Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Creation of the Self - That Which We Already Know

With this post I return to the writing of That Which We Already Know. Gosh, it’s been over a month since I first began this chapter. Thank you for your patience, but I do hope you appreciated the previous two posts related to race relations. Oh, and Happy New Year!

Chapter 6 (continued) – The Creation of the Self

Please imagine once again that child that you once were. Do you remember running through the woods or through the neighborhood without concern for how fast or how far, without concern for the smoothness or clumsiness of your gate? The universe said run, and so you did. The entirety of your being said run and so it did. There is simply no arguing with the universe or the entirety of your being – not when you’re a child, anyway. Do you remember drawing or finger-painting or coloring without the question ever entering your mind as to whether you were “any good at it” or not, without the question ever entering your mind as to whether it was a worthwhile pursuit or whether you should consider doing something else instead? You were alive and fully engaged with the world, without an inkling of ambivalence or self-judgment. Sure, we still enjoy such moments in our adulthood, albeit far more infrequently and under circumstances that are far more contrived – like when we’re engaged in our favorite hobby or pastime that allows us to “lose ourselves” from time to time. But what makes childhood such a wondrous time is precisely the fact that we don’t yet possess such a strong sense of self to be lost.

A prominent theme throughout these posts is that of the inevitable “fall from grace” that results from our developing self-awareness. This burgeoning self-awareness, however, can be thought of more precisely in terms of the development of two distinct but intertwining psychological realities – one a construct, the other a capacity. Namely, we are in the process of constructing our sense of self at the same time that we are developing the capacity for reflective awareness of that self. Each requires the other. So, what exactly is going on as day by day we grow older and proceed with the construction of this thing that many of us end up thinking is even more real than the universe that gives rise to it?

Recall the oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that I spoke of back in a previous post – that state in which the infant does not yet perceive any separation between self and other. From there the infant begins to explore his or her environment and map out the physical boundaries between what is “inside”, those internal bodily sensations and tactile sensations of pleasure and pain, and what is “outside”, that which can be touched but which does not feel that touch as the toes do when the hand reaches up and grabs them. A rudimentary conception of self and other begins to form.

With the development of language skills this mapping of self and other becomes more refined. The world ceases to exist in undifferentiated oneness and becomes recognized instead as a collection of things, each with its own name and set of attributes. The sky is blue. The grass is green. Fish swim and birds fly. The child, too, has a name, and she has attributes as well. Do you remember how young Amy described herself back in We Have A Place? “My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. My Daddy takes us to the park and we run and play catch. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like to draw and read books.”

Of course, children don’t just spontaneously take to cataloguing their attributes. Without a doubt, Amy’s description would have taken some coaxing for her to create, and further coaxing for her to relate. In that regard we all play a role in the construction of the child’s sense of self. We are both their mentors and their mirrors. Ah, but you might wonder what harm there is in that. Nobody’s putting any words in Amy’s mouth and telling her what she should be or how she should be. Her description simply arises from the reality of her young life. Fair enough. Sooner or later, though, Amy will be introduced to the concept of being “good” at something, and being “bad” at something else. She’ll begin to evaluate how well she reads and how well she draws and how well she does a whole host of other things (or she will begin to internalize the evaluations of others), and no doubt these evaluations will begin to be included in her sense of self.

Please don’t misunderstand me. My work as a counselor has given me a deep appreciation of the value of our being able to determine what we’re “good” at and what we enjoy, and being able to then nurture that self-understanding into a career that is meaningful and rewarding for both us and our community. My work as a human being, however, has given me a deep appreciation for just how difficult this process can be. One rather obvious difficulty arises when what we’re good at and what we enjoy end up being two very different things. Or when what we’re both good at and enjoy simply does not have any appreciable economic value. How then shall we choose our life’s work? What criteria shall we use? Less obvious, though no less difficult, is when we confuse our being skilled at something with our enjoyment of it. Perhaps we’ve come to mistake our enjoyment of the extrinsic reward that we earn for being good at something with our intrinsic enjoyment of it.

A few years ago a very famous and talented tennis champion wrote in his memoir that he actually hated the game, that his father had forced him to play, and that it was a very lonely pursuit. Now, consider for a moment your reaction to such a revelation. Can you allow yourself to grieve at least in some small measure for that child who was denied the opportunity to simply be himself and to discover his own path? Or are you inclined to sidestep such psychic turmoil with a ‘yeah, but now he’s young and rich and happily married to a beautiful tennis champion’ sort of shrug? Yes, life is complicated like that – with joy and sorrow all tangled up together in the package that is us. I can imagine that every one of us has a bittersweet tale to tell of how we came to be what we are in this present day.

I was in middle school by the time U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began winding down. An older student conveyed the news to me as we waited to board the school bus that would take us home. And as the bus bounced and swayed and deposited us in groups of two and three throughout our respective neighborhoods, the reality of that news gradually settled into me: The nightmare that I’d lived with for so many years – that of being plucked from home against my will and dropped into the middle of a jungle firefight – would not come to pass after all. I was free to dream of a future once again. But the capacity for dreaming is not something that can be turned off and on again at will. It atrophies as muscles do if not used for far too long. And so my high school years came and went without any dream of a future being able to take root within me, without much sense of meaning becoming apparent amongst the myriad pieces of a world that seemed shattered from the farthest reaches outside of me to the deepest places inside of me.

Thankfully, I had my poetry. Where no other meaning existed there remained that which is inherent in being aware and giving voice to that awareness. Unfortunately, with the exception of possibly saving my life, poetry was not a very practical skill to take out into a world mired in an economic recession that would not be “surpassed” until the Great Recession of 2008. By the time I finally entered college after a couple of years of hoping that some signpost might appear out there in the fog, there was little for me to do but begin taking coursework in the only subject matter from high school that I recalled being “good” at – mathematics. No, it was not what I truly loved, but in a fashion vaguely resembling the aforementioned reluctant tennis champion, I parlayed it into a level of financial stability for which I am grateful, and which allows me now to pursue that which is more meaningful to me.

Perhaps there is some strange irony in my now providing counsel to those who are in a place not all that different from the one in which I found myself so many years ago. Is it really such a stretch to see the similarity of where I was and where my young urban clients are – growing up in neighborhoods too dangerous or too impoverished for any dreams to take root, finding meaning in little other than the “rhymes” that they compose? And what about you? Do you dare trace the twists and turns that your own life has taken? Or will the illusion of the inevitability of the “you” that you’ve become come crashing down around you? For the longer that the universe allows us to bask in the apparent stability of our created selfhood, the more attached we become to all of the ideas and concepts and material trappings that we’ve used to construct it. Do you dare contemplate the “you” beneath the outer fa├žade of you? Do you dare consider the possibility that the mortar holding together all of the bricks and stones of “you” is the very fear of nonexistence?

