Thursday, March 24, 2005

Birthday Musings

I was born 52 years ago today. Since then, I’ve lived an uneventful life compared with most of my peers. Yet, still, I have laughed and cried, loved and hated, acquiesced and rebelled, lusted and despised, found and lost, dreamed and despaired, played and worked, given and taken, helped and harmed, succeeded and failed, lived and died, and now I’m beginning a new life in a new place with a wonderful wife I don’t begin to deserve but will cherish as a gift of divine grace for as long as we have left together in this uncertain world, and then…who knows?

When I was twenty, I didn’t believe I’d live to see thirty. When I was thirty, I was convinced I wouldn’t see forty. When I was forty, I knew for sure that I would never make it to fifty. Now here I am at 52 and counting and grateful for every awful and delightful and indifferent moment with which I’ve been blessed, and looking forward, with a mixture of happy anticipation and anxious concern, to every nanosecond that remains, but paradoxically trying harder to root myself in the here-and-now that my head tells me I can never leave even when my heart is lost in present memories of the past or present anticipations of the future.

Alan Watts used to say that most people mistakenly believe that the present comes out of the past like a plant from its seed when, in fact, the past comes out of the present like the wake left behind a ship. I believe that there is truth in both perspectives. Everything happens in the present, but what happens in the present-that-is-now is shaped by the memories and other effects of the present-that-was. When we see where we’ve been and what happened while we were there, we may be seeing and acting on it in the present, but we are seeing and acting on the present-that-was through a brain and mind conditioned by the present-that-was in a world affected in countless ways by the present-that-was.

Birthdays are an especially good time to look back on the present-that-was to see the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the beauty and the ugliness, and to let that vision of the present-that-was help us to live with more mindful integrity, wisdom, and skillfulness in the present-that-is and the present-that-will-be. Or may be. Will I be here to post another blog entry a year from today? I don’t know. All I know is that I am here now looking back over my 52 years and grateful to still be here today.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Unconditional Compassion

Like much of the nation, I sat spellbound in front of my TV last Friday and Saturday as I watched the awful saga of Brian Nichols unfold. I have always opposed the death penalty and preached the need for unconditional spiritual love and compassion for all no matter what they do. But I confess that vindictive hatred toward Nichols flared inside me as I saw accounts of his cold and senselessly murderous actions juxtaposed with photos of his victims and stories of what wonderful people they were and how devastating their deaths were to their coworkers, friends, and families.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but a dark, ugly part of me briefly entertained fantasies of a vigilante force of police officers apprehending Nichols outside the public eye and secretly whisking him off to a secluded hideout where they would, to quote the Ving Rhames character in Pulp Fiction, "get medieval on his ass."

But these thoughts and all the hatred they fed and fed off of vanished when Nichols stopped being the viciously cruel Terminator and abstract embodiment of evil incarnate and became instead the hapless human being I saw meekly submitting to law enforcement personnel and shuffling along in handcuffs and leg shackles under a throng of security worthy of Hannibal Lecter.

And when I heard friends and family of Nichols interviewed, media reports on Nichols' childhood and adolescence, and Ashley Smith's riveting account of her time as Nichol's hostage, I not only no longer hated this man, but I felt growing compassion for him. Here was a young man who could have pretty much had it all. He was born into a middle class family and, by all indications, enjoyed a solid upbringing by responsible and loving parents. He was blessed with good looks, an easygoing disposition, articulate intelligence, and enough athletic talent to land him a spot on the football team of a Division 2 school. Yet, he dropped out of school after three semesters, briefly attended and played for another college, was arrested several times for disorderly conduct, worked as a computer technician for UPS, and ended up on trial for vindictively kidnapping and repeatedly raping his ex-girlfriend for leaving him after he impregnated another woman. Then came the terrible, inexplicable, murderous climax of last week.

Some might hate Nichols all the more for throwing away his seeming advantages in such a spectacularly violent and destructive way. But I look at this man and think that something must have gone radically haywire inside his brain or mind to lead him so far astray of the promising path that once lie before him. Even if no one can yet or ever explain what it was, there had to be something, and how terribly, terribly sad rather than contemptible to see him ruin his life and the lives of so many others because of it!

But beyond the sorrow and compassion I felt for Nichols, I felt moved literally to tears by the way Ashley Smith reached out to Nichols and connected with his soul with her compassionate and loving heart and simple but profound faith in God. A cynical person might say that she was merely pretending to care about him in order to save her skin, or that the extreme threat Nichols posed afflicted her with Stockholm syndrome. But I want to believe that the caring and concern that Ashley Smith expressed to and for Nichols was neither pretense nor pathology, but the liberated expression of the unconditional love and compassion that lie not only at the core of her being but at the glorious center of each and every one of us. I want to believe that the Lord within Ashley Smith's heart spoke to and reached the Lord buried deep within Brian Nichols' heart and convinced him to do the right thing when he could so easily have done something far, far worse.

