The following piece was initially posted for the Summer 2013 issue of "Figs In Season" (www.FigtreeEnterprises.com).
"Figs In Season" focuses on inspiration for both our chronological and our kairotic journeys:
'A Season For Being Grounded'
GROUNDED : being mentally and emotionally stable : admirably sensible, realistic, and unpretentious. (Merriam-Webster)
Reflecting on the ordinary events and circumstances of our everyday lives can, with the right frames of reference, produce deeper insights into our existence. In fact, the extraordinary “revelations” produced by many of our sages are the results of a deeper analysis of events and circumstances that most of us bypass, or otherwise gloss over in the course of our own experiences. We can connect with our "deeper” selves by cultivating a more acute awareness of the implications of ordinary events and circumstances that occur daily in the various facets of our living. A deeper appreciation of the ordinary lays the foundation for better decision-making. It allows for extraordinary interventions on our part, when faced with critical situations.
Take for example the "wisdom of Solomon" as demonstrated in the case of two women who came before him in a dispute over a child. Both women had given birth to sons within a short time of each other. While they slept one of them overlaid her baby, resulting in his death. Now they were before the king, each claiming that the surviving child was hers. After considering the dilemma before him, the king proposes to split the surviving child in two with his sword and give each woman a half of the child. A horrendous proposition, but one readily approved of by the woman who was clearly not the child's mother.
What mother in her right mind would say yes to such a thing? In a culture where the definition of womanhood is tied to the ability to bear and raise children, some women become desperate about attaining and maintaining that status. But even in that desperation the bond engendered between a mother and child during the course of gestation remains more often than not, durable and unmistakable. A caring mother would never casually or otherwise agree to such a proposition to resolve this or any other crisis involving her child.
The other woman, heartbroken and going out of her mind about the possibility of such a fate for her baby, begged the king to give the child to this other heartless person in order to save its life. This was a demonstration of that motherly affection which we know to be almost universal, and with which most of us can identify. The king, recognizing her motherly instinct, gave the child to this woman. She had, without doubt, authenticated her motherly claim by being willing to save her child's life even if that meant she was going to lose custody to this desperate person.
The king’s action was that of a wise judge. Solomon demonstrated wisdom derived from an in-depth knowledge of his society’s norms, a real appreciation of the dynamics at work in the socio/cultural environment, and an intimate connection with the complex workings of the human mind and heart. We rightly applaud such great judgement. But as we do so it is vital to realize that each of us can give ourselves the benefit of this kind critical ability. We do so by cultivating a deeper awareness of the world around us and its workings.
To get a real grasp of the world outside the one we inhabit we must become daring. We must be willing to delve beneath our own ingrained superficiality. It demands that we unlock the gates of our old familiar comfort zones, and venture into the uncomfortable realm of mindsets and experiences that are foreign to our own experiences and unkind to our vulnerable sensibilities. Solomon cultivated this critical ability. To be a good king he had no choice. His was a groundedness wrought in the inconvenient, and at times agonizing business of governing. This is what it takes to be the masters of our domain.
Not too long ago I had an opportunity to do some reflection on certain events in my experience. The circumstances and demands of my analysis were nowhere as critical as in Solomon's; but they remain meaningful for me nonetheless. I hope you will find the following observations useful, as I invite you to ride along with me in this act of reflection-sharing.
Above the clouds
So here I was cruising at thirty-two thousand feet on a flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My flight originally scheduled for this time yesterday was cancelled without notice. A day later, with the sun streaming through the windows of the business class cabin, it is going to take at least an extra half-hour because we have been re-routed. This trip will add an extra two hundred or so miles, but it will get us around weather that might not be conducive to safe, comfortable flying.
The pilot explains that our new plan “will take us north toward Ohio, ... and then we will eventually approach our destination from the south-west...” instead of our usual swipe across the Delaware River. Small price to pay, I thought, I just want to get there...and in one piece. In the final analysis we will readily accept changes in our lives, and to our plans, when we realize that we have no viable alternative...and gladly so.
