The Kindness of Strangers

Fifteen years ago I went running a long distance without water. It was brutally hot day. There was a weather advisory in effect specifically telling people not to do what I was doing. But I was young and invincible and went anyway.

You can imagine how this turned out. After the first two miles I thought, “Wow, it’s really hot” and started walking instead. Unfortunately I kept walking and walking and didn’t think about how I was going to get back. Here’s the kicker – not only did I not bring water but I also left behind my wallet with my money and ID. So I couldn’t buy water, drink or a ride home.

The amount of trouble you are in usually becomes apparent when you turn around to go back. When I did, I started feeling woozy and realized I was getting heat exhaustion. By the time I was halfway back home, I was stumbling around like a drunk and people were pointing and laughing. This was along the Charles River in Boston, very crowded. It’s a weird situation when you are in big trouble, surrounded by people and can’t figure out how to ask for help.

At this point a rollerblader skated by and took a long look at me. He stopped, skated back and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “No.” He said, “Wait here.” He then skated away and returned with two bottles of water. He sat with me while I drank them. I could barely talk, I had tears in my eyes, “Thank you.” After I assured him I was going to be fine, he skated away and I never saw him again.

That was 15 years ago and I never forgot it. Thank you anonymous rollerblader, you are a class A person.

No Control

Last night I dreamed I was in a plane that was about to crash. I was seated close to the cockpit and from behind the door I could hear the pilot cursing at some very bad situation. Whatever it was, it was clear we were about to die.

After a brief moment of panic I thought, “Oh well. Nothing I can do, might as well get comfortable.” With that I propped my feet up and looked out the window to admire the scenery.

The state of my life and I’m like “Whatever”

I took this dream as a breakthrough. As you might imagine about a guy dreaming of dying in a plane crash, my life is not going as I planned. To deal with the stress I wake up early and meditate for 20-30 minutes every morning. This dream vividly showed me how calm it has made me.

This calm in the face of impending death I used to regard as passivity. Now I regard it as wisdom. There are two types of things in this world – things you can change and things you can’t. Changing the things you can change requires strength and courage. Things you can’t change – complaining about it on Facebook is not going to do anything – your only option is to accept it, sit back and enjoy the view.

All too often we get fixated on how we want things to turn out. We are a taught from an early age to strive towards goals, to work hard today for a better tomorrow. This is partially a good thing but it can also make us rigid and inflexible. Instead of seeing things as they are, we see things as we want them.

Rower’s hand

I used to row competitively and it shaped my worldview around this notion. If you’ve never done it, let me tell you the one thing rowing involves – pain. Lots and lots of pain. At the end of a rowing race I felt as if I had been put through a shredder and my hands looked like it. The pain becomes unbearable in the first minute and at around that time I would be horrified by the realization there were still five or six more minutes to go. Never before has a minute been so goddamned long, I experienced each excruciating second.

In a way, this was good. Finishing a race made me feel like I could accomplish anything. Given enough hard work, discipline, and courage I learned I could accomplish what I wanted. The flip side of this was it made me proud, rigid and inflexible. When circumstances changed, I had trouble switching. Usually I would double down on the most painful solution, bang my head against a wall and scream in frustration. Not wise.

I’m glad I eventually learned to let go. When a want appears in my head now I recognize it for what it is – a want. If circumstances are right, I go for it. If not, I let it go. Lately I’ve embraced Taoism and it’s helped. Taoism teaches to be like water – to flow effortlessly around obstacles and to fill containers according to the constraints. Given my current situation, this works.

 

The Nudge

Since he was a little boy my brother has played basketball. Although he was never on his high school or college team, he eventually became something of a rec league legend. Standing six foot five, he now plays on a very high level – playing against professional athletes like Cal Ripken, Sam Cassell and a young Carmelo Anthony. He’s met a lot of interesting people on the court.

Both our parents were bewildered by my brother’s athletic prowess. Neither of them played sports and wondered where he got it. This resulted in a good situation – they were both supportive without being pushy. They let him play and they never complained about the coaches or the refs. They never screamed or yelled but they were always there to hold up trophies after the wins and give hugs after a loss.

Basketball has been very good to my brother but all of it might not have been if not for one incident with our mother. The “no pushing” rule was violated once when Andy was seven years old. He was nervous before a game and fear overtook him. He felt as if he was going to throw up as they drove to the game.

“I don’t want to do this, mom,” he said.

Our mother thought for a moment and said, “Just play this one. You can do it.”

That was it – no histrionics, no deeply moving speech. Just a nudge in the right direction and a little encouragement. Often this is all that is needed, a gentle push with an assurance of “You can do this.” Harry Parker, the rowing coach at Harvard, was famous for this. Before a big race the team captain asked the coach if he was going to give a speech before they launched. He said, “No. You’ll do fine.”

It is often said winners and losers of battles are determined before the participants take the field. If someone is relying on an passionate speech to help them through, they should have practiced more. That junk only works in Hollywood. Inspiring speeches are the equivalent of throwing up a desperation Hail Mary pass. They hardly ever work and are usually a waste of energy.

