pebbles on a scale
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
today’s random thought: "if 60 is midlife, where are all the 120-year-olds?" those of us with more than a few miles on us are the products of the battles we have fought, whether we have won or lost. we carry the scars of the wounds that failed to kill us – some hidden, and some right out in the open. they say that whatever doesn’t kill you leaves you stronger. i would argue that whatever has the power and potential to kill us but does not may not necessarily leave us stronger, but will certainly leave us forever changed.
many years ago one of my good friends decided life was no longer so good. he was discouraged by inflexible superiors at work that rebuffed his creative ideas, threatened with a baseless harassment suit contrived by a disingenuous person with her “eye on the prize” of a municipal settlement, and tormented by personal demons still lingering after two tours as a door gunner on a slick in vietnam (which may be some kind of record; life expectancy for this assignment was usually measured in days). his solution, having decided to punch out, was not a garden-variety "suicide gesture." my friend had too much experience with real suffering to pop a few pills and call the crisis line. one evening he calmly got up from the dinner table, went out in the front yard, poured a gallon of lawnmower gas over himself and set himself afire. some said it was a call for help. i couldn’t help but admire the courage of the caller. my friend survived against daunting odds. again. but that is a story for another day. stunned and shaken to my core by my friend’s horrific act, i got the message. loud and clear. the message i got is that we are all vulnerable; that there are times when any of us may be closer to the edge than even those who love us might know; that in the end, no one can really know what is in the mind of another, no matter how close they feel that they are - no matter how intimate the association. if we accept the premise that we cannot know with certainty when someone close – even someone we love - may be just one piece of bad news from slipping over some "edge", then we are morally charged to err on the side of forgiveness, generosity, and compassion.
there are those who would argue that if we are continually forgiving, generous, and compassionate that we may be taken for granted, or subject to manipulation, or be less than competitive. they would contend that in a harsh world we will find ourselves defenseless. i disagree. if we have learned anything from the current administration, it is that the surest way to provoke everyone and every situation into becoming "a nail" is to go around being "a hammer" all the time. despite the popularity of the aphorism, the best defense is rarely a good offense. the best defense is confident and patient deflection of insult until an enemy realizes that he can never win, or better yet, that we may not be his enemy after all.
so if we stand up to the fear-mongering, and refuse to believe that those who are not just like us are therefore our enemies, we can focus our energies on our similarities and common goals. except for the zealots at the extremes, the vast majority of us seek the same things in life: peace and safety - home and family - interesting friends and rewarding work - time to travel and play – the comfort and safety of love. most of us face the same stresses: financial pressure, personal health issues, complex relationships, and too much to do and too little time in which to do it. how can we help ourselves and each other at the same time? what can we do to prevent even one person in our community from reaching the point of desperation that sees no way out but untimely death?
the truest answer is "i don’t know." if i did, perhaps my friend might have avoided the terrible agony he inflicted on himself, his family, and the many of us who loved him. but i can’t help feeling that there was a balance scale somewhere in the "fairness sector" of his mind, as i’m sure there is in yours and in mine. every day there are pebbles falling on that scale. the little red needle is on "e", and you notice gas is now almost $4 per gallon. plink. your dog looks into your eyes as if you are the most amazing creature on the planet. plink. the clerk at the store ignores your friendly comment and continues her private discussion with her co-worker. plink. someone takes the time to send an email and say "your column made me laugh. thanks!" plink. you leave your car outside on a sunny evening, and wake up in the morning to find the window open and a puddle of rain in your seat and on the carpet. plink. you get through on the first call to ticketmaster and score killer seats to a show that sold out in 10 minutes. plink. the sitter calls and cancels at the last minute as you are putting your car in line for the ferry to be on time for the concert. plink. maybe you have tremendous “credit reserves” on your scale. your "good stuff" pan is pinned to the floor like it’s glued down with two-part epoxy. or maybe that was a few years ago, and these days the thing dips with each pebble. one more run of three or four bad things in a row is going to push you somewhere you have never been before. life is so uncertain. but one thing is for sure: none of us can see your scale. i’m not even entirely sure about the condition of my own. that is just a little unnerving. so what are we going to do about it? we have an advantage over some of our friends and family. not everyone lives on an island. how fortunate we are to be here, set just slightly but importantly apart from a world of stress and congestion and theft and violence. no road rage. no standing traffic backed up for miles on a day when we left with just enough time to get to work. very little chance of being assaulted or verbally abused for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. just by living here we’ve given ourselves a better-than-average shot at having more pebbles land on the healthy side of the scale. what shall we do with this advantage? i can think of a few small things we can do as we interact day to day. many of us volunteer, whether at the fire department or the food bank or the schools or any number of other places. some of us would like to do more, but also face the reality of 24 hour days that just won’t hold much more. so i would like to suggest that we incorporate some simple attitude adjustments that might make a difference on our scale or someone else’s: smile. make eye contact. really listen. give someone else your place in line. help carry that heavy bag of dog food. stop for the patient pedestrian. offer help to a tourist staring at a town map. pick up somebody else’s litter. buy a cup of coffee for the next person in line. just as importantly, when someone does one of these nice things for you, be gracious in accepting. allow the giver room to give. it is said that it takes about three weeks to establish a new habit so it no longer feels "weird" or "unnatural." but since most of us do a lot of these things already, it should be easier than that. just be ready for the feeling that what you are doing is contrived or awkward, and push through that feeling. as wonderful as our home is, it can be even better. let us appreciate our great good fortune in living here and also honor it by being just a bit more grateful, gracious, patient, and kind. and when we mess up, fall short, or make mistakes – and we will - let us extend that all-too-uncommon common courtesy to ourselves and simply try again.