The Dalai Lama appeared in Fayetteville last Wednesday afternoon before a crowd of 10,000 people. Around the same time, I was in Little Rock, flinging my cell phone across the room.
This is a story about our wishes and what happens to them when we come into contact with the world. Every story that's ever been told is about that. Expectations thwarted. Obstacles arising. Dreams shattered.
Things happen. Simple things. The cat crawls on you all night and you can't sleep. The baby's teething. Your dog throws up in the hall. At breakfast, you jam your finger. Burn your hand. Hit your head on the cabinet. You back into the neighbor's car pulling out of the driveway. It's just a crack in the plastic of the bumper, but you'll get the call later in the day that it costs $1,100 to replace. You get to work and your hands are full and your key won't open in the door. The umbrella is half-folded at your side, funneling the rain down your pants leg. At your desk, you get blamed for someone else's mistake. You forgot your lunch. There's been an overdraft on your account. You get home and someone threw trash in your yard. You go to pick it up and step in dog shit. As you're looking at your shoe and hopping up onto the steps one-footed so as not to make things worse, you step in shit with your other shoe. Totally different pile. Maybe a totally different dog. ... Yeah, definitely. Bigger dog.
If I had listened to the Lama last week, maybe I could've spared myself such a ridiculous outburst. At the very least, I wouldn't have to buy a new phone. But while I believe in peace and equanimity — I would love to be the composed monk at the top of the pendulum simply observing the emotions and struggles of others rather than the beleaguered dullard at the bottom of the pendulum being flung around by the slings and arrows of life — I would like to make a brief benediction to anger, or at least to what it reveals.
Maturity is learning to accept the world on its own terms, and tranquility and self-possession are admirable, but there's something to be said for engagement. After all, most of us would take an afternoon with an engaged 4-year-old over a level-headed 40-year-old any day. Because of their curiosity. Because of their appetites. Children are fascinating because they're fascinated, and we love them because they live intensely and that intensity is nothing if not proof of their love of life.
In other words, no one ever threw a tantrum who didn't care, and having expectations and hopes is a sign that life is worth living. After all, what is anger if not some tongue-tied attempt at justice? What is depression if not a desire to desire something? Anything at all?
My phone should always work. My 3-year-old should never hurl gallons of water out of the bathtub while I'm retrieving her pajamas. My car windows should roll up and down with ease through the life of the car. I should always get the meal I order and traffic accidents should never make me late. Oh, and I should never struggle for security, I should always be loved unconditionally, and the people I care about most should never die before their time.
One of the great contradictions of existence is that, despite our general continuity and contentment, there are unannounced catastrophes strong enough to blow some of us off course and destroy others of us, seemingly whimsically. Expecting to avoid these calamities, or living as if they don't exist, is as ridiculous as me yelling at the crack in the sidewalk that tripped me up. You laugh at me when I do this, and rightfully so, because I'm refusing to accept what the world is really like.
Take another day. You wake up. You get your chores done, errands run. The grass is cut. The days are long. You make a big, slow brunch for friends. You drink strong coffee. You pick tomatoes off a vine you planted. You stretch on the porch. Read the paper. The sun warms you. You hear the rattle of the icy Bloody Mary being brought to you from the hands of the person you love. The guests are gone by 2 and you slip into clean sheets and get a two-hour nap.
That we get frustrated when life challenges us is a testament to the fact that life is generally pretty good. If we grow furious at a flat tire, it's because we assume we live in a world where tires don't go flat. Or at least not our tires. We believe that some such world exists. Another world. A higher world. In other words, anger is proof that we have ideals. That reliability and routine are the norm. That morality and justice, if not natural to the world, are natural to our characters and our desires.