Vulnerability and Fear

An invading army conquered a feudal Japanese village. The entire village ran away right before the invaders arrived with the exception of the local Zen master. When the general of the invading army heard about the man who did not run away, he went to the temple to meet this stupid man. When the Zen master showed no fear of the general, the general flew into a rage.  “Fool,” shouted the general as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” The Master then calmly replied, “And do you realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

This is my favorite story of all time. I first heard a version of it in college and I think of it a lot. In scary moments, or times when I have to face something challenging, I just say the end of it to myself like a mantra, “I can be run through without blinking an eye”. It gives me courage, girds my proverbial loins. I hear it in my mind, not so much in the Japanese setting, but in a more Shakespearean form. Because it actually quite pompous sounding. Some very English fellow with a mustached upper lip that is quite stiff says bravely, in his royal British accent (it’s likely Patrick Stewart) “Do you Sir, realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?” Mic drop. Shocked general just walks away.

The amusing thing about all this is that I do not remotely resemble the monk. My neurotic levels of fear and anxiety are legendary amongst family and friends. And the other irony here is that I am more likely to be sanguine about having my guts split open by a samurai than I would be about say, attending a party with friends. Or, providing oversight of a handyman making repairs in my house. Heck, I almost bolted from the house this morning just from hearing Sue play John Denver’s Greatest hits. Though, in my defense, that may be described more as disgust than fear. All I knew is that John and I might both be leaving on a jet plane, but I hoped they left from different airports.

This long intro is my way of saying that I am by nature a fearful, anxious person who desperately wants to live instead with a mental state of calm and equanimity. And so, to the degree I am able, I push myself to confront my fears a lot. I try to stay put in the village waiting for the general with steely nerve. I do this with varying levels of success. I managed to stay put in a career that terrified me each and every day for 25 years. But I was never able to stop being afraid. I confronted it over and over again, but I was not calm. I have managed to learn to speak in front of large groups with no fear. I can do parties, when required, and play the role of guest or host, but the energy it requires will cost me dearly later. Those who worked with me know I can take over a meeting, sometimes inappropriately, talking about my ideas or opinions, but that is a certain environment and I tended to get caught up in the topic and so forgot my fear. I am able to be married fearlessly. In fact, the safety I feel in my home is the bedrock of my strength. But my anxiety then comes around the inevitable loss of those I love as we continue to age. People you love dying is much worse than being run through yourself.

Being retired has been a great gift to me in many ways because I don’t have to meet the general as often. I don’t have to face my fears with so much intensity each and every day. But it also means I can get caught up in the spinning anxieties of my own thoughts. And it is compelling to stay by myself at home where it is safe and where I don’t have to try so hard or take chances. I don’t have to be exposed. I can run away.

This is where the blog comes in. Posting that first entry yesterday was terrifying.  I am not someone who lets random people become my Facebook friends. If you are on my friend list, you are someone who matters to me. We may not see each other often. We may not be close companions, but if you are there, I care about you. And I am taking a chance by sharing my thoughts and feelings with you. My hope is that I can write a lot of posts that are funny in the future. Things that will entertain. Perhaps thought provoking entries. But right now, as I enter into this, it leaves me startlingly, breathlessly vulnerable. And I am standing here trying not to blink an eye.



So What’s With the Blog Name?

I am just about to turn 50 years old, and I am a reflective person by nature. In my mind, the equation “50 years old + reflective = time to ponder death”. This may not be the solution to the equation for others, but its my brain and that’s how I roll. So, back to death. I have been thinking about it. A lot. And mind you, I am someone who has always pondered the nature of existence and its inescapable expiration date, so when I say death has been on my mind it turns me into a caricature of my already self absorbed, angst ridden self. Picture dark room, mostly consumed bottle of absinthe, copy of Nietzsche’s greatest hits on the bedside table and Mozart’s “Requiem” playing in background. That’s the scene set in my mind.

The events leading to this dismal scene keep sucker punching me- the late life yet deeply sad deaths of both my grandmothers, my proactive career end, menopause (not the musical), famous icons of my youth crossing the river Styx (though thank goodness not the band members themselves yet), and finally, nail in the coffin, the election of the host of “The Apprentice” as President of the United States of America. That final blow a bitter reminder to me that there are things worse than dying.

I’m reeling, mentally punch drunk from it all. Not sad so much as dazed and confused. What does this have to do with the blog title? Well, in spite of my morose state, I do tend to look for the good in things, the world and people. I’m relentlessly optimistic. And so, I have chosen the thing I love most about funerals, about deaths and endings, the eulogy, and decided to bring it into this time when the ends of things sit around me like so many abandoned bookends, and try to focus on what matters. What matters is what we say when people die. We think back to the central facets of who they are, and reflect those things about them that were the best, the most authentic, the kindest, the funniest. Even the flaws and the challenges of their lives become less about judgment and more about homage to the complexities of the life they lived. The life we all live.  The connectedness we all share.

I need that right now. I need to pay tribute to it, as eulogies do. I need to remember kindness, goodness and compassion so I can survive in this new reality. So I am writing Eulogies for the Living as both reminder and prayer. An active meditation.












A friend once sent me a piece of Buddhist writing that described everything as falling. We, and all that we know, all that surrounds us, all that is… is falling. And the challenge is to learn to be comfortable as we fall. To relax into it. That is the way of the Tao, the river of existence. That is the secret password to enter nirvana, that is why we meditate on the breath, so that we can sail in the winds of the fall and perhaps see it as flight.

I don’t intend this blog to be too mysterious.  But all that I am as a person, all that I do, focuses on this one goal. To calm down, to breathe out fear and to breathe in peace. To connect with the plunge, to see that everyone else is afraid too, and to know that this understanding is at the heart of who we are and why we are in this together.

The year of the red fire monkey has consumed me. The world blazes with uncertainty. American dreams become nightmares. Icons falling stars. So to join in, I do the only thing I can. I write. I breathe it out as a heaving sigh. I write to remind me I am human and that I can survive the fall. Maybe even swan dive.