But For the Grace of God

My memory of that afternoon awakens thoughts of a sunny fall day.  Back in time a dozen years it was one of those in-between days of not cold yet, but not warm either.  Balanced between extremes that Saturday was one of those cool fall days I love most.

Gone are the details of where my then-wife and I were driving to, but clear is the mental image of the ramp she was exiting on.  It was one of those long, circular highway exits that causes you go twenty-five miles an hour around three-quarters of a circle to get to the other side of the road.  Once there I looked down on that side of the in-town freeway to see an old car with a much older man outside taking to someone sitting on the passenger side.

After getting my wife to pull over over safely on the side of the ramp, I got out and yelled down to the stranded man “are you OK?”  A slow Oklahoma country drawl came from the old man’s mouth “No sir, we ain’t”.   He looked harmless enough and had some difficulty walking, so I felt safe headed down the bank of the ramp to get close enough to talk to him.  On my way down I saw he was at least seventy-five or so and his passenger was a woman near his age who I assumed was his wife, which he later confirmed.

As I stopped about six feet away from him, the old man said “once upon a time I was rich, but not no more.  That’s been gone for a long time.  It’s OK, but it’s hard when I come up short sometimes like now”.  I asked what was going on and he answered “we’re trying to get to some family down in Tahlequah.  The gas gauge don’t work and I thought we had enough to get there.  I was wrong and we ain’t got no money.”

About that time I saw the head of a baby close to a year old pop up from the lap of the woman in the car.  The old man said “that’s my great grand baby!  My wife and I been takin’ care of her ‘cause her momma and daddy ain’t no good.  It’s hard on us, but church helps us some and we get by.  I try not to complain ‘cause it’s what the good Lord sent us.  When I hold that little baby I just know God’ll provide for us somehow”.

I asked about credit cards and found they didn’t have any.  I knew what had to be done. Remembering a farm supply store a few miles away across from a mini-mart I told him we’d be back be back in fifteen or twenty minutes with some gas.  At that moment the first smile I’d seen on the old guy’s face lit up.  The smile was missing half the teeth it once had but was warm and genuine.  His relief was obvious.  As I walked back to our car above I heard his “thank you mister” followed by the old woman chiming in right after with “God bless you sir”.

A half hour later we were back with a near full red plastic five gallon gas can.  My wife stayed in the car after we pulled up behind them on the shoulder of the road.  Not much spilled as I poured the gas into the tank of the old car without a funnel.  When done the old guy began trying to start his car.  It took a while and several false starts with the engine spitting and sputtering until it roared to life.  The motor was not running well, but seemed like it could get them to where they needed to go.

After buying the gas can and gas, I still had twenty-five dollars and some change left.  I kept a five and tried to give the remaining twenty to the old man sitting behind wheel of his old car.  He said “No sir, I ain’t gonna take your money.  You already been real too kind to us.  I’m much obliged God sent you.”  I insisted saying he didn’t have enough gas to finish his trip.  He continued to resist and shake his head side to side to say “no”.

Walking around to the passenger side of the car I made eye contact with the old lady and asked her if it would be OK if I gave her the money for the baby.  She looked at her husband and then at me… and repeated looking back and forth between us several times.  She never said a word, but ever so slightly he nodded his head “yes” to her.  I handed the money through the window and as she took it she held back tears and repeated the same four words I had heard her say earlier; “God bless you sir”.  Soon the car steered onto the highway and faded into the distance.

To this day I don’t know why I believed the old man.  He could have been a con artist, but if so he was damn good at it.  Even now I feel certain he was legit.  Real pain and fear are hard to make up.  The exact look in his face when he first looked into my eyes and began to speak saying “I used to be rich….” clearly showed the old man’s anguish.

Even thought my now ex-wife was nervous enough to not get out of her truck, she was proud of what I did that day.  There will always be gladness within that we got to help someone in need, but to an even greater degree I am grateful for the gift I got that day.   Many times I have remembered the old man’s words “I used to be rich…” and how they touched me.  Thinking about those words and the situation I found him is a reminder that nothing on this Earth is permanent.  Tough times harder than we can even imagine are never far away from happening. The possessions I own, the money I have, the good health I enjoy: everything could all be gone in a blink!  I am grateful my memory of the encounter with the old couple is so vibrant yet today.  Each time I recall it my mind whispers softly to my soul, “There but for the grace of God, go I”.

