This morning, my husband and I sat outside on our porch to enjoy the cooler temperatures and sounds of nature while eating our breakfast. Our home is surrounded by outcroppings of large, granite boulders, and a small creek fed by a nearby reservoir and bordered by tall cottonwood trees flows year round across the way, a rarity in the high desert of Arizona.
Thanks to the presence of water year round, there is a variety of wildlife who share this corner of the desert with us—bobcat, coyote, and many species of birds.
As we sat drinking coffee and eating our toast and over medium eggs, I heard a familiar two-part song. Looking up above the creek to a small exposed branch of a cottonwood tree, I saw a small dark bird. A cowbird. This is not a bird known for the beauty and complexity of its song, yet this did not seem to inhibit the bird from singing out to whoever might be listening.
As I sat watching and listening, I thought about the differences between my childhood and adult selves. As a child, I, too, sang uninhibited and danced with abandon around our living room. Yet, at some point, I stopped. Was it because I noticed people were watching and possibly, quite likely, judging my every move and the notes pouring forth from my mouth?
According to the Tibetan Buddhists, life is suffering. My meditation teacher, Will Duncan, a local philosopher who has been studying Tibetan Buddhism since he was seventeen, says that we are all on a sinking ship. Every one of us must someday part with everything and everyone we love. We are all born, grow old, and die. Many of us are taken long before the wrinkles of time take shape on our well-worn bodies. So why do we spend so much precious time increasing our suffering through judgment and mean-spirited action?
I grew up in a small suburban town south of Boston, and it was very clear to me that my peers and their parents were judging my every action. And it took so very little for the judgment train to start moving and pick up speed. Wearing the same dress to several Bar or Bat Mitvahs was a big no no, for example. Much judgment and misery surrounded fashion choices and material possessions, all monetary symbols of status in the eyes of the young privileged Jewish children and their parents who also inhabited the town. For me, there was simply no way to win. I didn’t even go to the cool Jewish temple, and by the age of twelve I was so miserable that I made a vow to stop attempting to impress the unimpressible. I exchanged in season clothing from the Gap and the Limited, Too for the comfortable and well-worn Levis and old sweaters my mom had been saving for me. Letting go of the desire to be seen as cool didn’t change my desire to feel like I belonged, but it went a long way toward helping me begin paving my own path toward a life of happiness, a path I am still figuring out today.
The desire to belong and to simply live a joyful life is still present for me today, and I know I am not alone in this pursuit. Finding ways to focus on the joy without being worn down by the judgment of others is a constant challenge. And it is a challenge that does not solely exist in Massachusetts Suburbia.
I remember a dear friend telling me how his wife would only work in her garden at night. They had lived for twenty years in a coastal town in Maine that had grown increasingly inhabited by pretentious wealthy people, who bought second homes lining the shores of the harbor. When his wife and neighbors—wealthy and otherwise—would work in her garden, their neighbors would walk by and make nasty comments in intentionally loud voices about the fact that she was doing her own landscaping and the choices she was making for said landscaping. Thus, she began only working in her yard, pastime she loved, with the protection of darkness the blanket of night provided.
You might be thinking, sure, but that is the east coast. People are way more judgy and pretentious there than in the Midwest and beyond. Well, let me tell you a little story about the extreme judgment I experienced in Alaska, a place where people go to reinvent themselves and find acceptance for who they are and who they wish to be.
I have told this story from many angles, but today I wish to focus on a woman whose life appeared to have become such complete suffering that she had seemingly dedicated her life to increasing the misery of those around her over whom she had the illusion of control.
The concept of illusion is key here. People respond differently to the reality that much of what goes on in life is beyond our control. For me, awareness and intention have become the guiding forces in my own attempts to dance with the uncertainties in my life. I have spent many hours learning to listen to my inner voice and to speak my truths F$in ways that will honor my identity and establish equanimity in my heart, mind, body, and spirit.
Others do not always welcome speaking from a deep place of knowing. Seeing a person navigating the uncertainties of life can be threatening to those for whom the need for control has become akin to survival. My actions seemed to put people on the defensive, perhaps because it caused them to step back and review the state of their own life. I cannot know for certain; I can only speculate.