Image References

Woodcut version of Munch’s The Scream via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Would Anyone March For That Guy?

I suppose I grew up rather clueless as to the depths of racial division in this country. That might seem strange given the fact that I grew up in an all-white neighborhood and didn’t even go to school with any non-white kids until late in my high school career. After all, the very existence of such lilywhite bastions would seem to speak pretty strongly of the existence of racial division, right? But perhaps it also points to our ability to both see the results of systemic racism without really seeing it all at the same time. Interestingly, the first step toward racial diversity at our high school didn’t even involve the enrollment of any African-Americans. It was a couple of Vietnamese refugees, so-called “Boat People”, who were the first non-whites to walk through our doors.

Despite growing up in an all-white neighborhood, I don’t recall a single instance of my parents inculcating us kids with any racist ideas. To the contrary, I remember well my mother, a British immigrant, telling us about traveling through the Jim Crow South and being totally flabbergasted when some white people stopped her from using a restroom that was intended for use by “colored people” only. Likewise my father, born and raised in the U.S. and a public school physical education teacher by trade, never spoke ill of anyone on the basis of race. Even after school desegregation (“busing”) began in St. Louis and the occasional interracial conflict arose at his erstwhile all-white school, he never attributed it to any shortcoming on the part of the new arrivals. I only recall him speaking once, in what I would call almost mystified terms, of some black kids not wanting to cooperate in his class. After all, they were going to play a game. It was going to be fun, right?

Vonderrit Myers and his mother

Perhaps that mystified reaction is an outgrowth of our ability to both see and not see all at the same time. With hindsight I can reflect more deeply on the difficulties likely faced by those students who were bused in from very different neighborhoods far away and who must have already begun to feel the weight of a racist world that even well-meaning and open-minded individuals like my parents couldn’t fathom. And I can see that in my own way I’ve followed in my parents footsteps, having grown up to be well-meaning and open-minded – both seeing racism and not really seeing it all at the same time.

It’s not like I’ve remained in a white cocoon my entire life. I followed in my father’s footsteps for a time, teaching in a high school that was part of the “deseg program”. It was actually one of the poorer County schools, however, and I thought the races mixed pretty well given the fact that they shared similar socioeconomic backgrounds. My work since then has taken me to various community service and employment agencies, high schools, halfway houses, and homeless shelters throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area. I’ve seen first-hand the disparate impact of poverty on African-Americans. Looking back, though, I suppose I’ve thought of this disparity in more distant and abstract terms – as the legacy of long-ago misdeeds still playing out in the present day despite our best intentions to overcome them, rather than as the result of systemic racism churning out new misdeeds in the here and now. These recollections notwithstanding, it’s still difficult for me to say exactly how I thought about race at the beginning of this summer. So much has happened in these past few months that has compelled me to totally rethink my own attitudes about race as well as the nature of racism throughout this country.

This past July 13 was the first anniversary of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of legal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Please take note of the emphasis I’ve placed on the word ‘legal’. It was a case that I’d followed with great interest, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to having doubts about it constituting murder. Rather than seeing the killing as an act of premeditated physical aggression, I thought of it more as a “perfect storm” of fear-based and overzealous community vigilance meeting justifiable resentment on the part of one profiled individual, with just enough bad law related to firearms and personal defense thrown in to make it deadly. It was a tragedy, yes, and I do not consider Zimmerman in fond terms, but the verdict did not compel me to rethink everything I thought I knew about race and racism. It said more to me about our self-defense and gun obsession than anything else. Then, just four days after the first anniversary of this touchstone verdict came the killing of Eric Garner, and so the summer of 2014 would begin.

Eric Garner, an unarmed black man accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street, was choked to death this past July 17 by a white police officer attempting to arrest him. It was grotesque in both its end result and its utter senselessness, but it didn’t immediately strike me as being an outgrowth of institutionalized racism. Certainly, it was an aberration, right? Besides, I must have thought at the time, there will certainly be legal ramifications for the officer who used the illegal chokehold that resulted in Garner’s death. There simply must be. I was both seeing and not seeing all at the same time.

Not even one month later, on August 4, white police gunned down a young black man, John Crawford, in the toy department of a Dayton, Ohio Walmart after he apparently failed to hear their “commands” to drop the toy air rifle that he was considering purchasing. To be truthful, I am not completely certain that I heard of Crawford’s death right after it occurred. I think it was only after I started really wondering about these killings that I did the research and found the store video showing Crawford completely unaware of the presence of any law enforcement officers until such time as their bullets were entering his body. I was aware and yet unaware all at the very same time.

And then came August 9, and the killing of another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, this time at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri during a highly disputed altercation. There was something about this killing that pierced the veil clouding my awareness; or perhaps there were many things actually. There was the reality of such a large number of bullets having been fired at an unarmed person. There was Michael Brown’s body being left out in the street for hours. There were the statements that Brown was in the process of surrendering prior to being killed. There was the sense that the number of bullets fired was much more a matter of choice than necessity. There was the anonymity of the police officer, now known to be Darren Wilson, and the fact that communication coming from the Ferguson Police Department was lacking straightforwardness and impartiality. I was beginning to really see what African-Americans have been experiencing for a long, long time.

On the Sunday following Brown’s killing, I attended for the very first time a protest seeking justice on his behalf. I witnessed firsthand the outrage within the African-American community, and in the ensuing weeks and months I began to learn more and more about what I’d been seeing without really seeing. I learned a little bit more about the history of all of those little North St. Louis County municipalities that I drove through on the way to and from work each day – the existence of which had mystified me for some time. I learned of the role that “white flight” from the city of St. Louis had played in their creation, and I learned of how they are funded in large part with money that results from the policing of their less affluent African-American residents. I was finally beginning to really see what systemic racism is all about. Please read my related blog post for more on these realities: Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson.

