Everything Life Has Absolutely,
Positively Taught Me, Sort Of
by Lionel Fisher
"I don’t learn quick, but I learn good," a friend less eloquent than wise once told me. Like him, it’s taken me a lifetime to get a few things straight in my head. But the lessons have stuck because they were learned the hard way, through painful repetition until the light
bulb finally stayed on. And like my friend, I’ve come to believe that the wisdom of the old is truer than the wisdom of the young. Theirs, you see, relies on foresight; ours on hindsight, which is consistently more reliable. If I had to make the journey all over again, I’d
base my critical decisions on experience rather than prescience. I think I’d get a lot more things right much sooner.
anything else I’ve learned it’s that we all have to find our own answers, our own truths, our own happiness, our own redemption by ourselves, each in our own way. Because your life, your truths, your answers are yours, and mine are mine, and that should be copasetic for all
concerned. Not that this stops anyone (and some nations) from trying to impose their notions of morality, religion, politics and government on everyone else on the basis that what’s good for me is good for you, too, even if you don’t happen to think so.
Also, the way we look at things has a confusing habit of changing. Life is a slow turning, as Willie Nelson sings, from the inside out, then back again, and our views of the world tend to reflect where we happen to be in the spectrum of our lives at the
time. So the only thing I’m sure of this moment is that I’m not sure of anything. But since you asked what life has taught me, not what it hasn’t, I’ll tell you what I’m kind of absolutely, positively sure of, at least right now.
Living like a Dog: Not a Bad Thing
God must have been multitasking at the time. Or maybe Mrs. G called him to supper just as he was about to endow us with our distinguishing qualities, jarring his concentration at the defining moment of creation on the critical sixth day. Whatever the
reason, I think dogs wound up with the characteristics and traits God had intended for us (Lord only knows whose qualities we got), which explains why dogs are everything people try to be, why they excel at life and we mess up so badly, so often.
Dogs, for one thing, are able to live fully in the moment. It’s their prevailing reality, their singular truth. It’s why they forgive so easily – us, themselves, other dogs, whatever life hands them – and why they can let go and move on so quickly. While
we stay mired in our guilt, regrets and self-recrimination, shuttling endlessly between our failed choices of the past and our dreams of the future, squandering the only real moments of life we have – right now – not for living but to dwell on what’s gone
forever or what may never be.
I find myself watching my Border collie, Halley, on our long walks on the beach, marveling at her preoccupation with the present, her fascination with whatever the moment brings. It’s her gift to me given endlessly, a constant reminder to stay squarely in
the now, for nothing else is life, everything else its usurper. By following her lead, I tell myself, I will multiply my remaining time by dog years.
Luckily, God regained his focus in time to bestow on us our larger brains and power of reasoning along with the opposable thumbs that have made us the dominant species of our planet. Dogs can’t tie shoelaces, sharpen pencils, blow up balloons (or other
dogs), cut their food with a knife and fork or perform any of the myriad tasks that monkeys, apes and humans readily achieve with our proprietary thumbs. Alas, however, dogs, received the abundance of heart, generosity of spirit and infinite capacity for love, compassion and
joy that would have been ours had God stayed in the moment on that fateful sixth day of creation.
Love Is Where You Find It
Right now you’re either murmuring Yes! Yes! Yes! or making that circular motion with a forefinger in the vicinity of your temple. For there are dog-lovers and there are cat-lovers and there are those who consider the first two groups to be people
who desperately need to get back on their medications.
In her delightful book, Pack of Two: the Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, Caroline Knapp warns against revealing the depth of our feelings about canine companions. Do so, she cautions, and you stand accused of ascribing human attributes to a
pet, which is naïve. Of substituting animal love for human love, which is perverse. Of sublimating the desire for a human partner into the adoration of a pooch, which is pathetic. Worst of all, you risk hearing those most condescending of non-pet-owner words: Oh, please,
it’s just a dog.
Well, yeah, it’s because they’re dogs, because they’re what we can’t be, hard as we try, that we envy and cherish their virtues. It’s why we idealize and extol their unfailing loyalty, patience, courage, nobility, selflessness and devotion, so
exemplary in them, so elusive in ourselves.
Oh, oh, there goes that finger again.
And yet, in a world in which the only certainty is change (if you count death as the biggest change of all), for many of us, a dog’s constancy is the single exception to the steadfast reality of impermanence. Halley is the only thing in life that still
makes complete sense to me.
Let’s see, what else am I absolutely, positively sure of for the moment?
On Forcing Horses to Drink and Train Wrecks
In a recent phone conversation with a friend, I was asked, “What is co-dependency anyway?” To my surprise, despite a lifelong struggle with this “psychological condition dependent on the needs of or control by another,” in the words of
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I was hard put to come up with a simple answer, maybe because it’s far from a simple subject, particularly to co-dependents But thinking about it later, a couple of analogies came to mind.
Paraphrasing a mildewed maxim, leading a horse to water is kindness; forcing it to drink is cruelty. Or consider two trains heading toward each other on the same track. There’s no problem if they meet halfway. If one, however, insists on going more than
halfway, a predictable crash occurs. Either one is co-dependent enabling, as I see it. The horse dies or the inevitable collision happens -- again and again to the point of resentment, frustration and emotional carnage wreaked on both parties. In short, co-dependency is the
obsessive, compulsive taking care of someone for his own good, even if it kills him.
