Sunday, November 23, 2008

All that will survive me: The Fifth Remembrance

Equanimity by Rev. Nonin Chowaney. His work can be found at

By and large, the odd behaviors we call mental illness are only exaggerations of natural tendencies or, you might say, common mistakes that we enshrine as strategies for dealing with life.

I am thinking of a lovely woman I know who is somewhere on “the autistic spectrum,” and somewhat OCD. These two personality patterns fit together nicely, in the way that makes me think about the inadequacy of labels. My friend feels protected by packing a dozen pens lined up in a certain order in her briefcase; by her meticulous log of every mile she drives. She got very frightened once when I casually deviated from a recipe. I don’t think she ever throws anything away; not a magazine or a rag.

If you walked into her house, you’d think her very strange, living tunneled into walls of boxes and head-high columns of old newspapers. But really, her habits are just an exaggeration of normal. We all tend to feel safe with the familiar, to seek security in routines. “Normal” people are just not quite as obvious in our attachments.

This morning my thinking is circling around the last of The Five Remembrances —
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
It is very unsettling when something happens that shows us everything we own can be swept away in one breathtaking moment. Hurricane, fire, a drunk driver, the stock market crash. Even our very self with its precious uniqueness can be swept away by one little blood clot in the brain. Then all that is left of us is the continuation of our influence in the world. I’d say that influence is not very much about fame, but about the impact of our everyday actions.

When I think of losing everything with equanimity, I remember a couple I knew socially in the late sixties. Bill and Ruth were young people, in their thirties, who had been missionaries in an African country where a civil war broke out. The violence kept creeping closer to their village, so they put everything they really valued, like family photographs, in a barrel and buried it in the dirt floor of the basement of the mission house.

One day their home church radioed in a panic. The violence was sweeping their way, and a bush plane was on the way to get them. It would touch down and take off. They could bring only what they could wear on their backs and what Ruth could carry in her purse, which was basically, their passports.

I met them not long after they got back to this country. They told their story calmly, and Bill commented, “We thought we’d get back there some day to get our stuff, but we learned that the mission house was burned to the ground. Now we know we’ll never be back.”

Ruth was the kind of quiet person you pay attention to when she speaks. She said, “There is a certain sense of freedom. Now we have nothing left to lose.”

These two were Christians, in what denomination I don’t remember. But the example of their lives taught me a central tenet of Buddhism, and apparently of Christianity, too. We find our freedom in letting go. In relinquishing. All Bill and Ruth had left was life itself, and they were grateful.

Our paths didn’t cross again after that, and they were older than me, so they might be dead by now. I can’t recall their last name, hard as I try, memory being one of the little things I keep losing. But the essential memory of their actions has stayed with me all those years. It is not the courage of their missionary work, either; I can hardly fathom that kind of physical courage. What has survived them in my mind is the memory of their acceptance of loss, their ability to learn from it, their serene knowledge that being alive and having each other was what counted.
[note: The full text of The Five Remembrances is at the bottom of the page.]

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