreciate the present rather than yearn for some better time in the future. Once you give up hope, everything becomes clearer. So today when I drive the city streets and see those less fortunate than I am, I feel compassion – not in an ‘I’m better or luckier than they’ sort of way, but as a recognition that we are all part of the human family not matter what our faces, histories, or circumstances.

I now carry a handful of dollar bills in the car and when I see someone carrying a sign and asking for help, I no longer ‘think’ about whether I should give, or whether he looks ‘honest’ or how he will spend the money. These dollar bills are not mine but simply passing through my hands to other destinations. So I roll down the window and pass one through. In every single instance, the recipient has always said, “Thank you and God bless you,” and I have felt that blessing –  whether it was sincerely meant or  not is not my concern.

And when I pass people in wheelchairs or old women struggling, or street people stumbling, I mentally say, “God bless you,” and feel that blessing in myself. So who is it who has given, and who is it who has received?