Courage is as often the outcome of despair as of hope;
in the one case we have nothing to lose,
in the other, everything to gain.
Diane de Pointiers

First posted here 5 years ago on December 6, 2011

Letting Go of a Hot Iron

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One of the more difficult insights to grasp has been that it is largely pain within a person that causes him/her to hurt me. Long did I believe those who caused me grief without cause, or pain far beyond what I deserved, were simply mean-spirited people. Experience has taught when someone is rude, mean or inconsiderate the vast majority of the time they have unresolved issues within.

Anger, heartache, resentment or some other harbored pain is festering inside most hurtful people that they have yet to face, cope with or overcome. As difficult as it can be, the last thing such a person needs is for me to make matters worse by responding angrily. My human ‘fight’ instinct first kicks in and only with strong intention can I keep from dishing out venom equal to or greater than the poison spewed on me.

When I react badly to someone who has treated me ‘less than’ any momentary feeling of satisfaction dims quickly. I end up tasting a bit of my own toxins I’ve thrown on them. Fire plus fire equals a bigger fire. It’s never any different. Even when things settle down and apologies are given and accepted a touch of bitterness always remains. Sadly, often those leftovers become catalysts for a later resurfacing of the clash.

Refusal to play the game by saying, “I am not going to fight with you” or “I’m not going to give you something to blame me for later” often makes the other person’s emotions flare further. But by sticking to my truth and doing just that will disarm the person eventually. Some time the absolute best I can do for both parties is to put temporary distance between me and him or her. No, it’s not easy but it is best.

Forgiveness is a gift I give myself. The other person need not even know I have forgiven them. Often its impossible to let them know even if I want to. To forgive someone is to give myself the antidote for another’s poison that’s been injected into me. If I don’t, at least in part, I give someone else control over my life. Forgiveness is about setting myself free.

When someone hurts me, I have to let it go or I end up contaminating my mind, heart and soul with the poison that belongs to someone else. Holding my tongue is not easy, but afterwards letting go what was said or done is even more challenging. Knowing they have done it out of their own distress takes time to settle in. Stephen Richards wrote, “When you initially forgive, it is like letting go of a hot iron. There is initial pain and the scars will show, but you can start living again.” That’s about as good of a perspective as I have been able to develop.

Being a normal human being, its impossible for me to always practice full forgiveness where and when I need to. However, I am grateful for the awareness that I should forgive that has made shorter the length and weight of bitterness.

Forgiveness is really not about
someone’s harmful behavior;
it’s about our own relationship
with our past. When we begin
the work of forgiveness,
it is primarily a practice for ourselves.
Gina Sharpe

My History of Anger

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Every destructive emotion bears its own harvest, but anger’s fruit is the most bitter of all. Uncontrolled anger is a devastating sin, and no one is exempt from its havoc. It shatters friendships and destroys marriages; it causes abuse in families and discord in business; it breeds violence in the community and war between nations. Its recoil, like that of a high-powered rifle, often hurts the one who wields it as well as its target. Anger makes us lash out at others, destroying relationships and revealing our true nature. The history of the human race is largely the history of its anger. Billy Graham

Years ago my anger was a crutch; a habit and a bad one. My temper would get loose the easiest when slighted or left out by people I cared about. In hindsight, most of the time I simply needed to be understanding toward an unintentional act. But letting indignation give flame to anger, I volleyed back with spiked words hurled with intention to hurt another. Being sorry later did little to calm the hurts I often caused. The end result was usually ending up mad at myself.

Finding out some people were afraid of me, or at least reluctant to be in my company, was humbling. It’s wasn’t that I was an intentionally hurtful person, but rather I was a powder keg that did not need much agitation to go “boom”. I know now that my anger was only fear turned inside out.

A Hindu saint who was visiting river Ganges to take bath found a group of family members on the banks, shouting in anger at each other. He turned to his disciples smiled and asked, “Why do people shout in anger shout at each other?”

Disciples thought for a while, one of them said, “Because we lose our calm, we shout”.

“But, why should you shout when the other person is just next to you? You can as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner?” asked the saint.

Disciples gave some other answers but none satisfied the other disciples.

