This week I received some well-deserved flak from readers who said I’d given them a headache because of the essay I’d written. Yes, it was a dry topic: coming up with a world-class, ass-kicking jet fighter to best protect our country. And yet I can’t honestly say I’m sorry for writing it because my goal in these essays isn’t just to regurgitate juicy tidbits of today’s news while we all hold hands and sing kumbaya. You can do that on a hundred other sites, and I was never really into that song all that much. Too much sugar.
Having said that, when I lecture, I sometimes kick off with a song that helps to open up the can of worms I’m addressing. Last time I lectured, it was Back Pages (Dylan) which is actually very appropriate today. The refrain is: “But I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” It doesn’t get much more Zen than that.
The song for today is called: The Secret to Life by James Taylor. It’s as good as a college course in philosophy: If you can, please gamble a few minutes. When you listen, something very simple, but equally important just might disclose itself to you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sW7Z1VttPKk
My goal in these essays is to show you different perspectives on things and let you hash-out how you feel about them. This one isn’t going to be any easier than the last one…just different. And though the topic may sound a bit dry, nothing could be further from the truth.
In Zen Philosophy it’s called The Paradox of the Opposites. In the Bible, it’s Ecclesiastes.
In pop music, it’s Turn, Turn, Turn, (The Byrds) a musical version of Ecclesiastes. And there’s an equally dry technical-sounding term: Counter-intuitiveness. I am here to tell you that this concept is the second most important concept in my life, the first being the Golden Rule, which I mention often.
Strangely, yet appropriately, I ran headlong into the concept as a teenager when I was learning to fly. The first day of class, my instructor kicked-off with an old joke: A young pilot is heading off to war and his grandmother calls out to him, “You be safe now, Charlie! Make sure you fly low and slow!”
Sounds good though low-and-slow is exactly what will kill you. High-and-fast, however, sounds dangerous, but those two factors, altitude and air speed, are money in the bank for a pilot. Later, my dad, who was an aviation writer, cautioned me, “If you follow your instinct to pull back on the stick when things go to shit, you just may kill yourself.”
Not a week later, I was buzzing a friend’s house in a little Cessna 150. I came in low over a corn field, saw my buddy waving madly at me. Then I saw the power lines directly in front of me. I reached to yank back on the stick……and didn’t. If I had yanked, I wouldn’t be tip-tip-tapping on this keyboard now. Instead, I pushed the stick forward and went under the lines. It was tight. I flew back to base and landed…a bit shook, but a whole lot wiser. There were maple leaves stuck in my landing gear from this stunt. By doing the opposite of what most sane people would do, I survived. And yes, that was the last day I ever buzzed anyone. It was stupid.
Soon after, I began discovering that often, the counter-intuitive way of assessing a problem, or a person is the one that works…even in matters of the heart. Way back when, the norm for high school dating was a football game, drive-in, or a movie. However, after the second date with this particular girl, I took her in to New York to see the Russian Kirov Ballet. It was Swan Lake. It was glorious. I wasn’t exactly sure why I chose what I chose. It just seemed right. As it turned-out, this was not a bad decision and I learned something.
Later, in college, dating Pamela, who actually was a ballerina, one of my first dates with her was not to the Met but…trout fishing. Huh? That was possibly the best date Pamela or I have ever had. I remember vividly that she didn’t reel ’em in. She just just yanked hard on the pole. A small silver dart of a fish rocketed out of the water… and I raced fifty feet back to try to find where it had landed. We even cooked our first meal together. White wine, trout, and French garlic bread. A GREAT date doing stuff that Pam had never done before.
ZEN: Sophomore year at F&M, I ran into my philo prof. at the bookstore. I was taking Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the time, but Professor Roth disappeared into the philo section, then came back with a tiny book of Zen. He told me to try it, much the way one might suggest you try a new pizza parlor. The little book by Alan Watts, gave form and reason to what I was already beginning to discover: “Things, not only aren’t always what they seem, they usually aren’t.” And very often the diametric opposite of what you think is the solution…..is the solution. When you stop and think, it’s everywhere. FWIW, Professor Roth, one of the best profs I’ve ever had, had first been a soldier in the Marine Corps. Once again…ZEN.
Surviving: If you look around, with the concept of the Paradox of the Opposites in mind, there are examples everywhere. In winter ice and snow driving, everything is counter-intuitive. You get into a skid? Steer into it, not away…and you’ll survive. You’re stuck in the snow? Rookies spin their wheels over and over. (It just melts the snow and makes it slipperier.) Use the bare minimum to get out. Usually…usually, you have one extra second to think, is this really the best way???
Inventing: In the field of inventing, coming up with a new iPad that’s only an eighth of an inch thick is for a team of engineers to solve. Go in the other direction, however, use the Zen approach, and you will find scores, perhaps hundreds of tools and devices that we’ve grown accustomed to suffering with, and low-tech, not high-tech will often give you a dramatic break-through in efficiency, comfort, economy of motion, etc. Yeah, Zen works in inventing as well.
Relationships: I have a neighbor who is right out of central-casting for the Napoleon Syndrome. Almost every neighborhood has some version of him: Big black truck, big black motorcycle, big snarly dogs, booming voice and knows absolutely everything about everything. You can’t actually talk to this person, you just wait till they finish. He stands about 5′ 4″ and he’s ready to fight everyone, anyone, over anything at all. Why do you suppose? Do you think it’s because he truly believes he’s the top macho man in the universe? I’m pretty sure it’s just the opposite. Who he is, is the exact opposite of the image he portrays. How do you handle a person like this? Well, some solutions are easier than others. Confrontation doesn’t work. But quietly going by-the-book is a good place to start. Logic, not emotion. You shouldn’t always buy-into the premise of how people present themselves to you. Most of the time it’s just a mask.
Selling: C’mon, Henry, there aren’t any counter-intuitive Zen paradoxes in selling. Just…SELL, SELL, SELL!!! In high school, I sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door. How the hell do you use counter-intuition there? The answer is simple: You don’t sell. You don’t overpower, you take the side of the buyer.
For the first two months selling, I was the wet-behind-the-ears rookie and most of the time the buyer would help me fill out the order form. And guess what: I’d tell the truth. Strange, but it often works. I told them that I got two-fifty every time I demonstrated the machine. I told them, I’d get two-fifty and they’d get their living room vacuumed for free…a win-win deal. Along the way, if they needed a vacuum, I’d sell them one. And now, 50 years later, if I don’t think a customer is ready to make a decision on a big abstract sculpture, I turn them away. I tell them to sit down with their spouse, have a glass of something, and come up with what aspects their dream sculpture would have. Then call me. Treating people like people actually works.
There’s a Zen alternative to almost everything. Your teenager wants more freedom, more privacy…and if you want to be their friend and a really good parent, you’ll do what they ask. Well, here comes the counter-intuitiveness again. Your job isn’t to be cool. It isn’t to be their friend…that’s the last thing they need from you, and it’s not to let them run their own lives. Your job is to be a consistent and reliable and kindly port they can pull into when everything goes to shit. You don’t want or need to know what songs are cool, you need to be a parent. That’s pretty much the job you have forever. Don’t try to be a buddy. Your kids already have those and they come and go.
Wisdom: There’s a Taoist saying, The Tao which can be explained is not the true Tao. When you think you finally have ALL the answers…watch out! If you run into a person or organization that professes to have ALL the answers…really watch out. If you’re lucky, you will never have all the answers. Counter to what many institutions…yes, and religions will tell you, true wisdom is a process, not an end-point. If you’re lucky, over the course of your life you will become wiser and wiser. However, run like hell from any one or any institution that professes to know it all.
Having vs Giving: Having isn’t nearly as much fun as giving. A while back, Pam and I were in a little I-Hop in Asheville, NC. It was late at night and we’d ordered breakfasts. Why? Who knows. A young woman came in and sat down at a booth where I could see her but she was turned at an angle away from us. She ordered a coffee and then asked the waitress what was the cheapest thing she could order. It was an English muffin and the waitress winked and said she’d bring some extra peanut butter and jelly.
The gal pulled out a small handful of cash and started laying it out in an odd way as if she were paying five different people. She kept screwing up and restarting the whole thing. Her cell phone rang and when she answered it, she burst into tears. I couldn’t help but overhear. To quote Kenny Rogers, she had run out of aces.
Pam and I like to bring some mad money on a trip, money we’ve squirreled away for six months just to have some fun. And yeah, you know where this is going. I looked at Pam. She looked at me. When our waitress came, we ordered a proper meal for the gal and as we left, Pam handed her the small wad of money we’d squirreled away. We just kept walking but she followed us out into the parking lot. She said, “I can’t take this.” Pamela said, “Someday, you’ll be helping someone else out and you’ll remember. That’s how it works.” And yes, we got way more pleasure than anything we could have bought.
P.S. One last quick example: Heroism. It’s exactly the opposite of what people think. It’s not what super heroes with capes and super powers have. It’s what some poor SOB has when someone’s car is on fire, or there’s someone drowning in the lake, or a bear is about to rip a little kid’s arm off. That poor SOB is scared as hell. And yet he does what he knows he has to do. That’s what a hero is. You will NEVER see a real hero in the news saying, “Uhm, yes, I am truly a hero.”