In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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It’s morning but still dark out. It’s also raining and cold. I’m walking out of the twenty-four-hour fitness center, on my way to the all-night Waffle House, when a woman hails me from her car. She has just run away from her husband, she says, and needs gas money to get to her mother’s.
Gas money now, is it? Who doesn’t need gas money to get to their mother’s these days? Probably drug money she’s really after. I hate being panhandled. But a softer voice inside me says, Hey, wake up. Here’s a human being in distress. This is an opportunity to be of help. It’s not your concern what she does with the money.
“He’s a bastard,” she tells me.
Peering into my wallet, I see that my smallest bill is a twenty. Ouch. I was thinking of a couple of dollars, five at the most.
“Here,” I say, handing her a twenty. “This won’t get you very far these days.”
She thanks me profusely. I can see that she is crying. She waves and honks another thank-you as she drives off.
An hour later, my own gas tank topped off, I sit down to prepare my classes over a double espresso at the Daily Grind. I’ve only just begun working when my laptop crashes and won’t restart. Now I’m the one who feels like crying.
OK, I tell myself. That’s the way today is going. Close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths. Disappointments are there to remind us of the big picture: Everything that’s created also falls apart. This machine is like my body, which will crash too one day. Both machines are far from new.
Or big picture number two: For most of the world, a sudden fifteen-hundred-dollar setback would be heart-stopping. I can pay for this. I have a credit card. By world standards I’m economically privileged.
Finally the coffee and sugar start to kick in. Dawn is breaking. The rain has stopped. I try my computer one more time, to see if a miracle has happened. It hasn’t.
In my world-literature class this morning, I am teaching the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture written in the fourth century B.C., in which the god Krishna takes human form as the charioteer of the warrior Arjuna. Krishna presses upon Arjuna that the attention we pay to particular outcomes in life, be they good or bad, should be minimal. Fortune will change like the weather: Now you have fallen ill. Now your illness has been cured. Now you have gone broke. Now you have inherited a stash of money. Now somebody has put a ding in your new chariot. Now you have fallen in love. Relinquish attachment to outcomes, Krishna advises; be equally indifferent to success and failure. The real value of what happens “out there” in the ever-changing world (and, from Krishna’s perspective, “out there” includes your own body) lies in the opportunity to see anew from “in here” — from the perspective of the eternal soul.
In the afternoon I’m coming down pretty hard from my morning caffeine trip when I learn by phone that my book has been rejected by a university press that held the manuscript for longer than two years. In a recent conversation, the press director told me he was optimistic. I close my eyes and suffer this rejection for a few minutes: Why me?
Then a little voice inside me says, Why don’t you ever ask, “Why me?” when something good happens? Did you utter, “Why me?” when your daughter was born healthy?
After my three-hour night class, I circle the residential streets looking for an inconspicuous place to park my van and sleep in it. It’s been a long day. I don’t feel like driving an hour and twenty minutes home just to drive back again in the morning. A spot beside a church is always promising. Even better if the church is a little run-down and offbeat, like the Free Methodist, or God’s Love, or the Unitarian Universalist. Karate clubs and yoga centers are also good — if they’re in a part of town where an aging Dodge conversion van doesn’t appear out of place.
Tonight, though, like last night, I end up in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s open 24/7, and there’s a restroom. Plus I can buy a bedtime snack. I steel myself before I go inside. Watching people mull over their purchases in a Wal-Mart late at night can put me into a mild depression. You’re shopping here, too, the little voice whispers as I stand in line to purchase a sack of peanuts so I won’t wake up hungry at 1 A.M.
Back in my van, satisfied I’m unobserved, I pull down my bed in the back and slide into my sleeping bag. The traffic along Interstate 81 is a dull roar, but a steady one, so it won’t disturb my sleep. The traffic never stops. It goes all night. I try to think of it as a distant wind.
I’ve aligned my bedside window to a parking-lot light to illuminate the pages of my book. Outside, some kids are skateboarding. A couple walks by pushing carts full of groceries. I hear them talking two feet away, on the other side of my tinted window, as if they were alone: about how long the day has been; about how tired they’ve been feeling lately. The window at the foot of my bed perfectly frames the big red letters of the Wal-Mart sign: AL-MART. The W has burned out. I notice the R and the T are starting to flicker.
After half a page, I’m falling asleep. Wisdom doesn’t come easily, Krishna teaches Arjuna. It takes practice to develop a mind quiet enough to hear life’s deeper truths. It takes discipline. It takes lifetimes.
In my wallet I carry a small blue piece of paper bearing the epitaph of novelist Nikos Kazantzakis: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” I have just started my intern year as a new physician, and every day I try to remember these words and recognize my fears and frustrations, as well as my blessings. A moment ago I took a short break in my call room to read Jim Ralston’s essay “You’re in Here, Too” [July 2006]. His story of struggling to develop a quiet mind helped me to remember to be gentle with myself as I struggle, too.