A life of courage, joy and independence.
Have you ever sat down in the shower..? While washing up have you ever put the soap and shampoo aside for a few minutes in order to carefully lower yourself onto the floor of the shower stall, to then close your eyes and let the warm water fall upon you from above? The pelting drops help to sooth tired muscles, while the sound of splashing water may delight the mind with the sensation that its troubles are rinsed and spiraling away down the drain.
I sometimes sit in the shower in order to relax for a few minutes away from the bustle of the day. I might also sit in the shower when I want to contemplate some tricky thought or to muse over a perplexing event. For in the shower I can always find the space I need to think, as I believe that there is no more solitary or accessible refuge to be found within the urban landscape. The shower stall is my very private place, where the enveloping rain smothers any sound from without, and where no one is likely to disturb my peace so long as the water can be heard running. So after cleaning my body I sometimes linger for a while beneath the shower’s fountain; letting the minutes slip away with little or no regard for the utility bill, possibly to emerge with a clearer mind or with new resolve, or maybe even with fresh solutions to the problems life does occasionally toss my way.
On this particular day I’d been sitting in the shower for a very long time. There was no sponge or wash cloth involved with this visit, as I had come specifically to sit and to think. I’d been sitting so long in fact that the water-heater was almost drained, and I could feel the spray from the nozzle getting colder by the second. So I reached up and shut the water off altogether in order to save myself the sobering influence of a cold shower. Closing my eyes I again let my thoughts retreat away; grateful that the warmed tiles might keep me comfortable for a while longer, allowing me to postpone, if only for a few minutes, a return to my senses. My mind had found a lonely and secure elsewhere, a place behind a cloud of shower steam, and I wasn’t ready for that mist to clear up—not just yet. So I huddled into a tight ball to stay warm and continued pondering possibly the most difficult dilemma of my life.
That afternoon a good friend had informed me that he was likely to commit suicide within 60 days. When he told me of his plan it was with the solemn air of one delivering bad, but inevitable news. And as we talked on the phone long distance, I noted that he didn’t sound sad or scared or even very upset. Instead I could almost detect a tone of apology in his voice, as if he were merely sorry to be burdening me with bad news. The conversation was similar to one I might have with an auto mechanic who tells me that my car needs a new transmission; if there is any tone of regret in the mechanic’s voice, then it is probably for my benefit only as the mechanic is likely confident of the diagnosis and resigned to the reality of what must be done. I could tell that my friend was resigned to his choice, and knowing him as I did, I understood that there was probably little I could do to change his mind.
My friend wasn’t planning to kill himself because he was depressed or desperate or severely ill, although I found myself wishing that he was depressed or desperate or something else, anything else, in order that I might more easily help him and perhaps convince him away from his plan. For if he were unhappy then I could offer solace, if in dire straits then I could give resources or support to help him weather one of life’s rough spells, and if he were sick then I could possibly assist him in finding medical attention to get better. But what help could I offer to one who seemed so sane, sober and in control of his thoughts and decisions, but who had nonetheless determined that his life should end, and this solely for reasons of principal? With a clear voice and reasoned words my friend had explained to me that although he did not want to die he did however believe that under the circumstances suicide was the right thing to do. His reasons were not political, nor were they religious or even to further some passionate cause, he had no wish to become a martyr or even to be remembered after death; and although he did explain his purpose to me, I found myself unable to comprehend the necessity he claimed so apparent. During our conversation I had several times offered reasons he should not take his own life, and each time he had thanked me for my concern and then patiently repeated that there was nothing I could do to change his mind. So some time after our conversation was complete, I walked to the bathroom and started the shower, undressed and adjusted the temperature, and as the steam began to billow I stepped in and carefully lowered myself onto the hard tile floor.
Clutching my knees to my chest and bowing my head under the warm water, I ignored my friend’s advise and began to search for some argument which might counter his plan, some solution which might convince him to stay with the living. I had come to the shower looking for answers to a very difficult problem; however I was also hoping that my visit might help to ease a strange new weight pressing my conscience, a subtle throbbing in my head brought on by the significant event of discussing with a loved one the reason and means of his own deliberate death. I remained in the shower that afternoon for a very long time, my visit ending only after all the hot water was gone and the shower-stall had cooled to the point of discomfort and I was forced by chill to get up dry off and dress. I had failed to discover any good argument which might change my friend’s plan, and despite the on-going efforts of myself and others he did indeed kill himself, on cue, just as he said he would.
My friend did not die alone. Sadly, another friend did also die with him at the same place and on the same day. This other friend had been equally close to me; however his passing was easier to accept, as it had been of natural causes, and he had held to life with tenacity and courage. This second death, although a shock, was not a surprise, as I had known that my friends would likely die together; for their mutual passing had, in fact, been a coordinated event which they had agreed to, and which at last yielded an end to their shared drama—and a beginning to my own.
In the end, death is always hardest on the living. After my friends were gone I faced my grief as best I could and attempted to get on with my life. I had lost loved ones before and was familiar with the process of mourning and with the healing qualities of time. The sharp pain of passing did, in fact, slowly fade; however, there seemed to be something about these particular deaths that was extraordinary to me, and as the weeks and months carried me further from the event, my mind continued to hold the memory of their dying foremost in my thoughts. With some consideration I came to suspect that there was something curious and special about the circumstances and motivation surrounding the deaths of my friends, and that I must give serious audience to these thoughts before they might fade to bittersweet memory.
Losing my friends was a very painful experience. But it was also a mystery. For they had accepted suicide in support of principals which were alien to me and which I could not understand. I’ve always considered it a tragedy and a waste when a healthy individual kills himself. Yet my friends had found some clause in their beliefs which allowed them to accept self-inflicted death under certain circumstances. And I couldn’t comprehend this acceptance, even though they’d explained their reasons to me. And because of this I began to wonder at how we, being such close friends, could differ on such a fundamental principal.
Perhaps my friends had become crazy or a bit fanatical? Were they, in the end, no longer capable of comprehending the finality of death? Had they possibly bought into some strange belief-system which distanced them from an appreciation of their own mortality? Maybe they had believed, like some suicide cult, that a hidden spaceship was waiting for them within the tail of a passing comet; where after death their astral-bodies might gather before being zipped off to some better corner of the universe. I would have liked to have found such an easy answer in order to explain away the mystery of their acceptance of death; however I was unable to ignore the fact that they had seemingly been in control of their senses until the very end, and I had failed to note any clues of extreme eccentricity. My friends had certainly entertained some curious notions during their lives, and their beliefs had, in fact, included a strong spiritual component, however their living had always remained sane and sober. So what was it—for good or bad—which made us so different that I could not grasp the reason behind their final act?
My friends were gone and I could no longer question them over their motives. I thought that perhaps I might find some explanation within memories of the conversations we’d had and the living we’d shared; however, I had already scrutinized these to no avail during their death watch, and had at last I determined that if I were ever to understand the mystery of their shared acceptance of death over life, then this understanding must come from within myself. I must compare my own life with theirs in order to measure our principals and actions and to examine our values side by side. Perhaps then I might note some difference which could help to explain their choice to die.
One of my first observations was that much which I had previously accepted as normal in my life now appeared alien or strange or even absurd when measured against the incredible dedication to principal which had prompted my friends to accept death over life. Although I didn’t and still don’t agree with their reasons, and I believe that my one friend’s suicide was a terrible waste and a tragedy, I must however confess that I was amazed and humbled by the commitment demonstrated in his actions, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any values which I held more dear than life itself.
So what values did I hold? Upon reflection I concluded that the primary purpose of my life so far had been the proverbial pursuit of happiness. I had, in fact, lived my life convinced that if I could simply keep myself smiling, then not only would I enjoy the benefits, but I thought that others would then be happier being around me. This idea had been the single primary principal against which I had based all of my major life choices and actions, and I had worked hard at achieving this goal and had allowed myself any and all indulgence which seemed likely to make me happy.
I might flatter myself by saying that I was pretty good at serving my own interests, and had lived a fairly rich and interesting life; however I was usually only dimly aware that my rewards often came at the expense of neglected responsibilities, and sometimes even through the suffering of those who cared about me. In spite of the cost, this way of life had been quite fruitful in adventure and stimulation; but coincidental with the death of my friends I had begun to note that such a living seemed to provide only a veneer of satisfaction, which maturity and experience might wear down to reveal the hollow vessel within. I now began to wonder if their may be some clues in this understanding which might help me to find the answers I was seeking?