When I speak of the "Lord within," I'm not talking about the Lord of Christian or any other popular religious convention. I'm speaking of the "which than which there is no whicher" that I want to believe constitutes our essence and the very fabric of the kosmos, but whose radiance expresses itself through most of us via 'random acts of kindness' to strangers and in more abiding love and devotion--though still too-often fraught with conditions, qualifications, and fluctuations--to family and friends.

Many would no doubt smile at my flowery words and say that it's all well and good to talk about seeing the "Lord within" others until they threaten your life. Then you should regard and despise that person as your enemy and do everything in your power to escape or neutralize him. If Ashley Smith had run or grabbed one of the unguarded guns and used it when she first had the chance, she might very well have saved her life for her own sake and for her daughter's without placing it in the prolonged and terrible jeopardy she did. She was very, very lucky that things turned out the way they did, and the rest of us should not assume that we would meet with the same fate if we reached out to our captor the way Ashley did to hers.

That may be true. But I'm glad that Ashley Smith acted the way she did and that Brian Nichols responded the way he did without harming her or anyone else, including himself. And I can't help but believe that if more people in this world were like Ashley Smith, there would be far fewer people like Brian Nichols plunging off the deep end into awful violence and murder. I also believe that even if acting like Ashley Smith got me killed, maybe, just maybe it's better to live a shorter life with a heart filled with unconditional love and compassion and faith in the core of divine goodness in all of us than to live a longer life brimming with overriding mistrust, anger, hatred, and desperate fear. That is, maybe it’s better to live a short time in heaven than a long time in hell.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Cursed Are the Handicapped?

I just read that the judge sentenced Scott Peterson to die for his crimes. I’m against the death penalty in virtually all cases. But I don’t wish to explore that theme here. I just want to note that the judge said that Peterson’s acted in a "cruel, uncaring, heartless, and callous" manner. In other words, the judge seemed to be saying, it wasn’t the objective nature of the crimes themselves that justified Peterson’s death sentence, but Peterson’s subjective state-of-mind.

But what is the rationale for this? If Peterson is, as many have argued, sociopathically lacking in normal human conscience, this might make him beyond rehabilitation by current psychotherapeutic methods, but since the judge’s sentencing choice was between lethal injection and life in prison without possibility of parole, what difference does it make if there’s no reasonable expectation that Peterson could be sufficiently rehabilitated to re-enter society? And is there compelling reason to believe that Peterson’s sociopathy makes him a significant threat to other prisoners? I suspect that the threat posed is entirely TO rather than FROM Peterson.

So, it seems to me that the message the judge sent to society is that we kill people for being sick or crippled with a lack of conscience. We wouldn’t think of killing someone because they can’t see or hear, but we think it’s perfectly okay to kill someone because they can’t feel normal human regard for life and normal guilt and shame for taking it.

Someone might protest that we wouldn’t execute someone for being blind or deaf because, after all, they haven’t murdered anyone, and we won’t be executing Peterson for not having a conscience, but for killing his innocent wife and unborn child. But what if he murdered his wife and unborn child precisely because he had no conscience? What if his cold-blooded and remorseless actions were symptoms of illness or products of a psychological defect? What's more, if the judge would have spared Peterson's life had he exhibited more of a conscience, wasn't his lack of conscience the decisive factor in his sentencing?

Honor Thy Meat?

My wife prepared a chicken and basil dish this morning for breakfast that neither of us liked. To underscore just how unappetizing it was, even our omnivorous cat wouldn't eat a small piece of the chicken I gave him. Yet, I forced myself to eat as much of it as I could not only to please my lovely wife, but also because I felt guilty about throwing in the garbage so much meat that some poor chicken sacrificed its life to provide us. In fact, it almost feels like sacrilege to throw meat in the garbage.

I remember a published dialog in Playboy (yes, I actually did read some of its articles) between Arthur C Clarke and Alan Watts in which Watts said that if we’re going to eat meat, we at least owe it to the animal to honor it with as much gratitude and respect as we can by preparing its flesh with our highest culinary skill so that we might savor it as we reverently incorporate it into our own bodies and being, to which Clarke replied: “Yes, but I doubt that the animal would appreciate that posthumous honor, Alan.”

However, even if it makes no difference to the animal that is already dead what we do with it, doesn’t the way we treat animals either as living beings or as dead food affect us for better or worse? If we callously mistreat living animals or thoughtlessly kill, cook, and eat them, doesn’t this condition us to undervalue if not outright dishonor the precious sacredness of life in general, and if we do not value and honor life, how do we end up treating ourselves, other people, and the world at large, and how happy can we be?

I do believe, even though I have yet to compel myself to always act accordingly, that those of us who have the wherewithal to nourish ourselves adequately with a vegetarian diet should seriously consider doing so. And so long as we continue to eat meat, I believe that we should at least prepare and eat it the way Watts suggested and take pains not to waste it needlessly.