Wednesday, May 18, 2011

We can't control everything

"Is this yours?" one of my neighbors said, holding out a sopping wet wallet. It sagged limp in her hand like a dead, black bat.

"Ahh," I said, not knowing why my wallet would be in her hand and not in my pocket like it normally was. "Let me see." I took it and opened it, and sure enough there was my ID staring me blank in the face. How did this happen?

I think I even slapped my thigh to check if it wasn't in my pants pocket. It wasn't.

Immediately I took inventory of its contents. License, check. Credit cards, check. Cash, goner.

Damn it! I cursed inwardly, quickly trying to calculate just how much I had lost. As far as I could tell, there had only been about $20 in the wallet. But how had this happened

I stood dumbstruck on my doorstep. Once I regained my senses, I graciously thanked the Good Samaritan, made a mental note to buy her a thank-you present, closed the door and told my wife what happened.

Inside I was seething. How had this happened? I am usually very fastidious about details--how had this slipped by me? And my wallet of all things! Talk about flaking out.

The $20 mocked me with its absence. Think of all the things you could have bought with me! it taunted. Haha!

"It must have happened when you ran out of the car," my wife reasoned.

She was right; when I had arrived home, it was pouring rain outside and I had dashed into the house. I had just bought gas, so the wallet was in my lap--idiot, why didn't I just return it to my pocket like I always did?--when I got out of the car. The rest is history.

Some teenager probably found it, emptied it, and, having no use for credit cards, tossed it aside. I knew that I should feel grateful for finding it again, but my gut boiled--I had just flushed $20 down the drain.

The Buddhist super-ego in me asked why was I so upset? I should be beyond attachments to such paltry...

"Shut up," I shot back. I was in no mood for lessons.

The rest of the evening passed in a tense reflection. Why had this happened to me? Did it have anything to do with the fact that when I was a kid a friend of mine had found a woman's wallet and I had been extremely jealous? Was this karma? And why did I care so much? I had all my credit cards, even my ID. If a kid had returned my wallet to me, I would have gladly handed him the $20 as a reward for being honest, so why all the fuss? Was this really about money?

The longer I sat with the torrent of thoughts and emotions, I realized that I wasn't as upset about the lost cash as much as I was at the mere fact that I had allowed this to happen. This was totally preventable.

Something had slipped by my defenses. Whatever control I try so desperately to maintain on a daily basis had temporarily faltered. What bothered me was confronting the fact that I wield very little control over my life. At any given moment, disaster can strike. And there's damn little I can do to stop it.

This is what the Buddha meant when he said that life, death, and everything in between was dukkha. Life cannot provide us with the basic certainty that we as humans crave. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no man. Since we don't like this, we spend most of our time and energy fighting reality and building carefully constructed defenses to protect us from this basic fact. And so we suffer.

Crap happens, and the truth is that most of the time we are powerless to stop it. Losing my wallet, although a harmless example of this, revealed to me how illusory any sense of control in my life is.

At a Zen center where I practiced, we chanted, "Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher." Buddhist practice, on a fundamental existential level, is about radically accepting the circumstances of our lives, and understanding that we when we try to control life, we suffer.

Losing my wallet undeniably drove that home. Control is an illusion. In another chant at ZCP, we said, "Thus we bow to life as it is." Indeed. That's all we can do. I got a taste of that this weekend.

Wow, and I had thought my Sunday afternoon was going to be calm and relaxing.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: -Mandie-.

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