I know someone who… as a young teenager, and in the way that only a teen can experience despair… desperately wanted to fit in. One night he did something for the amusement of those whom he hoped would soon be his peers. Gathering in one of their kitchens, he called a take-out place that delivered fried chicken dinners and in a bad imitation Italian he ordered a dozen chicken dinners to be delivered to his downstairs Italian landlord. The teens then sat on the front steps next-door to await the arrival of the entertainment. The van pulled up, out came three men carrying all of the dinners, the landlord came to the front door… and that’s when the shouting began. “I’ma never order!” “Well someone has to pay for them!” “I’ma not wanta!” “We don’t leave until you pay!” The teens on the next-door steps were practically wetting themselves from laughing. Thirty years later when the perpetrator spoke about this incident, it was not with pride; rather, as the years had passed he had become more and more ashamed of his willingness to cause someone else harm simply for his own entertainment.
It is not only teens for whom the drive to be like others can be so compelling. Advertising tries to sell us adults things within the context of relationships of belonging: “Be the first to own… be the first on your block to buy, etc”… all of which hints that the way to stand out from the crowd is by obtaining what the rest of them do not have. But are possessions really what make us unique? On my bulletin board a cartoon shows an immense group of identical-looking penguins standing around, with one of them asking, “Which one of us is me?” While the cartoon is funny, the question is profound: What makes me “me”?!
Part of what makes me “me” is the choices that I make, and the reasons why I make them. In order to come to understand ourselves many in my generation traipsed off to India, Japan, and other exotic places seeking a teacher who could impart the enlightenment for which we yearned. I was watching a film and one guy stated that he eventually found a Buddhist monk who became his teacher. Of that meeting the guy said, “After meeting him I cried for 2 hours because of meeting him, and yet I had no idea why this was so precious to me.”
This is the beginning of self-understanding: The realization that one does not understand oneself. Enlightenment is rarely a thunderbolt; more often than not it is a journey along which we gain subtle insights into ourselves. Over time, and with a dedicated perseverance, we can learn to foresee where what we want might lead us, and the possible harm that it might do to others.
What do you want? Why do you want it? And where will that wanting take you?