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LOVE and COURAGE
Are there any wholly useless encounters? I know this: There are no insignificant people. There is no one who isn't supposed to be here.
We need other people, not in order to stay alive, but to be fully human: to be affectionate, funny, playful, generous. How genuine is my capacity for love if there is no one for me to love, to laugh with, to treat tenderly, to be trusted by? I can love an idea or a vision, but I can't throw my arms around it. Unless there is someone to whom I can give my gifts, in whose hands I can entrust my dreams, who will forgive me my deformities, my aberrations, to whom I can speak the unspeakable, then I am not human. I am a thing, a gadget that performs but has no music.
We talked again last night. What he doesn't seem to realize is that if he isn't loyal to someone, if there isn't someone his guts will simply not allow him to manipulate, then his life is going to be a succession of deceits. His treacheries are so reasonable that he thinks any understanding friend would forgive him. But he will not be forgiven. Time and again he will be abandoned. Loyalty is not reasonable. It is the easiest sentiment of all to argue against. If we have a friend, we sometimes act against our own best interests. A time may come when we appear self-destructive because we have this friend and there is something we must do to help him. There are worse things than losing time, losing money, losing position, even than losing life; and when we love someone we sense that. But what words could I use that would reach inside him and trigger loyalty? I couldn't explain why anyone would want to be loyal, when he knows that he has the alternative of acting rationally and living an orderly life.
Is your first responsibility to yourself? This question is misleading; that is, it misleads the person who takes it to heart. It's like asking, Must you shift your weight in order to walk? Of course you must, but those who concentrate first on shifting their weight will not walk well.
There are people whose feelings and well-being are within our influence. We can never escape this fact. The oneness that Gayle and I have worked to achieve is now a swinging door. It not only means that when I choose peace for myself, I choose peace for her, but when I choose misery, that too becomes my shrouded gift.
Individual growth can't take precedence over relationships; it can't because it ceases to be growth in the attempt.
"Love thy neighbor as thyself" does not imply, as I have heard stated so often, that one must first love oneself. It implies nothing more complicated than the fact that anything less than love is not love. Love does not exclude; it embraces. If we don't love someone outside ourselves, then very simply, we do not love ourselves.
Is love in me, or is it something apart from me that works through me? I can reason either way, but I can't deny how it feels: It feels as if there are times when I am more myself than at others. When I love spontaneously, when it simply comes out and there is no pretext or calculation, I don't feel either like a container of some precious but foreign spirit or like a vehicle for a thing outside of me. I feel: That which loves is me. And when the impulse is to hurt and I follow that, I feel like a betrayer, and the I has gone out of me.
To separate out my relationship to myself and set it aside for more luxuriant attention may be pleasurable; it may even be useful, but like any surgery it becomes more dangerous the longer it lasts. I am immobilized and temporarily severed from the other half of life. Ultimately my character is defined by the quality of my sensitivity to other people. I exist in equilibrium. I am here to the degree I am there.
Today I acknowledge that I am not in a position to judge what mistakes anyone is making or what lessons anyone needs to learn. I don't know how far someone has come or when that person will have a breakthrough, I simply don't know what other people should be doing. But when I think I do know, I clearly am not doing what I should be doing, which is taking responsibility for my own life.
I can't be found in myself; I discover myself in others. That much is clear. And I suspect that I also love and care for myself in others. It is only in helping someone else to awake that I awake. That's because to be awake is to be united, to be one. And to be asleep is to have a mind that is still divided into a world of warring figures. This simple pattern keeps recurring. A friend tells me of a problem or some misery in his or her life. I listen, or together we talk it out. Later I remember that I had been depressed or not feeling well before we met. The ailment is not only forgotten but discarded.
I spent the day being an heir. I had decided that no matter what else I did I would try to stay conscious of everything agreeable sent my way. Much has been written about the benefits of giving; I wanted to see what it would feel like to be a devoted receiver. It was pleasant. At times I felt like a person of great beauty. There was a flood of gifts from the New Mexico desert: stormclouds, birds, light on the mountains, and one rather gaily colored, though unassertive, winged something that walked in front of my cereal bowl. I wasn't surprised by most of that. What I hadn't expected was how much people in general appeared to be offering, especially people I didn't know. There is a natural outpouring from the human nature, more deliberate and sustained than I had noticed before. It comes in the form of gestures and looks and a certain endeavor in the voice, as well as outright good humor and helpfulness. It's an attitude that is often instinctive when one person is in the presence of another, and it is recognizably apart from the usual posturing. I am reminded of how some animals always stay close enough that at any time they can brush against each other.
I have a friend who is a good listener. If I tell her about some difficulty I'm having, I never get the feeling she is doing little more than waiting to say something supportive. Her primary concern is not to put on a show of being a good listener, but rather it's as though my problem has become her problem in all respects. She is intensely loyal, yet she doesn't automatically criticize the person I may be blaming. She has an instinct for knowing how much I love that person, and if I do she speaks gently because she is for me; by that I mean she wants for me what I want at the deepest level, and she knows when my anger is superficial. However, if the person is not significant to my life, her criticism so devours the individual that by the time she is through I can laugh at my foolishness. It is also my undeserved good fortune that this friend is my wife.
After he told me that his younger brother had been knifed and his eyes seemed to be pleading with me to do something to comfort him, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes giving him the thoughts that had helped me at times when I had suffered. Then he said, "If my brother dies I will die at the same moment. That's how close we are." I felt foolish for having tried to solve things. There is a kind of pain that is far beyond words, and I was too busy being conscientious to notice it. He simply needed someone to be with.
This day has been magical. I have been with three friends, one at a time, and I have learned that friends can transform you. The first held me up so I could see. I was able to distinguish the points where things touch, and where they divide, the essential forms coming at me from the future, new elements and consummations, and the old principles that must not be neglected. I could name them all. They spilled from my mouth. He was delighted with my concepts. He didn't seem to realize that he was the one who had given me the vision. My second friend made me gentle and earnest. She needed to talk, and so we talked for a long time. She thanked me for my concern as I was leaving, but she wouldn't have recognized me if I had been any other way. The third friend turned me into a clown, a jester, a creator of quips. I hadn't known my life was filled with so much absurdity. He laughed and laughed because he had made me so funny. My friends don't know what they have done today. It's nothing to them; they do it so often. I expect I must also cause a change in them. And so we—each a separate we—exist only in each other's presence. That is something precious, not to be walked away from easily, and something that has to be included in any definition of self-sufficiency.
Today at lunch Joe told me that he and Ann had decided to get married in three weeks. "That makes the engagement as long as the courtship." I found myself liking the absurd symmetry of that as much as Joe did. But what he said next worried me: "I've never met anyone quite like her; she has everything I could possibly want." He was filling in all the blanks. I have seen so many marriages and even friendships end when the inevitable realization comes that something was left out of the other person. Sometimes nothing more tangible can be cited than the vague feeling that "something was missing." Usually it can be pinpointed: "She wouldn't go bowling," or "He was humorless, totally humorless." Darleen once said to me, "Jim and I never talk books. If I want to talk books I visit Aunt May. Aunt May reads." So simple. It takes five to ten people to make up the one got-it-all friend we are looking for.
Something within me knows that most of what I am will die without people, and it doesn't behave itself. So I eventually surrender my seclusion and walk out the door. However, when the mind is given a problem to solve, its tendency is to select and fixate. That works well in a shoe store. But if I allow myself to become convinced that simply because a person is there, obvious and convenient, I am therefore in need of him or her, that if I don't make it with this individual I will be friendless, I not only create the likelihood that I will be disappointed, I also scare off the very person whose companionship I am seeking.
No one wants to be the only available source.
The window is not the view; the window allows the view.
All these people passing by. Every year another ocean of faces I will never see again. By using my eyes I can connect with a few, but only a few. And even that is often misunderstood. In a lifetime I will lay eyes on thousands of human beings—across rooms, on the street, inside buildings. What will come of it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Unless I change my attitude, they will remain a part of the dull background.
As I was walking back from Gary's office, I was remembering something funny he said. Several people passed me before I realized that most of them had smiled when they saw my face. This shows me a possibility of some general yet satisfying kind of stranger-to-stranger communication. I'm sure it's not to be found in rehearsed greetings or a prescribed sweetness of expression. It's probably a component of those mental states such as humor, love, and happiness, which, without trying, already include the people we meet.
However fatuously arrived at, even if it's that we look into each other's eyes as we pass in the aisle of a store, something is formed by this crossing of two lives. For a moment a new mixture has been made. No matter how quickly done, I hand something over, whether at home with Gayle or on the street. Life's burning question is, What do we leave in our wake? It isn't grandeur and glory that give a life its eternal mark, but the love or lovelessness of these minuscule encounters that mount up day by day. Coming home today I was in a five o'clock line of cars driving down Paseo de Peralta. There was a little boy sitting on an adobe wall who was having the time of his life waving at each driver who went by. I didn't see one person who could refuse him.
