Sunday, October 1, 2017

good advice maybe

On my first day at the monastery, the abbot took the trouble to welcome me with a face-to-face meeting in a room lit by candles. My memory will not today cough up all the particulars of what he said, but I remember the gist of it: "Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut."

Since the monastery was devoted to Zen Buddhism and since silences in such places are often as pregnant as a mother awaiting quintuplets, it was probably good advice. But I was younger then and being able to digest and exercise the good advice from my elders was not exactly my strong suit.

When has it ever been different? Wasn't it Mark Twain who didn't say (but might well have), "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years"?

Good advice, even priceless advice, does not flow from the experienced to the inexperienced. Yes, the words may be true, but the truth goes begging: It's just one of those human conundrums. If an abbot at 60 suggests a course of action to someone of 35, how thoroughly can the younger person understand? There may be a hundred woulda-coulda-shoulda responses to this question, but my experience is that since the young have yet to compile the tools for understanding, there is no real reason why they should understand.

How infuriating for the older person who has the scars to show for the experience expressed! How hard-won those experiences may be! How dear! And how deep the desire to transmit to those who are loved the pitfalls and pains of that experience! But it won't wash. All the "sharing" and "caring" and "closure" in the world ... pffffft! Tell as much truth as you like and the truth remains shrouded in secrecy.

George Santayana is credited with variations of the observation, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The older I get, the more I think this observation is utter horse-hockey. Remember the past, forget the past -- there is little or no difference: History repeats itself. Why else would war and famine and other depredations prove so reliable? Those with scars to prove their adventures and conclusions are little improved from the unscarred traveler who is just setting out.

The elderly may be as infuriated as they like. The universe whispers nonetheless, "Tough titty!" The young may bow their heads in obeisance to sage counsel: Yes, master. Pfffft!

From Japan, a friend writes of his two sons who succumbed to mental illness. What more might he have done? Oh, if only .... Even on the email page, the claws reach out and grasp my throat. I too have children. I too can imagine the blood dripping from my veins and arteries and ... what might I do to help stanch such wounds. I am older than my friend. Have I no well-scarred experience with which to help? Would it help if I could? But whatever my sadness -- and it feels horrific -- the universe is unimpressed. Tough titty, Adam.
How many times have I tried to tell my children ... tell them something I take seriously ... tell them something with pitfalls aplenty ... pitfalls I pray they might escape ... tell them from my heart and soul and yet the response is almost always the same:

"Yeah, pop."

The years creep up and up and up. The lessons blur. The impact lessens. I know more or less what I know and realize that whatever my truth -- be it the true truth or just some well-burnished version thereof -- it's just the truth, Leave it alone. I may wish it were so or wish it were not ... let it be. To the extent that that feels lonely, to that extent exactly I am trying to burnish and elevate it.

Hell, it's just the truth.

Or that's what I try to tell myself, poor juvenile schmuck that I am.


  1. It strikes me as an uninformed assumption that we would all take the lessons of history to make the world a better place for everyone. I imagine that the movers and shakers remember history and took that knowledge to make the world a better place for themselves. Screw the rest of us. At least that seems to be what keeps repeating.

    1. I might say shakers and movers don't just remember history; they write whatever history they understand fit for public consumption.

      In fact, "history" - as collective experience - seems so full of black holes and added commas, that I sometimes wonder if anyone at all still has access to it's memory.

      A bit like personal experiences, I suppose, riddled by personal mental frames and filters.

    2. olcharlie, you are not incorrect, but what’s your point? To be like them?