A Golden Compass Point
"Punishing the other person is self-punishment. That is true in every circumstance.”
Thich Nhat Hahn
So says the current and ancient wisdom, which I will not dispute. I hear it often and
interpret it as a call to empathy: understand the pain you will cause others by imagining that
pain as your own. Hahn’s wisdom closely mirrors formulations of the golden rule from Hillel and
from Islam. Confucius states it this way: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to
you.” Jesus gives it a twist: “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” Commentors
correctly note that the one formulation prefers a quietude, or passivity (in response to a
presumed injury or a self-centered desire), while the other suggests a premeditated act of
generosity (in response to an awareness of one’s own desire or need).
Whether stated as a call to self-restraint or to self-initiative, the golden rule
presupposes our fundamental connectedness; I and others share a common humanity, with
common needs and desires. I cannot focus properly on myself without seeing the other within
me; I cannot focus properly on others without seeing myself in them.
A few years ago, a newly enrolled college student died from an overdose of opiods.
Some said, “She killed herself.” Finding that phrasing inappropriatetly judgmental, others said,
“She died of suicide.” The first implies that she ought not to have done that; the second implies
that she could not help it. To some, the first feels inhumane; to others, the second feels
I hear this variation of the golden rule often: “When you hurt someone else, you hurt
yourself.” That particular rendering leaves me feeling a bit off balance, actually. Perhaps I lack
empathy or imagination on this point, but the “hurting others means hurting yourself”
formulation does not satisfy me. Bluntly put, it sounds selfish, merely, as if the only reason not
to hurt another is not to hurt myself. I don’t hear the appeal to our deep connectedness. I
don’t hear a call to focus on anyone but myself. Does it follow, in other words, that if I discover
a way to hurt you without hurting myself, then all is well with me (if not with you)?
I prefer to say it this way: When I hurt myself, I hurt others. If I love you, I wil not hurt
myself, not if I can help it.
That more clearly reminds me of our connectedness, our common humanity, our shared
desires, our mutual needs. It more clearly reminds me that I am not the center of the universe,
and not really even the center of my world.
I do not have a world. We have a world.
And I love you. Keep me reminded of that, please, if you love me, as I believe that will
help me help myself.
We Do Not Drown
For my friend, Ahmed Aq
In time, if willing, we learn that emotional pain need not overcome peace of mind and
heart. The pain of loss or injustice, the longing, the disorienting, even the raging at times, need
not be more than a storm circling round our still-calm Self.
Acceptance of loss or injustice, on the other hand, does not mean a stoical dispassion or
indifference. We may achieve such self-fortified, anaesthetized serenity, but in doing so, we die
We live; therefore, we suffer.
We love; therefore, we hurt.
Acceptance embraces the full experience, and thus even our pain and our expressions of
pain. In other words, when we remain at peace, pain does not swirl within us as something
detached from our inner Self at peace. Rather, we experience pain straight through to the heart
of the heart of us; and yet we are at once the turbulent storm and the stable center, the wind
and the stillness.
Indeed, when we accept the full experience of loss or injustice, we fight or we self-
restrain; we push forward or we wait; we cry out or we keep silent. We do whatever love and
justice demand of us. From our tranquility, we create the storm. From within our quietude, we
move ourselves. Still, and still, we keep our peace.
In loving, we act, even fight, and yet remain at peace. We discover the unity of
immanence and transcendence.
We accept immersion--but we do not drown.
Answering the Fool
“Answer the fool according to his folly. Do not answer the fool according to his folly.” Solomon
My friend is a drunk. An early-morning, chain-smoking, lying, porn-watching dunk.
I love my friend.
I do not think of her as a close or “good” friend, although in her painfully self-
constrained and self-serving way, she tries. I mean she really tries. When love comes my way,
however weak, encumbered, and encrusted, I cannot turn my back. I do keep a wary eye. I set
limits that other friendships rarely need. Indeed, I confess that at times I hold my breath—and
my nose. But I love my friend, in whatever self-limited, self-protective way that I can. I try. I
really do try.
