What’s Next?

Why is it that we cannot, however much we try, seem to live the moment in which we find ourselves? Or is it that we’re unable to find ourselves in any given moment? I love a bend in the road as much as the next guy, but there are times I’m so focused on what lies ahead that I fail to appreciate the beauty that presents itself to my all too often unseeing eyes right now.

The Buddha said that to be truly happy, one must want what he has instead of pining for what he has not. The first time I encountered this little pearl of wisdom, it struck me as a tad simplistic, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. I think it’s not so much about possessions (at least not in the strictest sense of the word) as it is about who and where we are. Let’s face it–life ain’t much, chronologically speaking. We are, indeed, as Kansas sings, merely dust in the wind, or, in biblical terms, a flower in the field, here today, withered tomorrow. We’re on the clock, people, and the workday ends…well, when it ends. Could be tomorrow, could be fifty years from now. Could be that this is the last day I’ve got. Whatever the measure may be, the clock is ticking. We’re a heartbeat away from the end of the world as we know it (or as it knew us).

To many of us, this is scary stuff. But it’s scary only because we don’t realize how liberating a truth it could be, if we only knew how to handle it. It is a truth that should inspire in us a love for life, not a fear of it, a desire to squeeze as much juice as we can out of every passing moment, instead of dread at the possibility that this might be the last one to pass. Because, in all honesty, it might be. So enjoy it while it lasts. Want to be where you are, find the beauty in the place in which you stand, sit, live, chip away at the surface if you must, mine through the dirt and rock to find the gems underneath. Do what you have to do, but find the joy, find the life, find the splendor that hides beneath the apparent monotony of living. It’s there–it’s always there–if you learn how to look for it.

This is a row I myself must learn to hoe. Speaking as one who finds himself mired in a place that often seems less than appealing, and who would love nothing more than to get out post-haste, I am in need of occasional reminders of the finitude of myself and my time on the stage. I was a theater student once, and I know what it means to have a bit part, which is about the extent, in the scheme of things, of any of our particular roles in human history. As the quacks used to cliché-ize, there is no such thing as a small part, only small actors. Irritating, but indicative of an important philosophical understanding: a life is rendered great or small based on the manner in which we approach it. We are, in short, the sum of our experiences, and we decide how high the value of the mathematics in question. And–in the words of countless math teachers–we must show our work. Our failing is that we’re so focused on the answer to the question that we pay no mind to the road whereby we arrived at the answer. My friends, life is not an equation, it is a word problem, and we will never understand the results if we don’t pay attention to the story.

How does one look for the ever-present beauty in the world, even when it seems there is none to be found? The key is not to obsess over the way we would like things to be, but to learn to see them as they really are. Remember the opening scene from American Beauty, with the floating plastic bag? To the naked eye, not necessarily a thing of beauty, but in its place, as it is in and of itself, it is infinitely, painfully so. Whatever your opinion as to the moral content of that film, the lesson it teaches is one of vital importance. Lester learned, unfortunately too late, that life as it is lived can be a beautiful thing if we recognize our place in it. And by this, I don’t mean some fatalistic understanding of “where we’re supposed to be,” because that sort of thing only makes us worry that we’re not there yet. No, rather I mean that we must develop the habit of just being (no Calvin Klein copyright infringement intended), of allowing life to wash over us instead of letting it chase us along, always convinced that there will be nothing worth seeing till we round the next bend or crest the next hill. All things are experience, and there is experience in all things.

The beauty of a thing resides in the fulfillment of its identity. In other words, a flower is not beautiful because it is a certain color or offers a certain perfume (although this is definitely a part of what makes it so), but more basically because it is a flower. In its flower-ness it fulfills its identity, and herein lies its beauty. By the same token, a dull, brown stone is neither more nor less beautiful than the diamond beside it–it is merely beautiful in its own way, in the fulfillment of its own special identity. It is beautiful in its place. And so on, and so forth.