For several years prior to the death of my friends I had become increasingly aware that something was quite wrong with my life. In response to this dilemma my efforts at resolution had been targeted at trying harder to make myself happy; more adventures, more toys and less tolerance of anything or anyone which might get in the way. This solution in fact only served to make the problem worse, and eventually I was brought to a very desperate condition. I was so convinced that happiness was an end in itself, and I was so unhappy with the state of my life that I began to contemplate throwing away my career, home and marriage in order to start life anew, as these seemed the only variables remaining which I thought I could alter. I was genuinely in danger of losing it all in a single-minded pursuit of pleasure. The death of my friends and the alien values represented in their choices and actions revealed to me that there was another alternative, something else which I might change—myself.
With considerable observation, effort and a little good luck I was at last able to manage the curious feat of increasing my sensitivity to the obvious. And while staring at that which had always been just in front of my nose, I began to recognize that there is, in fact, such a thing as human nature. I determined that human nature consists simply of those needs beyond food, clothing and shelter which are common to all human beings. I believe that all people, regardless of background, share the same desire for companionship, a sense of purpose in life and a wish to live on or to be remembered after death through religious belief or by participating in a cause which is larger and more permanent then themselves. Armed with this simple idea, I began exploring values and behaviors, particularly my own, which either contributed to or served as distractions from achieving these needs. At last I narrowed the range and decided upon a few simple values which seemed best suited to meet many of the needs of human nature. These values were quite alien to my world view, but I decided to give them a try. The experiment of applying these ideas to my own life did yield profound, immediate and long-lasting results, and in the end I was able to construct for myself a new way of life from the ruins of my old world view.
My experience of revelation was not religious, in fact it wasn’t even spiritual. Mine was an adventure of reality, of trial and error and of recognized choice and consequence. My propositions are plain, easy to understand and are composed of nothing more than common sense. Some may disagree with my conclusions, and I accept that as a creative species we are each fully capable of defining truth as we see fit. However I now believe that human beings are subject to biological and social needs which are best met through a limited number of behaviors. These behaviors being those which promote our fundamental need to be connected to others. Maturity will usually reveal this fact at some point in our lives, but until that day arrives the individual is capable of fascinating feats of self-serving rationalization and promotion. There may be others who will instantly recognize and relate to the ideas I attempt to describe in this story, and who may wonder at why I have wasted my time pointing out that the earth goes around the sun. This may sound incredible, but would you believe that until recently I actually thought that the sun revolved around me. Finally, I suspect that there may be a number—possibly a large number—of people who are passing from day to day without understanding just how easy it is to live right, and what a challenge it is to live well.
I believe that the truths I learned are not my own, but instead belong to the biology of the human animal. For just as our bodies find comfort in food, shelter and warmth, so too may our souls receive solace through choices which serve our innate need for companionship, a meaning to our actions and the serving of a purpose larger than ourselves. My story makes no claim to an explanation of our existence, but instead simply offers some ideas about how we may best make use of each precious and passing day.
No More Looking Out for Number One
Sometimes life’s greatest changes begin with bad news.
I find it strange that pain often serves an excellent prompt
to action, and I wonder at how the scrutinized aspect of
death may reveal a better way to live.
We all die in stages. First the mind winks out and the spirit departs and we’ve no more to feel or consider. This is when our loved ones begin their mourning and the mortician peeks in, ready to take his measurements. Our flesh though passes more slowly, as each organ and cell holds to life with some autonomy until lack of oxygen requires that these too fail, and in painless succession the machinery of life gradually turns off. After the body is gone, our image and character may remain in the minds of others. But memories fade as years and generations pass until who we were is nearly lost when no one remembers us. Still, some record of our life may remain, recorded in the actions and choices of others. Our behavior, for good or bad, may have been noted and adopted by our survivors and carried across generations; a violent temper or a sensitive hand may be trained choices which owe their perpetuity to our example. But time and free will must eventually erase our influence, until all that may remain of who we were is a few turns in the genetic code: a certain shade of red hair may once have been ours, or a taste for sour pickles, or maybe a poetic genius is shared with some unknown descendent who would use our very words to describe a beautiful sunset. With sufficient time though, even our genes are lost in the mix of countless generations until no identifiable record remains of our role in humanity, and our dying is at last complete.
It is not my intent to startle or disturb the reader with my comments on the nature of death. Instead, I merely wish to use the subject to illustrate a point. For I believe that in addition to the more familiar idea of dying as the passing away of body and soul, it seems to me that there is another, less common or observed variety of mortality, another species of death if you will.
This other reaper is one less grim, yet no less powerful in it’s capacity to motivate us or to punctuate or living; for although our flesh may be immune to its affect, our internal aspect and our fundamental nature may wither and become still beneath its shadow, causing who we are to at last depart in favor of some new tenant, an incarnation of ourselves who will wear our skin and speak our voice but who in many ways is less us than someone new. This other class of dying is simply the death of our character.
In fact, who we are is as vulnerable to injury and change as what we are; and it is possible that before our bodies finally pass away we may suffer successive incarnations of individuality. When our character dies it is invariably making way for some replacement, and these psychological transitions often mark stages of development when large sections of our world view are discarded in favor of what we believe is a better way.
During the course of our lives we each face many events and circumstances that may cause us to re-think our positions and attitudes. Sometimes these events are so profound that an individual emerges from the experience with a new character and resolve, sometimes seemingly as a new person. Such an event has only occurred once in my life, and its circumstance came suddenly and without warning. This event did mark the end of one era for me and the beginning of another, and the legacy of this change did distinctly alter and improved both the quality and purpose of my life. Who I was did die one day, and the man who took his place would now like to tell you the dead man’s story.
The last day of my old life had been largely uneventful, and I was therefore unprepared for the tragedy about to unfold before me. Nothing that day had seemed out-of-place: the dog and I had enjoyed a nice walk in the morning, nothing unusual had occurred at work, and when I arrived home in the evening I was looking forward to dinner, some time together with my wife and then bed. I had, in fact, forgotten that life is often shy and that change it is not always introduced directly. For sometimes our living chooses to creep up slowly from behind, to linger in our shadow, waiting for just the right – or wrong – moment to announce the unknown or unexpected. If we are lucky, life will simply tap us on the shoulder in order that we may calmly turn and ask its business, although often it is not so subtle. As I walked to the front door on that final evening and fumbled with my keys, I had no idea that life was then hovering just behind my ear, inhaling deeply and preparing to yell BOO!
Entering the house, my wife greeted me and asked me to sit down. She told me that my friend Joe Bob had called in order to tell us that he had cancer—and that he was dying. After recovering from the initial shock I found my friend’s number and called him up. Hearing Joe Bob’s voice across the line was good, and for just a moment I could forget the reason for that terrible call. He had learned of his cancer that same day and I could tell that he was scared. Nevertheless, he laughed when I said hi, and he seemed happy to hear from me.
Joe Bob Spencer had been my friend and neighbor while I was at University. And although he was nearly 40 years my senior, we had nonetheless shared many interests and seemingly countless Sunday mornings together driving to out-of-the-way restaurants for huge country breakfasts over black coffee and ceaseless conversation. I met Joe Bob while I was working to finish my formal education, and his companionship and tutorage served to set me on an informal course of consideration and learning which both tempered and enhanced my schooling.
My relationship with Joe Bob was one of motion and progress, for we were always going somewhere whether in fact or in fancy. In his car we would roll along highways and country roads and freeways and city streets; turn signals blinked and gears shifted as our words and opinions spilled forth to fill the cab and color the miles. Our rolling dialogues were drawn along under tow of the magnificent splendor of California’s North Coast; a strange and beautiful land stretching along the north-western edge of California, where a cold and angry ocean strikes without respite against a landscape of misty redwood forests and lonely isolated beaches where often not a single human footprint might be found for miles.
The North Coast is an isolated and secluded part of the Earth, and one cannot help but experience a heightened sense of freedom there, for solitude and tolerance are easily found in a land where one’s wanderings, both cerebral and physical, are confined mostly by the limits of one’s curiosity and stamina. This sense of openness and liberty was, and is, made particularly buoyant by the stimulating social atmosphere which pervades many of the communities of the North Coast. There is a righteous sense of purpose and a visible energetic urgency which can be witnessed through the actions and words of the people, and these behaviors appear to be a genuine artifact of the counterculture movement which swept through and enveloped the United States during the late 1960’s and early 70’s.
