Friday, December 16, 2005

A Naked Response

A few years ago, a friend asked me to answer a questionnaire for her class assignment. I agreed to do it. I stumbled across my lengthy response this morning while tidying up my hard drive. It wasn't that long ago that I wrote it, yet so much has happened since then that it seems like decades ago. I had forgotten all about it until I found it today. In reading it, I was struck by how candid I was in answering the personal questions put to me. In keeping with the title of this blog, here are some rather "naked reflections" on my life:

1. In looking back over your life, what were some of the moments of greatest happiness? Give three examples.

One of my earlier happiest moments was when I was 12 and won the “outstanding athlete” award at a countywide track and field competition. I was extremely proud of what I accomplished that day, and all the more proud that my grandparents were there to see me bask in my young moment of crowning glory.

Another later moment of great happiness was when I had my first sexual experience with a woman. I was a painfully shy and awkward 27-year-old dying to overcome my prolonged virginity. When I made love with a very nice and understanding woman for the first time, it was a warm and wonderful experience, and I felt like a new man that night, as though a tremendous burden had been lifted from my soul. I felt like I was walking on air for the next day or two.

A third moment of great happiness was when I went to visit a dear friend who had transferred to a college and was living by herself up north in Arcata. I loved this young woman with all my heart and was so happy to see her after such a long time of missing her terribly. It was foggy and cold in her town when I arrived there on the bus around 10 at night. She met me at the bus station. Both of us were shivering from the bone-chilling cold as we walked back to her apartment. We quickly ate something, then went into her bedroom, took off our clothes, climbed into bed, and held each other close. I think that moment, as I lie in that bed with the woman whom I loved more than life itself, our naked bodies warming each other to our souls, may have been the happiest moment of my entire life.

2. In looking back over your life, what were the moments of greatest sorrow? Give three examples.

One very sorrowful moment came when my neighbor informed me that a cat resembling my cat had been run over and killed by a car the previous night. She led me to a plastic garbage bag lying in front of her house, and inside the bag was my Hypatia. I was devastated because I had become so attached to that sweet little cat!. She was young and so full of life and seemed as attached to me as I was to her. The very night she died, she was even more loving and devoted to me, following me around like my shadow, purring contentedly and nuzzling me when I stroked her, and meowing at me more than she ever had. I cried on and off for days after that as I missed her terribly and wondered how long and how much she may have suffered alone and helpless in the night by the side of the road as her precious life ebbed from her.

My most sorrowful moment was not really a distinct moment but a period of time lasting over a year when my days and nights were consumed with grief and depression after a girlfriend broke off all contact with me. I loved this woman more than I had ever loved anyone or believed it possible to love anyone, and when I knew that our relationship and even all semblance of friendship was likely over forever, my heart ached with so much sorrow and despair that I sometimes thought it would literally burst.

Another very sorrowful time came when my grandmother died after an extended decline, and a very dear friend who had come back from New York to help me with the memorial service we held for Grandma here at the house had to return to New York and I missed her miserably and felt truly and profoundly alone for the first time in my life.

3. In looking back over your life, what were the greatest disappointments? Give three examples.

My first great disappointment may have been when my mother remarried when I was seven. I had never known my father and was looking ever so forward to having a stepfather. But there was an incident where my stepfather angrily disciplined me soon after I left my grandparents’ house to begin living with him and my mom when I realized that he would not be the father I was hoping for and that my life would be very different and sadder than I could have imagined. The next eleven years confirmed that. Even though my stepfather never abused me in any egregious way, I always feared him and could never be close to him, and I went almost overnight from being one of the most gregarious little boys you might ever see to a very shy and introverted child who grew into an even more shy and introverted adult.

Another great disappointment was not a single incident but a realization that developed over time. I entered high school fully grown at 6’4” and had good leaping ability and could shoot a basketball exceptionally well. I had dominated play in elementary school and junior high and was looking forward to doing well in high school. But practices with the freshman team were a disquieting revelation to me when I was confronted with drills and plays that I couldn’t learn the way all the other boys could. I struggled to learn them, but I couldn’t, and I began to think I was stupid, and I’m sure my teammates did too. Those practices were a living hell that not only exhausted me physically but drained away most of my self-confidence and self-esteem. Despite this, I went on that year to be all-league at my position because of my raw ability and advantageous height. But when I was promoted to the varsity team the next year and encountered even more difficult and embarrassing practices along with talented seniors I couldn’t dominate with raw ability alone the way I could my younger peers, I progressively lost all my confidence and all my hope of being a productive high school player, and, awash with embarrassment and humiliation, I quit the team and surrendered my dreams of excelling in a game that my entire life had revolved around for the previous four years. My coach yelled at me and said he was extremely disgusted and disappointed with me. But my disgust and disappointment with myself was far greater and became a defining part of an enduring pattern in which my learning disability created one frustration and disappointment after another until I eventually stopped trying to do anything challenging for fear that I would fail.