From my experience when you feel fear overtaking you, just say “To hell with it” and do it anyway. But sometimes you need someone to give you an assist. When I rock climbed to overcome my fear of heights, I fell into a predictable pattern. Only a few feet short of the top I’d get scared, shout “On you” and slide down. Eventually I frustrated my belayer so much that when I did it again he shouted, “Oh come on!” in disgust.

In that moment I realized he was right. I froze for a second and then charged through the last few steps to the top. My first time all the way up. Beaming, I was grateful he was there to deliver the well-timed nudge.

 

Silent Commute

One day in high school I missed the bus and was stranded. This was an event I’d always dreaded – I didn’t like school much to begin with and now I was stuck there. Because it was a half day, I’d either have to wait five hours for my mom to get out of work or walk home. This was suburban southern New Hampshire so the walk would be a long one, at least three miles.

beautiful photo taken in my hometown by greyscale4

It turned out that solitary walk home became one of my favorite high school moments. There was no rush. I didn’t need to be anywhere in particular so I stuck to the less busy roads. It was spring and the sun was shining so I took my time – taking in sights that I normally drove past in a hurry to be somewhere else. Although I hardly saw anything more than houses, trees, rocks, and cars, it was so refreshing to see sights from an entirely new viewpoint.

I don’t remember what I thought about but I remember feeling free. Free to observe, think and just be. There was so much concern about status and posing in high school. The Popularity Gods who ruled school were capricious and your social ranking could drop to zero in a moment. Taking a long solitary walk independent of everyone with no responsibilities was overwhelmingly liberating. It opened me up to the world of possibility available to my young self.

I still do this on my commute every once in awhile. I shut off the radio, I resist the urge to check my phone, and instead I take in everything around me. It’s a conscious effort. The urge to drown out the silence with radio or text message still come to me but I let these feelings pass without acting on them. It’s calming. In moments where I’d normally feel road rage, I feel none and think “No, you go ahead. That’s fine.”

When I rode the commuter rail to work I’d often put the book or computer down and take in the sights whizzing by. Trains are awesome for this. There was a giant factory on my ride that I would pause to look at and I’d always be awestruck by its power. I’d look around to see if anyone else felt the same way and everyone’s face would be buried in whatever media they were consuming.

The company I work for is based in Russia. On a recent business trip, a co-worker of mine was sharing a taxi ride with two other Americans in Moscow. As he told me the story later – here they were in one of the world’s most significant cities, a chance of a lifetime, and the two guys were busy checking Facebook on their phones.

Media is addictive, I know that and I fall into it as much as anyone else. It’s a shame when it becomes an addiction that blinds us from the world around. Digital media in particular has made boredom and potentially awkward social situations into a feared condition. This craving for constant stimulation is as much a prison as boredom.

 

Is Anger Sometimes Appropriate?

When I tuck my youngest child in at night, she wraps her arms around my neck and whispers in my ear, “You’re my best friend.” It’s tough to tear yourself away from that.

C is generous with smiles and even though she’s only three, she understand humor and will do things to make you laugh. She recently put on my sandals and danced around wildly shrieking, “I’m gonna be a ROCK STAR, I’m going to be a ROCK STAR!” over and over because it made me and her sister laugh.

She also likes pushing boundaries but because she always has a smile on her face, it’s tough to discipline her. When she pulled down her pants and deliberately peed on the couch, I had a hard time keeping a straight face while putting her in time-out.

But this morning, this morning was tough. We were pressed for time, doing that last minute fire drill rush to get the kids to school on time. I had both the girls so I was doing double duty. As I was putting the final touches on packing their bags my eldest said, “Daddy, C just peed in her pants.”

Oh no, please no, not again. Seriously? I looked over and C was doing the tell-tale waddle, again with a big smile on her face. I grabbed her, did that distance hold where you don’t get the pee all over your work clothes and carried her upstairs.

She was still smiling as I changed her. Given all the attention I was now devoting to her, it dawned on me that this one might not have been accident. “I peed my pants!” she announced triumphantly, confirming my suspicions.

She forced my hand – I decided now was the time to drop the hammer. My movements became more forceful and I shouted, “Dammit C! Stop peeing in your pants! Stop doing that.” She got the message in a hurry. Her smile transformed into a high pitched wail. It went on for awhile. It pained me.

I hated doing it, I hated turning that smile into a cry. I once was a person with a notoriously short fuse. When an emotion struck me, I moved with it. Since becoming a father, I’ve worked very hard to make that fuse as long as possible. I’ve been fairly successful. Talking about my new-found calm, my brother commented, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect you were on drugs.”

Some Buddhists consider anger a great wrong. For the most part, I’m on board with them – anger is a terribly destructive force. But this measured release of anger, is that wrong? The most important thing was I was still in control. Anger was carefully portioned out, enough to scare and send a message but not causing any long term damage. After it was over, I made sure to hug her and tell her that I loved her no matter what.

The most important thing was after the burst of anger at C, I let it go. I aired it out, made sure she got the message and then let it go. People in my family have literally ruined their lives by holding onto resentment and grudges.

So is anger ever appropriate? In this case, I’d argue that it was. What do you think?