Joe Bob Spencer was a true citizen of the North Coast. He had been a flamboyant participant in the wild and weird 60’s, and as a hippie ambassador he brought to our relationship all the opinion, energy and optimism which characterized his flower-child roots. Joe Bob found his place within the small, quiet coastal communities of the North Coast only after a lifetime of searching; his journey home taking him far from the place of his birth in North Carolina, across the breadth of the United States and along many of the same paths used by the legions who, during the 1960’s and 70’s, came west “searching for America” and seeking the imagined freedoms to be found in California.
California’s North Coast is to this day a haven for liberal people and perspectives. Like the refuge of an endangered psychedelic species, the many small communities which dot the seaside from San Francisco to Crescent City near the Oregon border today shelter the remnants of the glassy-eyed element that made Haight Ashbury the Mecca of the hippies.
When, in the mid 1970’s, the flower-power revolution began to experience a significant decline in overt influence, many die-hard hippies retreated up the California coast to find sanctuary amidst the fog-shrouded sea-stacks and dark moody Redwood groves of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The college-town of Arcata in Humboldt county became the unofficial new capital of the Birkenstock-set, and to this day the small community lingers in something of a 60’s time-warp.
Arcata is a place where tie-dye is always in vogue, old Volkswagens are the vehicle of choice and where long hairs—young and old—may still be seen walking the streets like they were just back from Woodstock, or perhaps gathered in groups at the town plaza playing drums, or maybe frolicking nude across the cold sand at some isolated beach. The heart of this community is the town square, where each afternoon a motley assortment of self-proclaimed freaks might be found gathered below an austere bronze statue of William McKinley. The nineteenth century square was designed after the symmetry of an English garden, and its ordered paths and well-maintained flower-beds are today the unchallenged domain of the hippies. The town fathers have recognized and accepted this fact and have even passed laws to encourage the perpetuity of this unique human habitat. Women for example are permitted to go topless within the confines of the grassy square, but only so long as they remain within eyesight of McKinley’s metallic stare.
When Joe Bob first arrived in Arcata in the late 70s he felt that he had found a place sheltered from much of the outside world, a place seemingly safe from the perceived corruption of state and the distorted values of a mainstream culture Joe Bob could not appreciate or tolerate. Joe Bob once told me that Arcata was his sanctuary, for he saw the community as one which valued diversity and would not measure a man by the color of his skin, the length of his hair or the pattern of his tie-dye. Arcata was for Joe Bob a place very far removed from the small community in North Carolina where he had been born and raised, and where hatred and tension had surrounded him like a smothering cloud.
Joe Bob was not proud of his southern roots. Growing up a white boy in a small southern community, he had witnessed the worst of American racism. The only time I ever saw my friend without a smile was when he spoke of his childhood in North Carolina. I would sometimes ask him to tell me about what he had seen and experienced growing up in the south, and he shared with me many stories.
He spoke of the many injustices and the strong racial division which had segregated every aspect of his community. He described his black friends and how other whites had pressured him to not be overly familiar with them. He said that he could never relate to the matter-of-fact attitude of his family and community that held blacks as a lesser class of human being. Joe Bob said that the whole race thing had kept him in a simmering fury during most of his youth, and that although he had a large extended family in North Carolina, he had no plans to return—ever.
When discussing his childhood in the south, Joe Bob sometimes talked of what he called “true evil.” With venom in his eyes he once told me of a lynching he had witnessed as a boy. Joe Bob was only 7 or 8 years old at the time, but he remembered the event and described it to me so clearly and in such detail that I understood the depth to which the memory had been burned into his mind. He said that the man’s crime was over-familiarity with a white woman. The man’s mother had helped to raise this woman, and as children the black boy and white girl had been friends. Joe Bob told me that in the south such bonds between the races, especially between men and women, must be put aside in adulthood, and that a black man must always show proper deference to any white woman. Apparently the childhood friends had let their old closeness slip through with a little lighthearted fun and laughter together in public. The event had been witnessed by whites who were incensed at the black man’s offence. Within a short period of time there was a mob and Joe Bob found himself jostled amidst the crowd. He said that at first he didn’t understand what was happening, and that until almost the last moment he did not know that a man was to die. He told me that when the mob’s purpose became clear to his young mind, he became lost in a flood of terrible emotions which would later become the seed of his own dark anger, an ironic hatred of hate itself.
Joe Bob watched the victim pass into the crowd in the custody of four or five white men. He explained to me that the terrified young man he saw being led to the center of the crowd had always been kind to him, and that Joe Bob’s childish instincts had always allowed him to trust and like this man. Joe Bob said that the young man was already badly beaten and that blood stained his face and clothes; his eyes were swollen but wide with fear. Quite quickly a prepared noose appeared and was drawn over the man’s head and secured around his neck. Without ceremony and accompanied only by the noise of the crowd’s rising anger and demands for vengeance, the rope was pulled and the man lifted above the crowd. Joe Bob told me that such an execution does not break the victim’s neck, but instead serves only to choke him to death. Joe Bob the child, too numb to move, watched as this man, who had dared laugh with the flower of white womanhood, kicked and writhed in the air with his hands tied behind his back, struggling to find some lifesaving foothold. I was told that the victim held on for a long time, refusing to die. Joe Bob explained that eventually, inevitably and only after much suffering, life finally passed from the man’s face and he went limp — Joe Bob said that he watched in horror as the corpse swung at the end of the rope, and it was then, he told me, that his emotions congealed and he himself knew real hate for the first time. He said that if he had possessed a machine-gun at the time then he would have mowed down the entire crowd, killing every one of the assembled mob there and then. When telling me this I could see a madman in his eyes and I knew that he had been telling me the truth when once Joe Bob had stated that he had to leave the south because he was afraid that he would one day kill someone there.
Joe Bob did escape the south to create a new life for himself. And after much searching he did find his salvation among the small community of like-minded sprits inhabiting Arcata. When I met him in 1987, Joe Bob no longer looked very much like a hippie, though he still thought and acted like one. He always greeted friends and acquaintances with a big loving bear-hug. His car was plastered with stickers endorsing the saving of practically everything, and he certainly didn’t have anything good to say about government. Curiously, although already in his early 60s, Joe Bob still didn’t seem to trust anyone over the age of 30.
Joe Bob was gay, although he wouldn’t have described himself that way; neither would he have called himself straight or bisexual as he said that he was simply in love with humanity. I thought him a nut and maybe a pervert when, just after we met, Joe Bob told me that he fell in love with most people he knew. The statement had seemed to me a come-on line, and I quickly told him that he was barking up the wrong tree if that was what he was after. He was familiar with my reaction and pleasantly explained that his feelings did not require a sexual component to be consummated. He told me that a glance, smile or pleasant conversation were often enough to cerebrally get him off (as he would say), and that the sex act itself was only one of many ingredients with which a quality relationship may be baked. Joe Bob was never shy with his passions as he felt quite at home with his chosen lifestyle and values amidst people who were used to accepting far stranger than a handsome, intelligent and engaging senior citizen, who just happened to be gay.
For nearly three years during the last part of the 1980’s, the majority of my Sunday mornings would begin at dawn as I watched Joe Bob race his car across the dirt parking lot at Moonstone Beach—a few miles north of Arcata—to park his small Dodge Colt in front of the converted Frito-Lay potato chip delivery truck in which I lived. I would always watch for Joe Bob’s huge smile as he zoomed towards me across the parking lot. I swear that he had the biggest perennial grin I had ever seen! A great set of false teeth made Joe Bob look younger than he really was, and he framed his dentures in a snow-white bushy beard and mustache which matched perfectly in color and texture with his thinning head of hair, and which together conspired to create a vision of Santa Claus. Wide, laughing eyes complimented the manic smile, and I loved Joe Bob for the fact that he shared this visage with everyone he met. I knew that my friend was genuinely delighted to see me; however I always understood that his joy was intended for humanity, and that I must share it with every waitress, gas-station attendant or stranger who happened across our path during our morning adventure.
The Dodge would rock to a stop as a cloud of dust gained from behind. Although we were only a few feet away from each other, Joe Bob always gave a frantic wave from behind the windshield with his mouth slightly open to extend his smile to its extreme limits. The door was opened, and when we met there was always the huge bear hug greeting and excited salutations.
Before long we were in the car and off to adventure! There was always some new distant cafe, diner or wharf-side restaurant to be sampled for breakfast; and as we sped along, the morning conversation would begin in earnest over some newsworthy topic which always seemed to evolve into a discussion of society, ethics and often simple philosophy.
