During a local meditation retreat I’ve recently attended, a teacher told this sad story:
A friend of his, being caught in a meeting between two disagreeing and agitated colleagues, got sucked into the dispute. Similarly, he got agitated. His phone rang. His dad asked if he was coming home for dinner. In the heat of the moment, he told his dad off and put down the phone.
Little did he know he would never get to have dinner with his dad again. He had blown his last chance.
A very simple, but important lesson concerning the mistakes we make daily and repeatedly:
We get lost in the tiniest of things, and lose sight of what is important.
The friend allowed two colleagues, whom he probably does not love to any extent close to the love of his dad, sap his life force through a discussion at work which he probably does not really care about, and in the larger perspective of his life, matters not at all. He forsook what was important, and regretted heavily.
Life, however, gives us many chances to observe how we become absorbed with the pettiness of our everyday struggles. The ability to manage them begins with perspective, which builds a certain emotional tolerance, management and maturity, that have all got to do with our inner states and how we condition and carry ourselves.
A contrast between different cultures put such pettiness into perspective. Going beyond what is familiar to us, we explore our blind spots and unchartered territories, in an effort to live better.
In our society, we are not taught the value of grief, and to an even lesser extent, the experience of poverty.
Solomon Northup, kidnapped and reduced to a mere slave in the 1840s, was an American free man with a thriving career, family and kids. He accounts for the poverty and inhumane conditions that the victims of the slave trade suffered in his heartbreaking book ‘Twelve Years a Slave’. In an environment where death appears as the next best option to escape, Northup accounts for a scene whereby a young boy, during a trade, is forcibly separated from his mother, so that in her grave “all her tears were realized – how she mourned day and night and never would be comforted – how, as she predicted, her heart did indeed break, with the burden of maternal sorrow”. Northup writes:
The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought herself and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived.Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work – such snivelling; and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick.Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together.But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her – all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.
Reading that deeply stirs emotions at our core. Deep down, separated by time, space, and a different culture, we humans are fundamentally similar in our humanness, in the ways we feel.
We know little about grief or poverty. Why are some people born to suffer, while others become dissatisfied and numbed in their considerable abundance and wealth? Secretly, the adventures that our souls long for in order to grow, evolve, and be fulfilled, do not leave out experiences of grief and poverty – those on the other side of the spectrum. I believe there is a value in experiencing the depths of these lowly emotions we have been taught to not entertain and steer far away from. Yet, some day we would experience them at various degrees, whether we asked for or not, be it grieving over the loss of our loved ones or languishing in the poverty and emptiness of our soul life. At some point, life “takes us down”.
When we do, what would we make of our everyday struggles thus far, being ruled by unimportant matters that do not nourish?
Giving our life away to such things, we lose track of what is essential and substantial.
I think by putting these stories into perspective, the next step is to make a conscientious effort to not be ruled by the non-essential, but seek to live by the essentials. For most of us, that would be to love deeply and unconditionally, to extend our great love not just to our family and friends, but for the strangers we meet, those we crossed paths with, those who have led difficult lives, and for the fortunate ones, to all of existence and life.