Recovering co-dependents become acutely aware of the wisdom of meeting someone halfway and no further, of not taking care of others beyond the point of taking care of themselves. The best thing you can say to them, regardless of how you feel about what
they’ve done for you and why is “Thank you!” Period! Roger! Over and out! Gratitude, simply expressed with no caveats attached, acknowledges a deed well done. Anything else turns the act from a kindness into a compulsion. So swallow the old, familiar refrains: “You didn’t
really have to do that!“ “Who asked you anyway?” “What business was it of yours?” Just say “Thank you!” and then put a sock in it.
Asking a question when it’s warranted is also an act of compassion and grace. Giving people permission to talk when they desperately have something to say is an enormous kindness, because you’ve been perceptive or caring or compassionate enough to
perceive and acknowledge the urgent need. A cursory question such as, “Is there something bothering you?” or “Did you really mean to say that?” or “Why did you do it?” is enough to burst open the flood gates when pressure has reached Katrina level, which co-dependents
are usually at. Not asking a question because you’re afraid you’ll get an answer forces the co-dependent to tell you anyway because he or she can’t help it. And your silence is selfish and mean-spirited, regardless of what you may think of yourself. If you don’t agree,
ask a co-dependent. As you were – that would be a question, wouldn’t it?
There Is Something You Can Take with You, but what?
I heard an observation on the news the other night, although I’ve forgotten who said it or the context in which it was offered: “At the end of the day, the only thing you have is your integrity.” I remember nodding and thinking, “At the end of your life,
it’s all that really matters.” It’s comforting to believe that integrity is the only thing we’re able to take with us when we go.
If, however, contrary to popular opinion, we really get to take our money instead, justifying our lifelong single-minded pursuit of it – if our passport to Heaven doesn’t turn out to be a life of integrity but the cost of a pricey lot in pearly gated
community in the sky – then I’m in serious trouble. I’m thinking now of John D. Rockefeller's remark. “I believe that the power to make money is a gift from God.” And other people’s conjecture that God must be greedy himself, otherwise why did he create so many greedy people?
But then he must be inordinately fond of spiders and bugs too, having created a surplus of them as well. I wish the Almighty would whisper in Pat Robertson’s privileged ear exactly what form of influence-peddling currency we need to have in hand at Heaven’s gate so he can
appear on the Today show and clue us all in. I’d feel a lot better, even though as Thomas Szasz noted, “If you talk to God, you’re praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”
Until I hear from Robertson, I guess I’ll follow H. L. Mencken’s advice: “Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable,” I figure I’ll be OK as long as I keep in mind life was meant to be unfathomable, it’s
aftermath unknowable, otherwise they wouldn’t call the trust in our eventual deliverance from it faith. Until Pat lets me know, then, I’m resolved not to take the human comedy, or myself, too seriously. Those who do are the ones who go crazy and engage in wars
and nation building and insider trading.
Only the Fearful Are Brave
For most of my life, I believed courage was the absence of fear. Now I know courage has nothing to do with not being afraid. It’s doing what you have to do despite being scared out of our wits. So be afraid, be very afraid, but do what has to be done.
That’s courage. (Why do I think of Bert Lahr in a lion’s suit whenever I say that?)
Speaking of fear, when I was young the prospect of dying terrified me more than anything else I could imagine, but a funny thing happened on my way to old age. Death dropped to third or fourth on my list of the scariest things in life, superseded by
torture, loss of my solitude, doing hard time in a federal penitentiary, and becoming the boy toy of the prison’s Aryan Nation Weightlifting Club, or the medical equivalent of a daily colonoscopy without sedation. Young wisdom says nothing is more precious than life. Old
wisdom says there are worse things than death. Somehow, that acknowledgment is comforting to me.
In my halcyon years, I assuaged my fear of dying the old-fashioned way, by staying resolutely in denial about it, like any sensible person. The trouble with denying death, however, is that it only works for the young. Well, maybe boomers too. But once you
qualify for the geezer rate at the local cinemaplex and start glimpsing that pale rider closing the gap behind you, about all you can do is keep a six-pack chilled for the occasion. That and throwing out those photos and negatives from your transvestite years so your kids
won’t find them when you’re gone. Then again, as William Mizener claims, “Those who welcome death have only tried it from the ears up,” If it’s any consolation, I’ll probably find out before you do.
Oh, well, it’s good to take periodic stock of the lessons we learn, even if we promptly forget them and keep making the same dumb mistakes. God will forgive us. That’s his job.
© Copyright 2006 Lionel Fisher.
All Rights Reserved.
Lionel Fisher is a former journalist, columnist, corporate communicator and advertising creative director who lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Chicago,
Miami and Portland, Oregon, before becoming a beach hermit on Southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. He is the author of “Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude” (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001), "On Your Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and
Successfully from Home" (Prentice Hall, 1995) and "The Craft of Corporate Journalism" (Nelson-Hall, 1992). In addition, Fisher writes several self-syndicated humor/lifestyle columns, including one on the art of being alone. Reach him at
Fisher’s last book is about living well enough alone, even magnificently, instead of seeking our happiness,
our fulfillment, our very identity in others when we first must find it in ourselves. Fisher’s reflections on solitude came into sharp focus on the remote Pacific Northwest beach to which he moved eight years ago where he kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts,
feelings and emotions during this climactic period of willful isolation.
In "Celebrating Time Alone" he interweaves his own insights and experiences with the stories of the "new hermits" he interviewed across the country: men and women who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions,
achieving great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their urban counterparts who, through necessity or choice, prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings.
The book’s central premise is timeless and simple, notes Fisher: "There are gifts we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we must achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to be alone, to want to be alone, even
to be lonely at times because the rewards of solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us in quest of our own undiscovered selves."
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