Then, after joining in several marches and rallies on behalf of justice for Michael Brown, came the evening of October 8. Vonderrit Myers was hanging out with friends when something about them, as yet unclear, caught the attention of a white St. Louis City police officer who was moonlighting as a neighborhood security guard. The youths reportedly fled. Myers, with the officer in pursuit, allegedly fired three shots at the officer before his gun jammed. The officer fired 17 times in return, hitting Myers a number of times in his legs and killing him with a shot to his face. The neighborhood erupted in protests, much like those that followed in the wake of the killing of Brown.

Questions about my role in this burgeoning movement began flooding my mind. For instance, I was fairly confident that Darren Wilson should be charged with some crime, but the first degree murder charge that some sought seemed untenable, as did the contention by some that all cops are racist killers. I felt totally congruent chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace”, but my whiteness just wouldn’t allow me to utter the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chant that is now the rallying cry of the movement. I had become familiar with the fact that this movement is comprised of people from all walks of life, races and ethnicities, and with all sorts of philosophies and world views. I realized that my presence in this movement was necessary even as it required me to march with those whose views I didn’t completely agree with. But why would anyone march for Vonderrit Myers? That was the question that popped into my head.

Well, I have now marched on behalf of justice for Vonderrit Myers. No, I don’t think that the police account of him shooting at the pursuing officer is a total fabrication (although I do have some questions as to how things really played out), but the fact that many people have completely lost confidence in anything the police say speaks volumes about the nature of the social problem that we have – a problem that seems to me to need addressing from at least three angles: 1) The circumstances related to the killing of Myers and all others who are killed by police need to be publicly documented and available for study and discussion. This is not a blanket accusation of wrongdoing. Rather, it is a statement related to the seriousness with which we should treat the taking of life by those in our employ. At present, recordkeeping related to those killed by police is sorely lacking, as a recent Wall Street Journal article attests. 2) Protocols related to the use of deadly force need to be reviewed and revised. At present, a police officer has virtually unchecked discretion to do whatever he wants as long as he can say that he felt threatened. The apparent willingness to use deadly force in these recent cases, and the apparent willingness to engage in it with brutality should give us all pause, especially in light of allegations that the police officer who killed Myers, Jason Flanery, might have been predisposed to the use of excessive deadly force against an African-American individual given the nature of his social media postings. Which brings me to the third aspect of the problem. 3) Racism in this country is not simply comprised of isolated instances in which one individual might negatively impact the life of another. Racism in this country is an aggregation of numerous such actions stemming from and perpetuating the systemic and sometimes deadly oppression of African-Americans that is evident in nearly all measures of well-being. This is something that I’m seeing with much greater clarity than ever before, and I hope we all begin to discuss ways to remedy it wherever it exists in all of our social institutions - healthcare, education, employment, criminal justice, economic, financial, et al.   

On September 24 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of John Crawford. On November 24 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of Michael Brown. On December 3 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of Eric Garner. It’s a foregone conclusion, I’m sure, that there will be no indictment for the killing of Vonderrit Myers, and yet perhaps we all have some measure of culpability for his death.

Through our direct action, non-action, or complicit silence we either create or condone the social structures that give black youth like Vonderrit a much less hopeful future than if they were white. We hear of him being gunned down and we wash our hands of him. We say “good riddance” and applaud the cop who did our dirty work for us – earning his keep by removing so much human garbage from our streets. We disrespect ourselves when we treat any life so cavalierly. But it won’t end there. We can’t simply discard the Vonderrit’s of our world and expect to go about our merry white ways. There is no truer chant than that which I’ve heard and uttered out there in the streets on behalf of Martin and Garner and Crawford and Brown and Myers and so many others: No justice, no peace.

Image Credits

Photograph of Vonderrit Myers and his mother via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson

We likely all fall prey to it from time to time – dualistic thinking of the ‘all or nothing’ type. You know, something is either right or it’s wrong. It’s good or it’s bad. Circumstances are either pristinely perfect or they’re an unholy mess. Someone is either with us or against us, friend or foe. Such ‘black and white’ thinking might help us navigate those emotionally stressful situations that arise from time to time, it might even help us make a quick decision that we feel needs to be made, but it doesn’t much help us see the underlying reality of the situation with any clarity. In fact, ‘black and white’ thinking merely preempts our ability to see what’s really going on.

Let’s face it, though, most of the time we’re not all that interested in seeing what’s really going on. Feeling good is what we care most about. And so we gravitate to people who make us feel good about ourselves rather than those who might challenge us to grow in ways that would be healthier for both us and the world. We stay in jobs that provide us with status and material comfort in lieu of accepting work that might be better for our spiritual growth and the planet. We adopt a belief system that bolsters our self-esteem instead of allowing ourselves to see things as they really are. Yes, we feign interest in this thing we call “the truth”. In reality, though, it’s pretty much like Colonel Jessup said in the film A Few Good Men: we can’t handle the truth!

An example of a belief that keeps us from really seeing things as they are is the so-called ‘just world hypothesis’. In the eyes of a ‘just world’ believer people get what they deserve. If someone is poor, it’s because they’re too lazy to get out and find work. If someone is sick, it’s because they didn’t have the discipline to live an active life and eat healthy foods. If someone gets raped, it’s because they drank too much in the company of the wrong type of people, or they dressed provocatively and sent out the wrong vibe. If someone gets shot dead by a police officer, it’s because they were doing something that they shouldn’t have been doing, plain and simple, end of story.

Which brings me to the reaction of some to the killing of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri this past August 9, and the unrest that followed both his killing and the decision not to indict the white police officer who cut him down in a hail of gunfire. One needn’t search for long in order to find numerous manifestations of the ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ of which I speak. The editorial pages and social media platforms and the comments sections below the online news stories are chock full of them. Sure enough, various levels of critical thinking are in evidence in these comments, but if we examine them closely we can see where critical thinking ends and ‘black and white’ thinking and the invocation of the ‘just world hypothesis’ begins.

Sadly, some needed to hear no more than the fact that a black man was shot by a police officer in order to conclude that justice was done. After all, we need to support those who stand for law and order in this increasingly violent world of gangsters and others who hold in contempt all that civilized society holds dear, don’t we? Such commentators would need only pepper their words with a racial epithet in order to remove whatever doubt might exist regarding the true nature of their feelings. Thankfully, the minds of others seemed to have remained open just a little bit longer, until such time as video emerged of Michael Brown appearing to engage in a strong-armed theft of some cigarillos at a convenience store just prior to meeting his demise. Oh, now we see who Michael Brown really was, some were to conclude at that time. He was nothing but a “thug” and now it’s clear that he had it coming to him. Still others were willing to look past Brown’s apparent petty theft in order to focus on what took place during the subsequent altercation between him and the police officer. Darren Wilson claimed that Brown struck him and went for his gun, and the forensic evidence seemed to support what he claimed (although alternative scenarios might also fit the evidence). Nobody can expect to hit a police officer and go for his gun and live to talk about it, can they? Yes, indeed, justice was served, some were to conclude.

