With pithy public-service announcements about the transitory nature of existence, I remind myself regularly not to get too comfortable here. But it’s the kind of advertising that’s immediately forgotten as I settle into my comfortable sofa in my comfortable home. In the morning, I take a shower — plenty of hot water — and slip into one of several familiar identities, a few of them the worse for wear but nothing that a little accessorizing won’t fix. They all answer to the name “Sy.” They all recognize Sy’s aging face in the mirror. They’re all unable to accept that at any moment all of this will end.
What I need to give up: Confusing sentimentality with compassion. Reducing the world to whatever is in my field of vision. Being clever. Being charming. Being unduly self-effacing about what I’ve accomplished; wearing my ego inside-out.
I’m too serious. But I was always too serious. When I was seven years old, a relative called me a “little gentleman,” and the label stuck. It made me proud at first, but as I grew older, I wondered: What did the “little gentleman” do to the little boy?
The Jesuits have a saying: Give me the boy at seven, and I’ll give you the man.
It’s foggy this morning, but I won’t blame the Weather Channel. I stayed up too late last night, but I won’t blame the Internet or the computer that sits on my lap like a household pet who responds to my every command. Barack Obama hasn’t kept all his promises, but I won’t blame him for having a hard time governing the same country that elected Nixon and Reagan and Bush the elder and Bush the prodigal son. The casualty figures in Afghanistan keep rising, but I won’t blame the United States or the Taliban for making war, not love — for hasn’t this been the habitual behavior of humans for as long as other humans have been condemning it?
Maybe something in the human psyche has always needed a wolf at the door: If it’s not blizzards or floods, it’s terrorists or Communists or Attila the Hun. It’s the man next door who prays facing west not east; who falls asleep laughing at Groucho Marx, not reading Karl Marx.
Sometimes, when my life seems too busy by half, I remember that the Dalai Lama wakes up between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. so he can squeeze in six hours of meditation before beginning his regular workday.
I rushed up and down the aisles trying to cram as many accomplishments as possible into my shopping cart. Maybe tomorrow there will be a sale, and I can accomplish two things at once!
It’s not hard work that makes me tired. It’s the dog-and-pony show in my head, the ego’s nonstop performance art, all that homeland insecurity.
Every year, new words are added to the language — too many, if you ask me. Nouns are dragged into alleys, beaten into submission, then sent back into the world dressed as verbs like “transitioning” or “gifting” or, if you pardon my English, “languaging.” Marketers invent new words to move more inventory. Specialists invent new words to keep feeling special. My spiritually sensitive friends invent new words to show how spiritually sensitive they are. Such people are likely to be surprised that Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-eight times. When asked what the problem was, Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.” He didn’t need new words to describe such fundamental experiences as love and death and loss and joy, just as an accomplished pianist doesn’t need 96 keys or 110 keys; 88 will do just fine.
It’s one thing to be serious; it’s another to be self-serious. Honoring the Mystery means being able to laugh at ourselves, too. Most of the great spiritual teachers have known this, I’m sure. After all, how many people would have gathered to hear Jesus speak if he’d been just another self-righteous sourpuss? Clearly, he knew how to work a crowd. And once you have your audience doubled over in laughter, you can sell them the Brooklyn Bridge; you can convince them to love their neighbor.
I dreamt that I was wandering around the Sun office, only everything looked different and the staff was different and no one knew who I was. Maybe I’m anticipating my next career move, when I segue from being The Sun’s editor and publisher to The Sun’s resident ghost, bewildered as only ghosts can be that everything has changed; not realizing, at least at first, that there are better ways to communicate with the still-living than to harass them with the usual ghost shtick. I told them I didn’t want to be any trouble, but was there a chance they could set me up with an old manual typewriter and a desk made from a dead tree? They were all so young. They were all so busy. They had a deadline to meet, they said. I knew all about deadlines but had the good sense to keep my mouth shut. I was glad that they were working so hard. I was glad that they were publishing a real, honest-to-God independent magazine, even though I wasn’t real anymore.