The Useless Monastic Life

November 26, 2003

Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico

…and so I lie there on my back, feeling that familiar and mildly uncomfortable, yet compelling sensation of being burned by the sun. Oh, it’s a “controlled burn”, though. I have applied the proper lotion: designed to amplify those rays which will force my skin to produce melanin, but keep out the rays which can overcome the melanin and burn my skin. I limit the time of my exposure. I avoid the time of day when the sun’s rays are at their MOST damaging. I only want to create a certain amount of damage. I am purposely throwing the largest organ I possess into a crisis, in order to obtain a desired result which can only be obtained through crisis. I am exposing myself to danger, because my body’s response to that danger results in something that I find valuable. A suntan.

I imagine people commenting on the color of my skin when I return home. Truthfully, it’s a little more than just imagining, but it does not cross into the realm of fantasizing, that’s for sure! Exactly what the difference is between Imagining and Fantasizing I don’t know – but if I admit to fantasizing about it – I immediately become someone who is more caught up in themselves than a loveable person should be. It’s someone I do not want to admit being. Someone whom I would not want to be around much. So for now – we’ll call it imagining.

You see, I believe that I appear more attractive when I have put my skin through this particular crisis. I look a little more rugged. More mysterious. My distinguished gray hairs stand out more. I look like someone who has stories to tell. Well, at least I feel more attractive, and experience has proven to me that the old adage, “if you feel attractive, you are attractive” is true.

…lying there burning my skin. I watch a steady stream of people parade before me; their skin having been much more deeply changed by the sun. In fact the color of their skin is not due to sun exposure over many years or even over a lifetime…but over MANY lifetimes. The sun darkened their ancestor’s skin many many years ago. They’re not like me. They are not fantasizing…I mean, imagining, what their skin will look like to their friends. They are not concerned with their image to any significant degree. I’m pretty sure a few of them are just hungry.

After a while, it occurs to me that they are all dressed the same. Light khaki pants, shorts or skirts and white shirts. Most wear hats. Some wear sandals, while others wear tennis shoes. I’m convinced that some bureaucracy, unknown to me, has mandated this uniform of sorts.  Someone, somewhere determined that allowing these beach vendors to wander past us in just “any old clothing” would be unsightly. It’s un-pleasant for those of us who lie there lotioned and motionless to be distracted by loud or unsightly garb. It would negatively impact our beach experience. In fact, the perceptive observer might sense a subtle kind of camouflage in the uniform. If one observes the flow of vendors shuffling by from a standing position, they clearly stand out against the backdrop of the blue-ish Pacific. But from the angle of a mostly supine position, through lotion smeared sunglasses – the vendor’s light khaki lower halves blend in perfectly with the light brown sand of the beach. Their white-clad upper halves almost disappear into the slightly overcast tropical sky.

How thoughtful. Now, with only a little effort, with a bit of concentration, like looking at a “Where’s Waldo” book in reverse – we can make them disappear from view. Disappear from consciousness. But they are still there, ready to be summoned back into our reality when we decide that the wares they carry upon their backs become of interest to us. We can then beckon them to step out of the backdrop into our world for a few moments.

What happens next is of profound interest. I watch through the cheap lenses of my one hundred pesos sunglasses (purchased from a well camouflaged vendor just the day before) as a fully lotioned, overweight, over-cooked and under-dressed comrade struggles to stand in order to meet with a vendor he has just beckoned out of the scenery and into our reality. He waddles gingerly through the hot sand and begins the ritual dickering over the price of a baseball cap. A baseball cap.

The dickering takes some time. I suspect that my comrade would have considered this much time spent on emergency heart surgery a waste, but I sense that the dickering is entertaining for him. The dickering is talked about in travel books. You hear other  lotioned beach-goers talk about dickering; strategies are discussed; final prices are compared. Dickering itself is a character in this play.

A final price for the hat is agreed upon in due time. It is a full twenty pesos less than the original asking price, and my comrade smiles broadly at having wrested those two bucks from the greedy clutches of the vendor. He swivels the hat into place on his head, and does the “ginger waddle” back to his sweaty place on the beach.

