True words do not sound beautiful;
beautiful sounding words are not true.
Wise men don’t need to debate;
men who need to debate are not wise.
Wise men are not scholars,
and scholars are not wise.
The Sage desires no possessions.
Since the things he does are for the people,
he has more than he needs.
The more he gives to others,
the more he has for himself.
The Way of Heaven nourishes by not forcing.
The Way of the Sage acts by not competing.
– Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching, 81 (道德經)
Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little. – Epicurus
I began writing these thoughts on 8th of June 2014 thinking about what topics I will inevitably write on the matters of repatriation, philanthropy, synchronicity and spirituality, and this strange moment in time where I currently have most of my conscious thoughts gathered together.
As the days go by and more time for reflection rather than rumination allow me to process life the past several weeks, I’m at another crossroads in life. Each time I try to sit down and write, I’m instead instinctively drawn to distract myself or focus on tasks that would be more noble to talk about when my mother or stepfather ask what I have been doing.
Part I: Rising from Dreams
In the warm, womb-like sanctuary of blankets and pillows, I struggle daily to wake up and face the world that I live in. There may be no landmines, malaria, floods, or soldiers in the streets, but I feel less safe in this strange life in America the longer I remain here. Dreams become more real than waking life, and the subconscious sojourns every night feel more like the real world.
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself, “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
– Marcus Aurelius
As the link above to the military man’s speech and Marcus Aurelius’ meditation pass through my waking thoughts, I first remind myself: this is not my own bed (let alone my home) when I put each pillow in its proper place. I’m a guest in my mom’s house, not because of her, but her husband, whose American cultural views dictate that he needs his space and all young, able-bodied men like me should not even entertain the thought of moving back home with his mother for financial practicalities, even as others are doing it after college.
As the bed is arranged, I enter the cold shower, knowing full well that it will be comfortable. But as related to making my bed, most people do not have that luxury to afford a long, hot shower. Each time I get in, the temperature does not change, I do, as I grow stronger and adapt to it. I’m not meant to be comfortable, and with those of you who have seen fragments of the complexities of life (including my own story), we’ve all been survivors, and I’ve had to deal with it all every time I try to move forward in life.
Being a Stoic or an Epicurean or simply one with the Tao, however you call it or characterize what I do, it all comes down to me finding a good song and playing it in my head frequently. From there, life can go on.
I’ve had to face that I was never meant to have an easy life constantly, and that’s why I enjoy development work: you make the most of what you have and don’t complain because your neighbors will never have the privilege you do. And I have plenty of privilege to be able to have this insight and understanding of complexity by acknowledging that I don’t know and simply question and seek to understand more. After all, it’s one of the only ways to survive in a strange world that remains alien to me.
Part II: The Wonders of Mundane Life
My pocket notebook continues to fill up with observations about America. One thing I’ve noticed is how people are extremely adamant about rule of law here if it works in their favor, whether arguing about lawsuits or orderliness. However, the contradiction in behavior is that they seem to think they are above law and try to do what they can to not get caught. They also seem to want everything done their way–entitlement is the social contract here.
Example: a woman insists on giving me her money and ordering from me, while the procedure at the taco shop I currently work at is to queue up at the counter and pay the cashier. She throws a big fuss about it and gets mad I won’t take her order when she has her money out.
It’s difficult to be around this all the time. It’s even harder when I see entire meals wasted and how many napkins people use for a small meal, and how parents make a mess on the tables and floors that almost warrant the area being closed off for cleaning because people can slip on their waste. After coming out of Cambodia and Timor-Leste and other places, where most days, many foods simply weren’t available and everyone starved at times, it’s painful to see this.
I’ve made it a habit to take all leftovers into a bag and give them to the beggars outside, who still surprise me and demand money or dietary restrictions. I remind myself simply that it’s all just a brief ride I’m on, and as with any roller coaster, the fun part is when you go down. Seeing people as a genuine foreigner is a lot easier now, because the American accent, facial expressions, values, and character are drastically different than my own. I see them as no closer to me than Thai people are, and I live with them, but am not one of them or of them.
This is not news, though. What is news, however, is that I’ve found my groove here. For every nuisance with the rabble here, I’ll find someone who appreciates good manners and sends me a card, someone who reads my writing and says, “Hey, I really enjoyed it and totally relate”, someone who joins a Qigong session I’m in the midst of, or someone who just thanks me for being fun and positive to be around at work.
The universe aligns me for what I need to do all the time, even if that includes creating uncomfortable scenarios that propel me forward when nothing else works. Unfortunately, it takes extremes these days as cold showers and Cambodia have both taught me that I have way too high of a tolerance.
This tolerance does not translate to the home situation, where my stepfather and mother constantly tell me nonprofit and development work are only for rich kids like Rockefellers, and that I should be financially stable before “volunteering”. Obviously, this kind of reasoning is done by people who know zero about development work and how if only rich kids did it, how poorly it would be executed (hint: look at colonialism). My career choice is seen as merely a pretext for travel (no denying that), and people like them and others tell me I can’t do this for the rest of my life because it’s unstable. That’s a very industrial economy-type worldview of America, to say the least, and betrays a complete lack of understanding again about development work and social enterprise, let alone how globalized this world is.
