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Lionel Fisher

From Life’s Pale Shallows
Into Technicolor Depths!
by Lionel Fisher

My name is Lionel, and I’m a jerk.

There, I said it! Wasn’t as bad as I thought, felt pretty good, in fact. Now if I can just keep doing it in front of my 12-step support group. We call ourselves “Jerks ‘R Us” and meet Tuesday nights at the downtown ‘Y’ if you’re interested.

I’ve been thinking about jerkhood, mine and everyone else’s, since a conversation with my old friend Jim MacDevitt during which I remarked, “If I hadn’t moved to the beach I’d still be the same old jerk I always was,” setting him up for probably the best one-liner of his life.

“You’re still a jerk,” gleefully replied the retired psychotherapist and former marathon running buddy. “You’re just a jerk in a different place.” Then he roared that spontaneous laugh of his, booming his Gaelic joie de vivre over the phone at me, dissolving the time and distance between us, making me wish I was there again to enjoy his infectious humor firsthand.

Celebrating Time Alone by Lionel Fisher

I’m grateful to Jim for his irreverent response to my smug remark. It made me realize the sure sign of a jerk is someone who has to brag about not being one. “The proud man,” Mignon McLaughlin pointed out, “can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.” Helen Nielsen likened it to a pair of Jockey shorts: “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows.”

Pondering this issue’s theme of “Life’s Deeper Meaning,” the four-letter “j” word kept popping to mind because it’s every man’s and woman’s middle name, I’ve come to believe, labeling and defining us from cradle to grave, part and parcel of the human condition, determined to show itself despite our determined efforts to keep it duct-taped, muzzled and safely locked away. But hard as we try to keep it contained and hidden, the jerk in us wrenches free periodically to wreak its havoc on our beleaguered psyche, usually when we feel particularly smug, arrogant, ungrateful, self-important or inordinately pleased with ourselves.

Jerkhood is the thousand-pound gorilla on our path to joy, serenity, peace of mind, gentleness of heart, compassion for others and fulfillment of our true selves. This inner brute is responsible for all the dumb, insensitive, self-centered, clueless choices that divert us from the vital quest for life’s deeper meaning: our unique, divine reason for being.

Christian religions allude to the ubiquitous jerk as mankind’s “pervading inherent flaw” genetically imprinted on the human condition, the sad legacy of Adam and Eve’s “original sin” in the Garden of Eden when the devil wore -- not Prada -- but snakeskin and scammed the naïve first couple into trading paradise for a lousy apple off the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How dumb a choice was that?

“Follow not the way of the jerk,” exhorts the Bible, “for it leadeth thee not to green pastures of salvation but the scorched earth of anger, avarice, arrogance, denial, conceit, conspicuous consumption and preemptive wars in the Middle East and Asia.” (Literary integrity bids me point out that another old friend, psychotherapist, author and avid scriptures quoter Thayer Willis, cautions that if such a Biblical passage does exist it can only be in the Monty Python edition of the good book.)

Eckhart Tolle, that eminent apostle of mindfulness, refers to mankind’s inherent flaw as the “pain body,” an energy field of collective guilt and compulsive misery inherited by each of us, addicted to pain and driven to gorge itself on the negative thoughts and destructive behavior our workaholic minds labor 24/7 to conceive.

“Little Me” is another of Tolle’s aliases for the jerk in us, alluding to the overpowering sense of self that is seldom at ease, rarely at peace, perpetually yearning, planning, struggling to achieve a sense of fulfillment, completion -- perfection.

Our pain body is why we are constantly anxious, forever restive, claims Tolle, terrified of being trapped in the present because the future is where it’s finally going to happen for us, where’s it’s all going to come together. Tomorrow we’ll find the happiness, the fulfillment, the perfection we’ve ached for. Yet we know that a moment in the future is going to kill us. And so we live between these two states, Tolle says, caroming from fear to desire and back again, between our yearning for the future and our dread of the death it will bring us.

Thus do we condemn ourselves to a perpetual state of unease from which we can only free ourselves by disengaging, if only briefly, from the all-consuming overachieving, workaholic, multitasking, self-obsessed Little Me. It is respite we can only achieve, asserts Tolle, by allowing a deeper dimension of consciousness to emerge. For this is life, not the self-centered dramas, the “life situations” our egoic minds create as fodder for our pain bodies.

