LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

A couple of days ago my analytical tendencies were aroused by reading a recently published blog posing some deep questions revolving around the purpose and meanings underlying institutionalized religious activity; in this case the reference was to the current Islamic Ramadan period of daily fasting. The author accepted the premise that during this time, the fasting is an activity that directs the participant’s focus toward the underlying tenets of the religion, and can be considered an “annual renewal” of allegiance to the faith (These are my words and interpretations, not those of the author—they may be inaccurate but can serve my purpose as a springboard toward a more comprehensive thought).

At the same time, the author suggested that the individual may also look back upon secular events from the past year, and evaluate his or her own responses to them in terms of “right and wrong” drawn from the Q’uran and its associated premises, and hopefully make a personal commitment “to do better”. Obviously this is extremely more complicated, meaningful, and formalized than a mere New Year’s Resolution and, being based on the degree of an individual’s faith, provides a stronger chance for successful improvement. By the demands of the fasting activity, the individual is able to more easily “shut out” the outer world in order to spend time and energy inside the mind, and to dwell upon his or her own patterns of thought and action. A major point the author raised is that we have our daily routine and patterns that we follow, and periodically something occurs, either minor or major, to which we have to adjust.  In these “unforeseen events” we find the material to use in judging our own responses and often we may make an inaccurate assessment of the situation as it unfolds.

Here are a few examples, some from my own experience, both small and large. Examples include activities, relationships, and health issues; none of these were consciously sought but each required some kind of response as they occurred.

Years ago, when I considered myself to be a good golfer, I was playing a nine-hole round. After parring the first hole, I scored a double bogey (2 over par) on the second hole. Ordinarily, that event occurring early in a round sentenced the player to a bad total score and usually established a bit of discouragement almost at the outset. Little did I suspect that as the round continued, I was to achieve the best score I have ever shot for 9 holes, a 32, which included at least one eagle (2 under par) and 3 birdies (each one 1 under par)! The point is, we often don’t know or even have an inkling of what comes next, but that we shouldn’t overreact either positively or negatively until we understand the complete picture.

Recently, someone close to me was led by a doctor to believe that he has a terminal disease, and he began to generate thoughts toward what to do before leaving this life—-disposing of possessions, saying goodbyes to family and friends, rushing to archive the many thoughts he has which might be of use to others, etc. To this point, he had plans for as many as 20 years in the future, and has been pursuing an active existence both physically and mentally even though he is in his eighth decade. Suddenly all those plans were to be cast aside, and a new, less attractive course needed to be plotted and one which has a greater sense of urgency. However, now there is nothing but confusion—the doctors are now saying that those early pronouncements were about the “possibility” of the existence of some form of terminal illness, not its actual presence, and further tests needed to be made. Subsequently, the first series of tests revealed that none of the first three diseases were in fact present, and that “further testing” has to be conducted. The point of this is that we shouldn’t plan until we have good data, but at the same time we need to make sure we can acquire good data. This is true not only in our personal lives but also as we pursue our professions and careers. It is the core of good decision-making, even to the extent of interpersonal relationships in which we are often making judgments about other persons. The old saying, “Judge not thy brother until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” is a quaint way of cautioning against jumping to conclusions.

Last fall, I was reacquainted with my “sixth grade girlfriend”. We had been part of a peer group that went to a local roller skating rink, and skated as a hand-holding couple (I recall asking my mom why holding hands with a girl felt so much better than doing so with a guy). We did not remain as “an item” through the next two grades, and I moved away to another part of the metropolis. I was invited recently to attend a reunion of persons with whom I had attended junior high, and discovered that “my girlfriend” was retired and living reasonably close to where my wife and I live. I contacted her and made an arrangement to meet her for lunch one day, and we spent a pleasant few hours talking about what we had done in the 60 years since. She devoted lots of time to volunteer work at the Denver Museum of Natural History, and was a member of several hiking clubs that even travel overseas to pursue their hobby. But unfortunately, several weeks ago she disappeared while on a hike with her club, having declared that she was going to try a different route down the mountain. In spite of two weeks of professional searching, no trace of her has yet been found. I’m sure that this was not something she had planned, and probably for which she may have been ill-equipped to address. This is one of those major events that occur outside of our usual comfort zone, and test our abilities to adjust.

Finally, a story in sort of “parable form”. An older man was hiking along a trail in the mountains, absorbing the sounds and sights of nature’s beautiful bounty, when he happened upon a junction where another trail joined his. As he proceeded onward, he met a young woman who had been on the other trail, and for a short while they strolled along together, enjoying briefly the companionship of enjoying an experience with another. Together, they happened upon a small grove of beautiful flowers and they paused momentarily to sample the colors and scents, and to exclaim, each in their own way, the joy that is given to each of us if we only stop to see and reflect. The path once again diverged, and each chose to go a different direction, but each of them had been changed, if only a tiny bit, retaining a morsel of shared pleasure within their minds to provide a welcome nuance to their future thoughts. This was a small event which “just happened”, but which became a treasured memory for reflection.

So, what is the underlying theme posed by these examples? It is that “Things Happen”, and we hopefully have the personal tools to deal with them. And do we have a strong personal code that provides us guidance toward resolving these issues? This takes us back to the beginning questions, do our solutions derive from the institutional structures, from our own perceived values, or a combination of both? In times of stress, individuals need to have time to dwell only inside their own head, to shut aside outside distractions in order to arrive at solutions commensurate with assimilated personal standards.

As a former school principal, I found that as crises sometimes occurred hard on each other’s heels, I needed to have some “alone time” in order to carefully consider decisions bearing on successful solutions to the issues.  These were times for reflecting upon occurring events, daily happenings crying for resolution. Perhaps the personal reflection within the Ramadan experience is the same thing, but looking at the long term and multiple events instead of the current happenings. I personally enjoy retreating to within my own mind, where I can create worlds and thoughts perhaps more satisfying than acknowledging my surroundings. That raises the questions, “which is the real Reality, the inner workings of my mind or the world outside?” I’ve often wondered and sometimes asked bicycle riders, “When you’re on those long cross-country trips, what do you think about, hour after hour?” Are you “inside your mind” and semi-oblivious to the outside, or are you totally conscious of your surroundings?’ “Do you work on resolving personal issues?” I know I couldn’t go on one of those trips, the physical demand would be the easy part.

To summarize this rambling discourse, each of us needs personal time for reflection, a time to recharge and resolve, and to eliminate the stress which intrudes on our daily routines and course of living. Our release may come from a formal activity such as a religious exercise, or we may generate it from within ourselves through some version of personal meditation. Grant that each of us can learn to access  some form of this as a tool for better living.

Always Be Happy!   Enjoy the Flowers!

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