It isn’t always necessary to travel to exotic places to have rich experiences. In fact, some of my (Charlie) most enriching moments have come from my local neighborhood, or in this case, my health club. Yesterday, after spending an hour on the cardio machines, I was enjoying the peace and stillness of being alone in the club’s steam room. Soaking in the hot, moist air is a ritual that I reward myself with after my daily workouts. On this day it was especially delicious since I had the usually crowded room to myself.
That is, until the door opened up and a club member came in and sat down across from me. She was an older woman, probably in her 70’s. I acknowledged her with a nod of my head, then closed my eyes to return to the stillness that I had briefly lost. Ahhh. . . .
“I grew up in Tennessee and if someone ever told me that I’d be paying money to sit in a hot, steamy room I would have told them they were nuts!” Her voice shattered the silence like a huge boulder splashing into a still pond of water. So much for a little silent meditation retreat, I sighed to myself. And now she probably expects a response from me.
I opened my eyes and said, “Yeah. We’re really lucky to be living in such a beautiful climate when so much of the rest of the country is sweltering in hot, muggy weather.”
“Woo-boy!” she responded. “The summers in Tennessee were so miserable! You wouldn’t believe it! And that was before air conditioning! We didn’t even have a fan! We lived in a small house. It was really tiny!”
“Well”, I thought, I might as well just join in the conversation because this scenario isn’t likely to change anytime soon. And so I did. I let go of my attachment to being quiet and turned the knob to the conversation channel, choosing to ignore the sign on the wall that prohibited speaking above a whisper.
The woman whose name I never did get told me that she and her family of two sons and her husband had moved to California about 40 years ago. “My older son was pretty wild in his youth. He’s calmed down a lot over the years. He was a surfer and he loved being out in the water. He loved his freedom, didn’t care much for school when he was growing up. One day we got a call from him. He was in the county jail. He’d been arrested for driving recklessly on his motorcycle. He was still in his teens. ‘Mom,’ he said, ‘they’re going to keep me in jail for ten days if I don’t come up with $300. Can you help me out?!’
‘Sure’, I said, ‘I’ll bring the money down to the court house right away.’
‘Great! Thanks for bailing me out.’
‘Oh I’m not paying for you to get out, I’m bringing your money.’
‘Mine?’ he said.
‘Well of course. You’re the one who got himself arrested, aren’t you?’
‘But I need that $300.00.’
‘Well, then save it, and spend the next 10 days in jail.’ And that’s exactly what he did. And he hated it. Once day I went down to visit him and I recited a verse from a poem that I had memorized by Oscar Wilde. The poem is called, “The Ballad of The Reading Gaol.”
I never saw a man who looked with such a wistful eye,
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.”
“He loved that verse and he memorized it and he recited it to some of the other prisoners. They thought that I had written it and I became a local celebrity there for a few days.”
“When my son was released from jail he looked up at that big blue sky that was now more than just a little tent.” “Man is it great to be free! I’m never ever going to do anything that could land me back in a place like that again.” And he hasn’t. He’s grown up to be a very decent and responsible man, with kids of his own, and he still loves to surf!”
The woman told me that not bailing her son out of jail and seeing him suffering there was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but that she knew that it was the right thing. “I hated to see him in that awful place, but looking back on it, I’m certain that it was one of the best spent 10 days of my son’s life. He learned some very big lessons about life in a very short period of time. And he never forgot them.” Sometimes life hands us experiences that are painful but brief. If we can show up for them and really take in the teaching, we can avoid much more painful experiences later on. It’s like an inoculation in which the body is given a tiny dose of a disease that allows it to build an immunity and protects us from getting the full-blown illness. These inoculations only work when we integrate the lessons and open ourselves completely to receive the full impact of the experience. It’s more painful than avoiding it or running away or having someone else pay instead, but the long-term value of the experience is priceless.
When we try to protect others from the natural consequences of their behavior, our efforts may inadvertently result in an outcome far worse than the one we helped them to avoid. It may be an act of much greater love to support someone to accept and deal with the natural consequences of their choices than to rescue them from those results. Failing to get the message in the inoculation stage all but guarantees us that the message will be delivered again and again in the future at increasingly larger doses until we finally do get it. The Universe is very generous and persistent in offering us an abundance of opportunities to learn the lessons that support the evolving and unfolding of our true nature. The earlier in the process that we take advantage of these opportunities, the less painful and disruptive the experiences are.
It’s been said there are two types of pain. The first or “primary pain” is that pain that is intrinsic to life. It is unavoidable, like toothaches, illness, hurt feelings, losses, disappointments, traffic jams, choosing the wrong relationship partner or the wrong line at the supermarket checkout counter, and a host of other “stupid” decisions. These things happen. Hopefully we can learn from them and not make a habit of repeating behaviors that make them more likely to recur.
The second kind of pain, “secondary pain” is that which we create in trying to avoid, deny, or escape the first. The noted analyst, Carl Jung has said that 10% of the pain we experience in life is probably unavoidable. The other 90% is what we create in trying to avoid the unavoidable.
Think about that the next time you find yourself trying to rescue someone from the consequences of their actions. Learning how to learn from our experiences may be one of the wisest things that we ever do. It sure beats the alternative! Stay cool.