Unfortunately, we can also see ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ being applied during discussion of the protests and rioting and looting that occurred after both the news of the killing and the announcement of the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. The most egregious examples are variations on the theme of considering every single protester to be a rioter and a looter and thereby deserving of whatever heavy-handed and militarized law enforcement retaliation that they might have been met with. So, if someone got wounded by a “rubber bullet” or a teargas projectile…, well, they were looters…, no, they were “domestic terrorists”, and they deserved whatever they got. If someone got arrested for not following the unlawful orders of a police officer…, well, you’ve just got to do whatever a police officer orders, that’s all. We live in a just world, and in a just world if you behave like an animal you get treated like an animal. There’s no reason to look at things any more deeply than that.

And, yet, it really doesn’t take much digging at all for one to discover that the protesters are actually comprised of a very large majority of working class individuals, professionals, students, families, church groups, community organizations, and others who are seeking to communicate their concerns and their frustrations in a non-violent way. Sure, accompanying them on occasion is a minority of others who are either too frustrated to be able to contain their destructive rage or who might actually be looking to engage in a bit of opportunistic looting. However, if we allow ourselves to see this diverse reality, if we allow ourselves to see past the ‘black and white’ conclusions we might be inclined to draw about those “looters” and “domestic terrorists”, then we must also become willing to see that perhaps injustice is being done. Perhaps injustice is being perpetuated. Perhaps we don’t live in a just world after all. Can we handle that truth?

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it – that maybe we don’t really live in a just world after all? For if we don’t really live in a just world, then maybe the good fortune that we enjoy is not really so much deserved as it is the result of a roll of the dice, a grand twist of fate. Maybe we’re just incredibly lucky to have been born into circumstances that made a good education possible, that made employment opportunities possible, that made our hopes and our dreams possible. But what if we’d been born into poverty? What if we’d been born into a neighborhood with terrible schools? What if we’d been born into a situation where people think any number of negative things about us based upon the color of our skin? What if we’d been born into circumstances where the names just keep piling up of all the people that we know who’ve ended up in jail or dead just for trying to do what they felt they had to do to survive?

If we really look at the killing of Michael Brown and its deepest causes, if we really look at the response of the community and the world, and the response of the police and the government, if we can get past our urge to wrap up Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown into a neat little package with a ‘he got what he deserved’ bow on top, then we might actually be able to create something positive from what many perceive as simply the latest case of racial injustice in a long and seemingly endless string of racial injustices. In order to do so, however, we must be willing to handle the truth. And what is the truth? I don’t profess to see it all, but I’ve been paying close enough attention as these past few months have unfolded that I think I see bits and pieces of it.

There is the truth of Michael Brown struggling to graduate from a predominately African-American school district – one troubled to the point of being taken over by the state. There is the truth of the municipality of Ferguson being funded in large measure with money raised from the “crimes of poverty” of its citizenry – the piled up traffic tickets related to the inability to maintain vehicles, for instance. There is the truth of the predominately white government and police force of Ferguson overseeing the civic affairs and the policing of its majority black population, and there is the truth of the tension that resulted therefrom. There is the truth of the long and violent history of racial injustice in this country, and the contemporary truth of episode upon episode in which white police officers are perceived to be perpetuating that injustice via their apparent quickness to use overwhelmingly deadly force against unarmed black men and youth. There is the truth of the community raising its concerns that Darren Wilson would receive preferential consideration given a prosecutor with a perceived history of bias, and there is the truth of these concerns being dismissed out of hand. There is the truth that Darren Wilson did indeed receive preferential treatment in a number of ways*, just as those responsible for past civil and human rights abuses were given special treatment in the white courts of the day. There is the truth that, whether or not Darren Wilson had the law on his side when he pumped a barrage of bullets into Michael Brown’s body, there is still a question in so many people’s minds as to whether he was justified in doing so. Did he need to use force or did he just want to? Was he the provocateur in this deadly altercation? Was he so inept in his handling of this encounter that he bears responsibility for the death of Michael Brown?  Yes, the truth of these open questions (and others) hangs in the psyches of many who know all too well the names of those who’ve fallen victim to the application of overwhelmingly deadly police force, despite the larger white community having forgotten. This is the truth of our nation: that many of its citizens perceive that the apparent quickness to pull the trigger, and the willingness to keep on pulling the trigger, and the willingness of the larger white community to condone the pulling of the trigger, stems from an inherent belief that black lives don’t matter – a belief that is undergirded by the truth of the higher incarceration rates of African-Americans, the sentencing disparities between blacks and whites, and the disparities in the application of capital punishment between blacks and whites.

So, how do we even begin to address this tangle of racial and social issues? Perhaps a good place to start is to focus for a moment on the truth of Michael Brown: that no matter what he might have done he was much, much more than the worst of his deeds. He was a living and breathing human being with family and friends and the desire to be happy and free. He deserved his day in court for whatever wrongdoing he might have been accused of. His life mattered. And the fact that his life was taken away by an employee of the state while acting on our behalf should give us all pause; it should make us curious enough to look closer – much closer than we’ve looked up to this point.

But, but, but…, you might wish to take exception, Michael Brown was ultimately the victim of his very own choices. Perhaps that is the truth; but can you say with certainty that you would never have made the same choices as he did if you were faced with the same circumstances as he was? Is that the truth? Or is it really just the case that you can’t handle the truth?

* Grand jury transcripts reveal that Darren Wilson gave hours of testimony during which he was able to promulgate his explanation of the altercation between he and Brown without adversarial cross-examination. This opportunity to convey his side of the story comes on the heels of him not writing an incident report on the day of the shooting itself, thus providing him with the opportunity to become aware of what evidence existed and to tailor his story to account for it. Furthermore, the grand jury was reported to have been given a document outlining the acceptable application of deadly force that was deemed years ago to have been unconstitutional – thereby falsely lowering the standard by which Wilson’s actions would be judged, and making the decision not to indict just that much more likely. 

