The Final Chapter
June 16, 2001
If you're reading this, it means that I am dead. Kicked the bucket. Bleedin' demised. And pushin' up daisies. It's hard to know what to say. Mark Twain enjoyed speaking from beyond the grave, and dictated his entire autobiography in this manner, knowing it wouldn't be published until after his death. He found that speaking from beyond the grave gave him a greater freedom to say the things which he really felt. That's not the case for me. I've always been able to write here the things that I really felt and thought with the exception of matters where I was constrained by someone else's need for privacy.
Having this disease has slowly pried me away from being a part of this society inch by inch. As different parts of my body failed, I could no longer even be a consumer. And what I've found, and not to my surprise, was that with everything that I lost, I gained more. And I began to see how toxic this society that we're a part of really is and how it pries us away from everything that's important.
Three things get lost as soon as we're old enough to learn the messages Madison Avenue is preaching to us. We first learn to be unsatisfied with what is, and to always wish for something different. The second thing is, we learn to distrust our own inner sensibilities that tell us what is right. And the third thing is, there's a consequence to the first two - we put our intellect in charge of our lives instead of our hearts or our emotions. I use the word heart as meaning the source of our emotions.
Let me expand on those three ideas because they're important. The first thing is, we not only lose our sense of how we fit into life, we actually lose touch with wanting to know where we really are. We're so concerned with what was and what will be that the present has no value, and we let it slip away.
One of the things that does this is the whole consumer culture of having to buy something to make things right. You know, whatever is wrong, you have to buy something to put it right - if your head itches, you have to buy dandruff shampoo. Or, your image is wrong - you have to buy the right clothes and the right car to change your image. We can't be happy with who we are unless we have the outward signs that show society that we are something important.
The whole idea of living in the now, living in what is, gets so totally lost that we feel like we shouldn't have to live in the real world. People set up standards of what they should and shouldn't have to deal with and then expect life to conform, and they buy insurance just in case life doesn't conform, so they can be paid off because if life doesn't meet our expectations, then we deserve some kind of payment. Does that make sense? But it's a longing. Longing is the right word.
We spend our time going over the past and re-playing not the parts that were perfect, but the parts that were horrible, and wishing we could change them. You ask somebody, "What's the most embarrassing time in your life?" and they'll immediately say, "Well, it's hard to decide, there's so many." But you ask them, "What are the happiest times in your life?" and they're stuck. They have to think hard to come up with anything. Part of that is we've learned an emphasis on the negative because if you don't have the emphasis on the negative, it's hard to sell you something. And to be a good consumer, you've got to always want things to be different.
And the same goes for the future. We act as though we can predict the future, and that if we had the right things and we have planned carefully enough, that the future will turn out to be what we want it to be. Over and over and over, we're proven wrong -the future turns out to be what it's going to be in spite of our predictions and our plans. We just try harder, figuring if we plan more meticulously and be more careful, then next time we'll get it right. And the truth is that you can't predict the future. The best you can do is say, what are the odds of something happening. Be an odds-maker, not a predictor. And say, well, if I do this, the odds are more likely that things will turn out better. But that includes realizing that you're just talking odds. It doesn't mean that it's going to happen.
Things happen all the time that we can't account for. And yet, we try and reel in our worlds in so that everything is predictable. And to a degree you can succeed, but there's something empty - the closer you get to life being predictable, the more empty you feel inside because you can only make it predictable by emptying out the possibility for extremes.
You can only stand the present by dismissing the intellect and allowing ourselves to feel what it's like to be alive right now, and to get out of the prediction business all together.
I don't mean that the scientific method doesn't have value - obviously, if you go out on a golf course in the middle of a thunderstorm, it's good to know that you're likely to get struck by lightning. On the other hand, if you're so caught up in avoiding lightning, you may not ever enjoy a single thunderstorm, and they can be magnificent. Does that make sense?
When you're in the present, you're aware of everything that's happening, and you can respond immediately to your surroundings in a way that you can't if you're encumbered by thinking about the past and planning for the future. All that remembering and planning keeps you from being your natural, spontaneous self. You can revel in the present.
One thing I've had to give up - the illusion that I can control what's going to happen to me. I've been forced to live in the present. And if I'm going to find any joy in the life that I have now, it can only be the joys of the moment. I can't plan for anything. I've got to enjoy what's happening now.
