We sat in the Walmart parking lot; I went with him to keep him calm.
He was laid off from work in February. He had dedicated his life to working on machines that assemble car parts and electronics. It looked like a promising field in the 80’s, but three of the four companies he’s worked for since then have shipped manufacturing overseas, and the fourth one is downsizing.
My dad’s 58 years old, with only two grand in his 401k. He had to use the rest of it to survive after his heart attack last year. He got an interview with a local job; it sounded great. But he had to pass a physical before he was hired. His BP was through the roof, so he had to go to his doctor and get it checked three days in a row. His doc prescribed some blood pressure and anti-anxiety medication.
As we sat in car, he was more animated than a 1960’s cartoon character. His leg was bouncing, his hands were always moving, his eyes darting here and there through the lot. I could almost see the raging current of thought spinning the gears in his head, like there was and old-time steam engine in there. That’s nothing new, he’s always been fidgety, and always preoccupied with the past and future.
“You need to practice being still,” I said. “I’ve never liked being still,” he replied.
My mind flew to a memory of us sitting out front one summer day. The birds were thrilled, celebrating their birdness. Cars flew past, flashing like lightsabers on a desert world. The grass tickled my ankles. We didn’t have a dog at the time, so you could walk around barefoot without having to watch for landmines.
“We need music,” he said.
“I think the birds have got it covered,” I offered back.
“No, I mean real music.”
It’s got to be frustrating having a Zennist in the family. I decided a long time ago to not go easy on my parents. They’re lost in pain, anger and suffering so I sometimes go full-blown Mr. Miyagi on them against their will.
“Why don’t you like silence?” I asked. “I don’t know… it just makes me uncomfortable,” he replied, his leg bouncing and his eyes scanning the horizon.
His doctor gave him some relaxation tips; I tossed in a few as well. I don’t expect him to take them seriously. My dad’s got a strong wall around him. I’ve spent years looking for a way through, but he’s done a fantastic job building psychological defenses. Only when he’s drunk do they start to come down. Then we can talk—then we can have an earnest conversation.
But anything uncovered when we’re high or drunk is state-dependent. Once we sober up, the walls go back up, and any tiny ounce of freedom we felt becomes blurry memory that’s easy to sweep aside.
My dad was brainwashed into having a provider mindset. “Work hard, take what’s yours, show no feelings, show no mercy.” He was raised to see the world in black and white and to not take risks. He’s extremely intelligent, but in an analytical way that usually ends up causing more harm than anything else. Like most men brought up on the lie, he’s full of anger and bitterness.
This is how we respond to fear.
Unfortunately, for him to be happier and more at ease, he has to face that fear—the fear that’s present in most Western men: the fear of powerlessness, pointlessness and chaos. I think silence and stillness are great symbols for that powerlessness. It makes me think of the unknowing vastness of space. There’s nothing more emasculating than the universe.
For all the raging we do, all the running in circles and all the acquiring, the night sky tells us a different story about ourselves. A lot of us try our damnedest to keep that book closed. Each fidget or bobbing leg can be a sign of keeping it tightly shut. Because when we just sit and be still, it slowly becomes clear that there’s something inhuman about silence and stillness.
Many of us have a kind of existential agoraphobia—especially men. Women are often brought up with a whole different cornucopia of fears. I’ve been able to share more silences with women than men. In our culture, this sense of powerlessness that terrifies men is nothing new for women. We raise women to be powerless, to listen and submit. By the time a girl hits puberty, she’s already no stranger to inhumanity.
I’m not going to go into women’s fears much here, because I’m not qualified to do so. I invite other writers to share their stories on it. I’m bisexual (maybe pansexual) and a little more “feminine” than a lot of men, but I was still raised with a man’s particular variety of baggage and fears.
A lot of women do share a fear of powerlessness as well, but it’s a different kind of powerlessness that usually has to do with being unable to help others. That’s not because women have more of a biological drive to help (they don’t), it’s because we cast women as helpers in society. A man dominates, a woman accommodates. That’s the world we live in. Only someone very foolish would think that things have changed when it comes to that.
My mom lives her life trying to accommodate, trying to help and serve—mostly animals. What saps her life of meaning is when she’s faced with the brutalities of nature, and the self-destructive streak people tend to have. The things that worry my dad are nothing to my mom, and the things that worry my mom are incomprehensible to my dad. I’m worried for both of them, for their relationship.
For my mom, the problem with being still is that it takes her away from the people and animals she takes care of. She lives in the present, but she’s never a priority to herself. Whereas my dad fears selflessness, my mom fears selfishness.
Stillness whispers, “You’re no one,” to my dad, and it whispers, “You’re someone,” to my mom. Those insights are equally horrifying in their own way.
The point is that stillness should be… still. It doesn’t whisper, it doesn’t reveal anything, it’s not pregnant with some kind of demon spawn that threatens our sanity. It’s just… stillness. Anything else we see in it is us. That’s what makes it so terrifying. We’re not really afraid of being powerless, because we’re not powerless. Order and chaos are both just ideas.
We’re afraid of ourselves—afraid of the truth of ourselves. We’re afraid of freedom, because freedom is the ultimate open space. When we’re free, we’re responsible for every view we have, for all the ways that we respond to things, for all the ways we make others feel when they come into contact with us. When you’re free, you see how your actions affect others. People don’t generally have control over their reactions, we default to the lies we were told as children and use them to guide our responses.
So, yes, you are responsible for the way you make someone feel if they don’t know that they have the ability to choose.
This isn’t the kind of freedom most of us are looking for, but it’s the only kind that’s given freely. We’re free to marvel at the sound of rain on the windshield. We’re free to feel that fear of powerlessness and see it as something beautifully wild, like lightning in the night. We’re free to straddle our lives like dominant lovers, or switch positions and give in to the way things are with open hearts.
We’re free to be ourselves, and free to pretend to be anyone but ourselves. We’re always one choice away from Buddhahood, practice just gives us the strength and concentration to make that choice.
Stillness is our birthright, and in it we can sense the ancient drumbeats of our own natural wonder that mirrors the wonders of the world. Life is an intimate and surreal experience. We’re free to see it that way, or to look away from it and live in fear.
Anshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Dharma Noir.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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