Acknowledging, understanding and befriending the inner jerk greatly simplified my pursuit of deeper living. It wasn’t rocket science or brain surgery, I concluded. All I needed to do, like George Costanza in a classic “Seinfeld” episode, was choose the opposite of whatever my basic instincts and ingrained impulses dictated, and I would be good to go. Instead of reflexively, slavishly obeying the embedded jerk in me, I would embark on brave new paths, make alternate choices, venture from the safe, sane shallows of a conventional existence to plumb the uncharted depths of a life truly lived.

How do I know I’ve, indeed, descended from surface living into a consciousness deep within me? To tell the truth, I’m not sure I have, for whenever I start to congratulate myself on having done so (as I did to my friend MacDevitt), my jerk promptly rears its ugly head to convince me I haven’t. Still, there are flashes of insight and utter affirmation, moments of sheer exhilaration when I feel I have broken through the outer cone of life’s deeper meaning or at least have begun to scrape its flinty surface.

For you on your path to life’s deeper meaning, here are twelve markers I’ve scratched for myself in the volcanic sand along the way. Whenever my inner jerk yanks me backwards, I re-read these signposts. They remind me of what I must try to do to live truly and deeply:

BE CERTAIN OF NOTHING. The only thing you can be sure of is that you can’t be sure of anything. What you believe, what you think, what you feel won’t be what you think or believe or feel next week, next year or even the day after tomorrow. What’s precious to you this instant, what’s trivial, the state of your finances, your income, your physical and emotional security, your sickness and your health, your happiness and your misery -- all of it will change as surely as the one thing that won’t, the only thing: your death. No matter how good or bad the moment, it will get better. Unless it gets worse. The key to contentment, then, is not to count on anything lasting, certainly not for a lifetime, not even until next Tuesday. You’re simply complying with the divine ordination that only God is changeless and eternal. So value, savor, treasure, be passionate about whatever you have while you have it. Because the time will come, sooner than you think, that you’ll have it no longer. “Hang on tightly, let go lightly,” as someone once put it. It’s a good way to be because you won’t take anyone or anything for granted anymore. And that will keep you in the moment.

DON’T PRAY FOR ANYTHING. Just be grateful for what you have, what you’ve been given, what you’ve been spared. Make every prayer one of thanks, not just another request. Asking God for something, anything, can be dicey. Think about it. How often have you deeply regretted what you desperately wish for? “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” said Truman Capote. “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers,” T.S. Eliot pointed out. So quit asking and just say thank you for what you have. If you’re not grateful for what you have, you won’t be grateful for whatever else you’re given. It will always be disappointing, never enough.  If you’re grateful, you won’t have to pray for anything, ever again, because it will come. If it doesn’t, you’ll know you’re better off without it, so you won’t care. Either way, you win.

FORGIVE THE JERK. Knowing it’s the jerk in you who messes up regularly -- after all, that’s his job -- makes it easy to forgive yourself and everyone else. After all, it’s the jerk’s fault when all your wants become shoulds, when your greatest joys become your deepest regrets, when your view of life skews 180 degrees and everyone asks, “Who are you? I don’t even know you anymore!” All you have to say is, “I’m sorry I’m such a jerk.” No explanation needed. How easy is that?

QUIT PREPARING FOR LIFE. And live it. Ever calculate the amount of time you spend getting ready to be happy, getting ready to enjoy yourself, getting ready to live, as opposed to how much time you spend preparing and then cleaning up afterwards? I did and I didn’t like the numbers. It struck me that I spent some 60 percent of my life preparing to live, around 5 percent actually living, and the remaining 35 percent cleaning up before starting the process all over again. These past 13 years at the beach I’ve worked hard to rearrange the dismaying figures. I figure I now have preparation and cleanup down to 5 percent and living up to 90 percent. If my math is correct, I live more in a month now – heck, make that a week – than I did my whole life put together.

GET A DOG. We all need role models, and you won’t find a better one than your four-legged best friend. Dogs make magnificent life coaches, even without any post-graduate degrees. As surely as there’s beef in jerky, there is no jerk in dogs – aside from the human dysfunction we force-feed our perfect canine companions. Dogs are everything we try so hard to be and miserably fail. We could learn so much from them if only our human pride allowed, particularly how to let go and move on, something dogs achieve with infinite grace and we find virtually impossible to do.

SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY. Modern life has become so complex, so chaotic, hyperactive and overburdened with needs, obligations, possessions and people that a conscious, sustained effort to uncomplicate and de-clutter ourselves is essential if we are “to live deliberately…live deep and suck out the marrow of life,” in Thoreau’s words. Simplifying, discarding, de-cluttering becomes natural as we grow older. You don’t pack for your Trip of a Lifetime, you unpack.  (I don’t mean for that coveted Mediterranean cruise but the grim passage across the pale river with the ashen ferryman.) Since you can’t take it with you, any of it, not on this one-way trip, you might as well lighten up early and enjoy the rest of the voyage.

• “DO WHAT YOU’RE DOING,” Stephen Levine said. His words are a reminder for us to maximize every living moment by honoring the task at hand, however menial or grand, the current event, the person engaging us at this instant. Whatever you’re doing, be present, pay attention, do what you’re doing.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. It’s your job, no one else’s. It’s your job to figure yourself out. No one else should have to do it for you. It’s your job to fix yourself. No one else can. You have to be happy, or miserable, whichever you choose. No one can make you happy or miserable but you. It’s your life to live. Expect someone else to do it for you and you’ll wind up blaming everyone but yourself for failing.

LAUGH. At yourself. With others. At others. Long and hard. As often as possible. People who can’t laugh at themselves are in denial of their inner jerk -- and yours -- which makes them no fun to be with whatsoever. Being with them means having to be on your best behavior at all times, an exhausting prerequisite for approval, love or friendship. It means forever tip-toeing on conversational eggshells, waiting for the inevitable crunch. People who can’t laugh at themselves are painful companions because they always have to be right, and so they spare no opportunity to prove you wrong. People who can’t laugh at themselves won’t accept you for who you are, emotional acne, psychological warts and all. They’re incapable of giving you the greatest gift anyone can bestow: the rare privilege of being utterly yourself with others instead of the illusory paragon they want you to be – worse, need you to be -- for their sake, not yours.

IT’S ONLY TRUE IF YOU BELIEVE IT. There’s a great story about Jesus and the Devil walking along together. Jesus spots something shiny in his path. “Oh, look,” he says bending over, “There’s truth.” “Wonderful,” says the Devil. “Let me have it, I’ll organize it.” Some claim the world’s religions are the bureaucratic result of people who’ve taken the simple truths spoken by Buddha and Jesus and organized them for the rest of us. Truth is where you find it. Truth is what you believe in your heart, what you feel in your soul. Your faith comprises your truths, not anyone else’s. Faith is what you believe, not what others have analyzed, parsed, extrapolated, validated and endorsed as your true religion. Something is true only if you believe it. That’s why they call it faith.

• GET BUSY LIVING OR GET BUSY DYING. The advice isn’t mine. It’s given in the classic 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption, made from a Stephen King story. But I love that harsh exhortation, for life without joy is pointless, life without purpose, without passion, meaningless. Without purpose, passion or joy, why bother?

• BE HUMBLE. It all boils down to humility. If there really is a portal to life’s deeper meaning, it’s engraved with that most gracious of words, so easy to say, so hard to attain. But with it comes everything.

© Copyright 2006 Lionel Fisher.  All Rights Reserved.

Lionel Fisher
Lionel Fisher is a former journalist, columnist, corporate communicator and advertising creative director who lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon, before becoming a beach hermit on Southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. He is the author of “Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude” (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001), "On Your Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and Successfully from Home" (Prentice Hall, 1995) and "The Craft of Corporate Journalism" (Nelson-Hall, 1992). In addition, Fisher writes several self-syndicated humor/lifestyle columns, including one on the art of being alone. Reach him at beachauthor@hotmail.com

His last book is about living well enough alone, even magnificently, instead of steadfastly seeking our happiness, our fulfillment, our very identity in others when we first must find it in ourselves. Fisher’s reflections on solitude came into sharp focus on the remote Pacific Northwest beach to which he moved eight years ago where he kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts, feelings and emotions during this climactic period of willful isolation.

In "Celebrating Time Alone" he interweaves his own insights and experiences with the stories of the "new hermits" he interviewed across the country: men and women who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions, achieving great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their urban counterparts who, through necessity or choice, prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings.

The book’s central premise is timeless and simple, notes Fisher: "There are gifts we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we must achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to be alone, to want to be alone, even to be lonely at times because the rewards of solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us in quest of our own undiscovered selves."


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