With Joe Bob the words never came to an end, as there was always some delight of the mind to toss about or spectacle at the side of the road to comment on. These were special mornings, and I cherished every moment I shared with this man who had lived his life with energy and deliberation and who never lost his enthusiasm for the moment.
The man on the other end of the line was no longer enthusiastic… For the first time in all the years I had known him, I could hear a shaky fear in Joe Bob’s words.
“I have cancer.” He told me in a subdued voice. “The doctor’s say I have less than 60 days to live—”
I was stunned. “Is there anything that can be done to try and fight it?” I asked.
“Not really, it’s too far along for surgery and I will not put myself through chemotherapy.”
As Joe Bob and I spoke of his impending death, and the efforts which might be made to overcome it, a thought rose into my conscience which first magnified and then overtook the situation at hand. I became dulled to the issue of one death, as the possibility of still another threatened to become a reality. I was hearing, but not listening, to Joe Bob’s words as I struggled to recall what Eric Fong had told me just five months before—
Eric Fong is significant in this story. In fact, he is largely the reason this essay is being written. Eric was my best friend in college, and without his influence I may never have altered the course of my life away from my former destructive obsession with self and towards a more mature and fulfilling role as a productive member of community and family.
Eric’s choice to die was the traumatic event which shook my old world off its foundation, and it is a terrible and ironic fact that it was the vista of that shattered landscape which caused me to find the peace which is now more the rule than the exception in my life.
I first met Eric through a friend who was living in one of the dormitories at Humboldt State University in Arcata. In the fall of 1985 my friend and I had come to Arcata together from Southern California in order to begin our new lives as university students.
During our first semester at Humboldt I spent a lot of time hanging around with my friend at his dormitory. This was due to the fact that I was then something of a vagrant, living on the streets of Arcata in a former Frito Lay potato chip delivery truck which had been converted into a motorhome. I was living on the streets in order to save money and also as a novelty; and although such a life was interesting it was also very difficult. Therefore, I would sometimes visit my friend at his dormitory in order to use the shower there and sometimes to wash my clothes, and also to participate in the community of my peers which I was largely missing while driving around and camping in my potato chip truck.
My friend’s roommate was this fellow named Eric Fong. Eric and my friend shared a large three room suite with two other guys at the end of the second floor hallway of the dormitory building. The suite had two bedrooms with a big common room between these; and it was to this common room that young men and women from every floor of the co-ed dorm would come to flop down and hang out, get drunk and basically carry-on as young dormitory inhabitants, flush with freedom, do everywhere. There was a lot of weird and fun stuff going on in that building and in that dorm suite, but without question the most entertainment was always to be had wherever Eric Fong was.
Eric was a stunning and unlikely specimen of humanity; the son of a Chinese father and German mother, his features were an uncanny mix which usually left acquaintances wondering after his origins. He really stood out in a crowd, and his dramatic wardrobe—which frequently included torn tee-shirts, army fatigues, karate jacket, huge overcoat turned inside-out with pockets full of goodies, colorful clown pants and dirty lace-less high-top sneakers—did little to relieve his conspicuousness.
I think that Eric left most of his dorm-mates in hopeless confusion at his antics. I can remember sitting and talking with my friend while Eric dashed from one room to the next, engaged in some curious activity and stopping only to propose some form of delightful nonsense. At one moment he might be re-arranging the room’s furnishings (a favorite activity of his) such that the sofa was blocking an open door while an end-table was placed in the center of the room like a cheap press-board star around which the remainder of the room’s furnishings were positioned in orbit. Eric was always in charge of room arrangement, and no matter how absurd or impractical the furniture layout might be, no one ever challenged his efforts. We would all sit on the floor, enduring leg-cramps and sore butts before we were willing to put a stop to the fun of watching Eric in action.
In another moment, Eric would suddenly put down the Chemistry book he was reading and announce brightly that he was about to demonstrate the chemical principal of “Brownian motion”. He would then spring to his feet and begin charging all about the room in precise vectors, arms straight at his side, ricocheting off walls and people and laughing so hard that before long everyone in the room would be grinning or giggling in sympathetic or nervous amusement. Some—myself included—would soon join in and the group of us would have a grand time careening about and crashing into things and each other, all the while wondering just what the heck Brownian motion was… You can bet that later that night more than one Chemistry textbook would creak open as someone sought to learn more about a chemical principle that could break lamps, cause sore bodies and reduce a room full of young adults to giggling morons.
Eric was fun to be with, but more than that he was interesting. He could clown around as easily as he could pass the night in reflection of life and the meaning of our living and dying. Eric’s thoughts were novel to us, and everyone who was a part of our youthful circle enjoyed being with him, as he made our lives something more than homework and mid-terms.
When someone spoke Eric listened, as he truly wanted to know the thoughts and observations of others. While listening, he restrained his formidable intellect from formulating any counter-argument in order that the speaker might have his full attention. If someone made a particularly curious or creative point, then Eric would often pause—sometimes for a long time—while he considered what had been said. This fact was profoundly obvious and appreciated when talking with Eric one-on-one, as there was often a long break in the banter as Eric sat with a serious look on his face, and we knew that he was taking our words for a test drive. Such pauses were sometimes awkward but we didn’t mind, as there is no one who does not appreciate being heard.
Eric listened to our ideas, but then he also told us precisely what he thought of them. If he did not agree with what had been stated then he said so, being careful to explain his reasons. I was often amazed at the clarity and soundness of his arguments; which often appeared so well thought out that I was sure he must have stayed up late the night before researching the very issue at hand. Although he argued passionately, we rarely felt under attack when Eric disagreed with us. This was because we understood that his aim was not to prove us wrong—Eric’s ego required no such validation—but instead he sought simply to approach more closely the truth of the matter.
For all the elegance and force of Eric’s counter-arguments, there was an equal measure of fun to be had when he liked what someone proposed. Eric felt no shame in singing lusty praise after perceived truth, and his inquisitive nature usually demanded an immediate surgical dissection of a topic in an effort to learn more. He would dig and probe at a new idea, seeking the notion’s heart which, if found, he would remove and hold on high for all to see. And we would all gape at his prize, steaming and pumping in his hand, and marvel at the impudent smile upon the face of the surgeon. After we had all enjoyed a good look, Eric would thrust truth back from whence he found it, seal the wound and send his ward scampering away into the night. Being with Eric was sometimes exhausting, but his company was never, ever, boring.
Eric and I became fast friends, and before long we did virtually everything together. In his novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac, introduces an erratic and unique character by the name of Dean Moriarty. Dean’s ideas and virtual free-fall through life amazed and captivated another character, Sal Paradise, who traveled with Dean on extended road trips across the United States. Although Eric and I shared only a few highway adventures together, he certainly did become the Dean to my Sal. Our friendship grew over the years, and in some ways the bond resembled the connection I once shared with so-called best friends when I was a boy; that never-to-be-repeated innocent acceptance and trust which the trials of maturity frequently remove from reach.
Our confederate years had a profound effect on me, and my time with Eric did tune my mind to many intangible possibilities and wonderland-like realities which still enrich and enliven the stream of impulses cascading upon my brain from all five senses. Because of Eric Fong, my years at University became less an academic endeavor and more of a quest for the marrow of our existence. Eric certainly burned his candle wherever he could fit a wick, and I wonder now why I was surprised to learn that his light was about to go out…
“Would you like to speak with Eric?” Joe Bob asked me across the line.
“Yes I would, thanks.” I responded.
As I waited for Eric to pick up the receiver I tried to put down the terrible possibility I realized I might soon be facing. I knew that before this phone conversation was over I may be carrying the weightiest reality my life had yet – may ever – encounter. More fearful than Joe Bob’s cancer, more profound than the death of my father several years before, and possibly harder to come to grips with than the reality of my own eventual passing from the Earth…
“Hi Kurt, howya doing!?” Eric’s confident voice demanded from across the line.
“Fine Eric, I can’t believe what is happening to you guys.”
“It’s a bummer, that’s for sure!” Eric exclaimed matter-of-factly.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“We are going to beat this damn cancer, that’s what!”
Eric then began a long description of the alternative treatments they would be trying, never once revealing less than full confidence that they would succeed in destroying Joe Bob’s disease. And then, just as I had feared, it came…
“Kurt,” Eric spoke my name with the a very serious tone, “Do you remember what I told you last summer?”
