I was cleaning out a drawer this week and came across something I’ve always cherished–the writing that visitors left in the journals at the Listening Post when it was located at the Transit Center at 6th and H Street. It was this place that I describe in the epilogue of my book on walking the Camino. After returning in June from my pilgrimage, I immediately knew that a Listening Post was what I wanted to create in Anchorage–a place where the marginalized were listened to with confidentiality and respect. In the eight years we were there, several journals were filled with incredible entries of vulnerability, questions, life stories, prayers and wisdom. Here is one entry from those journals, written by a wise young man who is also schizophrenic.
“Once upon a time a king asked his council for something to make him happy when was he was sad–but sad when he was happy. They consulted and then presented the king with a ring. Inscribed in the ring was, “This too shall pass.”
This was my mother’s mantra as well. Underneath its apparent truth is the way of being that is content no matter what life presents, whether happy or sad. Spiritual teacher, Jeff Carreira, says, “If you can’t be content no matter how you feel, then you will always be in a position of being somewhat victimized by circumstance. Your contentment will always be dependent upon certain conditions existing to allow you to feel content, and if that’s the case, then you will constantly, consciously and unconsciously, be trying to manipulate the circumstances of your life to be those that make you feel content. And, of course, life doesn’t cooperate, and at some point you realized this is a losing proposition.”
Being content as a human being is an elusive thing if that contentment depends on exterior circumstances; it is only achievable by allowing all experiences while maintaining an inner ground of basic trust and choice to surrender to what is actually happening in the moment.
“Easy to say, hard to do” is the proverbial comeback to that statement. And it is. Most people, including myself, live their whole lives dependent on being content by controlling their experiences–which is a perfectly fine life. Doesn’t always work, but I get by. Yet there is this option, this potential freedom to live with the conviction that no matter what, I’m okay. And content with life as it is.
Even as I write it, protests arise in my mind; “No! We can’t be content with what IS. There’s so much we need to fix in this world. How can you say that?” Good argument! But what if that voice is the one inside us that wants to be the one in control? Wants to be the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong? When I listen to that voice I get tight inside, defensive, self-righteous. And that doesn’t feel like the voice of Holy guidance, the voice that shows me how to respond to life, but not to react. Responding with love and concern in this world comes from our true heart, one dependent on grace. Reacting with judgement comes from our ego. Period.
When I was a senior in high school, my high school Sunday school curriculum contained this lesson. Even now, I can hardly believe that I received this Chinese wisdom in 1969 in Sunday School. It has a few versions but it goes like this. (And even if you’ve heard it, it bears repeating and reflecting.
Who Knows? A Chinese Fable
Many years ago, a wise peasant lived in China. He had a son who was the apple of his eye. He also was the proud owner of a fine white stallion which everyone admired. One day this horse escaped from his grounds and disappeared. The villagers came to him one by one and said: “You are such an unlucky man! It is such bad luck that your horse escaped.” The peasant responded: “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?” The next day the stallion returned, followed by 12 wild horses. The neighbors visited him again and congratulated him on his luck. Again, he just said: “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?
As it happened, the next day his son was attempting to train one of the wild horses when he fell down and broke his leg. Once more everyone came with condolences: “It’s terrible” Again the the wise peasant said, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?” A few days passed and his poor son was limping around the village with his broken leg, when the emperor’s army entered the village announcing that a war was starting, and they were enrolling all the young men of the village. However, they left the peasant’s son since he had a broken leg. Everyone was extremely jealous of the peasant. They talked about his sheer good luck, while the old man only said, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”
I never forgot this story, even though I haven’t lived it out. Yet, I still believe that it is possible to live with the perspective of that wise peasant. My little Camino this week and for my years to come is to practice being content with what life actually is, without my meddling. And remembering that no matter what, this too shall pass.