She has told me some of her history. By no self-scrutiny or dint of rational thought can I
say how I would have, or even could have, responded to the traumas she suffered at the hands
of men. Physical abuse by her ex. Rape. Burglaries. Beatings. Several months ago, her neighbor
wanted her cigarette lighter all to himself. She refused. He punched her in the head, knocking
her down, and took her lighter home with him, like some sort of Kull the Conqueror.
Sure, I could write at length about another friend who endured more assaults in her
childhood years than she can recall specifically. What must it mean, my God, to say, “I was
raped and beaten so many times that I lost count by the age of 13”? I count her among my
heroes. I love her for her manifest Herculean moral courage, her disciplined life, her heart-
melting compassion. I do not believe I would have responded so well even to a fraction of her
We make choices, and the consequences come swinging at us like a fist.
A domino falls and blames the ill-behaved domino that knocked it down, and on and on
and on the blaming goes.
It seems we fools cannot see more than a few dominoes behind us, and sometimes we
fail to see even the one domino in front of us. “Do not judge, or you will be judged by the
measure you judge others.” No, I do not at all believe, as some seem to, that Jesus meant we
should discard our collective moral compass or feign a belief that we all suffer at the hands of
I believe he meant, “Be humble, and love everyone, in whatever limited, encumbered,
encrusted way you can.”
Invisible Heart of the Onion
I have failed to speak a necessary truth and known the consequences of my cowardice.
I have spoken truth full of risk and known the cost of courage.
I have lost friendship on both accounts, been forced to change direction in my life, and
felt in head and gut the fire of shame and the flame of righteous indignation.
Faith rises in us as a fierce and defiant courage, standing confidently against the
conventional wisdom which says, “Take care of yourself first; do not risk too much; follow your
convictions only so far as keeping your wallet, your reputation, or your blood allows.” Keeping
faith requires confronting whatever enemy might threaten to take those things from me.
Tell me, please, how to find the invisible heart of the onion that is human motivation.
Why do some keep faith, while some do not?
When I grow tired and wonder why I bother to fight, I am tempted to forget the riches
that have come to me from standing firm and to consider losses only. Yet I know who I am.
That knowledge, in fact, is the wealth I own for keeping faith.
The poet Rumi asks this: “What have I ever lost by dying?” Can I love that question, if I
fear, too much, the answers?
Before the River Empties Into the Sea
I was born not long ago and came with such haste to where I am, not seeing, not
hearing, not touching or tasting all that I should have, not loving all whom I should have. Where
have they all gone? They have faded behind me into the fog along the river. I think it is not far
now to where the river empties into the sea. I will walk slowly from here and pay attention. I
will not pass by an open heart.
On NPR a few mornings ago, a psychologist cited a body of research indicating that we do
change somewhat as we age, and yet we tend to resist change. Ironically, we believe that at any given
point in our lives we have finally come to our true identity and that we will not change much in the
future. Yes, that sounds mostly true of us, being such self-contradictory dunderheads.
In graduate school, a professor told a group of us dunderheads that by the age of 30, he had
fundamentally established his identity and had never, in 35 years since, seen reason to change his mind
about much of anything. We should do the same, he said, by age 30. Even now, that admonition strikes
as a stupidity that only arrogance can produce.
We should not, of course, willy nilly allow ourselves to be “tossed this way and that by every
wind of doctrine,” but I reserve it as the right of Jesus alone to say, “It is finished,” at the age of 33 or
Do I fear change? Sure, like anyone. I fear something else far more: not changing, not being
better tomorrow than I am today. Well, all right, give me a little more time than that, please. I am a
slow learner. Nonetheless, I fear not becoming, and thus dying before I die.