“Talking sense to a fool results in him calling you foolish” as was once said by Sophocles. Repatriation, cultural differences, development work, globalization–all complexities lost on people. Just because I am American by birth does not mean I understand this country–the longer I stay here, the less I understand it, and in fact, I better grasp what it is when overseas.
Great way someone once put it: living in an undeveloped society then going to a technologically advanced society is very traumatic, even after one year. Living in a backwards society is very tough–that’s why I need to leave America, I often used to joke. So much for diversity.
Part III: Lost to Sea
I’ve spent many days wandering the city with a backpack full of books, pocketful of crystals, and right hand holding prayer beads chanting mantras walking around from as far as North Beach and all the way to Ocean Beach. That’s basically walking from one end of San Francisco to the other. In between, I sip kombucha, record a few thoughts, and continue marching along.
The other Sunday, at Green Apple Bookstore, I happily procured the wonderful one-volume edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy as translated by John Ciardi for the low, low price of ten dollars. It joins my travel collection here, or rather, one travel bag of books for when I am wherever I end up as inspiration for my reading and writing.
Who needs real people when these books treat me so much better? Or the wonderful music that has drastically improved my life over the years? I obviously can’t be a hermit, though. I may have my esoteric practices and quirks like my crystal collection here, but very rarely will people appreciate or accept this. Not that I care, people would rather talk aloud on their phones and advertise their sex lives on the bus while others find that far more normal than someone holding a prayer necklace out.
Of course, nature inspires me as well. I’ve had more than a few times to meditate and do my Qigong in front of Ocean Beach, under the sun, feeling that wind, and listening to the ocean roar. And I need that with the stress at home and uncertainty. Sometimes, I bring nature home as I have with the crystals, and use them as part of my meditation.
There’s something alien about the use of crystals in meditation, too, even if I’m really just connecting to nature through another one of its many forms of matter. It’s no different from hugging a tree or standing underneath a waterfall and letting out a primal scream…which I did in Cambodia.
I guess nature here in San Francisco and Los Angeles feels different because of the conscious effort to control it, especially in the parks. What made it feel all the more majestic in Southeast Asia is that people still remember that they live in harmony with nature, or they suffer–just recall the temples of Angkor and how the trees grow out of them for example.
Ah, over there. It’s a concept I still am in love with. But I no longer imagine places I long for anymore, because those adventures are done–I imagine places I’ve yet to find myself in. That’s what adventure is: uncertainty. And I love that feeling. That’s probably why I put in an application to the Peace Corps in the hopes that I’ll go somewhere in East Africa or Nepal or Mongolia.
So much for staying present, though. I wonder what will happen when someone from an alien world or the future discovers these thoughts recorded on digital memory and tries to make sense of it. How much of the world around me will people be able to understand or infer from my criticisms when I’m just a viewpoint that is so deep in the minority that most would write me off as a madman?
Judging by how absurd societies and people can be, I don’t think they’d understand it no matter how accurate their inference is. But the result is always the same: strange societies create outliers like me and the peers I’ve quoted throughout this missive. And it is those of us who people quote and admire from afar, but seldom can have as friends.
I’ve got too many fans, really, not friends. But I’m not meant to have fans, I’m meant to be a person who simply lives openly and honestly, and if someone calls me Bro, I am insulted because I see them as brothers, real brothers, not a term to be called lightly. If someone wants to be an occasional friend to handle me in small doses, I’m offended, because that’s not friendship, that’s conditionality and intellectual prostitution. I don’t need that, as I’m not even getting paid. I need people I can rely on and trust with my life. And this changes as the years pass, for most people are unable to grow out of their shells.
I criticize graduate school, and I’m called rude as people reprimand me for insulting their life going through a hellish program–the same people who grade student papers on a surfboard, with the risk of getting them wet. This is the same program where the department chairs admit they wouldn’t do the program themselves, or admissions agents admit that they don’t even read essays–they let in foreign students to let the catalogue look more diverse and because they pay in full, nor do they expel the cheaters. The same program that has professors telling students that they are tenured and don’t care about who understands or not, to learn on Google, and the one most of my former colleagues discovered they don’t want to leave San Diego and end up in jobs unrelated to their field. And that’s only if they pursue work, since the rest end up perpetually unemployed or back to teaching English and working in restaurants. So much for the value of higher education.
I criticize people’s absurd glorification of being busy, but show that their actions indicate they simply don’t have the ability to say, “No, I’m not interested in hanging out with you, but I don’t want to be an asshole and tell you no or delete you from my friends list.” I don’t need to be everyone’s friend, but I certainly don’t need to mingle with the insincere and the weak.
Nature and books remain my only constant friends it seems. And that’s definitely not a bad thing. I’ve got my music as well, and for every time I seem to encounter that classic Johnny C luck, all I need is to tune into a play list and find a song to listen to on repeat in order to appreciate the monotony of life back in the First World.