Actually, I've learned to plan in short bursts - to plan for the next hour. The closer your plans are to the present, the more likely they are to come true, because the variables are more known. Moreover, by not living in the now, most of us don't even know where we are. We're so caught up in wishing for things to be different that we have no idea where we really are, and you can't get anywhere unless you know where you're starting. And in a sense, being in touch with what is allows what predictions you do make to be more accurate because you're grounded in what is really going on rather than fantasies about what should be and the way things should happen, and you're not clouded by a past that looks at what I could have done, what I should have done. You can look at your past and say, "What did I do? And how did I react?" And, therefore, you can see more clearly what the real patterns of your behavior are, rather than the patterns of what you wish they were. You're only surrounded by choices.
People who commit suicide are generally people who have lost track of the fact that they have choices. They think they only have one choice, and that it's a terrible option. And, therefore, they've got to get out, because all the choices that they can foresee are terrible. But the truth is, every moment is pregnant with possibility, the equal number of possibilities, for pleasure or for pain or for something neutral. And it is a matter of choice.
And we instinctively have guides within us. The American Indians talk about traveling a path with heart, and it means feeling which path is right for you, is true for you, and which decision you make is going to be the one that best matches up with who you are and where you want to go. But when your judgment is clouded by Madison Avenue, you're no longer looking for a path with heart, and you've learned not to listen to that voice inside you, that feeling inside you, that tells you what direction you're supposed to be traveling in. Most people are born with an innate inner sense of what is right for them. A child will learn more in its first three years than in the rest of its life, in a sense. It'll learn language, it'll learn bi-pedal locomotion, it'll learn the basics of human interaction, how to differentiate itself from the outside world. It'll learn all these things. It's born knowing how to learn, and it, unfortunately, with most of us - at some point, we get taught not to trust those instincts. Sometimes parents even teach phobias to their kids, because they're so afraid. I knew one little girl when I was growing up whose mother was terrified of germs. She used to come out and beg children to play with her. But whenever we'd go over, her mother would whisk her into the house, and tell us to leave, because she was afraid her daughter would be infected. Now that's an extreme example, but that little girl had no chance of growing up to be any kind of a healthy, happy person. And the things getting done to us are more subtle than that, but just as demeaning, just as destructive - the ways in which we get taught to disregard our own inner sense of what is and what we are and where we should be going, because we're all born knowing that we're capable, because we will learn language, we will learn nuances of body posture, facial expression, voice tone. We will learn to walk, we will learn all of these things, and it's up to our parents and the schools to teach us that learning is basically boring, and that we're dumb - you know, that we can't learn this, because we didn't learn it quickly enough to meet someone else's standards. We didn't learn it the way they wanted us to learn it. We just are taught that we're not capable, but the fact that we are little, and we do make mistakes, and rather than recognizing that human beings learn from making mistakes, we get yelled at every time we make a mistake, and it teaches us not to learn, and it teaches us that we're not capable. And the other thing is, if when we're born, if our parents are any kind of decent people, we have as big a need for love as we do for food or for air and shelter. And if those needs are met, then we know that we are inherently loveable for who we are. But too many times, that gets twisted by conditional love - "We'll love you if..." And people learn that they're not intrinsically loveable for who they are, that they have to earn love by their behavior, by their performance, by their appearance, whatever. And it makes them prime candidates for the whole consumer world they're about to step into, because they have to earn love - they're not entitled to it for just the fact of being who they are. And in more primitive cultures, where children don't live as often past infancy and then they don't live as often to adulthood, children are treated fondly and with respect, much more so than in our culture.
By accepting the teachings that we are not loveable and capable, we begin to build a new identity based on the lies that we're not innately loveable or capable. That love and capability are things, which we have to earn. These lies strike so close to the centers of our beings that from them we learn not to trust our internal instincts.
When I teach my First-day Class (which is Quaker Sunday School), one of the big things we work on is how to trust your basic internal instincts. And one of the first things we do is, we drive them out to an area in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey that looks just like every other area around for a hundred square miles. And then I tell them something happened in the past near here, something that was a disaster, that cost human life, and I want you to just slowly turn around and feel which direction feels like the one that will lead you to that spot. And what's fascinating is that, out of a group of 10 or 12, at least 8 will end up turning in exactly the right direction and walking through the trees 'til they catch sight of the monument to a plane crash in 1928. The crash cost the life of Emilio Cranza, who was known as the Mexican Lindbergh. And what's equally fascinating is that the kids who don't walk in the right direction almost always walk in the exact opposite direction, as though they were receiving the impressions, but they turned their backs on them. It makes me think of J. B. Brian's experiments in parapsychology and ESP, where he found that people that believed in ESP, generally scored significantly above chance in the trials, while people who didn't believe in it adamantly, scored significantly below chance in the trials. And so they were actively fighting off the ability that they had.
