Is life 140 characters? Part 2

Last week in this space I hinted at the loneliness of writing – I also ended with the promise of how these saved letters changed my life – all in the contextualization and limitation of life as 140 character slices.

The definition of loneliness possesses the attributes of sadness, rejection and separation. Does writing supplant those mindsets or instead does it fulfill a vital conversation that needs to take place within each one of us? We relentlessly look for quick fixes in our lives to solve problems and are equally quick to blame others for those problems. We develop alcohol and chemical addictions and some not so obvious ones as well to cope with our pain. For entertainment we watch inordinate amounts of mindless reality TV programs out of boredom – it is far too easy to turn on the tube than to “do something”. We turn to porn for instant sexual excitement, gratification or arousal. We go to therapists to have them “fix” us – often without willing to do the self-work required. Do we know what our essence or our soul is asking of us? Key question is this – When do we devote the time to listen to ourselves – only ourselves? In yoga we learn about stillness – it is funny, but with all those moves and poses we seek stillness. We focus on our breath – the inhale and the exhale. Writing is a sense of capturing that stillness – it is a form of therapy. We write out the thoughts we are thinking after processing their unique meaning to us. Writing for me has not been that Zen experience some strive for whilst meditating – although the benefits of meditation are many. Writing has allowed me to hear myself, which I have only successfully accomplished while in that state of loneliness.

So what did I get out of writing those letters? And the other relevant question is what benefit did I subsequently derive by re-reading them some thirty years later? It takes precious time to write out ones thoughts – to feel them and to understand them. It is a time of reflection, of order, relevance and process. Remarkable for me was to re-read letters I had saved – and insightful to re-read letters of mine that others had also hoarded. My dear friend from East Berlin is but one such person who saved my letters to him and I his. As I began to write my book a key exercise was to try and recall what I was thinking at the time I scribed those letters to Frank and others. Had I changed? Were those thoughts consistent with my present-day ideals I hold true? Reviewing those letters over and over again was a cathartic and at times painful journey of self-discovery. At the time of writing them I don’t believe I was self-aware in the way that I am today. I could have been, except for the fact I wasn’t ready to listen to myself. That came with; experience, maturity, pain, mistakes, loneliness and lessons. “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

Is life 140 characters?

I am not the first to draw analogies between absurdities of our life perfectly captured into 140 characters at a time – or heaven forbid even less! Nor will this piece be the last. But for inspiration I draw upon life altering, multidimensional, handwritten letters that changed my life.

Thankfully I habitually hoarded letters I received throughout this life of mine. Some are not fit to reproduce in this or any space, but some, many in fact will be published – with any luck – in my completed memoir – Us versus Us, An intimate journey of letters and walls. As I sifted through these relics and windows into my past, one of the first revelations that emerged to me is that sadly, the art of letter writing, for many, is long gone. One can go on indefinitely about today’s instant communications, our rushed daily lives or the apparent pandemic of attention deficit disorder that has afflicted many of us, but it much more than that. A written letter is a temporary but very protracted one-way dialogue alone in our own thoughts. Oh yes, the written letter is intended for one specific individual on a topic or subject of mutual interest. It can also be the continuation from the previous correspondence, but as one writes these letters, it is a wonderful solitude of self-communication that is not part of today’s reality. Certainly, there is no instant gratification like a retweet on Twitter or that soon-to-be relic – email. Yet the response to the letter may take weeks to come full circle – who has that patience today? I would suggest, should you consider my words and begin composing a letter to someone – NOT to email the letter. I recall ever so fondly, the anticipation of wondering when the intended recipient received my letter, what did he or she think as they read my written words, I even romanticized about the possible moment when it was being read.   And then days later, I longed to return home after work to retrieve the daily mail to see if another letter had arrived. Those are wonderful memories …

Let’s slow down here and truly get into the moment of what it is like to write a letter. It begins now. I sit down even putting pen to paper and I start. Twenty minutes goes by and I decide to make myself a cup of coffee. Before I return to the letter the phone rings and my mother is having an issue that warrants my immediate attention. It is 3pm and time for my yoga class. By 8pm I return to my letter. I get hungry and have a late night snack returning right away to my letter – but tiredness overwhelms me and in short order I am off to bed. We’ll finish this letter tomorrow. Tomorrow comes and goes, sometimes thirty or fifty tomorrows come and go and until finally the letter is completed. I buy a stamp from the local post office and mail it off to my friend. This is not a hypothetical story. Okay, I was not doing yoga thirty years ago, hadn’t even heard of it back then, but many of the letters that I wrote and received from my friend Frank, who I met behind the Berlin Wall in 1983 were composed exactly like that. There was no instant send key in the 80’s. Life was slower – and it was wonderful. But during all that time writing those letters, it was me alone with my uninterrupted thoughts processing word to word – sentence to sentence – like the loneliness of any writer. As much as I was communicating with Frank, it was a dialogue with myself. There was no immediate feedback from Frank to my concerns on the new Soviet leader Gorbachev – and his viability as leader of the USSR, or my thoughts on the Soviet boycott of the 1984 LA Olympics, or on the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. Not to mention the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I also had to deliberate to myself – in my letter of consolation to Frank upon the breakup of a promising relationship with his girlfriend – without any competing or brooding dialogue with him. Was I saying something insensitive? Was I being inadvertently flippant or unreasonable? Well, Frank would have to endure several pages of that tripe and I – would have to wait weeks to learn of his interpretation of my very well intended comments.

