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Saturday, December 21, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Zen ...

There’s a nice article in The Atlantic about John Kerry’s term as Secretary of State. The former Senator is really out there trying to change the world. Even as a 70 year old, he can still stay up all night when in the thick of an important negotiation. He’s living a life all about big things.

Life for most of us, by comparison, is about little things. When young, I dreamed of being involved in big, momentous, world-shaking causes. Things that you read about or see in the movies – Lincoln, Obama, the great explorers, great scientists, great writers, great lovers, great artists, the people with passion and vision, people living with a drive and a goal. These are people who somehow found their way into some big cause (or were found by some big cause) that sucked up their day-to-day life, and in return amplified the feeling of being alive for them.

As to the rest of us – well, as to me, anyway — I never come across a big compelling mission or cause in life comparable to what Mr. Kerry now deals with. My life is mostly a case of making the best of little things, making the best of imperfect situations, and being wide open to the slings and arrows of life. (The important people usually get protected from distracting stuff like parking tickets and paying for an emergency root canal by others; the rest of us have to take on these many slings and arrows alone).

But nonetheless . . . in the end, perhaps the little things ain’t so little after all. Let’s hope. Maybe you’ve heard the St. Francis-like quote: do few things but do them well. This is actually a line from a song by Donovan (yes, the same guy who sang “Mellow Yellow”) in a Saint Francis movie called “Brother Sun Sister Moon” from 1972.

On the Zen front, the “teachers” often talk about savoring the little things. They want us to notice the tiniest joys like the first sip of hot coffee on a cold morning. The only problem with that — something the Zen people seem to gloss over — is that for every nice little thing, there’s some not-so-nice thing. Something that brings pain or anxiety or is just a pain in the butt. Let’s go back to that coffee on the cold morning. After you finish the java, you may have to go outside and shovel snow that is blocking in your car. If the feel of rain on the skin is lovely, the feel of a mosquito or a wasp on it is not. Zen tries to put a good spin on the quotidian, but often backfires.

Zen backfires because it tries to be “stark”, to present things as they are, unadorned. And in this life, a lot of those unadorned things aren’t very pleasant. We have to transcend Zen to really find light amidst the desultory mix of good and bad little things that make up our daily lives. St. Francis, I think, did a better job of making life meaningful in the face of a seemingly meaningless mix of little events and factors. We are not going to be John Kerry’s or LeBron James’s or YoYo Ma’s; we are going to be left alone to our little stuff, to try to make some sense of them.

For those who can and do find that “sense” — they come close to what the Zennie’s call “enlightenment”. They are doing something that the John Kerry’s and LeBron James’s aren’t good at — digging deep into the soul searching for a core reason to be. Not all of us find it, but the door is open. Those of us left to the mercy of the little things might well be a step or two closer to it than the important people, wrapped up in their big causes.

So, smile at the little joys, grimace at the little pains, and don’t give up on that small voice within, that small voice in the silence crying out: it’s all a big deal, it’s all important. Do those little things, and do them well. They really are important — even if they don’t get an article in The Atlantic.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:29 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m going to say upfront that I am not so much disagreeing with you here but trying to give a second viewpoint that may – and even may not – be disagreeing with you. I’m just presenting it as a second point of view on the topic of “Sweat the Little Things”.

    I happened to see John Kerry on a program this last week. Yes, he is 70 and “still going strong”, but I was struck by how absolutely deathly tired he appeared to be — to the point where I don’t remember what he was saying; I only remember just how desperately tired he looked. There must be something about that job that totally wears out a human being. Hillary Clinton had the same look about her when she quit to hand the reins to Kerry.

    I would imagine that someone who takes a job like that simply *must* have a sense of a higher calling rather than having simply a big and important job and “look how important I am”.

    I remember years and years ago (perhaps in the 1950s hearing Adlai Stevenson speak. I still remember that he spoke of doing the 7 works of mercy on a global scale. I must say I was impressed and struck that a man in public office (don’t remember what office he held then, perhaps Senator? not sure), who could be criticized for who knows how many things, would tell the group that part of his work was to do something so noble. (Obviously, I still remember only that part of his talk.) He considered that his work was to do the 7 works of mercy on a global scale; I was impressed, I admit. (Who would say something like that if he didn’t actually believe it? was/is how I saw/see it)

    I don’t see how a person with only a sense of being “important” could even hold on to a job that is so humanly draining for even a month. One never knows what the interior of a person might be, so it’s difficult to say that someone like Kerry (or even Obama or Stevenson) are interested only in the power they get from the job.