With those words my heart was crushed and my fear became a reality. I instantly became numb to the world and I am afraid useless to my friends in their time of need. Eric had opened a new and forbidden doorway, and he now stood at that terrible threshold, beckoning me not to follow, but instead to simply accept his coming passage into the darkness beyond.
I will always feel some guilt over Eric’s fate, and some joy as well for the part I played in what seemed the happiest years of his life. For I was there at the crossroads when he and Joe Bob met, and I watched them depart together upon a trail unseen by most eyes, and which would lead them, years later, to the end they were now facing. There was little I could do to stop what was to come; however I do sometimes wonder if I had not been there at the start, if perhaps the end might have been different.
Eric was my best friend in college while Joe Bob was my neighbor. My connection with these men represented my simultaneous participation in two separate worlds: Eric was my partner in academic and intellectual exploration while Joe Bob and I shared a more spiritual quest. I had told Eric about Joe Bob long before I introduced them to each other, and I’m afraid that I sometimes described Joe Bob in less than flattering words.
I believe that I frequently referred to Joe Bob as the “weird old gay guy who lived above the beach but who baked great pies.” I will confess that at the time I was more than a little embarrassed to count a homosexual man among my friends, and for this reason I sometimes played down my admiration of Joe Bob in order to not appear overly fond of him.
Joe Bob was indeed a fabulous cook, and he would usually spend one or two evenings a week baking delicious pies of every sort which were to be devoured in great slices with ice-cream over hearty conversation. Joe Bob also used his pies to make any and all visitors feel at home, as he felt that serving someone food was a fine way to say welcome. I sometimes countered this fact against the starving-student stereotype I was living in order to justify my association with him.
I had told Eric about Joe Bob’s great cooking and also about the interesting observations and ideas held by this man; but curiously, Eric and I never talked much about Joe Bob’s homosexuality and this subject simply remained an understood fact about the man. After I introduced them, Eric, Joe Bob and myself would, on occasion, have dinner at Joe Bob’s house. These were always comfortable meals followed by lots of pie eating and pleasant conversation in which Joe Bob’s lifetime of experience served as an exciting counterpoint to the youthful, often innocent and idealized views held by Eric and myself.
The circle of our friendship became sealed as the three of us enjoyed many wonderful times together sharing ideas and finding laughter far into the night around the great round kitchen table at the heart of Joe Bob’s home. I then knew the meaning of words like fellowship, comrade, fraternity and communion, and for all the special wonder of our association I must now reflect that it was perhaps my folly in never considering that there might be more to it.
Things changed in the Winter of 1989, just as I completed the work needed to earn my undergraduate degree from Humboldt State University. Classes were through and I had temporarily left the North Coast to enjoy a short solo adventure in the California desert. When I returned to Arcata to receive my diploma I was shocked to find that Joe Bob and Eric had seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth.
Inquiry with mutual friends revealed that Joe Bob and Eric were living together in an apartment downtown. And with some effort I managed to find them. I was shocked to learn that Eric and Joe Bob had become a couple! This came as a huge surprise to me as I had no idea that Eric might be gay. Apparently he was and the two of them were now together with the intent of building a life with each other.
There was little time to become familiar with this new arrangement as my girlfriend Yumiko and I were busy preparing to move to Japan, where we were planning to live and work for a year or so.
I met with Joe Bob and Eric and wished them well before Yumiko and I left Humboldt county in the spring of 1990 on a journey which carried us several years in Japan, after which we returned to the United States to marry and settle in Santa Barbara, California. I largely lost touch with Joe Bob and Eric while in Japan, reestablishing our active relationship only after my return to the US.
In 1997 I visited Joe Bob and Eric at their home on the North Coast. They were doing great. Several years prior they had purchased a beautiful little house near the sea. The small place had become the seat of their life together and the object of their efforts to create a safe sanctuary from the trials of life which we all must face.
When I first visited their place I was overwhelmed with the sense that theirs was more of a home than simply a house; a distinction which illustrates well the love and human effort which they each poured without reserve into every square foot of their little parcel of Earth.
As Joe Bob was now retired, their home seemed forever enlivened with the smell of cooking and baking. While touring the place I was charmed by the sense that every room did seem to invite it’s human guests to stay and relax, to take a load off and to leave one’s worries at the door. Their home was nicely decorated and populated with charming furniture of their own making, which they had built together on weekends in their backyard workshop. The yard between the house and the workshop was an enchanting outdoor paradise. Flowers of every sort spouted along the periphery of a vegetable garden which itself was a masterpiece of effort in organic horticulture.
Joe Bob utilized all the skills he had learned growing up on a subsistence farm in North Carolina to carefully coax from every plant the full bounty of its potential. Seedlings received a good start in life in a homemade greenhouse which Joe Bob and Eric had assembled from discarded windows they had found and scraps of lumber they had collected from their furniture making projects. My friends welcomed me to their sanctuary as one returning home from a long arduous journey, and I immediately felt the weight of my cares lessen while in their company and within the shelter of their roof and garden walls.
During my visit to the home of Joe Bob and Eric, we passed one particularly memorable evening together as we shared dinner in their garden patio on a rare temperate evening. Large puffy clouds passed quickly overhead across a pale sky on their way inland from the sea as my friends and I enjoyed a gourmet meal which Joe Bob had labored that afternoon to prepared. We spoke of old times into the evening and I was impressed with their obvious close bond to each other, which was, in many ways, more profound and sincere than I had seen in any other couple I had known. Joe Bob and Eric told me that they “lived for each other”. At the time, this point was taken as mere conversation and I failed to appreciate the significance of the statement. I had no idea that those simple words would later serve as the pivot around which my life would change course.
At one point during our evening together I remarked at how happy and fulfilled Joe Bob and Eric seemed together. They agreed. Then Eric became suddenly serious. He sat up in his chair and looked me in the eye with Joe Bob close at his side, and I could tell that they required my full attention for what was to come; as though I was about to receive a standard disclaimer which they gave to all of the people important to them—I would later learn that this was precisely the case.
“Kurt,” Eric said, “you need to know that if ever one of us were to die, well… then we are both going to go.”
At the time I shrugged the statement off as mere conversation and replied, “Yeah, sure. I know how important you guys are to each other.” I didn’t think that they were lying or exaggerating, however the possibility of death simply seemed so remote and improbable at that place and time, in that incredible garden, with those special friends; with home-made blackberry pie waiting to be consumed and those lovely clouds speeding overhead on a current of warm sea-air, so damp and salty and tasting of life. “Yeah, sure. I understand…” I replied.
We went back to our festivities and I never gave the issue a second thought—never that is, until that day I learned Joe Bob was dying…
“Do you remember, Kurt?” Eric asked again across the phone line.
“Do you remember what Joe Bob and I told you would happen if either of us were to die?”
I was silent for a moment as the reality of Eric’s words worked their way into me.
“Yes Eric, I remember. But you can’t be serious” I protested. “You won’t really do it?”
“Yes I will.”
“It isn’t necessary.” I added. “You don’t have to do that!!”
I knew that it was pointless to argue the issue with Eric. If I knew anything about Eric Fong, it was that when he had made up his mind on something, it was nearly impossible to sway him from it. To do so required a bullet-proof argument and I had none. Besides, the issue at hand was beyond reason and logic and I did not know how to persuade at any other level. I quickly gave up, and the conversation drifted to details regarding the therapies they would try. From that moment forward my mind was stunned by the reality of what might soon happen…
Joe Bob’s death would come as a natural consequence of a full life, yet Eric intended to end his life by his own hand, and this simply as a matter of principal. The situation was more than I could handle and I withdrew from my friends. Whenever I spoke with them I was distant and unable to muster the support a friend would like to provide another in need. I found that I was always hovering apart from them due to my inability to cope with Eric’s decision and Joe Bob’s support of that same choice. I never regained my footing with either of them, and I’m afraid that I was useless to my friends in the last days of their lives.
After hanging up the phone that evening I went on with my day-to-day living with few thoughts of my dying friends. When I did think of them I usually became angry, principally with Eric, for I knew that I could not council him from his selfish choice. I felt guilty for not calling, and I could not understand the reason I did not want to talk to them. Finally I phoned, mostly though to alleviate my guilt. I again asked Eric to reconsider his choice. He told me that he had made up his mind and that there was really no reason to discuss it. I made a show of resigning myself to this fact, yet weakly persisted in my effort of conversion; suggesting that it would be okay for him to change his mind and that no one would think less of his resolve if he were to do so, even at the last moment.