140 characters at a time is not life – life and my thoughts are much more than 140 characters at a time. Next week I will continue this piece and explain how these written letters changed my life …

a short reprise and more … my introduction expanded

Where I am going was the question. My journey is about change – my message is that what I write in this space can apply to each one of us. It is therefore not about me – but about all of us. It concerns what we feel about other people; races, skin-colours, religions, genders / sexual orientation and any other label we apply to “them” but ultimately it stems from what we feel about ourselves – about “us”. What is my motivation you may ask? Quite simply, I saw so much anger, hate and intolerance in our lives – correction – in my life – that that life became a daily battle, debate and antagonism. I began by recognizing a colossal sense of unsettledness within. The illogic behind my feelings of anger, hate and intolerance were a wake-up call to say the least. I decided to start to make some choices. We can make choices you know!

Let me ask you the following question: When you are driving your car and another driver cuts you off or displays other non-courteous actions – do you flip them the bird, honk your horn, swear at them, perhaps perform some other non-courteous counter-maneuver? Think of the moment immediately prior to this incident – how did you feel at that point in time? And think about how differently you felt after the incident? I don’t know about you, but I don’t like what I am feeling inside when I get mad or angry – EVEN when I think I am right! My goal is not to assist you in becoming better drivers – but I am going to attempt to focus on the micro in our lives and not the macro.

What do I mean by the micro and the macro? I will never be POTUS – president of the United States of America – after all I was not born in the USA. I do not expect to be Secretary General of the United Nations. I will not become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You will not be a part of a sold out audience at any venue listening to me sing and entertain you. Put it another way – I will never have that big stage from where to pontificate. But you are reading my words. You might even give over an idea or two you read here to a friend. I will tell those in my circle what I am writing and thinking. That is the micro. On the other hand, I can debate the merits of a particular international treaty with you, evoke outrage at a terrorist attack in the letters to the editor, defend “right” from “wrong” on the geo-political stage at our weekly card game, scream and argue at a public rally or demonstration denouncing a country – but what has that accomplished? More angry people! That is the micro action performing a futile action. BUT – what if there was another way that wasn’t macro? What if the focus was micro on micro?

As I write in my yet unpublished book, Us versus Us –

I am not a writer. I am not a politician. I am certainly not a theologian.

I am not an academic nor a doctor or Ph.D., nor do I have any specialized credentials or expertise that allow me to speak with any authority on the topic of hate. I claim no originality; I am a completely average guy who even wonders himself what the hell I think gives me the right to attempt such a mad adventure as writing a book on this subject.

What do I know about hate? What do I know about global problems and the resolution of conflict and solutions for peace? What makes me think I have anything to contribute? After all, there have been extraordinary individuals—brilliant statesman, scientists, religious leaders, intellectuals, people far more talented and smarter or more gifted than I—who have tried the same thing. What makes me special?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

But it comes down to numbers. Fact is, the ordinary like me around the world far exceed the extraordinary. We can change the world—at least each of us our own little part of the world—for the better but not if we cannot commit to making change. And the change we need to make can be best achieved from the bottom up and not from the top down. We don’t need extraordinary leaders; we have been there, done that, and it has failed miserably. What is required of us is that we be extraordinary.

So as I embark on my journey, I invite you to join me. You may fully embrace some of the ideas expounded, and vehemently disagree with other thoughts – but let’s first get to learn about one another before we debate religious, political or other macro matters that by their parochial nature are so close to us that we can easily become threatened by opposing opinions before we even begin. Are you stuck or are you ready to consider something new in yourself and in other people? Is it worth the risk? It was for me – I will tell you more about that later.

bele and lokai

Art imitates life – We generally hate that which we don’t know, that which we don’t understand or that which we fear. And in particular cases certainly, where “our” people have been harmed – often in appalling circumstances, the group responsible becomes a natural and even generational target for our hate – I get that. I was a part of that specific phenomenon.

But who amongst us was born hating anyone? Who emerged from the womb of our dear mother hating another people? Not intending to cast blame, but let’s face facts; We hate because of what we have been exposed to and taught by influential people in our respective impressionable pathways of life; parents, grandparents, teachers, community leaders, politicians, media, the friends we make along the way – you get my drift. But why did those who precede us hate? They too were exposed and taught etc. etc. etc. We have all been trapped in this vicious, and sad and seemingly unending cycle of hate.   It is a malady that has afflicted humankind for millennia. Where will it all end?

Nothing more aptly depicts this absurdity and insanity of hate and postulates where it might all end more than the fictional Star Trek third season episode entitled, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. In that memorable show, Bele and Lokai are the last survivors of their planet engulfed in war. The racially motivated hate that rages in both of them and has wiped out all but these two remaining warriors is not apparent to the Enterprise crew. Both Bele and Lokai and their respective “races” have black and white sides of their face, divided equally down the middle of their face. Bele and his people have white on the left side, Lokai and his people are white on the right – on this point Bele and Lokai are clearly and racially aware. Their rage continues to the end of this uniquely educational episode. Lt. Uhura asks Captain Kirk if hate was all they ever had and Kirk’s reply is, “No, but it is all they have left”.

Hopefully we on earth can avoid Bele and Lokai’s fate.

so here we go …

Where I am going is the question. My personal journey is about change – my message is that what I write in this space can apply to each one of us. It is therefore not about me – but about all of us. It concerns what we feel about other people; races, skin-colours, religions, genders / sexual orientation and any other label we apply to “them” but ultimately it stems from what we feel about ourselves – about “us”.

Are we stuck in the old comfortable ways or are we ready to consider something new in ourselves and in other people? Is it worth the risk? It was for me – I will tell you more about that later.