Image Credits

Screen shot from the film A Few Good Men manipulated by the author.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? - That Which We Already Know

Chapter Six - That Which We Already Know

Imagine, if you will, that child of tender years that you once were – perhaps four or five or six years old. You’re at a gathering of some sort, with many of your mother’s or your father’s adult friends in attendance, or maybe relatives that you’ve never met before; and as the awkward introductions proceed at least one of the grownups smiles at you and enquires: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

What would your response have been? Would you have embarked upon delighted imaginings, or begun parroting precocious certainty? Would the question have even made sense to you, or would it have left you instead with a confounded blankness? And me? Well, count me amongst the confounded, for the most part.

Oh sure, I engaged in my share of role-playing fun. As boys did at the time, we played 'Cowboys and Indians' and other war games. From time to time I even dressed up in the Batman costume my mother sewed for me and commenced to pretending that I was as big and strong and smart as the “real” (adult) batman on T.V. When Halloween came around, though, more likely than not I chose to dress up as a hobo.

The author explores ways to manifest his True Self

I’d like to think that that choice of Halloween costume foreshadowed my later appreciation of one of the most highly evolved hobos of all time – the Buddha. To be sure, dressing up as a bum was a fairly popular thing for boys to do back in those days; and, yes, little was required beyond grease penciling a scruffy beard on your face, throwing on one of your father’s big old flannel shirts, and tying a bundle of rags wrapped in a kerchief onto the end of a found stick. That notwithstanding, there does seem to be something telling about my desire to be a hobo.

Do I reveal too much about my adult psyche in saying that – as I drive by one of those still wild places that exist down in the over-grown culverts along the highway or in the odd parcels of land too small or inaccessible to be of commercial value – I think of sitting there in solitude, the quiet observer that I have been for as long as I can remember. I know a little bit of what it is like to be a hobo, I think – to feel that there is little in this so-called civilized world to become attached to – to feel that living amidst the truth of those still wild places, as difficult and insecure as that might be, is better than dying slowly amongst the falseness of this fallen world that we’ve created. Was my knowing this already to the depths of my being what inspired me to dress up as a hobo on those Halloween nights so very long ago?

We so gradually develop the self-awareness of our adult years that we tend to forget those childhood days when we had very little of it at all. When we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up we tend to assume that they have a similarly precisely demarcated and robust sense of self as we do, with the ability to project those aspects of who we think we are into whatever prospective role we might be contemplating in order to determine whether it might be the “right fit”. Children do not yet have the ability to do this in any meaningful way. They are so innately expert at being precisely what they are, with neither effort nor forethought, that the idea of one day choosing what to be is totally foreign to their experience. The world of the child is not yet a collection of puzzle pieces amongst which they must “fit”. No, the developing capacity of self-awareness has not yet taken up the laser beam of the intellect in order to create the myriad separate pieces of the world.

What a child ‘is’ is the totality of everything that they know, their siblings and parents, their friends and neighbors, their home and yard and neighborhood. Like those water turtles that I spoke of back in Chapter One, they settle amongst the flotsam and jetsam of this modern world without judgment or separation. They simply are, and the world simply is, and the two of them are not yet two, although their human karma will one day make it so.

So, what do you want to be when you grow up? The question intrudes into the child's world like a voice calling from someplace far, far away as if to say: You live in oneness now, my child. You have not yet realized the fallenness of this world. You live without wanting to be anything other than precisely what you are, but that cannot last. You must one day learn to be separate from all that is. You must choose what you will be.

Yes, of course, that is the way of the world, and we would be remiss to let our children grow up without contemplating all that is within their power and purview to do and become. The difficulty is that, in doing so, we also tend to foster a sense of separation from all that is – the oneness that is their birthright – the truth that they’ve known all along.

Image References

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Human Karma Becomes Manifest - That Which We Already Know

With this post I bring to a close Chapter 5 of That Which We Already Know. For those of you who are just happening upon this blog, please note that I am bringing this work to fruition in sequential order and with a minimum of editing being done on previous posts. Each post is written to stand on its own, more or less. That said, I hope you'll consider exploring this work from the beginning. Enjoy!

Chapter 5 (conclusion)

At the moment of our human birth there is no question as to the naturalness of our being. We are each a living, breathing, physical organism arising out of and interacting with this physical world with the totality of our being. But while all the other beings of the animal kingdom remain immersed in their naturalness for the remainder of their lives, we humans are an altogether different animal. We inherit the neurobiology made possible by millions of years of evolution – neurobiology that will eventually give rise to the fully developed self-awareness that makes us stand apart from all of the other animals and the rest of the natural world. We might think of this developing self-awareness in positive terms, as the dawning of the light of our humanness. We might also consider it in negative terms, however, as our descent into the fallenness of our fully mature state of being.

Perhaps it is on account of the latter that we tend to look back on our childhood days with such nostalgia. We were much more firmly rooted in the present back in those days. If not completely carefree, we could at least relinquish those cares with much more ease from moment to moment. We could learn that there are burglars “out there” in one moment, and then we could run off and play without a single care in the world in the next. We could see images on the television of a war raging somewhere “out there” in the world, and then we could run on over to a friend’s house as if we were oblivious to the existence of such darkness. Sure enough, those concerns would return, and many more. After all, we’d only just begun to fall. But it was our orientation toward the present moment that enabled us to return so easily to our gloriously uninhibited and spontaneous childhood state – one of full-functioning engagement with the world.

During those most glorious of childhood days we had just enough self-awareness to keep from tripping over our feet as we ran like the wind down the street. We had just enough self-awareness to know how far up into the tree we could climb without unduly risking falling on our heads. We had just enough self-awareness to keep from burning ourselves on the stove or steering our bikes out into the busy traffic. On the other hand, our burgeoning self-awareness had not yet grown so overwhelming as to distract us from full immersion in whatever activity we were engaged in, or to inhibit us with self-consciousness.

Sooner or later, though, the child must learn to meet the challenges and dangers of the “outside” world, and we adults would be remiss in not helping them along in that regard. And so the list of things for the child to fear keeps growing longer and longer – in part due to the developing child acquiring a more accurate assessment of an already fallen human world, and in part due to an expanding awareness that there is indeed a self to be harmed, and many ways for that harm to be inflicted.