My latest great disappointment is the terrible hurt and disappointment my girlfriend of almost six years suffered through when I couldn’t be to her what she wanted, expected, and needed me to be, and she finally decided to leave me and we bid our tearful farewells a few weeks ago. I think of her every day and night and wish that I could have been the man she once thought I was and spared her all the pain, sorrow, and disappointment she went through on my account.

4. What were your greatest fears in the past and what are your greatest fears now?

When I was very young, my greatest fear was probably the greatest fear of most young children—the fear of being unloved by and separated from the adults I loved and depended on. As I grew older and began experiencing numerous failures and disappointments, I developed a paralyzing phobia toward public failure and toward people looking down on me and thinking I was stupid and geeky. Now I’m mostly afraid of growing old and infirm alone, without someone to love and be loved by and to share the remainder of my life with. I’m also afraid of looking back on my life from my deathbed someday and realizing that I should and could have accomplished so much more with my life than I did and knowing that it’s too late to do anything about it.

5. If you could live your life over again knowing everything that you know now, what would you change?

A marvelous episode of the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has the leading character, Captain Picard, thrust against his will into this very situation. He is returned by a godlike being to his Starfleet Academy days knowing everything he’s learned since his first time through it, and, sure enough, he does things differently the second time around and profoundly alters the course of his life. Unfortunately, the change is not for the better but for the worse, and the lesson he learns from this is that our lives are a wonderful “tapestry” of inextricably intertwined events and experiences. Remove even one thread and the entire tapestry unravels into something likely far worse than it was before.

I’ve thought about this a lot, but I’m not sure I buy the lesson this episode was trying to teach. I’m inclined to believe that we—or at least I—could live much more fulfilling lives the second time around if we could bring to them the knowledge and wisdom we gained from the preceding alternate timeline. In fact, my greatest wish is that I COULD do it all over again, knowing what I know now. Of course, if I were a baby or young child again and knew what I know now, I would be supernaturally and even frighteningly precocious. But if I could return to my early teens or even early 20’s knowing what I do now, I’m quite convinced that I could live a much fuller, more vital, and more productive life of loving service to others and fulfillment of my own needs, desires, and nature instead of letting diffidence and fear cripple me and keep me locked away in a prison of my own making. More specifically, I know that I wouldn’t be the virtual recluse I’ve been for most of my life but would spend far more time enjoying the company and warmth of family and friends and being a more vital and, I hope, positive part of their lives.

6. How do you feel about being/becoming a senior citizen? (about old age?)

I just turned 50. Yet, although I now officially qualify for AARP membership, I don’t think of myself as approaching senior citizenship, even though I dimly realize, in the back of my mind, that it’s really not that far away. I must say that I don’t look forward to old age one iota. I don’t regard it with shuddering fear, but I do worry about it. Even more than worrying about losing my physical strength and health, I worry about losing my mental ability to not only care for myself but also to engage my mind and soul with the simple pleasures of reading, writing, and thinking; and, most importantly, I fear losing the comforting wisdom (or pseudo-wisdom) that I have spent so many long and often painful years cultivating. In short, I worry about becoming physically frail, senile, destitute, unbearably lonely, bored to tears, and totally dependent and burdensome on others for meeting even my most basic needs. I’ve seen enough people, including my beloved grandfather and grandmother, go through this geriatric hell to know that any of us could end up there, no matter how much we might try to guard against it.

7. What is your impression of college students? Of young people today?

I don’t know if my impression is accurate, but I see many young people today as being so swept up and rootless in the accelerating pace of life and social and cultural change, and so jaded by information overload and hedonistic over-stimulation, that they have become bored, indifferent, cynical, self-centered, and unhappy to an unprecedented degree.

8. Would you want to be a teenager in today’s world?

In light of my previous answer, this may sound strangely paradoxical. But if I had the same curious, contemplative, and shy temperament as a teenager in today’s world that I had as a teenager in yesterday’s world, yes, I think I would want to be a teenager today and have ready access to information, ideas, intercultural richness, and wisdom that I didn’t have in my teenage years. More importantly, I think I would revel in being able to reach out to others over the Internet from my teenaged prison of excruciating shyness and social awkwardness to share with them on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level. How different and, I think, better my life as a teenager might have been if there had been an Internet and I had been able to use it back then!

9. Were things better in the old days? If yes, explain. In what way?

I’m not sure what is meant by “the old days.” Times as relatively recent as my childhood years of the 50’s and 60’s, or times longer, perhaps far longer, ago than that? Times here in this country or elsewhere? Whatever is meant by “the old days,” I don’t have an easy answer to the question concerning them. In some ways, I think the 1950’s and early 60’s in America may have been more pleasant for a lot of white people than times today. They and their children may have found it easier to entertain comfortingly simple belief in God, country, economic opportunity and progressive prosperity, and in a better future through unlimited advancements in science and technology than they do today. On the other hand, minorities, especially African-Americans, faced more overtly racist oppression; science, medicine, and technology were not as advanced; a higher percentage of Americans were probably poor, hungry, illiterate, and ignorant of the rich cultural diversity of the world around them; and the overall quality of life may have been poorer for a higher percentage of Americans than it is now.