Finally the saint explained, “When two people are angry at each other, their hearts distance a lot. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other to cover that great distance. What happens when two people fall in love? They don’t shout at each other but talk softly, Because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is either nonexistent or very small…”

The saint continued, “When they love each other even more, what happens? They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that’s all. That is how close two people are when they love each other”.

He looked at his disciples and said, “‘So when you argue do not let your hearts get distant, Do not say words that distance each other more, Or else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return”.

In recent years I am a calm person who rarely gets agitated and when I do it’s a fairly rare occurrence for me to express it externally. Those who have known me ten years or less say they can’t imagine me being a person with hair-trigger anger. I am grateful that’s true and for the guidance and intention that has put anger mostly behind me.

Anybody can become angry —
that is easy,
but to be angry with the right person
and to the right degree and at the right time
and for the right purpose, and in the right way;
that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
Aristotle

Regret Has Lived Long Enough

Very few memories of when I was a toddler stuck, however, there is one that has remained constant since the fall after my second birthday. Mom, Dad and I were visiting my Grandfather (my father’s father) way down in the country in a rural Clay County, Alabama community called Shiloh.

My memory is restricted to a few animated night images in that old clapboard house, but what I remember is vivid. Having never slept in a house at night that had no electricity I was enthralled by the yellow glow of room from kerosene lamps and a bright fire burning in the fireplace. Both threw large shadows on the walls that seem to dance, especially when anyone moved around the room.

To this day I can tell you how the furniture was arranged in the room, what tables the lamps where on, where chairs were, which wall the door to the outside was located and even where the kitchen was. A hot coal popped out of the fireplace and I learned the hard way not to pick things like that. I guess I burned my finger a little, but only remember picking it up and not any pain from the experience.

Being there felt magical, as if I had entered some kingdom like I saw a few years later in “The Seven Dwarf’s” house in the woods. It never occurred until I was much older how poor the old man who lived in the little run down “shack” was.

While my Dad’s Father was grumpy a lot of the time, later he read the Bible to me sometimes in his room at night when I was five and six years old when he lived with us. I remember him as a quirky man who saved chicken feathers for some reason I never knew and preferred newspaper soaked in water to toilet paper. I can close my eyes even now and remember him walking through the back yard headed to the outhouse with an old pot under his arm, filled with strips of newspaper floating in warm water. Guess I shouldn’t knock it since I’ve never tried it.

We called my grandfather “Pawpaw”.  Working he never amounted to much although he tried one money-making scheme after another. He tried selling books door to door unsuccessfully and tried to farm but was no good at it. He was in the army in World War I but spent his time in France in the hospital with dysentery. Essentially Pawpaw lived his adult life on a small pension from his military service and whatever he could scratch up buying and selling things. Looking back now I realize he was a sad man whose wife left him with two small boys (my father and uncle) who he raised. He made a mess of being a father, but I am certain he did the best he could.

The old man touches my heart to this day because of a lie he told in love each year around Christmas time. There were a lot of years growing I had no contact with my Father, but Pawpaw would just show up around holidays with gifts for my brother and I he said where from my Dad. I knew he had bought them because they were the sort of useful things a man of his depression generation might buy: handkerchiefs, a brush and comb set, a manicure set, notebook paper, pencils and such. I was grateful he remembered us, even if my father didn’t.

Pawpaw’s full name was Lovette Egbert Browning, born November 22, 1886 and died July 12, 1973. He was my grandfather and I will always remember him as a well-intended man who held my brother and I deep in his heart. He died when I was nineteen. I used the excuse that I lived a thousand miles away in Colorado and had almost no money as a reason not to go home for his funeral. That regret has lived long enough within. I am grateful to share it and release it on this page today.

We must all suffer from one of two pains:
the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.
The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.
Jim Rohn

A Gift Above All Others

The trouble is, you think you have time.
Buddha

I ran across that Buddhism quote and it stopped me completely still in though for a few moments. Silently, the thought rang inside “I always thought I had plenty of time… lots and lots of it”. That’s not intended to be a morbid comment in any way. My doctor says I am healthy and as far as I can now there are many years of life yet ahead of me. Nor do I think I have wasted my time in a regretful way, although that thought has to be shooed away once in a while.

Coming to the realization of how many years are behind me and the smaller number in front causes today, this moment, to be very valuable. Time alive is a gift above all others on this Earth. I am grateful every minute of every day I have had and will live.