Something clicks inside me and it’s like my vision changes. Like a zoom lens had been added to my eyes. In a flash, I become aware of the significance of all that has been transpiring, and simultaneously aware of where I must look to confirm my conclusion: My newly found “zoom-vision” searches for an expression on the face of the vendor, and I catch a glimpse of something just before he disappears into the tableau of sand and sky, khaki and white…

What was it that his look told me? For a fleeting instant, as he hoisted his load back onto his shoulder, he glanced back at his departing customer and I saw the expression. Was it quiet hostility? The expression Lavar Burton showed his captors when he played Kunta Kinte in “ROOTS”?  Was it disdain? The expression my wife gives me when I do a “stupid man-thing”? Was it contempt? A slight furrowing of the brow, a miniscule rise in the upper lip, a glimpse of teeth? Was it perplexity, confusion, envy, pity? I needed to know what he thought of my comrade in that moment. I needed to know because I realized that it’s what he thought of me. That’s what all of “them” thought of all of “us”. I needed to know.

With my zoom lens still in place, I scan my surroundings and find that in that instant my perception of EVERYTHING had been changed. The sound of my comrade’s voices became shrill and annoying. The topic of conversation rang with profanity in my ears…it suddenly felt like I was listening to one of those “shock” comedians, whose every other word is “fuck”. I began to cringe. The smells had changed too. I suddenly became aware of the hint of refuse sneaking in under the on-shore breeze. There was a hint of sewage as well. The vendors could be camouflaged from sight, but the wind is less agreeable to concealing the truth that it carries.

I now began to see the vendors bending beneath the weight of their loads just a little further. Their steps were just a bit more labored. I casually turned to look back at my beach comrades. They had unquestionably become, fatter, whiter, greasier, and louder since last I looked. Back to the vendors: angrier, wearier, more hostile. Beach buddies: greedy, decadent, self-involved, loathsome. Vendors: Enraged, plotting, vindictive.

I had to close my eyes as my mind began to spin.

I was lost in a sea of implications. The final implication was the most disturbing because it was the most personal: I am a part of all this – and not a noble part. The preceding implications are more complex, but foundational: This universe has been corrupted, and I can not get my hands on anyone to punish for it. Even if I could, I don’t have the means to punish. I don’t have the right to punish.

I’m reminded of a news special I watched on T.V. a couple of years ago. It was about the American health care system. The film makers chose to follow a Mayo Clinic doctor for a period of time, and study the system from that perspective…journalists call it a “point of view” piece, I think.

This particular doctor (we’ll call him “Our Hero”) was an oncologist. The “documentary” makers shot him as a hero: from low angles, making him appear to loom over the surrounding landscape of wheelchairs, tiled floors and hospital beds like some sort of benevolent, white-coated giant. The fluorescent lights of the hospital corridors glowed from behind his head, creating a hallo effect. Quite fetching. Saintly, really. George Clooney-esque.

We were “allowed” to see Our Hero in various candid settings; staff meetings, making rounds, gazing thoughtfully out a darkened hospital window in quiet repose, hair tussled, rugged three-day-growth of beard indicating a rakish and noble disregard for his own well-being.  All of these scenes were captured utilizing the shaky, un-centered camera work reserved only for REAL documentaries. Oh, and Dave Matthews videos. And perfume commercials too. But mostly REAL documentaries.

During the filming of the documentary, one of his patients was a 14 year old girl from Pittsburgh who suffered from ovarian cancer. Ironically – we don’t see her much. We didn’t get to talk with her like we talked to Our Hero. Frankly, one could tell pretty quickly that the camera didn’t love her the way it loved Our Hero. She was a bit mousy. A bit overweight. Her complexion looked about…14 years old. One got the idea that the film makers (we’ll call them “Our Producers”) realized that fighting ovarian cancer renders people less attractive, and people don’t accept truth from un-attractive people. We only saw her in sweeping, passing, swirling shots, only with her mother, and only/ever with Our Hero.

The viewers learned that the girl’s personal doctor had diagnosed the cancer early enough that Our Hero held out hope that he could simply remove the single, diseased ovary, without removing the other ovary, or her uterus, thereby leaving her reproductively “intact” and able to bear children one day. A noble hope indeed.

Being that this film is about the health care system, we viewers were told that the patient’s father was a police officer with the City of Pittsburgh. (He was a very overweight, non-descript-ethnic-looking man with a giant mustache and a bad come-over. We literally saw him for only seconds.) His occupation was significant, we were told, because his job earned him access to one of the better HMO’s available to residents of Pennsylvania. We were told by Our Producers that HMO’s were part of the system we were learning about in this REAL documentary. (I thought I heard scary music in the background when the HMO’s were first mentioned…but I’m not sure.)