I have grown patient with these delays and re-routings from experience. One kinda has no choice but to adapt, if one intends to remain in a healthy state of mind. I bolster my acquired stoicism by telling myself “safety first”. Yesterday my flight was cancelled because of bad weather, and today I will get to my destination at least a half hour later...because of inclement weather. Ok. Safety first. And besides, what’s a half hour, I have no plans for the evening.
It has become quite interesting to stand by and observe fellow travelers get really angry about these cancellations and delays. To hear them tell it, they have important business that can't wait. Some rant and rave, demonstrating that aura of self-importance that “indispensables” are known for; but to no avail. To such persons it matters not what the reason for the change is. Come hell or high water, the airline had better find a way to get them to their destination on time.
The seasoned agent behind the counter will patiently listen, knowing full well that there is not a damned thing that will be done to satisfy the demands of angry, disappointed clients. Oh hold on, maybe a free ticket to a destination of choice. Not! Just a new itinerary, a facile smirk, and a not so gracious “thanks for your patience and understanding”. “Now go back home, or go find a hotel room till tomorrow!”. Oh hold on, that last sentence is me thinking out loud. There is such a thing as “an act of God”; the consequences of which we are all expected to share.
I recline my seat just enough to maximize my comfort, without impinging on the space of the passenger behind me. I am always conscientious about that, unlike those who just recline as far as the seat allows. I must confess my annoyance with people who do that. The new Boeing 737-800 series aircraft shears the wind, eliciting an elongated monotonous whistle as it makes its way across the sunny skies over Pittsburgh. I take a number of slow deep breaths as I find myself reflecting on what I have called elsewhere “our fragile existentialism”.
It seems to me the idea that we are free and are therefore ultimately responsible for the choices we make, is a philosophical burden that few of us are prepared to assume. In a world in which it is sometimes convenient to "believe" that "what is to be will be”; we tend to cultivate a certain pathos around the reality that whatever is “to be” is up to us. I have come to believe this. Many of us declare a pre-determinism that assumes that our course in this life has been set, and there is nothing we can do about it. What is to be, will be. Period.
We can agree that there are some things we have little or no control over in our lives; but our fate and destiny are determined by the course that we ourselves set by each decision we make. There are people who will never set foot on an airplane because of their fear of flying. Like bungee jumping, and riding on the latest version of a wild roller coaster, they just wont do it. Our most awe-full phobias are fed by one decision after another not to do something...not to take those steps which will ultimately give us power over our irrationality.
In other contexts in our lives we parrot the dogma “practice makes perfect”, but we fail to see its implication for the “finishing” of ourselves with regards to our fears. Yes, the word “perfect” means “finished”, and it is an often stated fact that none of us are. We are impacted daily by the formative influences of the hands of experience. The perfection that life nudges us toward is a function of the steps we take to overcome our worries and our fears. Sometimes the nudges of reality are painful and unsettling, but they force us to look more clearly at the ground around our feet. They make us look again with more critical eyes at the assumptions in which we have anchored our expectations.
Our fears sabotage every aspect of our existence. They prevent one from asking for a deserved salary increase at the job one has done well for five, six, seven years. It is fear that causes an unhappy spouse not to declare to the world that his or her marriage is a miserable sham that should end. The desire to maintain the status quo at the expense of one’s fulfillment demands unreasonable self-sacrifice. We worry about outcomes that may never be because fear breeds irrationality. My existentialism says, if a thing is unreasonable it is wrong. There comes a moment when we are shaken by the need to right the ship of fear filled living.
My thoughts go by like wisps of cirrus clouds. A multitude of “what ifs” find their way in and out of my mind despite the protestations of my rationalism. I eventually surrender to the moment, recognizing the reality that there are some possibilities that lay on the heap of fate which are out of my control. My mind goes back to something that Cypher Raige says to his son Kitai in the movie After Earth. “Danger is very real. Fear is always a choice”.
