I know where John lives. I have visited.
I do not care to live there.
John was a friend of mine but after running my monthly “My Friends” algorithm (the 4th of every month), John moved from friend to acquaintance. He is now way below Brian, Laurie and George, two names below Mark, and one entry away from “You see, I’ve forgotten your name”.
I developed the “My Friends” algorithm to augment my self-diagnosed deficiencies in establishing and maintaining relationships. The deficiencies addressed in the algorithm are largely self-diagnosed as I have more than enough input from others on this subject. The algorithm draws on hashing techniques that I worked on at Bell Labs. Simply put, hashing is a way of distributing people and/or objects using selective criteria that spreads the complete data set (universe) evenly across a fixed number of “buckets”. A good algorithm can be a significant improvement over even the most thoughtful, introspective human being.
For this algorithm, I use the numerical equivalent of the initials of the first and last name, the time I have known the individual (rounded down in years), the fact that they choose to more often call me (x7) or text me (x3), my recollection of the number of times we have had lunch/dinner and they paid for the meal, and finally, using my finely tuned spiritual assessment meter – how well they are manifesting the light within. You actually don’t need a meter; you just look in their eyes. It can also be heard in their voice and the way they cry. The algorithm does not factor in comments made on my Facebook posts.
The algorithm distributes all entries across three categories, friend, acquaintance, and “You see, I’ve forgotten your name”. (Who could forget Jacques Brel?)
I have almost forgotten the name of the fellow who started this story.
IM (Instant Message) from John: “Please help - need $2,600 right away, child support issues. Please help.”
John has issues. I have issues with John’s message. Everyone has issues, but they are not sending me IM’s asking me for help or money. John is different and desperate. And, worst of all, I think John is lying.
I don’t respond.
Another IM: “Please help! Reaching out to a number of people!”
Although once a friend, I don’t really know John all that well. We had dinner once, I met him on a few other occasions, and we have talked on the phone a number of times. He was always more of a “passing acquaintance” that one gathers as they roll through life.
I ignore this second message, telling myself it’s a prank, someone has hacked his account or he is just a hell of a lot weirder than I knew.
Next, a voicemail from John. He sounds distraught, he sounds drunk. I deny that he is drunk. He can’t be drunk. He has been sober for years. Then I think, wait a minute, child support? John is in his 50’s and his children are in their 20’s. Something smells rotten here.
I return his call. He still sounds drunk to me. I confront him and he denies it. He tells me that he is in love which, as we all can understand, is not too far afield from drunkenness.
John has met a beautiful young woman on-line, Sheila. They have been communicating and sharing photos for a month or so. He understands that she lives in Europe but he is not exactly certain where. Sheila is a model who has recently experienced a series of unfortunate events. John tells me that Sheila loves him, but………she needs money to help her through some hard times, about $27,000. She’s not exactly certain of the total amount but she’s asking for $27,000 as a start to get her out of trouble.
John is no fool. Even though he is deeply in love, he is not willing to part with $27,000 straight away. Sheila understands his hesitancy and explains how she plans to get back on her feet. She has a diamond deal “hanging in the air” with some friends in South Africa. If John could just see his way to sending some amount to help with the tax liability on this diamond purchase, all will be well. She will pay the taxes, get the diamonds, “they” will be rich, she will run to John’s arms, and they will get married. John then informs me that he has already “loaned” her $10,000. My head hurts.
John sends me her picture and a link to her Facebook page. Sheila’s Facebook page has but a single photo, the same one John sent me, and the “About Info” is blank, no “Work”, no “Places Lived”, just a photo of a buxom young woman in a bikini.
I point this out to John as being a bit suspicious. I actually clearly tell him it’s a scam and that he should stop this nonsense, but he just wants to know if I will loan him some money. Why won’t he listen to me? Oh, John asked for money not counsel.
John is behaving exactly like another acquaintance, Rich. Rich has also met a woman on-line. She is from the Philippines and 17 years his junior. She is not unattractive (as opposed to being attractive). Unlike John, who doesn’t even know where Sheila actually lives, Rich is so deeply in love that he flew to the Philippines to meet her. A few months transpire and Rich’s Facebook page lights up with pics galore of the happy couple and her extended family. Within four months they are married.
