It's rather disturbing to channel-surf these days. Death and destruction in New Orleans - (click) - cheering crowds at the US Open - (click) - 750 missing children - (click) - Comedy Central - (click) - homeless, starving pets trapped up in trees - (click) - mindless reality TV show...
I wasn't planning to blog about Katrina as so many other people are talking about it, but writing about marketing feels a bit disrespectful. I'll get around to it soon, but it's odd to notice how life goes on. I guiltily confess to a sigh of relief when I can change the channel to see people running, laughing, cheering. I’m horrified by the images of Louisiana and Mississippi, yet I can simply push a button and tune into a different reality that’s not so disturbing. I’m relieved by the illusions that life goes on, my comfort zone still appears intact, and I'm in control of my life.
we humans connect with the harsh reality of disaster, hints of our own
mortality and frailty slosh over the carefully constructed levees of our souls.
Talk about discomfort! So we do our duty and write a check to Red Cross, or
donate some clothing, then quickly get back to our daily responsibilities,
passions and irritations… back to “life as usual.” It was distressing to me to
realize that I'd completely forgotten about the tsunami on the other side of
the world. Their lives are surely still in utter turmoil and uncertainty, yet
it's no longer news.
I've been reading a book called Wake Up to Your Life by Ken McLeod. It's an instruction manual for developing mindful attention according to Buddhist principles. The chapter I finished last night was about death meditation.
"We will die one day. That much is certain. When and how, no one can tell. If we are vividly aware that death can come at any time, however, our attention goes into the actual experience of life, not into the effort to achieve fame or fortune....
Living in the knowledge that every relationship we have is going to end, we take nothing or granted and savor every moment with our spouse, parents, or children. Meditating on death and impermanence frees us from the conditioning of culture, society and upbringing and brings us closer to life, closer to the mystery of being."
Katrina, the tsunami, terrorism in New York, a friend diagnosed with cancer, an abused child... these are the sloppy realities of life and death. They intrude upon notions of "the way things should be." They rudely contradict notions of fairness and invincibility. And they happen all the time. We can choose how we're going to react, and whether we'll allow these events to soften us, make us more pliable, more accepting of the fact that shit happens whether we like it or not. And then we begin to see that it's not shit, it's just life. It is what it is. Buddhists meditate on death and impermanence in order to embrace life in all its manifestations, and thus be fully alive.
One of my favorite quotes is from Buddha: "Suffering is wishing things are other than they are." And even though I remind myself of this quote all the time, I still get so hung up on “what’s right” and “what should be” and how people “should act.” We’re so indignant about what the government “should have done” to alleviate the suffering. But what happened, happened. People are short-sighted. People let us down. People fail our expectations. It’s all part of this reality that flows onwards whether we think it “should” or not. We may try to do things better next time, but others won’t even make an attempt. That’s just the way it is. I don’t mean to sound callous about what’s happened; it’s just that I suddenly saw things very clearly this past week... that humans aren’t all that logical, despite all our illusions and wishful thinking, and it’s rather pointless to insist that they be.
I suppose our challenge in Katrina's aftermath -- aside from doing something to help those who now have nothing -- is to choose whether we'll wake up to life as it really is, or simply continue business as usual while secretly refusing to acknowledge that our own lives are just as fragile, that we make mistakes, that we’ll have the rug pulled out from under us again and again, that we’ll get our indignant sense of rightness and righteousness threatened even as we hurt others in our own way.
These are the things we don’t like to think about. Although we know better, we keep secretly hoping that they’re the exception rather than the rule.
Fact is, if we don’t take our next breath, we’ll die. If we don't get hit by a car tomorrow, or contract a fatal disease, or fall in the shower and crack our head open, then we'll experience the slow decay of our health and mental capacity through aging. Eventually we, and everyone we love, will die. And all the best-built levees in your soul can’t prevent any of these things from happening.
So we might as well think about them. We might as well acknowledge that they are a non-negotiable part of life, and no one is exempt. Many of you reading this have had major tragedies in your life, and you know what I'm talking about. You're already too-well connected with "life as it is." I think you're light-years ahead of everyone else, including myself. I admit to living a rather sheltered life, partly on purpose. So although I use the word "we" throughout this post, I really mean "me" ... and perhaps a few others who may read this and realize that they too are sheltering themselves from what is.
I’m starting to realize that it’s only when we open ourselves up to the good, the bad and the ugly -- acknowledging that it’s all the stuff of life -- that we can experience real freedom. Instead of reinforcing our walls and levees in a losing battle to keep the flood waters out, we can build a boat instead. It’s better to float with the current rather than drown in our disappointment and betrayed expectations. It’s better to be flexible in the wind rather than be snapped into pieces due to our rigidity and insistence on control. It’s better to open our heart and risk the inevitable hurt… for when we close ourselves off to selected parts of life, we really close ourselves off to all of it.