The Buddhist concept of karma makes sense in this regard – not in the sense of some cosmic payback system for all of the good and bad things that we do, but in the sense of created patterns of existence and behavior. There is karma that we share with all living things in that we need to take something from our environment in order to survive. This is the karma that is stored in and expressed by the respective genomes of all living things. There is also karma that only we human beings share: the “hardwired” neurobiology that gives rise to self-awareness, for instance, and the “programmed” karma related to our social mores, myth, and historicity. Similarly, there is the familial karma of shared genetic tendencies overlaid with shared experiences and interpretations that are passed down in story and imitated behavior from generation to generation to generation. Of course, there is also the karma that most of us think of – those idiosyncratic patterns of thought and behavior, whether unconscious in nature or purposefully replicated – stored in our neural networks and in the very muscles that bring it to life.

The children of our Stone Age ancestors had substantially less to learn from their elders when compared to the children of today. Little was required back then in the way of toilet training and personal hygiene, for instance. There was no alphabet to learn or multiplication tables to memorize. There were no schools and no “careers” to prepare for. Learning and work were seamlessly integrated into day to day existence, and day to day existence was seamlessly integrated into the totality of the natural world – just as it was for any other of the animals of the forest. Sure, there were tools to be made – the flint-knapping of spear points, and the carving of needles and fishhooks. Other than a few such notable and uniquely hominid exceptions, however, our Stone Age ancestors hunted in a manner similar to other social predators; they gathered in a manner similar to other foraging animals; they read the seasons and they wandered and roamed similar to other migrating animals. Each and every action grew out of the reality of the natural world. Just as a bird builds its nest in precise fulfillment of its need, with nothing superfluous nor incomplete, so our Stone Age ancestors lived from day to day to day.

Oh, how different life is for we modern humans! How insufficient the sufficiency of the forest has become! How insufficient we have become! With self-awareness has come the nagging sense that we don’t have enough, that we don’t know enough, that we aren’t capable enough – that we are lacking and incomplete. This sense of insufficiency and incompleteness is prominent enough to have earned a central place in Alfred Adler’s very influential theory of Individual Psychology. In Adler’s view, it is the manner in which the developing child deals with these feelings of insufficiency and incompleteness (inferiority) that determines the type of person that she will become.

While our fallen forebears only eventually came to realize their “nakedness” back there in that proverbial Garden of Eden, we modern humans come to realize it all too quickly. With nakedness comes shame and fear of the shame that might be. With nakedness comes fear of harm and insufficiency. With nakedness comes fear that we might lose that which we perceive ourselves having gained, and scheming in order to get that which we fear having to live without. Our nakedness, of course, is simply our human neurobiological karma manifesting self-awareness, blossoming forth from the ground of our being. With burgeoning self-awareness our genetic predispositions become manifest within the social milieu in which we are raised. The fears of our parents and our neighbors and our nation become our own, often keeping us in our fallen state for the remainder of our days. Such is the nature of our karma.

Image References

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nature's Fan – Girl with a Child by Shu Shen via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Laid to Waste - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 5 (continued) - Laid to Waste

There were many ponds out there in the Nursery – tabletop-sized holes left behind after the occasional harvest of a shrub or sapling – deep enough to hold rainwater throughout all but the driest of summers. In its heyday the workers at Gerhardt Gardens likely filled those holes with new plantings as soon as the space became available. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, business had long been in decline. Nothing was planted by human hands out there during all the years of my childhood, and so those ponds remained year after year – growing wilder and wilder with each passing season.

I got to know those ponds well. Given their number and wide dispersal they could be encountered on virtually any random stroll; but the fact that they were often filled with multitudes of croaking frogs made them attractive destinations in their own right. When I was all alone I’d sit beside one of them, quietly waiting for the life there to either get used to my presence or forget it, as the case may be. Frogs would begin to croak again, birds would return, and dragonflies would glide back in to hover just over the water and light upon the weed-stems at pond’s edge. On those occasions that I visited with a friend, however, it was much more likely that we’d spend our time seeing how many of those frogs we could catch using just our bare hands.

Of course, catching frogs bare-handed requires a fair amount of stillness in and of itself, albeit stillness of a much more intentional nature. One needs to be still and silent and watchful for signs of movement in the shadows and amongst the weeds; but one also needs to be prepared to move quickly and with a precise and steady hand in order to scoop up one’s quarry on the very first attempt, for there will likely not be another for quite some time. Once apprehended, we’d dutifully examine each little being and place it in a big cider jug or something for safekeeping until the hunt was over. In this way we didn’t risk pursuing to exhaustion some hapless frog that otherwise might have ended up getting caught over and over again.

I wish I could say that the frogs’ best interests were always utmost in our minds, but of course I realize now that it might have been even better at times to simply leave them well enough alone. Yes, it’s true that children manifest their wonder at the world by picking things up and touching and examining them. And, yes, ensuring that children have opportunities to manifest their wonder is ultimately crucial to the survival of life on earth. How else will we humans nurture our innate desire to live with it rather than opposed to it? Unfortunately, though, our frog-catching ended up veering far from the realm of wonder and deep into the realm of self-indulgence. It was a gradual transition, to be sure, but once it was complete it was as if a mirror had been thrust up to my face in order to show me what I’d become – separate, wounded, and fallen. Yes, I was still a child, but I was now all too aware of the incredible potential for destruction that lurked deep inside of me.

It was the height of summer. Insects buzzed and flitted about in the still and sweltering air, weeds stood tall in between the rows of trees and shrubs, the frogs out in the many ponds had completely lost their tails, and Mark Patrick and I were busy catching as many of them as we could. It started innocently enough. We set up shop beside a pair of adjacent ponds and proceeded to practice the skills that we’d learned. Things were different this time, though. Our play became a competition, a keeping of score, a determination of a winner and a loser. It took on a more hectic, and then a frenzied pace. Where once we took the time to get to know each and every frog that ended up in the palms of our hands, now we deposited them perfunctorily into our respective pots and turned our attention back to the task at hand. Where once our frog-catching had been an outgrowth of our sense of wonder, now it was merely a game. Where once Mark and I had engaged with a sense of camaraderie this activity that we both enjoyed, now we measured ourselves one against the other and began to grow concerned about the outcome.

