There’s an old joke: “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Whether you believe in an actual deity or not, we all understand that something in the Universe seems to draw a bead on us the moment we aspire to accomplish anything – even if it’s to just make it through the next hour. That wariness about our own expectations versus stone cold reality – odds are we acquired that as the takeaway from another Life Experience. As Mel Brooks put it in the title song to his movie “The Twelve Chairs”, “Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst”.
One person’s bruised ego is another person’s Life Lesson Learned. How we deal with Life’s vicissitudes dictates everything. Anyone (in theory) can handle being happy. How we deal with everything south of “Happy” – that’s today’s question. Why exclude anything being happy teaches us? Because being happy teaches us nothing – except that, given the choice, we’d all prefer to be happy. Some of us over-parent because we fear what might happen should our children bump into failure. We think they should exist in a perpetual state of happiness. That’s how children of privilege are created.
It’s just a stone cold fact (learned the hard way) – failure is Life’s best teacher. Hell – Failure runs the whole “Education Department” inside our heads. We’re all more likely to remember the bruises Life left behind rather than that one time it kinda patted us on the back. Not that we’re here today to talk about failure; we’re here to talk about what failure TAUGHT us. What did we do when “God”, chuckling fiendishly, our plans in his head, turned everything upside down just so he could watch what happened to us next?
Did we zig when Life zigged? Or did we zag – and then have to figure things out on the fly?
Did we learn what we were supposed to when we were supposed to? That’s not a given either.
So many Life Lessons to choose between and only one podcast to talk about them…
Or, if you’ prefer to watch —
Life is complicated; not least because we are only one small part of all that is going on around us. This is a really important lesson I wish everyone could share with me because in times like ours, where all of the sand at our feet is shifting and changing, we grab on to simple solutions to try to keep ourselves from falling. Simple answers are almost never solid solutions. They won’t get us where we want to go. So, here is a story that is multi-layered. Each of those layers shows the complexity of the issues we are dealing with in our country today.
I have mentioned the book, “The City of Joy” before. It was because of this book, which focused on people struggling under extreme poverty in India, that I decided I would get as close as I could to the poorest people that I could. As a result, I jumped at the chance to live and work with people on the Island of Amapala, also known as La Isla del Tigre. Seems simple enough. But the complexity of the situation only grew during our time there; issues of religion, of nationalism, or war, of environment and of wealth and poverty were knotted together in life on this island, a life that I was diving into because I had read “The City of Joy”.
For three months my roommate and I worked as a “last ditch effort” of a church to establish a strong community of congregations on the Island. They had invested a lot in a promising leader on the Island, helped him get the training to establish a viable church. They even helped him start a fishing business so that he could sustainably pastor that poor congregation. But the leaders ran off with a choir member and took the business with him. We were a late chapter in a relationship that had already been frustrating for all involved.
Religious issues were not disconnected from nationalism. Most of the people I worked with were refugees from El Salvador. The island was claimed by both El Salvador and Honduras but Honduras had the upper hand at this point. The El Salvadoran people in the congregations we worked with El Salvadorian. They had no real legal status and lived day to day.
Nationalism overlapped with issues of politics and power. They were refugees from an El Salvadoran civil war that had lasted more than a decade. The military junta-led government with support from the US, was fighting a brutal war against the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The Island of Amapala had a dormant volcano at the center. The top of that volcano was the site of a US military listening post, not for El Salvador, but to listen into Nicaragua who was, at the time, run by another leftist group, the Sandanistas. And these local and global issues had direct impact on the relationships I was trying to develop. I once walked into the thatched hut of a family and their young children, as soon as they saw me, ran away crying and in real fear. The parents looked a bit sheepish as they explained to me that they told their children if they were naught the “gringos” would come and get them.
These issues and the poverty of the people we were working with, had a significant impact on the environment. The island was incredibly hot as most of the trees on the island had been cut down by people who needed energy for cooking. Though poor they had a high carbon footprint as burning wood emits more carbon dioxide than oil and much more than natural gas. The animal life was also endangered. It was painful to watch people from the village dig up the eggs that a sea turtle had spent all night laying before the turtle made it back to the ocean. They could make what was a significant amount of money by selling the eggs in town.
I remember seeing a bunch of speed boats arrive one morning on Playa Negra, a nice beach where we lived on the island. Families jumped out of the boat wearing speedos, bikinis and with picnic baskets filled with food. As I watched, part of me wanted to join this scene that looked so much like my life at home. By the end of the day I was ashamed of myself. The boaters had gone but left all sorts of trash on the beach which the villagers dug through to see what they could use.
I never got as close to the experience of the poor as I had wanted. One last experience while in Honduras explains why. One day on Amapala I could not find my passport. I was quite anxious not having any documentation. So, I quickly packed up, walked to the port city, took a dug out to the mainland, grabbed a bus to the main road and then took another bus to the main city of Tegucigalpa. All without papers. I went to the US embassy and walked right past all of the Hondurans who were in line hoping for a visa. They escorted me into a private office where I met with an embassy official, told them of my lost passport, and together we filled out the paperwork to get a new one. I left with a temporary document and returned to the island. I had, by nature of my citizenship, a power that none of the refugees I worked with on the Island had.
All of this has taught me that our opinions, whatever they are, are too simplistic. The problem itself is part of a wider web of issues which is not easily understood at its roots. The solution, likewise, cannot be simple or reductionistic. Simplistic solutions to simplistic problems hurt more people than they help. Change, if it is going to do the greatest good, must be organic, step by step and consistent over a long period of time. There is no “quick fix” to the issues we are dealing with.
I think I can break Life’s lessons down into five Big Ones:
- CREATIVE COLLABORATION IS A WONDERFUL THING
Working with people is way, WAY more fun than working against them. The trick however to working with people is to learn how to do it while getting the very best out of them — while they get the very best out of you.
Everything I know about collaboration, I learned at the feet of my old boss Bob Zemeckis…
- SUCCESS TEACHES YOU NOTHING; FAILURE, ON THE OTHER HAND…
Success — especially early success — does more harm than good. At least it did to me. Success convinces you your shit doesn’t stink. That’s not true. You got lucky and succeeded at something. That’s good. But your shit still pongs. The only difference is, now, you don’t know it.
Failure teaches everything worth knowing — provided you’re willing to learn from it.
- THE MORE PERSPECTIVE YOU CAN GET, THE BETTER
Life is a mosaic. We have to be wary of forgetting that fact because we’re so wrapped up in one tile.
- CONSCIOUSNESS MIGHT JUST TRANSCEND EVERYTHING
This is the thing I’m now learning — and learning more about every single day.
- THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL, NO MATTER WHAT, IS LOVE