As the early days of her stay in Baltimore passed, our 14 year old patient went untreated. Our Hero explained to the jostling camera (we were not told why it jostled…he was just standing there…talking) that he wanted to perform an MRI (fancy x-ray) on our patient, to determine EXACTLY where the cancer was located, and to verify that he could safely leave her with the as-yet un-affected ovary and uterus. (Seemed like good medicine to me. Way to go, Our Hero!) Our Producers went on to explain (while we watched more candid shots of Our Hero in action) that the delay in performing the MRI was due to the HMO. (That time I was POSITIVE I heard scary organ music). The HMO, it seemed, wanted to make it’s own decision on whether performing an MRI was worthwhile. HMO’s take time to make these kinds of decisions, I guess. HMO’s must be a little slow. I started to get the feeling from the expression on Our Hero’s face and his tone of voice (as well as the now-noticeable REAL documentary sound-track) that HMO’s are actually bad! Finally – someone to create purpose for Our Hero: “Our Enemy”…the HMO’s!

10 days went by before Our Enemy got word to Our Hero that they would not pay for an MRI. Now the epic battle begins! Our Hero finally suited up in his armor and fired the first volley at Our Enemy by bravely and with no regard for his own safety, demanding an MRI WITHOUT Our Enemy’s approval! (Gasp! This was where we viewers were compelled to cover our eyes and cringe in fear for what might happen to Our Hero).

The MRI results came in, and the nearly faceless 14 year old who played a bit role in this story would be losing both her ovaries and her uterus. During the 10 days it took for Our Hero and Our Enemy to wage their war, the cancer spread. She would not be having any children.

Immediately after this discovery, Our Producers met with Our Hero in  a stark and realistic setting: The doctors “locker room” at the hospital. (Looked just like the one in E.R.). Here, Our Hero gave a speech that went something like this:

“Ya’ know why this happened, don’t you? Do ya’ know why this little girl will not be able to have children when she grows up? Because we couldn’t get the MRI in time. Do ya’ know why we couldn’t get the MRI in time? Because some bean counter back at her father’s HMO has determined that if they pay for 20 MRI’s per month, they can stay profitable, but if they pay for 21, they lose profitability. She was the 21st this month…”

It did not occur to me until much later that Our Hero could have performed the MRI without HMO approval on day 2 or 6…but let’s not quibble, Our Hero was clearly upset.

He was very  mad at Our Enemy, because Our Enemy is a big greedy corporation that likes money more than babies – and that’s bad. Everyone knows that babies are better than money.

“YEAH!”, I found myself agreeing with Our Hero, “Damn bean counters! That’s the damn problem…damn, money-grubbing bean counters!” I was madly looking beneath my couch cushions for a sickle, a torch or a wooden club.

As I continued to listen to Our Hero’s speech something clicked in my mind. It’s like I suddenly startled myself into full consciousness just before I fell asleep. I shook off the spell of the siren’s song just before it drew me into the water. I awoke to the fairy tale nature of what Our Producers were telling us, and something didn’t line up. I remembered that while fairy tales are not necessarily un-true – they certainly do not tell the whole story.

As the program concluded, my expectation that the “whole story” would not be told was confirmed, and so I allowed myself the creative license to speculate, to imagine what the rest of the story might include.

I wondered if Our Hero had a retirement plan.

I guessed that he probably did.

I wondered if Our Hero’s retirement plan included any mutual funds.

I guessed that it probably did.

I wondered if any of those mutual funds included HMO’s.

I guessed that they probably did.

I wondered if Our Hero’s financial planner worked very hard to keep Our Hero as a client…tried to make as much money as possible for Our Hero…make our hero’s portfolio perform well.

I guessed that he probably did.

I wondered if, in order to keep Our Hero as a client, this financial planner regularly sold shares in one mutual fund and bought shares in a different fund that was earning a better return.

I guessed that he probably did.

I wondered if the legions of OTHER financial planners across the world, did the same for all their Heroic clients.

I guessed that they probably did.

I wondered if the fat, white, greasy, and loud board members of the HMO…knew that financial planers across the world were watching their company’s profitability very closely…buying and selling shares depending on tiny changes in profitability.

I guessed that they probably did.

And finally, I wondered if those fat, white, greasy, and loud board members hired bean counters and ordered them to establish certain profitable procedures to ensure that Our Hero’s financial planer would KEEP his shares, there by keeping his client, who would reap more profit, which would ensure that the boat he will buy at retirement will be a 52 footer, and not a crappy 48 footer like his brother-in-law’s, and all it would cost anybody was a couple of barley-used, 14 year-old ovaries and a nearly new uterus.

I lie there on the beach remembering. Re-making all the connections in my mind. Recognizing my place in all this. I have a mutual fund. I don’t know if it includes a profit grabbing insurance company, an ocean scouring seafood company, or a rain-forest- obliterating logging company. It probably includes all of them. I could feel the growing awareness of complicity in all this. Complicity simply because I exist.