I don’t recall who was in the lead when we came to realize that the game was coming to a close by virtue of our having caught nearly every single little frog. We couldn’t be sure of that, though. All we could be sure of was that it was getting harder and harder to find each successive frog that we might catch. Perhaps the slowing pace of our game gave us time to think of a win-win way out of the competitive quandary that we’d gotten ourselves into. We took to discussing how we would actually know when we’d caught every last little frog that we could possibly catch. And that’s when we came up with the idea for the greatest engineering feat of our then short lives. We would bail all the water from one pond into the other, and in doing so we could be certain of having caught each and every last frog, at least in that particular pond. Then came step two. We would dig a trench between the two and drain the now overly full pond back into the just emptied one. We’d keep an eye on the little trench and catch any frogs that tried to use it to escape. Then, when the water levels were equal once again, we’d take to bailing the water back into the other pond – catching all of the remaining frogs in the process. I remember well the final stage of our trench-digging. Mark took to straddling it, deepening almost the entirety of its length with the churning action of his legs and feet. When he was through all we needed to do was dig with some sticks through the remaining few inches of earth in order to set the water flowing.

It sounds very ugly, and, of course, it was. By the time we were done we’d created a pair of muddy pits with all of the vegetation around the perimeter trampled into oblivion. The water was murky and no longer a fit place for all of the frogs that sat waiting patiently for their return. They didn’t yet know that their once happy home had been laid to waste.

I tried not to show it, but I felt sick. I felt shame. I felt dirty – far dirtier than my mud-smeared arms and legs might attest. Mark and I emptied our containers full of frogs in some nearby ponds and parted ways. I walked back home alone with the weight of my deed sinking heavier and heavier onto my shoulders. I didn’t want to go out and play the next day. If I were to return to the Nursery, I would just be reminded of my crime. But neither could I get it off of my mind simply by staying away from the scene. It was an even hotter day than the previous one. The solitary window air-conditioner in our home droned loudly so as to keep at bay the oppressive heat of the outdoors. I lay on the couch beneath it – gazing out at the maple trees in the front yard swaying in the gathering breeze. I was neither inside nor outside. I was nowhere – no longer feeling that I belonged anywhere. There was a storm brewing inside of me. It built in strength as the maples began to pitch and bend. There was a storm brewing outside as well. I couldn’t hear it over the air-conditioner, but I could see it. The sky was growing dark. My mind was growing dark. The universe was displeased with me. I was no longer part of all that was. I was separate, and it was painful. There was no longer anywhere to go. There was no longer anywhere to be.

Image References

Common frog (Rana temporaria) in a pond in Simo, Finland by Estormiz via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Darkness of Childhood - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 5 - The Darkness of Childhood

For the most part in these pages I’ve painted a picture of childhood as a universally idyllic stage of life – a time of incomparable lightness, wonder, and grace; a time of immersion in a natural world from which we’ve not yet declared ourselves separate; a time of freedom from the worldly concerns of self-preservation that await, and a time of freedom from the very idea of a self in need of preservation in the first place. Sure enough, self-awareness is present during our childhood, having begun to precipitate out of the fundamentally fluid nature of human consciousness from the moment we first open our eyes, but it has not yet crystalized into the fragile sense of self-hood that we end up carrying around as if it were a piece of priceless crystal for the remainder of our adult lives.

Of course, I also understand that childhood is not always so idyllic. For some, what light exists must shine through the narrow cracks that open up in between bursts of gunfire and falling bombs. For others, wonder is a luxury that they can scarcely afford in a world where the struggle for self-preservation begins the moment they’ve grown old enough to hold out their hand on a bustling city street or scavenge in the local dump for something to sell or trade for food. For still others, the blossom of childhood grace can’t help but whither – rooted as it is in soil made barren by physical abuse and emotional deprivation. For most of us, though, the darkness of childhood is not so extreme. It falls upon us incrementally as the already fallen adult world beckons with ever-increasing insistence.

My own fall from grace took place in the fairly privileged environs of a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I recall learning for the first time that there are burglars “out there” in the world that break into homes and take things. Most of the time they wait until the people who live there have gone away, but every now and then they’ll break in when someone is still at home. Such an awakening to the darker realities of the world might seem rather quaint from our already fallen perspective, but imagine for a moment (or remember, as the case may be) what it would be like (or was like) to suddenly learn that the world is not really as safe as you’ve come to believe. In, fact, the world can be a downright scary place. I remember the recurring nightmare that followed on the heels of my brand new awareness of that fact: A shadowy face was outside my bedroom window – working with a pry bar to jimmy it open and climb inside. He knew that I was there, but he didn’t care. I had something that he wanted and he was going to take it.

Some readers may have little patience for such tales of innocence lost given all of the hardship in the world today. After all, we all need to learn the ways of the world some time, don’t we? It’s dangerous “out there” and it would be irresponsible for us to let our children grow up without ever learning of the danger that potentially awaits them. Indeed, but this is also how our self-awareness further crystalizes into something brittle and fragile; for along with our newfound realization that there are forces “out there” that can do us harm “in here” comes the investment of psychic energy into the erection and maintenance of the boundary between the two. As such, the pace of our fall begins to quicken.

I can already hear what some parents of young children might be thinking: You mean we should raise our children in protective cocoons and then throw them out into the harsh, cruel world without any tools or defenses? No, I don’t think that we should do that. We are a fallen species. We’ve created a fallen world, and each of us in some measure helps to perpetuate it. Yes, we need to wake up to the harm caused by our over-developed sense of self and, yes, there might be some ways to give our children a head start in that regard, but that doesn’t mean that we should “throw them to the wolves.” Maybe all it means is that we look for ways to keep our children from falling as hard and as far as we have fallen; and they, in turn, might be able to do so for their children. In the meantime, though, we’ve got to gain a better understanding of the nature of our own fall. Toward that end, allow me continue.

I had yet another recurring nightmare as a child: There were dinosaurs out there on the horizon. I could hear them roaring and howling in the night. I could hear the destruction that they wrought just beyond the Nursery’s eastern boundary. Homes crumbled and trees crashed to the ground. It must have been deafening for those in the midst of it, for it was loud enough for me tucked a mile away in the safety of my bed. Hopefully they would stop before they got to the Nursery and our little neighborhood on its western boundary. If not, perhaps they would at least veer in another direction like a storm blown by the winds of its very own fury.

Of course, I can now see quite clearly what brought on this second nightmare. Although one might think it would have been inspired by an accidental viewing of a Godzilla movie, I actually don’t think so. Our television viewing was pretty closely guarded in our family; such scary movies would have been off limits to us at the time. I’m inclined, instead, to think that what inspired my nightmare was what inspired the creator of Godzilla in the first place – namely, the conflation of the erstwhile reality of the dinosaurs with the present day reality of a natural order that has been thrown off-kilter by the actions of humankind. No, I didn’t yet know of the nightmare of nuclear radiation, but I was learning about the “terrible lizards” of long ago, and I was learning of the destructive power that can be let loose in our very own neighborhood right here and now. I’d seen with my own eyes just across the street how the earth movers tore through the tree roots and deep into the earth. I’d seen our vineyard playground churned under their tracks for the sake of something new.