We teach them other experiments on how to trust your inner instincts and how to be able to feel which direction is right for you. One of the other experiments is we take them to a crossroad, and we say, "There's nothing you can see except roads leading off into the pines in four different directions." And we say, "Just stand and feel each of the directions and decide. If you were just stuck out here and you had no idea where to go, what path would lead you out the quickest towards civilization." And they stand, and they turn, and always 70 or 80 percent will start down the road that would lead them most directly back towards town, even though that's not the way we came, and they have no idea. And it just proves to me that these kids who are in their teens still have touch with an inner sense that tells them which way to go.
I have made a living from trusting that inner sense.
Practically all the decisions I make as a filmmaker, and an editor, are not based in any way on intellect. They're based on what feels right. And as a consequence, it made me one of the fastest and most respected editors in the Philadelphia area. And when people would ask why I did something, I'd have to make up an explanation, when the truth is, it just felt right, so I did it. I long ago learned to trust my gut feelings on where to cut, where to put something together, and completely shove my intellect aside and just edit by feel. And it's wonderful experience. Of course in film editing, if you make a mistake, nobody dies, so you have the freedom to make all the mistakes in the world. And by doing this, by trusting that inner sense, I made far, far fewer mistakes, and as I learned to hone in on the experience... it's kind of like driving a bicycle. The more you use it, the easier it becomes. I was able to decide right - I would say, sometimes 10 times out of 10. I would go through cutting a whole show, and have practically nothing to change when I went back to look at it. And people were always amazed at how fast I was, and the speed came from feeling, not thinking. And I was able to take that experience and move it to other areas of my life, and to trust my first instinct with people, with things, with career decisions, with practically everything. And I found that 8 times out of 10, I was dead on, and it was a totally successful technique for me.
The flip side of learning to make decisions this way was that I learned to glory in my mistakes. Whenever I made a mistake, it was like, "This is wonderful, because I just learned something." Cruising along, not making any mistakes, eventually I was on auto pilot, and I wasn't learning. But whenever I screwed up, it was a chance to see, "Okay, why did I screw up, and how can I refine my sensibilities so that it doesn't happen again quite that way." In judging people, I would use the same technique, but since people are a million times more complex than a film edit, I was much more likely to make a mistake there.
It was also much more exciting to find that I had made mistakes in judging people. It gave me the nested opportunity to improve my ability to fine-tune that sensibility, which was so much more important than the one I used to make my living. There was nothing I liked more than having somebody come in to my edit room, meeting them for the first time, jumping to the conclusion that they were an asshole, and then finding in a half an hour that I was totally wrong. They were fascinating people who just didn't show it immediately. That was so exciting to me. I remember the first time I became aware of that was after watching the movie Rocky. Sylvester Stallone's character was essentially somebody that I would think I had nothing in common with. But after the movie, I felt real affection for that character. And the next day, walking down the street in Philadelphia, and seeing Rocky-type guy walking toward me, and immediately freezing up, wondering if this guy was going to be belligerent. I automatically thought of Rocky, and my whole attitude toward strangers changed, and I was willing to cut him a break. I gave him a smile, and he smiled back with a genuine, sincere, warm smile, and I realized that People is the only real kind of people; that I'd been trivializing people in my mind by fitting them into stereotypes. And now, thanks to one movie, I could stop that and begin to see them as individuals. To tie this back into what I was talking about earlier, I've tried with my children, whenever I had the presence of mind, to say, "Hey, that's great, you just screwed up, now you've learned something," and allow them to glory in their mistakes. And when they could pull that off, what a gratifying experience to see them smile and acknowledge that they had learned something, and that it was being acknowledged as such. And I think my children are less judgmental of themselves because of that. They're how I was at their age.
The point is that these are not just theoretical constructs. These are principles that I have been trying out in my own life successfully for years and years. And I've come to meet other people who have had the same revelations and share notes with them, and refined my understanding of these processes.