I try for a moment to reconfigure the notion... Fear is a response to danger... . My reformulation sounds reasonable, it is congruent with what I have heard others conclude, but I chose to stick with Cypher Raige's dogma...Fear is a choice. Something about this formulation engenders a sense of being in control. I identify with that. The thought appeals to something in the DNA of my personhood, so I let it soak in. It fleshes out my existentialism, fragile as it may be.
We are forty-five minutes from landing in Philadelphia according to the in-control, well seasoned, reassuring voice of our veteran captain. I hold my head up and briefly, look around. The passenger beside me has had a coca cola and five or six airplane size bottles of cognac over ice. He will be served as much as he can tolerate; drinks being free in business class. He seems in a good mood, gently bobbing his head up and down as he listens to music from his smartphone with his eyes closed. As for me, I have given up on my can of ginger ale. It has gone flat. I’d prefer some water anyway, but I am otherwise occupied, and not really thirsty.
The lady across the aisle to my right is typing away on her laptop, much like myself. I don't think she is documenting her roaming thoughts though. She seems quite focused, maybe a businessperson catching up on work. Who knows, maybe a writer working on her next bestseller.
It has been a quiet day in business class. Often people meet others on these flights and engage in very audible exchanges about work or their other interests, or both. It can be particularly jarring when someone has had too much to drink, or when some guy is trying to impress the lady he is sitting beside whom he has just met, and with whom he must complete a certain social transaction before landing.
At the moment I have a certain private transaction that I must complete, in the bathroom. I unbuckle my seatbelt and head thereto. It's less than a minute later, and I hear that discreet ’ding’ which precedes inflight announcements. The flight attendant speaks: “The pilot has turned the seatbelt sign on. Please fasten your seat-belts and return your seats and tray tables to the upright and locked position. If you are moving about the cabin please return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt now.” The aircraft tilts to one side and then downwards as I return to my seat. We had begun our initial descent into Philadelphia. It is 6:55pm and still sunny above the clouds. It is the latter part of Spring.
The journey through the clouds, some of them appearing like mountains, always evoke certain latent reflections. No matter how stormy it is below, it is almost certainly calmer above, especially at thirty two thousand feet. It brings me back to conversations in which we often underline the importance of “taking the high road” when we face certain difficult situations. The ability to ground ourselves in a robust objectivity in the face of trying circumstances is a most welcome resource, one that we hope will always bear good fruit.
The sound of the landing gear deploying breaks my momentary soliloquy. We will be on the ground in about ten minutes, and must now put away all those technologies that could interfere with the aircraft’s safe operation. Safety first. And so we turn our phones and computers off and store them. I look outside, it is still raining. I have barely noticed the difference in the duration of this flight. Time contracts when mind melds with the sometimes dense matters of living. Those who had fallen asleep now awaken as we prepare for arrival.
Under the skilled guidance of our pilots, the aircraft touches down smoothly. The runway appears slippery from the precipitation, but the wheels of our aircraft obey the commands of their brakes, and we taxi to the gate at normal speed. The engines rest finally, and the door opens. We have arrived in Philadelphia. As my custom is, I call my wife to let her know that I am on terra firma... Safely. As usual, she is relieved, and grateful.
I spend an uneventful evening watching the Miami Heat play the Indiana Pacers in game seven of their conference final. I love play-off basketball. The energized crowds, the engaging drama with its apparent choreographed uncertainty, are nothing short of spectacular. The “game within the game” would be comedic except for the real bumps, bruises, twisted joints, altered egos, and heartrending defeat that cruel destiny holds for unsubstantiated hopes and dreams and, in this case, “hoop dreams”. Despite what had been a close series so far, and what was billed to be a tight game, the final score ...Heat 99, Pacers 76. It was a rout.
As the game ends I begin to think about the gaps that occurred in my routine of the past day. I am satisfied that all the clients I was scheduled to see, were in fact taken care of by others on my team. That's good. I complete my “call out/cancellation” protocol, and fax it to the corporate office. That takes care of that. The people in Human Resources appreciate that kind of accountability. It wasn't my fault that my flight was cancelled, but I am still accountable to those who depend on me.