Although largely numb to their crisis, I was nonetheless amazed at the incredible effort Joe Bob and Eric put into staying alive. Eric became the mastermind and driving force of this campaign; putting aside work, sleep and his own health in the interest of defeating Joe Bob’s cancer. My friends had never been very impressed with conventional wisdom, and they were simply not willing to accept the hammer-fall verdict of Western medical authority which stated that Joe Bob would die. To this end they began a no-holds-barred campaign of alternative healing efforts which included exotic treatments, medications, therapies as well as an assortment of efforts which bordered on the weird and absurd.
Strange packages began arriving at their door almost daily via express mail. These were ordered from all over the globe and included teas, herbs, therapeutic enema mixtures as well as foods thought to fight cancer. Each and every possible treatment was tried, and the few times I did speak with my friends during this period involved phone conversations punctuated with interruptions while Joe Bob had to take another handful of pills; or when his cancer killing tea from India was ready; or when it was time for Joe Bob to eat some new foodstuff or swallow a promising syrup of some sort. All of this activity was carefully researched and choreographed by Eric who had scoured the public library, health food stores and the Internet for any ideas which appeared to hold promise. When I asked Eric once on the phone how they were doing, he always responded matter-of-factly, “We’re trying to stay alive…”
The cancer was acting quickly and Joe Bob was fading fast. With nothing to lose and with life itself on the line, my friends were willing to try anything. In one of my last conversations with Joe Bob he told me that they had sent his photo along with $400.00 cash to an overseas healer whom they believed could perform some charm on the photo which might cure Joe Bob. I remember thinking this a foolish act and a waste of money. However, with no heirs to their meager estate and with nothing to lose, I began to realize that anything would be worth a try in the face of losing life itself.
Within a month of their learning about the cancer, Joe Bob and Eric were on an island in the Caribbean to try a treatment that they believed was promising. Eric’s research had revealed a small clinic in the Dominican Republic where, for $20,000, Joe Bob could participate in a cancer therapy that was unrecognized and unaccepted in the States. Things were bad then for Joe Bob and it appeared this effort might be his last chance. The operators of the clinic had told my friends that they were lucky to have been accepted at all under short notice, and my friends traveled to the Caribbean feeling fortunate for the opportunity and confidant that they would soon be returning home. They never came back…
Recognizing that my friends were possibly making their last stand against death was very difficult for me; as I felt genuine concern and pain over the suffering they were experiencing, while at the same time I could not overcome my intense frustration and anger over Eric’s plans.
Six weeks after I first learned of Joe Bob’s cancer, I spoke with them for the last time, and it seemed ironic that they spent more effort comforting me than I did for them. Joe Bob did his best to animate and bring life to his words when he told me that he was feeling better and that he believed he was on the mend. I mentioned that I would like to be with them to help them out, and he made it a point to tell me that the physical distance between us made no difference. Joe Bob explained that our spirits were, and always would be, close, and that after they were gone—if it came to that—then both he and Eric would always be near me, and I should never feel alone. My conversation with Eric was brief, as he had his nursing duties to fulfill; however he too reminded me that I was one within the special circle of their lives, that distance was nothing and that the three of us would always be close. Finally, in a very caring tone Eric asked that I not worry about them too much. He reminded me that both he and Joe Bob believed that they would be together after death, and he asked that I try to accept that although neither of them wanted to die, neither still did they want to live without each other. Eric explained that whatever the outcome—life or death—the result would be a willful effort. And he asked that instead of pitying their fate, I should rather simply hold their memory close and reflect that they had enjoyed a wonderful life together.
My friends had obviously sensed my difficulty in dealing with their situation and each made an effort—despite their own problems—to comfort and prepare me for what may come. Despite their patience though, after hanging up the phone I found that I was still angry and very hurt.
Two weeks after that last phone conversation with my friends, I received a call from a woman named Carolyn. I knew Carolyn through Joe Bob and I knew that she had been closely monitoring their fight with cancer and had been in almost daily contact with them during this period.
“Kurt, I have some bad news.” Carolyn’s voice was small and pained, and as soon as I knew it was Carolyn on the other end of the line I understood the message. I mildly braced myself for a bad story, as though I were watching a newscast involving strangers. “Joe Bob and Eric are gone…”
I took the news of my friends deaths with a large degree of feigned sadness. I found myself unable to grieve or to do a very good job of showing grief. I did not attend a memorial service held for them, and I never shed any tears over their deaths. This confused me and I felt that there must be something wrong with me that I had become so callus to such a terrible event. After much thought I finally concluded that this distance was due to my on-going anger over Eric’s choice to kill himself instead of dealing with Joe Bob’s death and getting on with life. Some pent-up emotions were spent ruminating upon and criticizing my friend’s decision. I took long, fast paced walks along the cliffs at a beach near my home and fumed over what had happened.
During this time I wondered at how Eric could voluntarily leave his family and friends…so many people who loved him! I thought of his mother and father whom I had met several times. They were good, caring people. How could Eric drive a stake through his own mother’s heart! I thought of Eric’s brothers and sister. Like myself, Eric had been the oldest, and I knew that his siblings had often looked to him as their strong and confident older brother. I knew that Eric had a special relationship with the youngest son, Ernest; I thought of my own younger brother and how he had once told me that he would be devastated if anything were to happen to me. I tried to imagine the suffering of Eric’s family, and I thought often of Ernest who had looked to his big brother for guidance and example; what kind of model had he proved in the end? And what about the rest of us who cared about Eric? Were we all at last so trivial that we could be tossed aside with life itself? Had our relationships always been so inconsequential to him? Didn’t the years of laughter, tears, and shared living amount to anything? I knew that this justified anger and the thoughts that released it were buffering me from any other considerations or feeling regarding their deaths. I didn’t consider Eric’s reasons—there would be time for that later—and instead covered my wound as best I could in order that the healer time might seal the breech. Suicide is a terrible thing, and I fear that I may never be able to fully mourn the passing of my dear friends for the shadow its aspect has thrown upon their memory. But I would eventually recover from the blow of their deaths, and with time I might even find some lessons in their choices.
Eric’s suicide made me angry and frustrated and deeply hurt—but it also scared me. Life had been difficult for me during the years leading up to the death of my friends, and watching a strong and confident friend like Eric make a conscience choice to die, rather than face life’s pain, sent a shock of fear through me. I wondered at how someone might be brought to such a brink, and I couldn’t help but wonder how far I might be from this same precipice? I had always believed Eric to be stronger than myself, and if his life could come to such an end, then how much more vulnerable was I to giving up? In fact I was a very unhappy person during this time. And it occurred to me that I sometimes did allow myself to wonder what peace suicide might bring. These were sobering thoughts. And they served to startle me into action.
In fear of my own weakness and vulnerability to suicide I elected to change my ways. I determined that this change had to be conscious and immediate, and I remember giving the issue my foremost attention for several days. Something had to change…and I became desperate to find what it was and to make that change.
The problem seemed simple enough: for as long as I could remember I had not enjoyed life very much. And in the last few years my living had become miserable. The cause of my unhappiness seemed to involve a persistent sense of discontent. Very little in life seemed to satisfy me and I was bothered by a frustrating sense that my life had little meaning or worthwhile purpose. As a result, my character and lifestyle became dominated by a sense of restlessness and an impatience to get on with things. I was never satisfied with the condition of my life and found myself always rushing to get on to the next day, the next hour or even the next moment. All in a vain hope that what was to come would somehow be better than the present moment. This may seem a silly way to live, but I believe that it made sense to me during that significant period of my life, when the here-and-now could never quite measure up to what I expected of myself.
I had always felt that there was a yet undiscovered true purpose in my life which was always just around the corner waiting to be discovered. I remembered that as a child I would often imagine how my life would be so much better just as soon as I entered Junior High School. The same thought returned as I anticipated High School, then College and finally University. When at last my academic life came to an end and I took my diploma and headed out into the world, I imagined that finally my true living would start, and that I would at last know happiness and peace out there in the “real” world. However, things didn’t change after leaving school, and the pattern of anticipation and disappointment continued through four jobs, six apartments and homes across two countries. By the time Joe Bob and Eric died I was quite fed-up with my life and this cycle of anticipation and disappointment, and ready to do whatever it took to effect a positive change.