I just returned from a week in the Great Smokies. A more striking contrast could not be found than that between Central Texas and the Appalachians, and the temptation is to belittle the former in favor of the latter, to complain of the plainness of home and yearn for the more exotic sense of away. But, following my above logic, this is a false impulse, and the fault lies not with my surroundings, but in me and my ability (or lack thereof) to truly see what surrounds me. It is perplexing the extent to which we ogle the greener grass beyond the fence and forget that we’re already standing on a lawn full of its own vivid colors (brown is also a color, and beautiful in its place). Soon after we were married, Tammy and I took a trip from our former home in the pasturelands of central Missouri to Yellowstone National Park, and while we were there someone, upon discovering where we were from, told us how much they had always wanted to see our home state. To which we very much raised our eyebrows, as we had the whole time been thinking how much nicer than home Wyoming was. This was revealing to me in two ways. First, it demonstrated the extent to which we take for granted the beauty of what we see every day. Secondly, it betrayed the extent to which we are convinced that someone else’s vista is surely better than our own. The truth is that, just as the stone and diamond mentioned above, neither Texas nor North Carolina is either better or worse than the other. Both are beautiful; neither is not. They are each simply beautiful in their own way and in their own place. Perhaps the beauty of one requires a little more persistence in the discovery than does the beauty of the other, but both are beautiful nevertheless.

Why is it so important that we understand all this? Just as all things are beautiful in their respective places, so do I become beautiful in mine. But for this to happen, I must first know what my place is. Instead of trying so hard to find where I’m supposed to be, I need to focus on learning to BE where I am. The first part of perceiving beauty is, then, understanding where I am. Once I come to know and see WHERE I am, only then am I freed to be WHO I am, and this freedom is all-important. Because, again, the beauty of a thing lies in its fulfillment of its identity, and I cannot fulfill my identity unless I know who I am. If I’ve misunderstood the identity of my surroundings–if I’ve failed to discern the beauty all around me–I may find great difficulty in seeing past all this to the beauty inside myself.

Ugliness and beauty are not just found in the eye of the beholder, although that may be where the process begins. Given time, they penetrate to the heart and the soul, and as the rose-colored glasses of proverbial renown, they begin to color one way or the other everything we see. All of our experiences are filtered through this tinted (or tainted) screen, and we become incapable of seeing things in any other way. All is ugly, or all is beautiful. If the former is true, if we encounter our world convinced of its homeliness, then by the power of translation, we live convinced of our own. Not in a cosmetic sense, mind you. That is a surface matter and quickly remedied. Rather, it is a homeliness that pervades our being, from our minds right through to our very core, polluting everything we know and cherish about ourselves. And if all we see in the mirror is a monster or a meaningless lump, then the likelihood is that such is how others too will see us. Don’t make that face, our mothers used to say, or it’ll freeze that way.

If I am convinced that my surroundings are devoid of beauty, that this is not where I’m supposed to be, then it becomes plain to me that nothing good can come of being here. I cannot be who I am supposed to be…here. My potential must remain untapped as long as I remain…here. There may be truth and beauty in the world, but I just can’t put my finger on it…here. And the pattern begins to form. Unsatisfied with my life, but sure that I can do nothing to address my dissatisfaction…here. So I take no action at all, at first out of defeat, then out of despair, and finally out of a sheer inability to move. Miniver Cheevy, born too late. Take a drink, and keep on thinking…

Instead of asking what’s next, we must learn to ask what’s now. Because regardless of where we’re “supposed to be,” the incontrovertible fact is that HERE is where we are. Perhaps you have the wherewithal at your disposal to change the “where.” Many do not. Which leaves the balance of us with the “how.” That’s fair game, no matter what you have in your bank account. Remember, want what you have, because it’s pointless to fret after what you have not (and perhaps cannot have). Embrace instead the dialectical relationship between your surroundings and yourself. Find the beauty in your environment (however much of a challenge that may be), and you will find a corresponding beauty in your soul. And once you begin to see yourself for the beautiful butterfly you are, you may be surprised at how much easier it becomes to find the beauty in the plain-jane world around you. Remember, life is what we make of it, not the other way around.

And the clock is ticking…

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