I hope that I am and will always be becoming. I have so much still to learn. I fancy the idea of
dying in the middle of something . . . half way up a mountain, half way done with a wood project, half
way done writing a book, and still madly in love with all those I love now. I want my friends to see me at once as the familiar Kevin, yet also as the half stranger who has changed because he is still becoming.
After all, I am only 61.
“Thou are the thing itself,” King Lear
Tell the story of a friendship—the sparkling, surf-like beginning; the deepening into calmer, cooler waters; the storms; the ports of call; the doldrums; the bright days of moderate, steady wind—the log book and cartography of a long voyage. Perhaps the tale ends, wracked on a rocky shore. Let me alter the course of your story, just a little. A long voyage does not play out in a simple, linear fashion, as a short trip might, but encounters many times its ludic beginnings and episodic middles, perhaps even the debris of its multiple near-ends.
The emotional dynamic of friendship bears a striking resemblance to that of romance, granting two essential differences. To a romance belongs the complexifying, yet singular, sexually-oriented purpose we give to marriage. And to romance we give that unique and compelling sense that this one, and no other, must be the one, intimately living ‘with,’ for as long as we breathe. My point, briefly stated: We fall in love with each other, as friends, and over time we learn what it means to love for the long voyage.
For a few years in Hereford, Arizona, I did odd jobs for Ruth Gregovich. Working for her became working with her, and work always turned to long conversation.
We built a decorative stone wall. We built a stone fountain. We hung pictures, painted walls, and admired paintings by her friend, Diego Rivera. We sat on her patio, quietly spying on the desert quail pecking through the grass. On some evenings, we watched the sun drop behind the Huachuca Mountains.
Very early one Saturday morning, Ruth called me. “Cheetah died. Can you help me bury her?” “Sure. I’ll be there in 15.” At the base of her stone wall, we dug a shallow grave, placed the cat in a shoe box, and set the box in the grave. After covering Cheetah with the dirt and turf, we set up the match-stick cross her granddaughter had made.
Linda and I moved to Texas. Ruth and I wrote letters for more than 20 years. She died at 92. She would be 101 now. At 61, I still miss her, painfully at times.
As my new colleagues mingled through the long hour of a faculty-staff mixer, I stood, nodded, smiled, and talked when I had to. I noticed another fellow sharing my discomfort and caught his eye. I knew. He knew. I exaggerate to say we loved each other at first sight, but we love each other to this day.
Mike, his wife Katie, my wife Linda, and I developed a friendship that has endured for nearly 30 years, a voyage, an adventure, a long and sometimes arduous journey deep into each other’s terra incognita.
The definitive anecdotes remain elusive. I reach for stories among the 23 months at a college where Mike and I worked. Perhaps the week with them on Chincoteague? In our home in Montana?
Our friendship, in fact, has been one long conversation, in person, by phone, by email. Words have woven us together.
I met Autumn, the 10-year-old daughter of my son’s Siksika girlfriend. I was 58. We eyed each other cautiously at first, grew to like each other, and soon began the adventure of building a history as friends.
On a long hike to a mountaintop, we trudged side-by-side in a group of six. I topped the peak in last place, a few meters behind her, but she felt proud, having begun the trek with considerable trepidation. I felt proud of her; much of our conversation involved me convincing her that a girl of nine could master a mountain.
One day, walking with Linda and my son Lewis, Autumn and I began to joke about some music coming from the door of a café. So we danced on the sidewalk, she and I, a clomping, arm-swinging, ludicrous sort of dance, but oh we danced!
I say I love you to a motley bunch of hims and hers, old and young—Christian, Hindu, atheist, Muslim—accountant, professor, carpenter, ex-student, pastor, computer techie, nurse, office administrator, . . . . I count every one as gift.
I read friendship literature, almost always with disappointment. Efforts to classify friendships by type, for instance, strike me as futile. In any case, I do not understand the value of asking, “Hmm, what ‘type’ of friendship do Ahmed and I have?” When a friendship goes awry, I do not find it helpful to divide and classify, applying labels to the was, is, and will be. I love what Maya Angelou says, “We are more alike, my friend, than unalike,” and yet individual complexities give every human a uniqueness that, likewise, makes every friendship unique. It has never occurred to me that I should ask, “Hmm, what ‘type’ of human is Roshni?”