My first effort at finding peace was nothing more than a blatant attempt at self-gratification. A re-application of the old happiness formula which myself and many others in our society had been raised to believe was the key to joy and satisfaction. I really believed that if I could just figure out what I wanted to do and then do it then this would make me happy. This seemed sensible enough… After all, wasn’t happiness what everyone wanted? Furthermore, wasn’t it my right to live a happy life? Wasn’t happiness seemingly the aim and ambition of everyone I knew, as well as everyone on TV and in the movies? And was this group consensus not mandate enough that pleasure was an end in itself and therefore the great goal of living? I knew that I had tried this approach in the past, but I encouraged myself that perhaps I had not previously tried hard enough. To this end I dusted off some of the standard happiness routines that I had learned along the way in life.
One of my first efforts was to try the old “find yourself” endeavor which it seems all of us engage in at least once in our life. I searched and looked all about for some clues as to what I wanted out of life, but everything I found seemed hollow and flat. Even the things which had once thrilled offered little challenge or excitement. Next I embarked on a brief campaign of “do what makes you feel good.” This approach was easy to facilitate as I had lots of toys from previous attempts at self-gratification: my scuba gear was ready to take me below the sea, my collection of art equipment was good for another go at drawing and my ever trusty (and expensive) motorcycle was always ready for a ride in the mountains. The diving didn’t float my boat, the drawing seemed colorless and the motorcycle rides felt like a commute to work. What had happened?? In my youth these activities had at least thrilled me enough to cover up any emptiness in my life, but now they only underlined the fact that my living was without essence and seemed to prompt and promote the fact that I myself was devoid of purpose. What was I missing?
Though my initial efforts at finding peace did seem to fail, I resolved that I would not give up. Truth be told, I was too afraid to stop. Afraid of the consequences not addressing this problem may bring.
During this time I felt like a man all alone on a desert island with nowhere to go, nothing to do, no tools, no flare, and an empty horizon all about with no rescue ship in sight. My wife was there for me during this period, and she offered comfort and support and I’m sure that I would never have found my way off my island without her love and comfort keeping my safe during this difficult period. But in spite of her aid I was still alone, encapsulated in self-absorption, insulated from true feeling and incapable of accepting the real help and comfort of another human’s companionship and wisdom.
This was an important time for me, for it was always at this point in my efforts at self improvement that I had given up the fight. When my previous efforts towards self-improvement had brought me to the same point, and I was faced with the immensity of my own confusion and uncertainty, I had always found it easier to turn back. Always easier to return to the life I had known, which, though difficult and unfulfilling, was nonetheless easier to bear than pushing on through my fear, to face my own ignorance and frailty.
But this time things were different. The circumstances of my life and the event of Eric’s suicide had the effect of reinforcing my will. I was further prompted by the anger I felt over Eric’s suicide, and I resolved that I would press on into the unknown despite my fear. I would stare past the horizon and will myself to devise a way off my lonely island.
With my new resolve I began thinking thoughts which I had formerly denied myself; thick thoughts, rich with new perspective and criticism. These thoughts had sharp, dangerous edges which would cut if not handled carefully. Once I had these notions in hand I was thrilled by their danger, and I managed them carelessly, tossing these from hand to hand, inviting a nasty wound. I reflected that I was a fool and I passed judgment that my ignorance was overwhelming. I thought myself vain, and I sensed beyond question my own mortality. And when gazing upon my image in a mirror I saw not the special and clever person I had once thought myself, but instead I was humbled by the aspect of a frightened and needy man, weak and cowering before the immensity of it all, a vessel of flesh and bone, enlivened for some moments with a life-force I could not comprehend and which was quickly decaying towards death. These might seem dangerous thoughts to one lost and searching for help, but the effect these notions had on me was quite unexpected.
Instead of become overwhelmed with my hard-edged considerations, despairing of life and subsequently throwing myself from some bridge, I was instead invigorated and thrilled. At last the façade was gone, the man behind the curtain revealed, the great Oz of my own ego was destroyed and I could face myself on human terms. In the midst of this revelation I became conscious of an object moving in the distance across the water from the little island of my isolation… Ever so slowly I began to perceive a lone truth shimmering in the distance like a vessel passing far away on the horizon. And I knew that if I could recognize that passing truth then somehow it may see me, and perhaps I might find my opportunity off my island and a chance to discover lands I never knew existed, and to find the peace I so desperately longed for.
I felt that I was on the verge of a breakthrough. That all I had to do was recognize the truth which was passing on the horizon and it would come to me. So, strengthening my resolve I made an effort to take a full and honest measure of my life, that I might reflect on what had been real, and what had been illusion. I wanted to hold and scrutinize my living one more time in order to attempt to discern what was right and what was wrong. To tempt that distant truth towards me that I may know it and understand its purpose. The result of this effort was that I came to know something certain. The first absolute of my life, and the foundation cornerstone of my transformation. This revelation was that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of a purpose greater than ourselves.
The truth I found struck me hard. For it revealed the grand folly of my old ways. I came to see the fruitless nature of my past efforts at finding purpose and satisfaction. And I began to understand how the cyclical nature of my previous attempts towards happiness had left me exhausted and weak. Indeed I’d been running in futile circles for years, with little to show for the effort besides a worn out body and listless will.
With my old routine I would decide upon an activity or goal which appealed to me, endeavor to attain it, enjoy some pleasure along the way and perhaps then bask in the acclaim of some brief success, only to find the feeling fading and soon gone. I would then repeat the cycle with a new project or interest in a seemingly endless chain of self-gratifying endeavors that brought some pleasure, but rarely any lasting meaning or core sense of a life well lived. I had experienced this cycle so many times, but now I could see that seeking happiness for its own sake was a losing prospect, and I knew that instead I must now strive to do right by the world around me; to recognize and acknowledge the permanent truths of right and wrong which had always lay forged, like commandments in stone, deep within my heart, and to act on these and to no longer sway from the necessity of being the best person possible; and this, not for myself, but for the sake of good alone! This perceived truth did now stand foremost in my mind, and I gazed at it in awe and wonder, like an uncovered relic which has always been, yet only recently has been revealed. I now understood the truth which was to change my life. The ship had arrived at my island, but I was not yet prepared to set sail. In fact, it would take a further incident to press me to place my new understanding into action.
It may seem that the role of Joe Bob and Eric in this story is at an end—that I wanted it to be at an end— however this isn’t the case. Some months after they died, I found myself thinking of my dead friends. As usual, remembering their final days brought little grief and mostly anger. However, my mind began to calm as I recalled the last time I had seen them while visiting their home the previous summer. I remembered that wonderful evening when we had sat together in the backyard, talking freely and enjoying each other’s company while the clouds passed quickly overhead. I recalled our words, and the carefree laughter that ushered evening across the sky. I could see them in my mind: Joe Bob and Eric were seated across from me with a bountiful meal between us. I remembered that although there was plenty of room at the table, my friends seemed to sit very close to each other. They touched each other often, and I noted the gentle way they attended to each other’s needs and the genuine smile they always held for one another.
At the time of my dinner with my friends I wondered if they were so intimate in public and if people stared at them, and if I would be embarrassed to be with them in such a situation. We talked of so many things that evening, re-living the events of years past and re-examining and sometimes inventing anew, ideas which intrigued and delighted us. That place was so alive for me. And not just because of the verdant garden and fragrant flowers, nor still for Eric’s animated gestures and enthusiastic exclamations, or even for the peace so evident in Joe Bob’s every word and action. There was something genuine in the laughter of my friends which held a harmony I had never noticed before. Somehow the years together had melded some aspects of their individuality, and it was possible to see this at times in the fading light when their smiles would shine in sync for a moment, or when the silence returned briefly, only to be punctuated by some final giggles shared between them. I had not clearly noted the evidence of their close connection at the time, but in recalling our last evening of friendship in each other’s company I could see that there was something very significant between them. Finally, I remembered what they had told me about their relationship: Eric had said that they “lived for each other.” I had to stop and think about that—they “lived” for each other. How can that be? How can someone live for another? This idea was truly alien to me. I found it profound and confusing. However, I also saw it as a possible clue to understanding Eric’s decision to die with Joe Bob. Although I would never agree with that choice, I hoped that understanding it might allow me to at last grieve for them. Little did I know that in unraveling the puzzle of their relationship, I would inadvertently uncover more about life which would enhance my new understanding of the nature of peace and happiness and also reveal to me a new and more complete set of life options.
