The Escape

If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
― Lao Tzu

I spent the better part of my adolescence running away from other kids. I was a small kid until my senior year in high school, never surpassing 5’ 3” in height. This amplified my shyness and introversion making it difficult to male bond. Beginning with dodgeball in gym class when I was nearly always the second to last to be picked, and carrying on into the first year of high school, I was a target. My diminutive scale wasn’t the issue, merely the thing that made me vulnerable to attack. No, the reason I was pursued, bullied, and generally, outcast was because my father was the school principal. A strict disciplinarian at his job, he often spent his time punishing kids for their various indiscretions and bad behavior. These kids, unable to respond to my 6’ 5” and 350-pound father chose instead to target his small son. Nearly every day after school from 6th grade to 9th grade resembled Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive. I knew then as I see now that I wasn’t a born fighter, so I had to devise a different strategy if I was to avoid getting beaten to a pulp. That approach was escaping.

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The author on the right next to a painting about Karl Marx mimicking the style of Larry Rivers

The combination of my driver’s license and a growth spurt which shot me to 5’ 9” and then by college 6’ 1”, put an end to being bullied. Looking back at that time in my life now seems humorous and melodramatic, but at the time it was genuine. I recall attending my ten-year high school reunion and having the very people that bullied me in middle school come up to me—already softened and misshapen by the years—and befriending me. The tides turned, and my victimhood had become a distant memory.

What escaping in my adolescence later taught me was a keen analysis. I learned that every situation in life, no matter how dyer, has attached to it a litany of possible outcomes. Spending some time to mentally walk through those scenarios which are within our control is a useful exercise. I began to build up a list of potential outcomes which formed a matrix I could pick from in my life. If offered choices and choices are essential to us in retaining a healthy lifestyle. Even if those options are limited just having them is enough sometimes to keep us going. Choices are a precursor to hope. Just having the matrix of choices and having hope isn’t enough. You have to have to practice self-awareness to use your opportunities to strengthen your resilience.

My close friend Arnie Kozak, a long-time mindfulness practitioner and teacher used to say to me often “kill hope”. That phrase really got under my skin. I think like most people, killing hope is anathema to being a human being and the thought of killing it off meant an emptiness few of us are willing to deliberately confront. After hours of conversation, I came to really appreciate this concept he has arrived at, and I saw it aligning with my own philosophy on life in a way that I hadn’t previously recognized. I am very fond of the quote by the artist Francis Bacon, “I’m optimistic about nothing”. For a man that suffered from tragic loss and life-long asthma, not to mention the perils of being gay when it was illegal in Britain, Bacon was saying mood is a choice. You can choose how you feel even when the circumstances appear to be contrary to the mood you have chosen. Now think of this concerning hope, or I should say the abstract concept that is hope. Hope is aspirational, futuristic, a promise that outside of the moment you live in there is something better, greater, etc. Hope by its very nature is escapism, pulling you out of the now and placing firmly in some utopian landscape of the future in your mind. In essence, hope is a delusion.

No matter how clever I was in grade school, every once in a while there was some kid who was faster or who caught me off guard, and I would get scuffed up. The matrix of possibilities I had devised on my escape plans was never enough. Worse, the time I spent occupied with the planning for a new escape or the real time spent taking exotic routes home could have been better spent on my own intellectual and emotional growth. My hope that I would inevitably avoid persecution was a terrible distraction from the much more important idea of merely being alive in a moment in time. Killing hope sets us free to determine our moods and live paying closer attention to the now. All of the range of emotional states that are possible can be experienced in the moment of the Now and the deeper our experience, the more resilient and open to other experiences we become. The matrix of possibilities is then spawned out of actual living, not out of fantasy constructs that promise a better future. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says to Luke Skywalker; “Try you will not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

This is terrible advice. There is only always trying. Nothing in life is a completion, and everything is in a constant state of flux, no matter how subtle. To focus on the “doing” in life is to lose all of the beauty and subtlety of being alive. Doing is attachment to striving, achievement, and hope. It makes us a prisoner to expectations rather than what Luke really needed and finally achieved despite Yoda’s lousy advice, to let go. Luke’s attachment was to his anger and his past. His character was using the past to shape who he was as a person. In essence, Luke was running away, just like I was, from himself. He needed to kill hope to grow.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
― Lao Tzu

featured image from The Naked Prey

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