How many human beings exist? How many possible friendships, mathematically speaking, could form? Let friendship proliferate unabated, exponentially, with a wild diversity (I am tempted to say ‘promiscuity’) of age, gender, color, culture, religion, forever!
Well, true, we can only sustain a very limited number of friendships in a lifetime. Our finiteness in time and space limits our capacity for acting upon our love. But perhaps not. I recall a story I have told before: I met a man on an airplane, a year before I married. As he left to board another flight, he said of his 50-year marriage, “My wife died a few months ago. Cherish your wife; it does not last long enough.” I never met him again; I think of him as a friend. Friendship never lasts long enough.
I insist upon this: friendship is the foundational human relationship. For Christians, God is friend; and a human, Abraham, for instance, can be a friend of God’s. Every other relationship we have, with God or each other, has definition and purpose—role, costume, and script. Friendship needs none of those. Conversely, I cannot imagine marriage or child-rearing without friendship at the core. My wife is my best friend, and I know our life together would be profoundly diminished, if that were not so.
To romance belongs the naked body, but it wears the cultural, social garments of marriage. To romance and friendship alike belongs the naked heart.
I love to hike. I love to work with my hands.
In the spring of 2012, I began to feel severe pain in my hands and feet, and then also in my tailbone and torso. My hands and feet began to swell. One night, unable to sleep, I got out of bed, went into the garage, and cut off my wedding ring. That provided some slight relief for that rapidly swelling finger, but some consternation for Linda. We both knew that something serious was at hand. Within a few months, the pain grew extreme, very much like the sensation of having my extremities and torso trapped in a fire that I could not escape. I could hardly walk. I could hardly open a door. I could hardly pick up a book or plate of food. Walking across a room, rolling over in bed, getting dressed, any number of simple things became excruciating. At times, when the pain medication wore off, which it did more quickly than it was supposed to, the pain became terrifying. I thought this might kill me. Without massive doses of pain killers, the pain became mind-bending. Even with heavy doses of Gabapentin and two kinds of codeine tablets, a total of 14 per day, the pain raged, a constant throbbing and burning, all day and night.
It took a full year for the rare viral infection in my my brain and spinal column to peak and then subside. I feared that I might never hike or work with my hands again and that I might finish my days in a wheel chair (along with that viral infection in my brain and spine, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis).
Some of you pray, as I do; some of you do not. Regardless, I believe you will understand the experience I record here, the defiance that came from it. For that whole year, I prayed for several hours every day. I did not but rarely pray for myself, not even for relief from the pain. Instead, I prayed for all of my loved ones by name--family and friends—over and over. Sometimes I prayed for my enemies too, people who had hurt and abused me and others. I avoided praying for myself, not because of any piety on my part, but because praying about my health meant focusing on my pain, and I needed instead to focus away from myself.
Focus on your own pain, and your pain will own you.
One night while praying, as the throbbing felt especially intense, I heard, almost in an audible voice, "Get up and dance." I reacted with astonishment and sort of yelled, "You want me to do what? What the hell?" Yes, I swore at God. The command came again. "Get up and dance."
I struggled out of bed and staggered to an open space in the bedroom. I began to dance. I prayed and danced—and began laughing. The searing-hot throb in my feet and torso was horrific; yet the experience of dancing through such fiery pain was one of the most joyful and beautiful experiences of my life. I cherish what I learned from that fire. I cherish that dancing.
I still sometimes dance while I pray, as my memories of this have become my metaphor for a life of faith. As I write this, I remember of course that not all of you friends share my or any religious faith. Nonetheless, I believe that you understand my dancing and why I think of it as metaphor. Despite your suffering, you find a way to dance. You must, even to laugh as you dance on fire.