Apparently one never knew when such things might happen, and one never had any say whatsoever when they did. Our beloved realm, the Nursery, might be similarly plowed under. After all, it was not really ours at all. The Gerhardt’s owned it and could do with it what they pleased. It was all very troubling to me.

Yes, I was a sensitive child; but, then again, was I really any more sensitive than any other? Perhaps I simply recall those tender years with greater clarity than many others might. My burgeoning awareness of the workings of the world – the reality of “progress,” the destructive potential inherent in even its most ordinary endeavors – only hinted at the potential destruction yet to come. As I alluded to in the very first chapter, the Vietnam War would soon be looming just over my horizon and the realization that I could be plucked from my home by the powers that be in order to be dropped into a jungle with a machine gun in my hand would begin to cloak my mind in darkness. The world outside was truly frightening. It feigned civility, but that civility was but a mask behind which lurked its true horror. Nothing was as sacred as it was out there in the Nursery. Nothing was inviolable. Nothing could be counted on to ever stay the same. Nothing could be counted on but myself. Nothing could ever save me but myself.

Image References

Tyrannosaurus edited by the author from the original by Mistvan via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sufficiency - That Which We Already Know

With this post I return to the book that I've been working on here on these pages: That Which We Already Know...


I can’t remember ever calling one of my younger childhood friends in order to see if they could come out and playplay being a word that encompassed everything from actually playing a game of some sort to simply sitting on a sewer lid scratching words onto the concrete with limestone pebbles. It’s not that we didn’t know how to use the telephone; we did. It’s just that such a device seemed an inappropriately contrived way to reach out to a friend just down the street. Instead, we simply walked on down the street and stood outside whatever door they most commonly used, calling out “Oh, so-and-so!” in a sort of half droning, half sing-songy voice that started at a higher pitch and ended with whatever bass note we could muster.

It was different with my friend, Mark Patrick, though. Mark lived with his younger half-brother, Joe Bowen, in a two-family flat just down the way from Gerhardt’s mansion, and two houses up from the stone yard that we used to visit from time to time. Perhaps I wasn’t certain that the ritual for reaching out to a friend was understood by others who didn’t live on our tiny lane. Perhaps I wasn’t convinced that Mark’s parents would appreciate it – never having met them, or even seen them from afar. Instead, we simply met up with each other in the same way that we first met – out there in the Nursery, whenever the forces of the universe happened to put us in close enough proximity.

Mark and Joe and I went to the same school. Mark was a couple of grades ahead of me and Joe, but despite that being the case it was he and I who were the closer friends. We met out there in the Nursery after all, a reality that trumped whatever social conventions might keep kids from other grades from hanging out with each other on the schoolyard. In the Nursery things followed the laws of nature – existing when conditions were appropriate, ceasing to exist when conditions became otherwise. That is what made our friendship so special, but it is also what made it come to an end so abruptly. For a couple of summers, however, Mark was my favorite friend to hang around with. We’d explore and climb trees and catch frogs and such, and we would do so as kindred spirits – born of the natural forces that still swirled out there in the Nursery.

I only remember visiting Mark’s apartment one time. His parents weren’t home at the time, which might very well have been the only reason for me being invited inside. Joe was elsewhere as well. Come to think of it, I don't recall ever seeing Joe out there in the Nursery. Anyway, Mark and I quietly made our way up a long and narrow side stairway that bypassed the lower level completely and deposited us onto a landing that opened onto a hallway and a collection of rooms that seemed like a veritable ocean of worn hardwood flooring and white plaster walls. Mark led me to the room that he and Joe shared. It contained a bunk bed and little else save for what I recall was a stack of books and notebooks sitting on the floor in one of the corners. The window would have overlooked the little ball field where we played our games of Indian ball, and the meadow rolling down to the nether reaches of our domain. It was summer at the time, though, and the leaves on the trees at the back of the house hindered such an expansive view.

I knew little to nothing about what the rest of Mark’s life was like, but I recall being enchanted with what I perceived as the simplicity of his life. He had the Nursery, and he had a bunk bed from which he could see it once autumn came and the leaves fell from the trees. There was no unnecessary stuff or clutter. All was quiet and calm. At least that was how it seemed to me. Perhaps I was destined to discover Zen in my adulthood, for in adulthood I would attend meditation retreats held in an old Catholic monastery with quarters that were more lavishly appointed than those in which Mark and Joe lived. And yet it was all so gorgeously sufficient, and I felt so wonderfully at home.

Living things thrive when conditions are sufficient. A seed needs but a little soil and moisture and light in order to do what the wind blew it there to do. Children, likewise, thrive when surrounded with just enough to nurture their own imaginations more so than when they are inundated with abundance born of the imaginings of others. I needed a natural area in which to wander about and wonder, as did Mark. That was sufficient to our wellbeing. It was sufficient for us to have such a place as the Nursery and the occasion out there from time to time to happen upon each other in order that a friendship between us might thrive. It was sufficient for us to meet every now and then to rekindle our mutual appreciation of all that existed out there in our domain. It was sufficient for us to share what we had together in the moment rather than getting into stories of what it was like to have a half-brother, or to live upstairs from an altogether different family, or how the amount of stuff that I had was more than the amount of stuff that he had.

We adults tend to confuse sufficiency with poverty. “These accommodations are merely sufficient,” we might say, or “this meal is barely sufficient to satisfy my hunger.” Sufficiency, on the other hand, is precisely what stands between existence and non-existence. As such, it is a special place. It is the sufficiency of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. It is a doorway through which awareness enters. The sufficiency of accommodations during a monastic retreat is precisely what it is required in order to make a visit even the slightest bit worthwhile, and the sufficiency of resources during a child’s formative years is precisely what nurtures creativity and imagination. Children, however, in attending to only what is before them in any given moment, have no conception of sufficiency, even as they are nestled within its embrace – or perhaps especially so. For a child, sufficiency is abundance, for it is precisely what is required. It is the adult mind that measures and compares and starts making value judgments about things and circumstances that begins to cast a wary eye upon sufficiency.

Image References

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
All other images are the author’s

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank