Stories of the Human Spirit
Living in the moment is often described as the art of now. During the next six weeks we will discuss how to perfect our ability to do just that as well as read about stories of the human spirit that illustrate this. After five years of daily postings on this blog, I took a week off to do just that – live in each moment without deadlines. John Steinbeck once wrote “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray” and my vacation plans did just that. Still, it was in that week of chaos, spelled f-l-u, that I realized the true meaning of a favorite quote of mine: “You have within you right now, everything you need to deal with whatever the world can throw at you.”
Our concept of normal is whatever is familiar to us and so, Julie really thought her life was fairly normal. She had grown up going to public school and once a week took part in scouting activities in the troop that met at a neighborhood church. Going to the scout meetings meant her parents did not have to find a babysitter for her after school on meeting days but it also meant she would learn different skills. The other girls were cordial but as an introvert, their lack of including her in a close circle of friends really wasn’t too troubling.
As the years passed Julie continued in scouting although nothing really was a favorite pastime except working with the disabled youth her troop spent time with at a nearby community center. In the summer she volunteered as a counselor at a camp for the disabled and enjoyed the interactions with the campers. They made up for the camp lifestyle which was definitely not her style and the lack of inclusion from the other counselors.
Winning a college scholarship, Julie continued her studies and, seeing the world through her roommates’ eyes, realized her “normal” was not quite like everyone else’s. Being forgotten at home had not been the normal for others nor was the exclusion by relatives. Still, there were classes to attend, papers to write, and a degree to finish. Life went on and Julie went about it each day. She convinced one of her classes to volunteer at a local residential school for the disabled and continued to volunteer each summer as a counselor. There were joys to find in each new day.
Julie began her last year in college with great anticipation. In six month she would have the degree she had worked so hard to attain. Her family had emphasized their pleasure at anticipating her graduation and having her out on her own which is why she was so dumbfounded when both parents told her they were suddenly going to stop helping her fund the last six month of her education. Her two parents had divorced years earlier and their acrimony had reached new levels with Julie as the game piece being used to punish each other. She had a part-time job so she asked for extra hours to pay for a place to store her belongings. It was little more than a storage unit with no utilities or a place to sleep. She sold her car to pay for the rest of her tuition and supplies. Julie earned one meal a day at her work and became an expert at washing up in public restroom stalls. Using the public restrooms just before dawn meant she could wash her hair in the sink and then leave with no one realizing her hair was now wet. Walking the two miles to the college campus gave her hair time to dry and her early arrival gave her time to study and complete assignments.
The spirit of the disabled youth she had worked with was Julie’s example. She had watched kids struggle to walk, delight in learning to write their names, and exude joy in breathing in each second of their lives. These kids who had so many obstacles took each minute as it came and had never given up. Julie was determined to do the same. She sometimes slept behind a friend’s apartment or, after offering to clean up the choir room after choir practice, on a couch in the music department at the local church.
On a cool spring day, Julie walked across the stage to receive her diploma. She had been homeless the last six month and no one had noticed. Not once had her appearance seemed different to her classmates. She had relied on the skills learned as a child, the examples of those many deemed incompetent, and completed her college education with honors. Her life exemplified Brian Tracy, Canadian author and motivational speaker, statement: “You have within you right now, everything you need to deal with whatever the world can throw at you.”
Life does not come with guarantees and I sincerely hope none of you ever end up in Julie’s position of being homeless. I do believe, though, that we do have in our history a wealth of knowledge that helps us meet the challenge of each new day. I will close with another of Tracy’s quotes: “The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”
So how do we start to perfect our ability to live in the moment. Years later someone asked Julie how she had found the strength and courage to keep going during her last year in college. “It was simple”, she replied. “I kept breathing and as long as I was breathing, I needed to live today so I’d hopefully be able to do the same tomorrow.” This past week I lived in the moment of being ill and breathing was sometimes a bit uncomfortable. However, it gave me a great understanding about the concept of breathing through the moment.
A young man picked up a phone in a phone booth in the middle of the dessert one day and received the same sort of answer. The setting was Burning Man, an electronic arts and music festival for which 50,000 people descend on Black Rock City, Nevada, for eight days of “radical self-expression” – dancing, socializing, meditating, and yes, even a bit of debauchery. One can see all sorts of things at Burning man but a phone booth in the middle of nowhere that purported to be a direct line to God was unusual, even for Burning Man. The voice at the other end had one word of advice – Breathe.
“Ordinary thoughts course through our mind like a deafening waterfall,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biomedical scientist who introduced meditation into mainstream medicine. In order to feel more in control of our minds and our lives, to find the sense of balance that eludes us, we need to step out of this current, to pause, and, as Kabat-Zinn puts it, to “rest in stillness—to stop doing and focus on just being.” We need to stop, breathe, realize we are living in this moment and not two days away, and breathe in the “now”. Once I gave up trying to pretend I wasn’t ill, I started to improve. Stay focused on the here and now and let tomorrow worry about itself.