I do know from communicating with members of the small community in Alaska where I lived that this person, the Chief of Interpretation at the national park in town, had been so threatened by the many artists and idealists drawn to work there that she had deftly worked to make their work lives so difficult that they eventually gave up and left. Each time an artist left marked a return to my boss’s illusion of control. No longer was there a person in her presence causing her to reflect on her unhappy existence. No longer was there a reminder of a world of freedom outside of the tenuous bubble her life had become.
An artist responds to a life of suffering by finding ways to break free from the confines set upon them by the people in their world who feel threatened by their desire to discover and highlight truth.
A person who lives in such fear of this freedom finds every way to break the spirit of the artist. In my experience, this began quite quickly after I started working at Glacier Bay National Park. First, I was called into my supervisor’s office at he bequest of the Chief of Interpretation to receive a scolding for wearing nose jewelry and dangly earrings. Sure, there are clauses with strict rules for the kind of jewelry a park ranger can/not wear, but these rules tend to be taken with a grain of salt as jewelry is one of the rare forms of personal expression possible for a person who wears a uniform.
It didn’t seem to matter that all of the other staff in our division and other departments wore all manner of personal jewelry. I was the artist and independent thinker who needed to be tamed, and fast.
Moving to a high position in the government requires a certain acceptance of loss of control. One must adhere to strict rules and regulations and be able to enforce those regulations upon their inferiors. In giving up control, one gains a certain amount of control and also a set of guidelines to work and live by. For a person afraid of uncertainty, this may help to create the illusion of control I referred to earlier.
There are many ways to avoid dealing with the realities of the Tibetan Buddhist’s belief that life is suffering and unavoidable truth that someday we all will die.
Religion can offer relief from these truths. By adhering to the Jewish Orthodox religion, for example, a person need no longer make any choices for themselves. Choices are made and actions taken through interpretations of rules that were designed long ago and that are enforced by your rabbi, husband, etc. This way of life can be a convenient way of avoiding uncertainty and maintaining a sense of control, though for me it is far from engaging with life in a full embrace for all that comes with it.
It is not my place to judge. Having learned the hard way how hurtful judgment can be, I cannot say I have a deep desire to perpetuate this kind of behavior. I think the negativity that judgment brings constricts my ability to experience life in a joyful, unbound way. But those fetters can also connect back to the want or need for the illusion of control. Placing judgment upon another being creates an illusion that they are behaving in a way that is wrong, thus placing our own behavior and choices as right or better.
Judgment is othering. It creates the sense of us and them, of our own superiority and their inferiority. It removes accountability. And it removes the human face and spirit of the person being othered.
To my boss, I was a threat to her illusion of control, and thus she painted me as a dangerous other who needed to be removed from her sphere of control in order for her to avoid looking into the mirror and seeing what everyone else around her seemed to have already discovered—that she was a sad person who no one liked.
Even despite the incredibly pain and discomfort I experienced in the wake of her need for control, I still cannot help feeling so sad for the time she has wasted making the people around her so miserable. I do no imagine that it brings her a true sense of joy. Her actions created a sphere of fear around her. People were afraid of her. People did not like her.
In the wake of my experience in Alaska, I have spent more and more time listening to an inner voice that had nearly disappeared from the one that inspired childhood dancing and singing with reckless abandon. And I have begun to sing out in ways that create positive energy in the world. It may be as simple a song as smiling at a stranger as we cross paths on a trail. It might be blowing a kiss and sending thoughts of apology to a squirrel lying silent on the road.
I do not always succeed, and it often feels like darkness can creep in far more readily than light. But always I feel better when I take the time to envision and embrace the lighter possibilities in life.
I have come to believe that we do not dance or sing to look or sound any particular way. We do it because it brings joy. We do it because we can. And if we are very brave, we do it even when it may bring upon us the wrath of the fearful.
And so I return to my cowbird neighbor. He may not be the brightest and most beautiful bird. He may not live to see the sun set on each passing beautiful Arizona day. Despite all of this uncertainty, he still finds the courage to wake up each morning and open his heart, mind, and spirit that his voice may sing out for all to hear.
In a life full of suffering in the face of the unknown, what better way to start the day?