Eleven months later Rich posts on Facebook that the divorce is final. I am taken aback as I thought this was love everlasting? In addition to obtaining a divorce, Rich has obtained a zero balance in his retirement account. Oddly enough, over these same eleven months, John, who could very well be Rich’s twin brother, has also achieved a zero balance in his retirement account.
How can this happen to two reasonably intelligent, likeable fellows?
There is no evil that does not offer inducements. Few of us escape the lure of addictive behaviors and the corresponding suffocation of spirit. In modern western culture, which is increasingly becoming world culture, the poverty of our relationships contributes to our vulnerability to unhealthy addictions of every kind. Increasingly large numbers of people seem to have set sail on the ship of radical individualism where there appears to be no limits to personal gratification. I have watched people eat themselves to death, drink themselves to death, and exercise themselves to death. I have seen people shop themselves into bankruptcy. I know individuals who are so engaged in online fantasies of every shape (sexual, gaming, gambling, etc.) that the real world has become a “dream” they visit on occasion.
I recently heard a young man exclaim, “Why do I need a girlfriend when I have the Internet?” Other acquaintances have destroyed their marriages, ruined their family, and crippled their lives. They spend countless hours in the basement, at night, surfing for porn. The basement and night are critical components of this activity as darkness calls to darkness.
I suppose one might think it a bit coy of me in calling all these individuals “acquaintances” so as to shield myself from guilt by association. Think what you will, the story isn’t finished for any of us. As I said at the beginning, I have visited these towns. I will say that watching these people disintegrate has been an abject lesson in the power of uncontrolled desire. They are my best instructors.
Without being overly dramatic, it would seem that the passionate intensity of individuals, unrestrained by any sense of decorum or morality, is shredding the fabric of society. Many lives are intolerably painful or dull. There appears to be no solace in either work or leisure. We are estranged from our families and neighbors. We have lost each other. As a consequence, we stream Gomorrah in all its’ forms and shapes into our lives to assuage the pain. But no salve applied on the outside can heal what is wounded within. We cannot escape from the worldliness that is inside us or the pain of living. We can, and should, acknowledge and confront it.
But who am I to raise a voice? In a world of radical individualism, where everyone has a right to be “me”, perhaps I should not judge. Perhaps it’s best to be quiet and neither offer or invite criticism. Just watch and learn. It seems that sharing one’s observations (not opinions, and there is a difference) has become, at least, a venial sin. In some instances, it’s become a mortal sin punishable by death. Just ask Jamal Khashoggi, but of course you can’t, he’s dead.
I once saw a young woman with a tattoo on her arm that said “Only God Can Judge Me.”
She was wrong. I judged her.
Perhaps she meant that only God can “correctly” judge her. But again, I think she was wrong because God is a lover, not a judge. And no doubt, the tattoo implied she had judged herself and was hoping that God was on the same page as to the assessment.
I “judge” people and things all the time. I am not at all unique in this. It’s what people do and must do in order to learn and grow. This fruit is ripe, this is unripe, and this one is rotten. That is prudent, that is imprudent, and that is dreadfully stupid. It’s a way to benefit from the lives of others whether the example is stellar or pitiful.
I am poignantly aware of the biblical story of seeing the speck in my brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in my own. It’s often cited as a first defense against “criticism”. We are advised to “Not judge, or you too will be judged in the same manner you judge others”. So, are we to say nothing? Do friends let friends drive drunk? If, when pointing out the speck in my brother’s eye, he would be so kind as to return the favor and mention the beam in mine, wouldn’t we both be well served? And, frankly I don’t mind handing the yardstick I use to measure you to measure me. Yardsticks are useful when used with love and understanding. This, of course, requires a significant amount of openness that is oftentimes missing.
Perhaps “judging” may not be the most appropriate word given its’ etymological history. It’s more evaluating, or trying to understand how this experience, person, or event fits into my view of the world, or even better, alters my view of the world. Again, this requires a large amount of openness that I am not always capable of. I only want things I like to enter my world and not things I don’t like. I work to “protect” myself and my world view and am more inclined to fit things in and to discard what doesn’t fit.
There are people who see no problem with pornography or any of the aforementioned pleasures to be found in streaming Gomorrah. They deny porn objectifies and degrades. They have rights. They are free to choose what they eat, watch, and support. They argue for their position and assert mightily that they have the right to pursue happiness in any form they choose.
