Many poets say that their poems just come to them, often fully formed. This is both how I usually write poems and why I haven’t written a lot more poetry. Usually it starts with some phrase that floats around my head for a while. Sometimes that’s all there is. I’ve had some phrases floating around my head for years that I’ve never figured out what to do with. (“A sense of the color of things” is my favorite.) But sometimes, I can get a couple more lines worked out, and I’ll sit down to write. When I’m really lucky, all the rest is just there. There’s always fiddling to be done, but the body of the poem has been provided.
For the last several days, the lines above have been floating around my head, but every time I sat down to write anything with them, I couldn’t go a single word further. This afternoon, I typed them out and once again couldn’t go any further. So I sat with it a minute and it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t supposed to go any further. I counted up the syllables and sure enough, I had a serviceable haiku.
It had been there all along. I just needed to stop trying to make it into something it wasn’t and look at it a little differently. Much like life sometimes we’re so busy trying to get things to me the way we think they are supposed to be that we miss what is. Maybe if we thought to stop and look a little differently more often, we would discover that everything has been alright the whole time.
My high school English teacher told us to do this and I still do: say a prayer when you see flashing lights or hear a siren.
Keeping a good perspective is absolutely essential to enjoying life and emergency lights and sirens are great reminders of just how good our lives our. Because somewhere nearby someone is having a really, really, really bad day.
Flashing lights and sirens generally only show up when there is danger, suffering, and hardship – even if its often self-inflicted. So when you see flashing lights or hear sirens, say a prayer. Thank God that whatever is going on in your world, at least those lights and sirens aren’t for you. And ask God to protect the people involved and provide them with whatever resources they will need to deal with what is happening in their lives.
There’s an old story about a poor farmer’s son who goes to see a raja and his procession going through town. As the raja passes by, he drops a ring which the boy retrieves and returns to the raja. As a reward, the boy is given one of the raja’s fine horses. Everyone tells the boy how wonderful this is; now his father will have a horse to use on the farm. The can grow more food and make more money for his family. And for a while, that is the case. Later, a drought strikes the area. Nothing will grow and the boy’s family is nearly starving. The horse, because it was a gift from the raja, cannot be sold or eaten. Feeding the horse becomes an unbearable burden and everyone tells the boy what a curse it was that he had ever been given the horse. However, just as all hope is lost, a local rich man learns that the family has a horse and hires the boy to work for him using the horse to carry messages and work on his property. Once again, everyone tells the boy how wonderful it is that he was given the horse so he can help his starving family. But one day the horse spooks and throws the boy, breaking his leg. He can no longer work. Once again, the gift of the horse is a curse according to those around the boy. But then war broke out and when the raja sent for the boy (who was the farmer’s only son), he was unable to go because of his broken leg. This saves the boys life as all the soldiers from his village died in an ambush. The horse is hailed as the boy’s salvation. On and on it goes.
This is life. In the middle of things, it can be impossible to know what is good or bad and whether to be happy or crushed by your circumstances. What remember in order to counter our tendency towards misjudgments and emotional whiplash is that our job is to deal with life as it comes. The time will come for judgment to be passed on the things that happen in our lives, but until we get there, its best to suspend judgment and deal with whatever we are facing as calmly as we can manage.
People working in impoverished areas around the world know that giving something to just one or a few individuals in a community creates intense conflict and resentment with those who did not receive anything. It doesn’t matter if those who received worked to earn it or if what was given is of little value. There seems to be something very deep in us that causes us to compare ourselves to those around us. And when we fell that we have gotten the short straw, we judge ourselves and our lives harshly.
Learning not to do this is an ongoing lesson. In the meantime, if we’re going to compare ourselves to others, we ought to at least have some perspective. Instead of comparing yourself to the relatively few human beings who live as well or better than we do, expand your view and compare your life to the normal human experience – ie all people past and present.
Once upon a time, I was a young, poor single mom who couldn’t pay my bills and would search for coins to buy milk for my kid before payday. Often, I would start to feel bad about myself and my life. So I would think, “Not only do I have shelter, but it is 70 degrees all year round in my little apartment- no matter how cold it gets outside! Water comes into my home. I can take a hot shower any time. Even on a bad night, we eat safe, foods from all over the world. I have a coffee maker that lets me make my favorite beverage any time I want it. I have a car that takes me further each day than most people in human history traveled in their whole lives. I have enough clothing to make a mess with and a machine outside my back door to wash them. I live with more comfort and luxury than kings and queens have through most of human history.” And then my life didn’t seem so bad.
Make a list of all the ways that your life is much more comfortable, safe and luxurious than is normal for human beings through out time. Pull it out as needed.
And now because I love you all, here’s a great video of an interview with Lewis CK on Conan O’Brien a couple of years ago: Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy
We often have a hard time accepting the difference between how we feel and what is true. Feelings themselves aren’t wrong, they just tend to point in the wrong direction if left untrained. But our feelings are meant to lead us, so it’s worth it to take the time to start training them to line up with reality. The best way I know how to do this is to put things into perspective. And probably the best perspective check I know is this question: “Will this thing that is upsetting and stressing and consuming me be important 5 minutes after I die?” Most things won’t. Which means it’s not worth it to torture yourself with worry, stress and pain over it. Just do what you need to do without all the drama and you will be fine. It’s just not that serious – it only feels that way.