Today’s America seems less blatantly racist, and appears to offer a proportionately higher standard of living and more information, cultural richness, spiritual wisdom, and life choices than ever before. But the flip side of all this progress is, among other things, the insecure rootlessness and jaded disaffection and alienation among America’s young people to which I alluded previously. We also face the growing threats of environmental degradation, catastrophic terrorism, and global pandemics facilitated by the ease and rapidity of international travel.

In the final analysis, I don’t know if the good old days were better or not. I don’t know how to define and measure “better.” I can only say that I’m glad I was born when and where I was, that I have seen the spectacular events and changes I’ve seen over my 50 years, and that I’m alive and healthy in this special place and time and able to enjoy, at this time in my life, the privileged quality of life and the intellectual, social, cultural, and spiritual opportunities available to me here and now.

10. Share three memories from childhood.

One of my earliest memories is of lying in bed and listening to my mother’s music box’s tinkling rendition of a beautiful Japanese lullaby that I can still hear in my head and hum, albeit poorly, today. I believe that this little box with its exotic Japanese designs and music may have laid the foundation for my lifelong fascination with Asian cultures and peoples.

Another early memory is of my grandparents taking me to the hospital and leaving me behind to be filled with terror as I was doused with ether in preparation for a tonsillectomy, and of my clinging to my grandmother with an iron grip and never wanting to let go when she and my grandfather came to take me home.

Yet another memory is one that, in some version or other, haunts virtually every American who lived and was old enough to be aware of what was happening on that day. I remember that it was school recess in November of 1963, and I was out at the baseball diamond when a teacher came out and told us that President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. I was shocked with disbelief and later filled with tearful grief over the news of Kennedy’s death. I grew up a little too fast that day. On the following Sunday, I remember being taken to an aunt’s house on a stopover before accompanying her and her family to Sunday school, and on the TV I saw a replay of the shooting that had taken place just moments before of Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being escorted from his jail cell to the courthouse for his arraignment. More shock and disillusionment.

11. What has life taught you?

If I were asked what I learned in all my years of schooling, how could I begin to answer such a question? It’s even more difficult to distill the essence of what I’ve learned from life in a few short words, but I will nevertheless make a stumbling effort.

I have learned that everyone and everything in the world is ultimately interconnected and that the wise person understands this deeply and lives accordingly. I have learned that the purpose of life is to be happy, but also that true happiness comes only when we develop all aspects—physical, mental, psychological, social, and spiritual—of our being to their fullest and joyfully serve others as well as ourselves, and that we can do this only if we shake off the shackles of convention, heed the “still, small voice” deep within our consciousness, and follow its lead with supreme dedication and systematic effort. And I have learned that there is no greater joy in life than that of loving others unequivocally and unconditionally.

12. What advice would you give to someone in their 20’s?

I don’t feel well qualified to dispense practical advice, and I doubt that anyone in their 20’s would want or heed my advice anyway. About the only advice I’m inclined to give comes from combining the wisdom of Buddha and St Augustine in the following words, “Learn to love everyone and everything in the world as a mother loves her only child, and do what you will.”

13. What are some special songs that you remember from when you were younger?

I have loved music ever since I was very young. I enjoyed too many songs when I was younger to readily single out any of them. I suppose I will single out the unnamed Japanese melody I mentioned earlier. I also remember being moved as a young child by “Claire De Lune,” which I still regard as one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. From my church days there is the ever-popular “Doxology.” Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence” moved me greatly as a young teenager and still does today. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys left me awestruck when it came out in 1966 and continues to do so. I could go on and on forever listing songs I remember and loved from my much younger days, but those above are some of the most memorable and beloved of them all.

14. Who were your favorite movie stars? TV/radio programs?

As a boy, I liked John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, and a lot of the other American male stars of that era. Like most of my peers, I watched a lot of TV as a child and young adult and could assemble a list of favorite TV shows that could stretch on and on. Among my very favorite TV programs when I was growing up were: I Love Lucy, Superman, Leave it to Beaver, Ben Casey, Gunsmoke, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Star Trek, All in the Family, and Kung Fu.

15. How did you meet your spouse?

I have never been married, but I think it’s fairly likely that I will meet on the Internet the woman I eventually marry.


Jess said...

This is a great self assessment tool and I do believe I will do this for myself over the holidays if you have no problems with that. The comments you made about the 20 year olds is right on the money. I have many friends that are like this. Some not friends anymore. I believe I am obligated to do for those that don't have what I have because of the way I was raised. My parents are very big on giving back to the community we live in and I feel I have to do the same. I guess the upbringing is very important. If I become a pain when I am posting here please feel free to let me know. I will understand. Or you can e-mail me you know my address

Nagarjuna said...

I welcome and enjoy your comments, Jess. Please keep them coming. And I'd like to follow up on some of them in private, but I don't know your e-mail address. Please e-mail me with your address.