And photo of a man’s face in the newspaper confirmed his guilt. Seriously, I didn’t even have to read what happened. The article’s heading had something to do with kidnapping a child. It turned out I was as wrong as I could be. The man in the photo was responsible for the capture of the bad guy. He was a brave white hat kind of a guy who’d put himself at risk for this little girl. After reading what had happened, when I looked back at his face, it had changed. This time I saw an ordinary, worn out by life, kind of face. There was no aggression in his eyes, only unease at finding himself a bit of a celebrity. This moment troubled me greatly. What else am I not seeing or seeing wrong? It’s unlikely this was the first time I made a quick and wrong judgment of another human being.
When I’m asked, “how has meditation changed your life?” My answer is, “Tim got nicer.” People laugh. But it’s true, but there is more to it. Meditation is cleaning the lenses I see the world through and inching me closer to my basic human goodness.
Growing up in Iceland with no separation between church (Lutheran) and state, learning about Jesus was every bit a part of my life as eating fish for dinner five and six times a week. I looked to Jesus to fix my problems. I asked the Son of God to take away my toothaches and help me do well on a geography test I’d not studied for. I prayed fervently that he help me overcome my fear of water and be more like Sigrún, who was afraid of nothing—or so it seemed. I treated Jesus like an all-powerful Santa Claus, and me as his number one client.
It was in the early 70s when my switch flipped from praying for external intervention to discovering the power rested within. Speaking of life-long learning, I haven’t graduated yet. The lessons continue. Preventing the switch from flipping to my old ways means vigilance and a pot full of humility to remind me. Taking responsibility and keeping an open heart is about growing up and finding lasting contentment. I’m making progress. I haven’t shoved anyone for a long time, and I purposely avoid stepping on insects outdoors, but speech is a higher bar to clear.
Honest self-examination and reflection hold hope for the human community. Our brain and ability to think is the answer, but also the problem when we use it to make up stories that inflict pain on others. But what we all have, and never causes problems, is our basic goodness. If we push through the isms and politics, the smoke and mirrors, we can start cleaning up the hatred and mess it has caused.
Awareness and openness are states of a contented mind. The driver who gave me the finger for stopping as a light turned yellow was the opposite of content. Watching him in my rearview mirror, he demonstrated excellent multi-tasking skills, alternating between a finger gesture and blowing the car’s horn, while no doubt flooding his body with stress hormones. A minute or two later that felt like an hour, I looked over as he sped around now with his right middle finger held high and a murderous look on his face. Perhaps a healthy dose of arthritis around his middle fingers would cure his behavior. But I didn’t go there. Instead, I breathed in the anger and exhaled with, “may we both relax and drive safely.” While we don’t seek out moments that jolt us with hatred, they offer insight. Does my behavior increase the sense of separateness I feel for other human beings, or this time did I manage to operate from my basic goodness for the benefits of all living beings?
Humans tend to divide people and ideas into hard and fast categories surrounded by soundproof walls. We leave little room for the middle. It’s my way or the highway. When groups of people or whole nations come together around ideas and beliefs, they can become hugely exaggerated and lead to large-scale suffering: discrimination, oppression, war.
Yes, there are problems in the world. But the roots or causes of the problems are not only created in our minds but greatly influenced by those we call friends and those whose opinions we value. Beware of the company you keep is true enough. But wouldn’t it be better to know the values we hold — take care of those who can’t do it for themselves — and make sure our actions speak of this value? Nothing wrong being a fish of different colors in the Red Sea.
A while back sitting at a coffee shop with a friend, a young boy started playing with my friend’s puppy. Sharing a communal table with a group of white and Hispanic high schoolers, I noted a Hindu man looking over blueprints and asking questions of what must have been his builder. A burly construction worker held the door for a young mom pushing a stroller into the coffee shop. The harmony, the good energy of this temporary community of humans was palatable. There was no “for” or “against” quality at this moment. There was no polarizing. Instead, there was a feeling of joy.
Throughout the day, when I remain and operate from my basic goodness, joy runs in my veins. The chocolate I eat in the afternoon tastes not good but delicious. My sleep is deeper and longer. But there are days when I fail miserably — snapping at a neighbor whose dog jumped on me, leaving a trail of mud on my coat. After calming down from low-quality incidents, guilt arises—or used to. Edith, I’d reprimand myself, your neighbor is in her nineties. Her dog may be the light of her life. You hurt her feelings, and now she is afraid of you. But I’ve stopped doing guilt. “Free room and board for goodness. No longer accepting guilt.” Instead of beating myself like gutted cod hung out to dry, I will see my misses as something positive, an insight of what blocks me from my basic goodness. Next time, it won’t be a dirty coat.
Every day people are cruel to one another in a countless number of ways, shoving, stabbing, and hurling insults at one another. The ignorance of our interconnectedness and shared basic goodness keeps us feeding the wrong wolf, the wolf of polarization. The book Pollyanna was popular. It was about redemption, love, and caring for others. These are qualities that feed the best in us. Increased awareness of how our actions and words impact us, our community, our country, and the planet as a whole is a flag I’d fly from my balcony. There is much at stake, and it starts with us.