Learning the cues, picking up little nuances in human behavior. The first one that I learned was back in my college days when I discovered that anybody who had had a bad acid trip or psychedelic trip - it affected their laugh for the next 10 or 12 years, and once you learned what it sounded like, as soon as somebody laughed, you knew if they'd ever tripped or not. And gradually, I refined my technique for evaluating people to the point where I could look in someone's eyes, and tell after 5 or 10 minutes, if they'd ever touched bottom in their life. In the beginning, I used to always test it out by talking to people and finding out whether it was true, but the accuracy was near 100 percent, so I gave up checking it out after a while, except in a few instances where I couldn't believe somebody that young had touched bottom already. But I knew that if they had touched bottom, that they were somebody I could become a real friend with, and if they hadn't, it would remain an acquaintance. The point is, by learning all of these alternate ways and knowing whether it's the kids following their instincts out in the Pines or learning to tell from looking in somebody's eyes what their past is, I was able to gain tremendous insight, and if I had followed the standard course, I would have come to devalue those insights and mistrust them because they can't always logically be explained.
I guess what I've come to understand about the scientific method is that it's excellent for finding out things about the world, and useless in the face of life's ultimate questions. You can't use a scientific method to figure out if life has meaning, or ascertain how you can be happy. None of those questions are amenable to logical ways of knowing. They almost all need that - alogical - way of knowing. There isn't even a word for it in our language. The closest we come is intuition, which too often gets scoffed at, but it's a very real thing. And in the course of dethroning intuition and alternate ways of knowing, we hit on the third point I mentioned, which was putting the ego in the control seat so that we've enshrined our intellect as the greatest feature that separates man from the animals. But relying on our intellect is what's allowed us to screw up our environment and to screw up our society so badly, I think. There's a direct correlation between the rise of science and the rise in warfare. As science progressed, warfare progressed to even bigger and more horrible atrocities. In fact, Carl Sagan points out that all of the Paleolithic painting that we've found deal with killing in some way - hunting - but none of them deal with killing with another human being. And we have yet to find the remains of any early human being or proto-hominoid that was killed by another one of the species. Sagan believed that murder is a relatively modern concept and that, as a species, we'd probably existed for a million years without it.
To take this back to a more personal level, once I succeeded in learning to apply my other ways of knowing to my life, I was able to get out of the judging business. Judging people consists of holding everybody up to a single standard, when in reality there are hundreds of fundamentals, and everybody has their own standard. You know, the only standard that I hold people up to these days is - Is this a kind person, or not? There's no need to go any farther and make any predictions based upon my perceptions of them. If I want to know about them, instead of making predictions, I ask questions. This also leads to an attempt to push my ego and my intellect out of power, and to rely more on my heart, my feelings, to make decisions for me, and I've found that I'm much kinder that way and that things turn out better. The amazing amount of support of love and kindness that's been shown to me and the family during this whole period of my illness - it shows me that I was better at doing and being non-judgmental than I ever thought, because I think part of what people are responding to in me is the fact that I accepted them for who they were, and, and as to how this effects my day to day life - being careful to try and live within the parameters of "what is" keeps me from constantly living in the past and comparing what I used to be able to do with what I can do now. And it keeps me from living in a future made up entirely of predictions. Instead, I am allowed to focus on each minute of each day, particularly when there are people here - friends to be with or my family to relate to.
But the biggest thing has been how my relationship with Lynn has deepened so incredibly over the last year, and if you had asked me a year ago if I could love Lynn any more than I did then, I would have said, "No, I loved her as deeply as was humanly possible." But instead, I've found new depths upon new depths - it just goes - and ways to appreciate her and the things that she does and all that she brings to my life, and all that my friends bring to my life. By being focused on the now, I am allowed to be more empathetic and to feel what other people are telling me and to really take it in, and not just be busy thinking up the next thing I'm going to say, as too often I did in the past. So, this degree of focus has kept me from a lot of unnecessary pain and deepened my relationships, not just with people, but even with the trees outside my window, which I've come to love, and the birds, which never particularly interested me before. I see them all as creatures, as deserving of my interest as anything else.
My window on the world is small, but it contains everything I need to feel whole and a part of nature. In fact, my life is richer today than it was when I had all of my body responding the way it used to.
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