    This is not to say that everybody in the media is important or seeking to do good. The whole crowd who makes their living by fake-living their lives in front of a camera certainly have only their own interests at heart – or at least it would seem to be that.

    Then again, there are all the ordinary people who work at jobs that *seem un*important but that most likely are *not*. And I’d say there are an enormous amount of people who fall into that category. People who work to help others (even if in a tangential way) are some I’d count as the heroes of life. Then there are those who do a lot of good for others (perhaps even their own family . . . who says those one helps are required to be strangers to one?) and are never publicly known to do a single thing. There are a lot of people who care for others, who do good things for others, but get little or absolutely *no* credit for it.

    Then there are the ordinary people who spend their lives desperately wanting what those who seem to have it all have. What’s the point of that?

    I think before one can judge someone one simply has to get to know the person and his/her motivation.

    I also think there are those who live very good lives and don’t seem to see what good they do; they mistake “goodness” for “how much” they might do, “how public” what they do may be, “how many people tell them what great people they are”, etc. Their greatness is right in front of their nose, and they don’t see what quiet good they do.

    That’s the thing about life: It’s full of contradictions and all the unknown good things. But that’s all we’ve got in life, so it seems to me we need to admit the contradictions, keep living the life calling we’ve been given, respect it. We also need to keep searching when we’ve come up against a block of some kind and find our way around the block.

    Some long time ago I woke up one day and realized that I had a habit of setting myself a goal, working even years to achieve it, and then I didn’t care about it anymore; I’d seem to lose interest in it; I’m still the same. Yet I’d have learned a lot and used it (often only for myself) in my life. Somehow or other it dawned on me that it was the “doing of it” (what the young people today call the “journey” — such an overused word these days that it’s lost its meaning; it’s used so haphazardly) that was important, not the achievement of the thing. I have no clue why the “doing” is so important; perhaps it’s just me; then again, I wonder: Perhaps somehow the “doing” is the important thing.

    If one counts the “doing” it’s the growth of the individual person that’s important; secondarily, and perhaps more importantly, such personal growth may aid others in some tangential way, in some unknown way, in some subtle way that goes unnoticed. But who cares if it’s unnoticed? The important thing is the growth of the person and the unknown influence and unknown help others may gain through that search that’s important.

    Sorry this comes off as (almost? or perhaps truly) a sermon. But, I don’t care; I see it as important for the lives of others and oneself. Keep on keeping on is the only thing that counts, no matter how tired one may get. MCS

    Comment by Mary — December 22, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  2. Jim, Correction: Stevenson said he was going the 7 workd of *corporal works of mercy* not the *works of mercy”. I know this is a distinction that comes from before Vatican II; nevertheless, I don’t think it can totally be thrown out the window. MCS

    Comment by Mary — December 22, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  3. Hi Jim, thank you for your thoughts. I, too, have shaken my fists far too often in my youth, wanting to change the world. Then I despaired because I realised I could never change the world, that history shows how little the world and humanity has actually changed at all. However, later, I found joy in being able to change little things, tiny moments suspended in time, when I turned my mind to what it knows best – detail focus cognition is a pronounced feature of autism, after all, even though not exclusive to the spectrum. Sometimes, the little things drive me insane, but other times, and these far outweigh the bad times, I am thankful for being able to sweat the small things. Yet, this too may be an all consuming passion, a reson d’etre, or the overwhelming drive for one’s life: focusing on the small things and bringing them into a place of beauty and as near perfection as one can achieve. I am loving this dimension. I cannot save the world, but Lucy has taught me that a kind word, a short chat with our homeless friends can indeed be the highlight of a day, and yes, their expressions when they hug Lucy and pat her is priceless, the kind of tiny treasures one gathers to keep inside one’s chest of valued mementos. I don’t think I could ever change their lives for the better, but I feel very blessed that I can lift their spirits – well, actually Lucy does the job – for just a few minutes a day. My friends on all dimensions – including you – are also great achievements to me. Small things. These are my little goals. And if a small handful of people find reciprocity across neurological states through my research and praxis as an artist, I would have achieved my grand design in life. So, I guess I share your focus on the little things. And they are big to me. Have a blessed Christmas!

    Comment by spunkykitty — December 24, 2013 @ 5:41 am

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