A few weeks ago, all the pigeons were flushed off the public fountain when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock for telling a joke. The pigeons flew around a bunch and had lots of different things to say; many of them were very, very certain they were right and needed to get in virtual fights with each other (or at least publicize these very very correct opinions in the manner that pigeons everywhere publicize themselves on buildings and monuments, and occasionally people’s heads).
I had several different reactions, but two things jumped out at me the most. One, my first reaction, whether it is to hearing a song for the first time or hearing of major world events, is not a reliable predictor of what I will end up thinking or feeling. Two, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Will Smith or World War III, my reactions are all about me.
There is always that guy on the internet who finds the time to jump into conversations he says are too stupid to take place in order to tell everyone that he considers their conversation too stupid to take place. To some extent, he’s correct. Almost everything that happens between people, for good or ill, is as beyond our control as the weather, so from that standpoint, almost nothing is worth our energy to discuss. Why debate the minutiae of insignificant events you can’t influence, when there are massive threats everywhere that you also can’t influence?
But that is not the point of a conversation about Chris Rock and Will Smith. Or Brad and Angelina. Or even Russia and Ukraine.
Did you ever do that academic exercise where you have to try to argue as Socrates? The purpose of that game is not to prepare you for a situation where you will be transported into ancient Athens and expected to hold your own with his students. The purpose is to practice thinking in a systematic way, to try to get a deep grasp of a viewpoint to the extent that you could apply it to a novel situation. When you do that, how often do you discover that many of your own thoughts and ideas are not carefully-considered? Could you share your principles and process in a way that someone else could emulate them?
Inviting and engaging in discussion and debate, communicating that which I perceive to be true, and then evaluating those convictions as they are challenged, is how I become a better thinker. It is also the process by which I discover how I think. Beyond that, it also shows me what attracts my attention. In short, it’s all about me.
Every time we speak or write, we are saying to the world, “Here I am. Here is my human experience.” We strive to make better sense of ourselves, and the world, through wrestling with what it offers us. That’s part of what is so terrifying about speaking, or, even worse, writing. It is a snapshot of that moment, in all its incomplete information and our own imperfection. Wouldn’t it be better to just suppress it, hide it away, and never run the risk that it comes to be untrue?
But everything is a practice; what I think, and what I feel, affect my actions, and my actions are in my control. Learning to observe and express them is like playing the Socrates game about myself. While I have virtually no influence on most of what the world seems to be insisting I pay attention to, I have a great deal of influence in my personal interactions.
And those, too, are all about me.
It is tempting to wish away every uncomfortable situation, or to cast back in time for how we might have avoided it, but the situation itself is not the point. Whatever is happening that gets its hooks into me is important because of my reaction. The world is full of information that never catches my attention, so why does anything elicit a response from me at all? It is because I have some opportunity for growth that is trying to occur, and I’m being handed a signal that now is the moment. It might be something as simple as a chance to recognize my susceptibility to distraction, or as complex as a deeply conditioned set of actions or thoughts that are not in alignment with what I perceive to be true or in my highest interest. It might be something as minor as saying “yes” when the answer is really “no” to an offer of a glass of wine, or it might be something as major as managing my response to people I love making assumptions and decisions about and for me based on their biases.
In every moment, the more I feel like wishing it away, or ducking responsibility for speaking the truth, can I explore what is really happening, what fish hooks have caught in tender flesh, and feel the wash of gratitude for the temple bell returning me to pain which is the offered portal to my growth?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with some beliefs that are so deep in my system that I don’t even recognize them except for when they are triggered by random events.
The story of the ski lift as one of hopeless awkwardness, that is asking to be converted to the freedom to fly.
The story of urgency to act now, in a million different ways as a hedge against myriad existential fears, that can become the portal to sensing the emergence of what is being revealed.
The story of failure that assumes that I will miss the closing windows of opportunities to protect myself through these urgent actions, and be left behind, that can reveal that my job is to spread my sails and trim them to the winds, rather than bloody my hands on the oars.
The story of powerlessness as the chatter ramps up about food shortages and inflation and the collapse of medical and monetary systems, that can give way to the deep knowledge that it is the hour to nest and to know that I can always, deeply, be home, rather than preparing to escape to some fabled greener pasture.
Unexamined old stories hijack me and distract me, making me believe I have to go to war with something, which is an endless game of Whack-a-Mole that the house will always win. My attention, that precious commodity, seeps out of the bullet holes in the barrel of my consciousness container, and I end up stewing in the sediment and sludge that remains.
A million galaxies are swirling in my soul, why should I assume that is not enough to sustain me through the pain of encountering the world? It is the job of the world to open the window on the terrifying void, and my job to wait while my eyes adjust, and see the stars emerge. Each moment that my attention is drawn, my anger raised, can I stop and notice? Can I look in through the window instead of leaking out through the bullet holes?
I’ve already forgotten about Chris Rock. But I’ve remembered something much more important.
Well, anyway, enough about me. What about you?