The Man Who Didn't Introduce Himself
In between a conference, I step out of the hall for a restroom break. On the way out, I see a mildly hefty man in his 40s sitting on the couch, staring blankly through the window pane. Crumpled Kleenex peered through his close fisted palm.
Something seemed off, so I go up to him and say hello. He looked familiar, and it turned out that we had sat together in a circle once or twice before. "Is everything okay?" "No, not really." "Is it the folks at registration?" "No, they're fine. They asked for my name, but I just don't feel like introducing myself today. I don't know why." Behind him, his blazer lay bare on the leather couch. "I have 3 conference invites today, but instead, I'm here at this fourth one. I don't know, something is wrong. My life is too scattered. I don't know what I'm doing," he says while holding back his tears. He presses the Kleenex on his eyes, and in a futile attempt to hide his sorrow, he clarifies, "Sorry, I have a bit of cold."
It turns out that this man had two PhD's, was a practicing doctor, and had an established family. Yet, a deep angst had arisen in him. Typically, he would resort to alcohol, but it wasn't working anymore. Providing his name for his conference ended up being the tipping point of his unsettled frustration. "I'm not making anyone happy. I'm just a burden in this world," he softly mumbles while confessing some suicidal thoughts.
I didn't know whether I should probe further or not. Ignoring my duties at the conference, I invite him to have lunch with me. He joins but doesn't take any food. To be honest, I am not quite sure how to handle the situation, but I know I have to hold space. Sincerity, I figure, is my best bet.
After settling in, I offer him the best solution in my treasure chest: "Have you tried doing an act of kindness for others? Sometimes wishing well for others can help relieve our own suffering." In a self-critical way, he responds, "Whenever I see others happy, I don't get happy for them. I actually get jealous." "What's there to get jealous of? Isn't everyone suffering in their own ways? Aren't we all ultimately in the same boat?" I inquired. "I sort of understand that, but I'm just kind of guy who wants to be on the top. Be the closing keynote speaker, be the star, be somebody," he says, while sharing how he is in the 0.0001% of society and still dis-satisfied. Since I am the closing keynote at this particular conference, I carry forth with that example: "You know, I was thinking about Mandela recently. Do you think he cared to be at the top, be somebody, to be the keynote speaker? If he did, he wouldn't be Mandela. In fact, people used to fall asleep when he spoke. Yet, we remember him now and will for a long time -- not because he was somebody, but because he changed himself in a very deep way, in the direction of being a nobody. "
Our dialogue resonates, so we continue on. "Most people look at their suffering and want to suppress it or express it, but in between lies the art of observation. If we observe it, the state of mind that holds the suffering passes away. No state lasts forever."
Getting in touch with impermanence is an oddly empowering mindset and it seems to inspire this fellow -- whose name I still didn't know.
"Your pain, right now, is a great gift. If you just had micro moments of dis-satisfaction, you might use your blessings to cover it up and you may never discover the ticking volcanoes lurking within you. Today, though, you can't gloss over this. That's a huge blessing. I would never wish that you let this moment pass without cashing in on the jewels," I say while responding to his broadening sense of quiet. (He later told me that he is signing up for a meditation retreat.)
As we chat, he feels a mental distance from his anguish. His tears had stopped and his thinking veers in the direction of service. "You know, I want to help others but I don't know how. There is a fantastic organization that helps the homeless, and they can really use doctors like me, but they have a big religious baggage so I get turned off a little bit. Do you think I should still help them?" That triggers a beautiful conversation around service, its impact on us and the world around us. "The ego feels a natural satisfaction with external impact, but that is short lived. Instead, if service is used to purify our minds, it changes the doers -- a ripple that keeps on rippling. Not only that, we then never need to go looking for service opportunities. Life presents those doors in every moment. We just have to develop the eyes to see them and the courage to walk in," I say.
Our connection, in this very moment, is itself perfectly emblematic of life's mysterious ways.
We start exploring. "What's right in front of you right now, where we can practice generosity?" At this very conference, six years ago, I had presented on a small panel. I saw a sincere woman shyly mention her book. Something about it touched me deeply. She had traveled a long distance to the conference, and her books were on sale at the book counter. When I accidentally discovered that no one had bought a copy, I just felt moved to buy all her books, anonymously. As my order was being processed, a man walked up right next to me. "Please, Sir, let me pay for your order. It's my act of kindness for today." "No, no, not this one." "Oh no, this one. Who knows, I may never get another chance!" "But ..." "No buts. I am doing this." Many failed protests later, he snatched the invoice -- only to realize it was somewhat large. I finally explained and he was doubly elated to foot the bill!
Every moment holds that potential. As Rabbi Hillel is quoted, "If not now, when? If not here, where?"
After some brainstorming, he decides to take up the challenge to do an acts of kindness. Today. First, he thinks of others. "You know, I can be way kinder to my patients." Then, he starts thinking of loved ones. Then, his wife. "I have so many issues, I create so many problems. Just last night, I blew up again. Senseless. But my wife, she's angel," he says while breaking down again. "I've never done anything for her. I have never thanked her. I don't even need to think of anything special, because the very fact that I do something ... will be special." He decides to write her a heartfelt letter, with some flowers and chocolate, right after our conversation.
The ambiance between us now held a strong vibration of possibility. He stood up, looked up at the sky, and flung both his hands up in the air as if he had passed a test. Then, in a vintage 21st century moment, he looks to me and says, "Can we take a selfie?" I crack up, so he explains: "Whenever I get down, I want to remember this moment."
I felt equally touched, to have an opportunity to create a genuine bond -- with a man whose name I never did ask.