“O.K. I’ll sell my mutual fund! But wait… I drive a car. I have a refrigerator with Freon in it, I live in fucking North America! I’m part of the Empire! I’ll just leave it all then. I’ll cut the soles from my shoes, sit in a tree and learn to play the flute. I’ll wear a heavy woolen tunic, shave my head, consume nothing, interfere in no way….I will become a monk.

I will expose myself to danger and hardship because my soul’s response to that danger will result in something that I find valuable. A clear conscience. I will be free of responsibility. I will surrender everything that could possibly implicate me, including a Holy God.  I will be self-contained.

But that can’t cure cancer. It can’t feed hungry people. So I might as well stay here on the beach. Might as well be comfortable. At least my capital gains taxes will fund a little cancer research.

My God…

I could not escape it. No amount of philosophical contortion could free me from the realization that there is cancer in the world…but I don’t have it. There is grinding poverty in the world…but I’m not hungry. I could dislocate every joint in my body in the struggle, but I could not escape the grip of my responsibility. Attempting to escape this truth would leave me bloodied, wrecked and panting, no closer to freedom than had I not struggled at all.

I think of my friend and his internal god. I picture his cancer-free children who “do not have the capacity for evil – only for benevolent curiosity and creativity”. His children are good because his children “naturally seek to align themselves with the universe.” I wonder at what age a child’s universe expands (beyond the 3-foot diameter bubble with himself at the center)  to envelop greed? When does a child’s universe expand like a wildfire crossing an un-known border to encounter a bloody nose at the end of a bully’s fist? What will happen, when on the heels of this shock, the child lifts his eyes to see the ballooning margin of his universe rushing away from him, and on the horizon, looming like one of Tolkien’s Two Towers… hate enters his universe? What then?

Like me, will he wish his universe could shrink back to it’s earlier size? Will he begin to squirm like this fat-man on the beach?

Not unless there is “another” outside his universe. “Another” who offers hope of escape.

I imagine my friend and his internal god being friends with Our Producers and their gods. I imagine them all nodding and discussing the “system” over a cup of Starbuck’s coffee. Coffee served up by a relatively well paid barista whose medical coverage will be limited by the profitability of her HMO, which is partially owned by Starbuck’s, which is kept in business by Our Producers, who sip, shake their heads, cluck like chickens, refuse to pray to a heroic god, and allow evil to wash over them with all it’s sticky warmth. Like honey, or cookie dough, it begins to stick to everything…you can’t function without it touching every part of your life – and it  leaves behind chunks of  sweet smelling disease. What Saddam Hussein has done is bad….sure, but it’s “balanced” by the injustice of a jingoist American empire that waged war upon Iraq…so the “acts” cancel each other out.

If nothing is truly bad, then nothing is truly good. Sweet, sticky slumber.

I think of my friend’s disdain for an external God – except of course for the ever-present, never reachable and always elusive “god beyond god”. The god which does not care for cancer or hunger. The god who IS, in fact, cancer and hunger. The god which must be decoded, the complex, non-person-god who cares not for rules, or morality, or ritual or cancerous ovaries. This god bestows on his followers the luxury of bearing responsibility for only themselves. He says, “Sure – use organic detergent, live simply, home-school your children, drive a hybrid car, make socially aware art…hey, use “Energy Smart” monitors for your web-business, reject group-think, veil your disdain for the “anthropomorphizers”…but don’t come crying to me about cancer. Don’t expect me to feed anybody. I’m too busy “being”. Besides, you don’t really want a “Daddy” do you?”

I’m stuck on this beach. Tears streaming from behind my sun-glasses, wishing I could un-know what I know, or if not, at least have the power to make it all better. Stuck between three rocks:

I could live a self-righteous, useless, monastic life,

or just embrace the bloated imperial life,

or become part of the careless, philosophical  in-between.

Perhaps my friend is right. Me, and all the cancer patients and the hungry people are simply un-enlightened. We don’t get it.  I hope the enlightened one’s will find it in their heart’s to share what they know with the rest of us. I hope their mutual funds do well enough to free up some of their time.

We’re dying out here.

One thought on “The Useless Monastic Life

  1. The burden of knowing. I can’t watch movies like Amastad because the one image of the screaming baby with it’s naked mother being thrown about the stinking hull of a slave ship made me cry every night for WEEKS. It is hard enough realizing the mess is ‘out there’ much less knowing it’s ‘in here’, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *