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Edition Eighteen

On Being Prepared in Times of Peril


We have been blasted continuously since September 11, 2001 with dire threats of terrorism.

Death and doom on the home front.

Culpability in a horrendous war.

What are we supposed to do with all this? How the hell can we cope with such uncertain times? (And all times are uncertain.)

The events since 911 have rudely awakened us from our naïve American delusions of safety and exemption from many of the harsher realties of life. We have been forced to face the fact that nothing in the world is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is ever really completely safe. There is no such thing as security. Anything, anything at all, can happen at any moment. And in that moment, we are changed forever, as well.

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do we children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable."

—Helen Keller

Life is a dangerous proposition all the way around. Nobody makes it out alive, after all. We never know, from day to day, from minute to minute, when a crisis will arrive unannounced on our doorstep. We never know when or how we will be called upon to rise to a critical, pivotal occasion. Yet we would like to think that we would be ready, willing and able to handle whatever may come our way. Like any good scout, we aim to be prepared.

Being prepared in the way that the Boy and Girl Scouts mean, can get you only so far, however. Sure, it is always a good idea to have a well-stocked pantry, tool box and first aid kit -- extra batteries, water, matches, candles, aspirins -- just in case. It behooves one to be smart; to be alert, aware, vigilant, careful, and most importantly, calm.

But there is simply no way -- given the infinite variety of diabolically creative forms that death and destruction can take -- to be prepared for any conceivable contingency. How can we predict and plan for any and every possible danger when fate provides us with scenarios that no sane person could ever invent?

Last year, I read about two well-heeled, well-coifed Japanese tourists in London who were struck and killed by lightning as they strolled through Hyde Park. The wire, it would seem, on their under-wire brassieres had attracted the deadly bolt. How could you ever anticipate anything so bizarre?

A few years ago, a woman I once knew was walking with her husband and two adolescent sons along Boston harbor one sunny Sunday afternoon. They were eating ice cream and looking at the ships when a freak wind came along and knocked one of the boys into the water, never to be seen again. Imagine. Life is so fragile that an errant wind could literally blow you away forever.

Who, save for Hollywood's most obscene creators, could possibly have conjured the unthinkable World Trade Center attacks? Airplanes crashing into neighborhoods? Anthrax in the mail? Suicide bombers blowing up pizza parlors? Let alone prepare for them?

The only way that we can prepare ourselves for unanticipated change is to center ourselves in the present moment. To pay attention. To really Be Here Now. If we can focus on the immediate, rather than obsess over the past or try to anticipate the future, we will have the presence of mind to assess each situation as it arises. And we will be able to be flexible in our response to it.

"Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained."

—Marie Curie

I have a friend who rather tends toward panic. The woman craves security. Just watching the dizzy ups and downs of my ever-precarious economic circumstances over the years would drive her to distraction. When the vagaries of my life made her nervous, she would question me, "What, exactly, are you going to do?"

Exactly? "Well, I will do such and such," I would brazenly reply, not because I knew that to be true, but because I felt compelled to come up with an answer to ease her concern and worry on my behalf. Of course, the correct and honest answer always has to be, "I don't know. I have to see. I have to think. I have to feel. I have to meditate. I have to consult the I Ching. I have to do what seems right at the moment." This is not being irresponsible. It is being ultimately response-able.

Eventually, I came to understand that she was asking the wrong question in the first place. It is not so important to know what you will do in any particular given situation. The crucial thing is to know that you will be able to do something. To have faith in your own instincts and intuition to figure it out as you go along. To have confidence in your ability to think on your feet. To believe in your good intentions and your courage to do whatever is called for.

I remember so vividly the last cogent conversation that I had with my best dear friend Jimmy a few days before he died. I asked him what lessons he had learned having had to deal with a mortal disease for so many years. What did all the pain and suffering come to in a spiritual sense? He replied that he had learned that he had inside of himself the resources that he needed in order to do what he had to do. He had never known that before, he told me. Personally, I don't want to die in order to learn that lesson.

It seems to me that the secret to preparation is presence. To live the life that we have, while we can, as best as we can, and to appreciate every minute of it. L' chaim !, the Yiddish toast, "To life!" recognizes and salutes life in all of its fullness and complexity. It celebrates all of it — the good, the bad, and the ugly — for tomorrow we die.

Several years ago I went to a 60th birthday bash at the Tropicana Night Club in Manhattan. Manuel, whose party it was, was scheduled for major surgery early the next morning. But meanwhile, here he was turned out in a spiffy tux playing most gracious host to all of his friends. The champagne flowed, the salsa was hot and the merengué was cool.

Since the party-goers were mostly of a certain age, it would be safe to assume that they had all seen and suffered a good bit thus far in their lives. Yet, here they were, aches, pains, disappointments, sorrows and all, dressed to the nines, eating, drinking, laughing, dancing the night away.

How beautiful and brave we human beings are. Though fully cognizant of our mortality, we gamely keep on continuing on. Trying to make things better. Making the best of things. Living as if life mattered. May we all mambo in their footsteps, ever spinning toward perspective, acceptance, compassion, wisdom, grace, and above all, peace.

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face."

—Eleanor Roosevelt

By Donna Henes, Urban Shaman