A front-page article in the local newspaper includes a half-column head shot of a smiling man with grey hair. A pleasant-looking guy whom the article depicted as a hard-working, friendly man ... who was found dead in Vermont, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. One last smile for the camera.
I read the article, not because I have an old-fart tendency to read obituaries, but because I instinctively like things that challenge assumptions ... smiling, well-liked guy (a social positive) commits suicide (a social negative). The scenario challenges those who knew the man and those who didn't: And that, to my mind, was the important part about the news article.
But I also felt a twinge of regret that such challenges appeal to me. How much more social to be surprised or horrified or confused. How much more reassuring to take the picture anyone might have of this hard-working guy and put it in a picture frame and hang it on the mind's wall ... yup, that's George all right... big smile, workaholic, friendly ... and boom! George shot himself to death and simultaneously blew up the limiting assumptions around him.
Anyone might do anything at any time and yet I limit them in my mind ... and in so doing, create a limiting view of myself. Perhaps that's what anyone likes about surprises: Surprises call into question the convenient bias and judgments of the mind. Somewhere in the back of my head, I already knew that all those descriptions, all those certainties, all that bias was fictional at best. But I relied on those fictions nonetheless. Why? Out of laziness or fear? What is the matter with freedom, with limitlessness? Do I need this baggage? Does it honestly make me any happier, safer, more at ease?
My twinge of regret is that I take such questions seriously. How much more social it would be not to ask and, when expressing the questions to others, to make them uncomfortable. Not to equate myself with the Buddha, but it reminds me of Layman P'ang, an old Buddhist fellow, who once complained about (approximately) "all those Buddhas running around pestering others." He was right, for my money ... no one likes being a pest. And yet, it seems, no matter how much anyone might try, everyone turns out to be a pest one way or another.
Look at smiling George.