I tried an experiment today. I walked around the plaza holding the thought that I had returned home but my appearance was so radically changed no one could recognize me. All these people used to be very good friends of mine, and I was amused and delighted to see them again and to discover how well they were doing. As I walked I maintained this attitude, but I didn't try to force eye contact. What I discovered was that there was one group, more than half, who were oblivious of me, but there was another group who nodded or smiled, and I had a peculiar feeling that they were in on the secret—but that the secret was not what I had thought. It wasn't that I was playing a game, but that we indeed were not strangers, that in some tangible sense our relationship had existed before that moment. Oneness is experienced as familiarity. We sense the familiar in those around us. And if it is familiar, it must have always been there.
Love sees things as they are. We feel understood by the people who like us, misunderstood by the people who don't—and those feelings are probably realistic. We alone place limits on how many ways we can love.
Except briefly in elementary school I had never played football, but in my senior year of high school I decided to try out for the team. I liked the new coach and I wanted to confront my fear of contact sports, which I knew at times could be almost incapacitating. It quickly became clear that the coach had a much higher opinion of my abilities than I did, and under his daily urgings I began to transform in a way that seemed miraculous to me. I not only made the first team but lettered. He had seen what I was capable of and would accept nothing less from me. When I went to college, the coach there was indifferent. My fear returned and I eventually stopped playing altogether. I had experienced the power of being respected but not yet the power of respecting myself.
There must be another way to go through life besides being pulled through it kicking and screaming.
Learning to accept yourself is the beginning of change. Learning to accept others is the beginning of wholeness. Love expands. It not only sees more and enfolds more, it causes its object to bloom.
When my self-esteem is a veneer, that is, when it stands on superficialities such as body, dress, glibness, and reputation, I am less sensitive to other people as people, as living, laughing, hurting human beings. I stop seeing people directly and only watch others for their reactions to me.
Our mistakes are merely instances in which we have limited our options.
Sometimes I wonder if my standard of loyalty to myself is as high as it is to my friends. I am capable of selling myself out just to make points. Where are the decency and fairness for all when I present myself with anything less than integrity? I downgrade myself in order to please, but of course it never pleases. It's not realistic to expect someone to feel more respect for me than I display for myself. Yet, paradoxically, I respect myself by respecting others. The key to confidence is not to marshal my strength and bolster my self-image. It is to think and act so as not to be preoccupied with myself.
When individuals respect themselves, it can be seen in their posture, their voice, the integrity of their opinions. But it can't be strategy. And it has nothing to do with formality and restraint, because if we love ourselves we can also abandon ourselves: we can throw ourselves on the wind of love and know that we will soar.
It's pure pleasure to be around Jim and his little boy. No one could miss seeing how much they love each other. Even their most petulant arguments are touched with gentleness. Love isn't a war I'm engaged in. If I truly like someone, my affection will be recognized. When Gayle is on the phone it's clear from her laugh and tone of voice how much she likes the person at the other end. In attempting to convince others that they are liked more than they are, we often use an assiduous pressure. Love has no need to show itself off. It can be seen in position. Every muscle, every gesture, betrays it. Fill your heart with love, and its expression will take care of itself.
Love is uncovered; it is carefully disrobed, like folding back petals. It isn't a medal of sainthood.
As soon as they marry, many people get funny ideas about "rights." There is little hope for a marriage in which the overbalancing effort is to get the other person to behave. The person I want to live my life with is the person to whom I can give the greatest opportunity to do with her life what she wants.
A couple, who for the past nine years have had an almost ideal relationship, got married this Christmas. It lasted three weeks. It's not uncommon for a rancorous marriage to end in divorce and for the people to then live together quite harmoniously. In either case, the difference is the extent to which the two are willing to accept each other as they are.
Marriage isn't mutual ownership. It must be an act of trust in each other's good sense and good intentions. If a marriage is an expression of respect, then it adds grace to love and can soften the momentary selfishness that may cause a couple to let slip a friendship they have been building for years.
As of July, Gayle and I will have been married thirty-six years. That means ours will be the longest continuous relationship I have had. Before we got married I couldn't have guessed that this simple accumulation of years, taken by itself, would affect the quality of my life. It has given it an added bit of dignity: someone I admire has wanted to spend thirty-six years of her life with me.
Excerpted from LOVE and COURAGE by HUGH PRATHER. Copyright © 2001 Hugh Prather. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Love and Courage
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