Sometimes we become so caught up in the fiction that we are indispensable that we forget that the world will in fact go on without us. And it will! It does. It was either Charles DeGaulle, or Winston Churchill, or some other experienced leader who pointed out that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. Some attribute the observation to Rick Santorum. He may have repeated it, but imitators are usually not originators, all due respect to ex-Senator Santorum.
On solid ground
There are events in the course of our lives that cause us to reassess the assumptions we develop when things do not go as we would have them. An unexpected illness. A heartbreak. Storms. A delayed or cancelled flight. Unsubstantiated dreams. Divorce. Death. These reassessments are necessary and useful. When life hands us lemons, we need to see the opportunities for the refreshment of our old, thirsty, outdated ideas and insipid attitudes. “Make lemonade”, someone says. We can, and we should. These are the thoughts and possibilities that keep us vitally connected to reality. We practice this essential connectedness through the following basic exercises:
1. Relax. Calm down and find time for rest and the rehabilitation of your physical and mental parts. The fatigue that results from inadequate rest wears us out, and eventually tears us down. It depletes our sensory capabilities, and makes us prone to accidents of thought and physicality that jeopardize our own safety, and the safety of those around us. So the good we do ourselves by resting issues to those around us who are impacted by our presence and activities. It is essential therefore, that we become aware of this at home, at work, and in the public spaces that we share.
2. Pay attention. There is a tendency to develop tunnel vision when we allow ourselves to become worn out by work, and the frustrations and disappointments that are inevitable in the course of our lives. Tunnel vision is a function of the anxiety that is part and parcel of our being tired and overwhelmed. It keeps us from seeing the other possibilities available to us in the face of mechanisms that fail in our expectations. The voice of Wisdom speaks to us in these circumstances, and hopefully we listen. It tells us to stop and look around. It suggests that we silence that other voice in our heads that keeps telling us there is no other way out. When wisdom gets our attention we begin to take those deep breaths which add needed oxygen to the blaze of the fire of our possibilities. That fire is extinguished when we suffer “burn out”.
3. Reboot. Rebooting is the act of shutting down and restarting a computer that gives it a bounce intended to clear its “wedgitude”. Wedgitude is tech slang for “the state of being wedged”. We all get to that point in our own experiences where our “operating systems” need a wedgitude adjustment. Shut things down for a moment. Give yourself that bounce necessary to face the new challenges ahead.
Replace the worn and obstructive pieces of your operation, personal and otherwise, and give yourself reasonable time to “come again”. In other words, reboot! Trying to operate with a “wedgie” in your os (operating system) results in debilitating dysfunction. Avoid system failure. In the words of the Desiderata: “with all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world.” So reboot, and carry on.
The road ahead
We may come upon circumstances that disappoint us and deplete the resources by which we operate at status-quo in our lives, but we must never act as if we have no recourse. At such times we need to reroute, and negotiate our way around the storms and other obstructions that come our way. We will inevitably experience the brokenness that result from life's traumatic events, so it is essential that we cultivate the courage we will need to rise up again and move forward.
In the middle of some of our challenges we may feel as if we are all alone. At such times it is critical that we reach out, and that we remain reachable ourselves. We can't live fully in this world all by ourselves, and so we need to be realistic about the relationships we all will need to enable us to achieve our fullest potential. True wisdom teaches us humility. By being humble we are able to facilitate a meaningful unpretentiousness as an outstanding feature of our being in the world.
It helps if in all our doings we make the rock of reasonableness our strong ally. There is no prescription for resolving the many and varied issues that will arise in the many and varied circumstances of our lives. But reasonableness allows us to hear each other. In the noisy confusion of our insistence on having it our way, reasonableness becomes that breath of fresh air which opens our eyes and ears and hearts to each other.
Reasonableness is the raw material by which we establish a sound mental and emotional foundation in life. Ultimately it is the great facilitator of all those relationships by which we validate our reason for being in this wonderful world. Our world demands that we take time to become better for ourselves, and for each other. Let us realize this most important of aspirations by recognizing the coming of a season for being grounded.
R. A. G.
Roy Alexander Graham
President/CEO, FIGTREE ENTERPRISES, INC.