Reflecting further on what I knew of my friends I soon came to understand that the deep satisfaction and evergreen contentment which Joe Bob and Eric had known stemmed not from some personal sense of achievement, nor from any deed they were famous for or honor they had incurred in the eyes of others; instead, my friends had found their sanctuary in the service of one another. Eric had actually flatly told me this during our meal in the garden when he had said, “I am not here to write, I’m not here to make a better mousetrap or gain fortune or fame; I am here to take care of Joe Bob—” Again, at the time I heard these words as simply affectionate musings on their relationship, and failed to perceive the alien values they represented. Months after their death I began to see through my own ideas of the purpose of human relationships, and could perceive that a plateau far above the reach of any one individual was available to those who cooperated in their efforts of living. Joe Bob and Eric had long ago ascended to that noble height, and from their lofty summit they admired the world together, and worked to overcome nearly all problems which came their way.
My understanding of Joe Bob and Eric’s apparent purpose in life allowed me to finally overcome much of my anger at Eric’s choice to take his own life instead of remaining behind without his partner. I still do not agree with his decision, and will probably always consider it a weakness on his part that he failed to take on the challenge of carrying on through the full parcel of his natural life-span. However, my new understanding has allowed me to finally grieve a little for Joe Bob and Eric. I’ve accepted the pain of their passing, with an understanding that I may never overcome it completely. This is because with the death of each loved one a weighty, yet inconspicuous sorrow is added to our mind which lingers like a curious knickknack on the shelf; most of the time gathering dust, but periodically catching our attention that we may reminisce on its acquisition. In this way the dead are never forgotten by those who loved them, and this is a good thing, and a painful thing.
Solving the puzzle of Eric’s choice allowed me to let both he and Joe Bob go. However, it also proved a profound shock to my ideas regarding life’s big picture. I had previously thought that I was here to be happy. I had always strove to please myself and this aim was rarely sacrificed to any other interest. The result had been decades of shallow living, with little to show for it but a collection of expensive toys, and a handful of semi-fulfilling personal endeavors. Now it seemed to me that there was another way; one which required a new and much different hierarchy of values. Although I sensed it, I still couldn’t quite see it. All of the pieces were there before me, yet I was blind as I could not completely see past my old ways. The next step required a moment of clarity. And it will remain one of the great ironies of my life that that moment came with a little help from the life I was seeking to leave behind.
The thought struck me suddenly and with little mental provocation. It was now five months since the death of Joe Bob and Eric. I was riding my very expensive and flashy motorcycle far from home on an extended adventure with my brother and a stranger we had met on the road earlier that same day. After nearly 8 hours in the saddle, my mind was tuned to the steady drone of the big 1100-cc motor beneath me, and I instinctively piloted the large bike along the sweeping two-lane highway stabbing west through Wyoming towards the magnificent Grand Teton Mountains. My two companions could be seen in the rear-view mirror tracing my turns up and over rolling hills and along valleys ripe with green life.
After almost a week on the road the riding required little of my attention. My muscles and nervous system conspiring to keep the bike and I on course through mile upon mile of empty countryside. I was free to quiet my mind and simply soak up the world around me. With no radio to distract or companion with whom to converse, I often found myself enveloped in a wash of semi-thought. Emotions would ebb and flow across my mind, often triggered by the changing landscape and coursing daylight and starlight of hours and days. In this state I did not require words to maintain a dialogue with myself. My mind knew from whence my emotions arose, and the icons of language were unnecessary to make them known to me. It was several months since I came to understand my purpose in living; and although I was not yet acting on my new certainty, my spare thoughts were always ready to take up this new truth in order to touch and hold it, receiving comfort in its heft, warmth and solidness. The road unfolded far ahead and my mind was quiet and still and at peace. I am not sure of the antecedent mental event which led up to the moment, however I clearly recall the words rising slowly within sight of my mind’s eye; and as the wind whistled through my helmet I did then gaze at the words hovering in the foreground of my thoughts, and I then recall making these words real by mouthing them through cracked, wind-dried lips—“We are here for others.”
As if a huge bell had been struck within my head, the words of my revelation rung and reverberated with a pure echo which I can still hear as I type these words. A wash of excitement and adrenaline flowed through my body with the voicing of these words from my mind, past my lips and into the stale air of my helmet. By speaking the words, the idea they represented had gone from being a mere mental fancy to an actuality and a reality which I was now ready to accommodate. I knew without question that I had crossed an important threshold in my life, and that nothing would ever be the same. Filled with calm excitement, I let the bike take me the remaining few hours to our planned campsite at the foot of the mountains.
As we approached the end of our days journey, the incredible sight of the Grand Teton mountains emerged into view as we passed from a freezing rainstorm that had smothered our westward approach. I had witnessed the Grand Tetons several times before, and their aspect is nothing short of stunning; however, as the bikes rolled from the cold storm into the soft light of evening, and the mountain peaks became brilliant with sunlight while the glow of sunset reddened the sky beyond, I did curiously find this magnificence a mere distraction to the revelation within my mind.
I said nothing of my thoughts to my companions at the campsite that evening. I was not yet ready to talk to anyone about what had happened, as I knew that I did not yet have the words I would need to describe my change to others. I also understood that my first task was not words, but action, and my new ambition must be to begin living out my belief that we are here for others. My new mandate required that I now attempt to make right the wrongs I had done and to try and alleviate the pain I had caused others. And these thoughts promoted further thoughts of the people who cared about me: my brother, my mother, my friends and most of all my wife. I though of my home—and with these thoughts came an emotion which I had before only rarely felt in my life, and which now caused some pain, and longing and joy! The feeling was loneliness—and it was the best feeling I had ever known!
From that day forward I found it difficult to enjoy our motorcycle trip, for I missed my wife and our home. Yumiko and I had been together for almost 12 years, and I’m afraid that until that ride across Wyoming I had frequently taken her companionship and love for granted. Now I missed her dearly, and I wanted to tell her that I loved and missed her. This I had always done daily by phone on such trips; however now there would be a sincerity and pain of longing in my voice, which heretofore had been in some degree lacking. I wanted to be with her and begin the effort of companionship and living which suddenly seemed so obviously necessary if one were to truly live. I had not simply spoken words of speculation when I said, we are here for others. But instead I was making a statement of newly discovered truth, the certainty of which was not under consideration. This fact shifted my senses. My eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands were now in contact with another reality; and this strange world pressed me with the knowledge that I had more than amply indulged my own interests during 34 years of living. Solo travels, thoughts on my own life and happiness as well as decades of self-serving effort had more than sated me with myself, and I was ready to turn my energies toward others. The principal other in my life was, of course, my wonderful wife. Fortunately the path of our motorcycle journey was then homeward bound, and my desire to be with Yumiko would soon be realized. I called home each day and was so very happy when Yumiko would tell me that she missed me and was eager for my return. She didn’t know it at the time, but the man who had left our home many days before was not the same man returning to her side as fast as his motorcycle could safely take him.
When I returned home I was changed. I was ready to live a different life. I resolved to place the interests of those I loved above my own and to do right by them at the expense of my own wants and desires. The test of self-interest had failed, and I was ready to chuck that old way and live now as an effective part of a larger, and more important unit. My family and my community now came first. What energy remained at the end of each day I would allow myself, but I wondered at what wants I might possibly have once I became a better husband and citizen—a better man.
The results were immediate! After I returned from my trip my wife and I both noticed that I was much calmer. I no longer felt lost or depressed. I had no more fits of moody gloom which had previously made my family nervous around me, and which had served to drive away many friends. I was a different person. I had a new sense of priority which seemed to fit me well. I had previously looked towards my own wants with the aim of engaging these towards peace; believing that my demons were to be overcome by finding “my own” happiness. I had no idea that we are rarely centered when gazing in the mirror, but instead the prize is better found when we look into the faces of those we love.
I’ll confess that I was a little wary at first. Part of me kept waiting for the feeling of peace to fade. The problems I had previously known had appeared so significant and had seemed so utterly beyond my control. How could this one change overcome these? How could it last? With time these doubts began to fade. The old issues seemed obsolete and impotent when measured against my new priorities. I felt like I had tossed most of my old problems (indeed much of my old self) to the side of the road out there in the open spaces of Wyoming, and with each day these were receding further from view. I wasn’t the same person any more. I understood that there was no miracle to my change, no special enlightenment or magic involved, I had simply matured—I had finally grown up—and the shadows and noises which had frightened me as a child were no longer to be feared.
I no longer cherish myself as the center of my own life. I am now foremost a member of my family and community, and in that company I yield my own desires to the common good. This effort is an end in itself, and I expect nothing in return save my place among humanities multitudes and an opportunity to leave the world a better place for my being here. And this has made all the difference.
December 12th, 1999