“Once I knew only darkness and stillness… my life was without past or future… but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.” Helen Keller*
I sit here in front of my high-tech laptop, sipping on a cup of organic Sumatran coffee, sunshine pouring through my window and a light breeze ruffling the curtains. I have already had a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese, diced onions and hot sauce along with ‘ vegan cornbread (I done good with that!). I’m looking forward to not one but two events tonight in my hip town of Columbus, Ohio. They are both can’t-miss, so I have scheduled the day off from work and will try to shoehorn them both in. I feel guilty about missing the work, but I will live frugal the next two weeks to make up for it. After all, even though I am a working-class American, I still make more money than about 95 percent of the people in the world.
I think as working-class Americans we sometimes don’t realize how good we have it. We lament about not being able to get that new car this year or go to that music festival this weekend (at least I do). We buy the generic versions of products to save a few bucks and then complain that the cheap toilet paper fell apart or is not soft enough. We swing through the McDonalds drive-thru for a one dollar McDouble that is basically a fat, sodium and cholesterol sammitch, then we complain that our tummy hurts or we got no energy. That one dollar spent and 390 calories is more than a lot of the people in this world get to live on for a day. Every day. There’s a good chance that those same people don’t have access to clean water or sanitation, let alone the cheap toilet paper we are bitching about. In fact, 1.1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water. And sadly, 1.8 million children die every year from the effects of diarrhea. Yes we are fortunate. It might be instructive fast for a day every once in a while to really feel what it’s like to be hungry.
I have been lucky. I’m pushing a half-century and I am still relatively healthy. I’ve abused my body with food, drink and lack of exercise. I have lived the life of excess that is common among my contemporaries. The only significant health problem that I have encountered is a few gout attacks over the last couple of years. They are directly attributed to my aforementioned lifestyle. The worst things that a man with gout can consume are red meat, shellfish, and alcohol. I have binged on all of those in my day. Now I pay the price. Other than that, I am healthy. I have all of my senses in tact. I have turned vegetarian to reverse my condition. I have dropped about fifty pounds in the last three years. I’ve been biking to work every day. I repeat. I am a lucky man. I am better off than six billion or so people around the world.
Imagine just for a second what it was like to be Helen Keller. Imagine being a perfect, healthy baby girl one day, only to be deaf and blind the very next. She was literally cut off from the world by a short bout of fever. Yet she continued to try to communicate, made up her own set of signals, eventually becoming the first deaf and blind person to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree. She eventually became an accomplished lecturer and activist, championing the causes of socialism, pacifism and suffrage. Helen Keller refused to let he affliction get her down. Even though she had a severe condition that would for most people kill their development like a lightning strike killing a tree, she rose above. She kept her beautiful mind open to every other form of stimulus. She rose above.
Sometimes I look around me and all I see is sloth and laziness. I will go into a dicey neighborhood where it’s probably not safe after dark. I see the boarded-up houses, debris-strewn yards and people sitting on their porches in the middle of the day. It is very easy to feel holier-that-thou in these situations. It is very easy to discount these people and judge them unworthy. It is natural for me to want to retreat back to my lair and my laptop and coffee mug. Why don’t they rise above like Helen Keller? After all, she had a lot more hurdles to overcome than them. If these people don’t want to help themselves then why should I bother? Because it is my chosen profession. I am in the business of standing up for working (and not-working) people. I came to this profession because I was weary of working for causes that I couldn’t believe in. I may not be able to help all those people without water or sanitation, but I can help folks in my own community.
“To practice Right Livelihood, (samyag ajiva) you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.” Thich Nhat Hahn**
Right Livelihood is the fifth spoke of the eight-fold path to enlightenment as it was laid out twenty-five centuries ago by the Buddha. In this day and age it has come to mean not sacrificing your principles for monetary or social gain. In short, making a lot of money is not going to guarantee your happiness or fulfillment. But if you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, “I did my best. I helped instead of hindered,” then you are practicing right livelihood. I have worked jobs that paid a lot of money. At times I could face myself in the mirror. But many other times the reflection that stared back at me was one of shame. I didn’t like that feeling.
It doesn’t matter what your profession. What matters is that you are making daily positive impact on those around you. I have numerous friends who have chosen to make far less money in order to pursue their art. I commend them. I say it to all who will listen. Follow your bliss. The world cannot have too many blissful people. Listen to your heartbeat. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. That is the bass line of your life.
Helen Keller lost her ability to hear. But she didn’t lose her ability to listen. That is the important distinction here. In this regard, maybe she had an advantage over the rest of us. She had the ability to concentrate within herself. With her senses deprived, the touch of a human hand upon her own was the most precious of all things. Imagine if all you could do was taste, smell and feel. Imagine the flooding of these senses if you were smack dab in the middle of a pine forest. Imagine the feeling of the sun’s rays beating down on your face. Imagine the explosion of a ripe strawberry as you bite into it.
Focusing your senses is like pouring milk into a bowl.*** If your concentration is scattered, it is like you have a crack in the bowl. The sensations will still pour into it, but they will quickly drain out. If the bowl is too full, there is no place for new sensations or ideas to populate. But if you stare down into the bottom of the bowl, see the bowl (your mind) for the empty thing that it is, you can focus your energy on the task at hand. I hope it’s that ripe strawberry. I would love one right now.
* Helen Keller (1880-1963) American author and activist.
** Thich Nhat Hahn (born 1926) Vietnamese Buddhist Monk
*** Adapted from a Zen koan. I ain’t that smart.