Go for it. I will watch you. Your children are watching. Your partner is watching. The world is watching. We live in each other’s eyes.
John is getting worse.
I called him. It did not go well. He says he can’t talk. He is in the middle of something. I’ll say. He certainly is in the middle of something but it’s not what he thinks. Actually, he is not thinking. He is reacting. He is afraid. Very afraid. His daughter and son have stopped talking to him. His ex-wife stopped talking to him years ago. She is afraid. He is not making sense to anyone other than himself.
That is always the problem with madness. When you are mad, you don’t know you are mad, except perhaps in a few lucid moments, which must be terrifying. Those come and go quickly like blips on a radar screen indicating that you are off course. If you are not watching or cannot see the screen, you never notice. That’s where friend’s come in. I am watching John’s screen. He is terribly off course, yet there is time for correction. Not much, but some.
Too late. After sending the bulk of his savings to Sheila, she dropped him and wouldn’t respond to his emails or messages. Distraught and even more desperate, John resorted to sending lewd pictures to woman who are complete strangers. “You see, I have forgotten your name” goes to jail. I am troubled. I saw the madness unfold. My head still hurts.
I am an attendant friend. With a nod to T. S. Eliot, I assert that I am not Prince Hamlet, Thomas Merton, nor was I meant to be. I can advise, stall the progress, or start a scene or two. I am an easy tool, deferential and glad to be of use. Admittedly, I am often full of high sentence and sometimes a bit obtuse. I am, at times, indeed, almost ridiculous – almost at times, the Fool.
Like you, I strive to do the next right thing, then the next right thing. Then I fall. I get up and I feel the shame of failure. But shame has no half-life lasting for years. It lasts only 8 seconds before, like a bad cheese, it turns into guilt and maudlin self-loathing. Simply because we are so beautifully human? Shame is a keisaku, a remedy for sleepiness or lapses of concentration.
In the Buddhist wheel of life there are six realms; gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. Each realm is an aspect of human existence. I am particularly drawn to the realm of Hungry Ghosts where live those beings who are driven by intense emotional needs to satisfy basic instincts such as hunger and sexuality. In this realm, people get trapped in states of unbearable rage and anxiety. There is a constant search for a way to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment.
How can one possibly summon the resolution and the willingness to get rid of such overwhelming compulsions and desires? The choice is between the pains of trying and the certain penalties of failing to do so. It is no surprise to see people living in the land of Hungry Ghosts, unable to escape.
But I am ill-advised to wander into that cold and dreary realm looking to lead people out. I can stand on the periphery and shine a lantern but only if my lantern is filled with the oil of my own experience. We can be beacons for each other. The light we shine is useful in that it may show another path that was hidden. We cannot admonish, cajole, instruct, or persuade someone to leave the realm. We can, and should, share our experiences in having found a way out. Sometimes permission to share is required, sometimes it is not. One needn’t always ask for what ought to be offered.
I don’t believe problems of perception are changed by logical argument, carefully prepared and presented analysis, charts and facts, or heated debate. Problems of perception are only changed by viewing the situation from a different perspective. A brand-new view, not my every moment view. It’s not a mountaintop, nor a valley, but right where someone else is standing. My life has been unalterably changed for the better because I saw through someone else’s eyes. They did not compel me. I was simply amazed that, by standing where they stood, everything was new and different.
That’s what we can do for one another. It’s not judgment at all. I have a unique, personal view of the world and so do you. It’s in sharing these views and being willing to relinquish the death grip on our own view that we are saved and that the world is saved. I am not right. You are not wrong. It’s a big world and every single, and I mean every single, perspective is critical to clearly see the picture. It’s a lens that is constantly focusing. There are moments when it’s all perfectly clear and then there are other moments.
Some years ago, I attended a retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. The retreat was “Zen and The Art of Tracking Animals” (yes, I know it’s weird). In addition to tracking animals in the fields and mountains surrounding the monastery, there were three zazen meditation sessions each day. At the beginning of the retreat, the Abbot asked if I would object to being hit with the keisaku should he notice my posture in need of correction. I said I prefer not to be hit. I now think differently.
Given permission, the blow can awaken. Without permission, the blow often adds to the pain. You have my permission to correct my posture at any time. But, please, not in the public comments, a private message is just fine. Even better, speak with me. It may elevate your position when I run the “My Friends” algorithm next month.