When younger I did not listen to those older with life experiences I could have learned from. I don’t suspect someone a lot youngerto see that as anything except a tired comment bantered around all the time.  Today or one day, it becomes truth to all of us.

Here’s the skinny: I wish I had listened to more of the advice of my elders when I was younger. Then I would not have had their words ring so loudly true later when life taught they spoke the truth.

So I step up on my soapbox state to three simple things:

1. Time is precious.
2. Those you love are your true riches: nothing else matters much.
3. Show as much kindness and understanding as you possibly can to those you love.
4. We are never gentle and tender enough to those we care about.
5. Forgive even when others won’t.

From experience I know those things can change your world. They did mine. I am very grateful.

Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases
and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.
Wayne Dyer

Photo: Anamaya Yoga Resort, Montezuma, Costa Rica http://www.anamayaresort.com/

Two Ears and One Mouth

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, Talking is like playing on the harp; there is as much in laying the hand on the strings to stop their vibration as in twanging them to bring out their music.

My translation: it’s just as important to stop talking as it is to talk. I already know what I think and there’s little new going to come to me by talking about it. Different perspectives from others will often benefit me but is only possible by being a good listener.

I say all that to say, I am not a particularly good listener. I’m working on that though. Awareness helps and by keeping it forefront mentally growth is noticeable, but doesn’t come rapidly. Ingrained habits change slowly.

A question each person silently asks when meeting someone else is “Do you care about me”.  There are few things that show I care like paying attention to what someone else has to say. At that moment I am making that person one of the most important elements of my life and giving a meaningful gift that rarely goes appreciated.

An old axiom says if you spend a half hour with someone you’ve just met and let them talk for 25 minutes of the time, their impression will be you are an amusing and interesting person to talk to; someone they hope to see again soon.

To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning. (Peter Senge)

A personal big step forward came when I began to stop myself from thinking about I am going to say next while another was talking. When my attention is inside my own head focused on my own thoughts while another talks I always miss a fair amount of what was being said.  I am grateful for the reminder that listening is one of the most valuable gifts I can grant to another.

We have two ears and one mouth
so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
Epictetus

Of Beauty and Youth and Grace

Yesterday morning brought am early morning appointment at the dentist to check out some minor tooth discomfort I have been having intermittently. Luckily it turned out to be no real concern and the appointment was short and routine. As I was checking out I could see into the lobby as a woman probably somewhere in the 85-90 year old range was signing in. Most of her hair was gone and her skin was blotched and showed marks where things had been removed numerous time. In spite of her appearance, she seemed to have arrived on her own and get around well with the help of a cane.

With my checkout business done, I came around the counter to the exit into the lobby. As I walked through the doorway the aged woman and I made direct eye contact that lasted for a second or two. I said “good morning” to her in a way she knew I meant it. The instant I spoke her eyes sparkled and on her face came a smile that was warm and kind. Driving into work after the appointment I realized how special that little moment she and I shared really was.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to notice old people more and let them know I see them. Sometimes it is just a smile, giving them my place in line, opening a door or a simple verbal greeting, but I go out of my way to do it. Our culture has a bad habit of treating the old as if they didn’t exist. I read once what elders want most from the rest of us is to acknowledge their existence and still see value in them. I have never forgotten that.

If I was 30 years older the woman with the bright smile and sparkling eyes at my dentist’s office might have been my girlfriend, wife, friend or peer. What we shared was ever so brief but in my memory she will be recorded as a temporary friend of the shortest duration so far. I will not forget her and will be grateful always for the moment’s grace we shared.

From “The Old Stage Queen” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Back in the box by the curtains shaded,
She sits alone by the house unseen;
Her eye is dim, her cheek is faded,
She who was once the people’s queen.

The curtain rolls up, and she sees before her
A vision of beauty and youth and grace.
Ah! no wonder all hearts adore her,
Silver-throated and fair of face.

Out of her box she leans and listens;
Oh, is it with pleasure or despair
That her thin cheek pales and her dim eye glistens,
While that fresh young voice sings the grand old air?

She is back again in the Past’s bright splendor–
When life seemed worth living, and love a truth,
Ere Time had told her she must surrender
Her double dower of fame and youth.

It is she herself who stands there singing
To that sea of faces that shines and stirs;
And the cheers on cheers that go up ringing
And rousing the echoes–are hers–all hers.