As the man on the wire knew, it’s all about balance. If you haven’t seen “man on wire” check it out, it’s excellent.
I interviewed one of my heroes the other day. I know he’d baulk at the thought of being described as a hero but since I discovered his podcast, The Drunken Taoist, Danieli Bolelli has become just that to me. His book, Create your Own Religion: a how-to book without instructions, is excellent and contains a small sub-chapter near the end titled The problem with sweet, spiritual people. In this section he outlines how there can be something contrived about spiritual people and how he is suspicious of the other-wordliness of their spirituality. As he puts it himself:
Real spirituality is not some esoteric state, high up in the clouds, removed from worldly concerns. Real spirituality is found in how you get up in the morning, how you walk, talk, breathe, smile, fight, and burp. Real spirituality doesn’t require a special sacred lingo, and it most certainly doesn’t need all this self-importance.
Like most good writing this passage tells me something I already knew but articulates it better than I ever could. Spirituality isn’t about speaking softly, or wearing corduroy trousers, or listening to Bjork, or only eating grass-fed butter. There’s nothing wrong with these things but the fact that these types of choices have become synonymous with spirituality cheapens the very idea they are so studiously trying to portray. Spirituality is not something separate from the everyday, it is the everyday.
My problem with this form of spirituality is not just that I cannot relate to it, which I can’t, but that I actually find it unattractive as a lifestyle. It would bore me to tears. It’s all yang and no yin. To illustrate what I mean consider the following 2 examples:
Example 1: When I was about 18 I was friends with a carefree, wild, and great-to-be-around girl called Nuala. We were great friends and discussed life, love, people etc. with the type of certainty that only young people can have. We confided in each other and gossiped about all the people we knew, or were attracted to, or hated. You get the picture.
At this stage in my life I often tried things for 90 days. The idea was to make or break a habit over the course of the 90 days and was my attempt at self improvement. I’d do 50 sit-ups for 90 days. I’d drink lots of water for 90 days. I’d go swimming as much as I could for 90 days. That type of thing. Then I decided that I’d try to stop talking about other people for 90 days. No giving out, no back biting, no gossiping, no character assassination. It was hard at first but after a while I got the hang of it. Somewhere near the end of the experiment I was in town with Nuala when she asked me what was wrong with me. I answered that I didn’t know what she meant, I didn’t. She told me I had changed, that I was no fun any more, and she meant it. I was deeply hurt by what she said and having considered it for a while realised that she was referring to my not bitching about people. I told her about my 90 day no back-biting plan and she told me to stop it immediately, that it had turned me into what she succinctly described as a “dry shite.” She was right. It didn’t take me long to get back into the very human habit of talking about other people. Where would Ireland be without straight talking women?
Example 2: At 23 I started teaching and got an apartment with a friend which would go on to become the focal point for mine, and a lot of my friend’s, social lives for the next couple of years. The door was always open, anyone was welcome, the tv was turned off in favour of conversation, what was in the fridge was there to be shared. It was a great time. Many evenings I would go for a run, come back and order a curry, have a shower, eat the curry and have a smoke.
Lots of people witnessed this routine and many asked me did I realise it was kind of crazy to keep fit, eat take-aways, and smoke cigarettes? I did realise this, and often got kind of embarrassed when asked this until one day the perfect answer came to me. When some newcomer to our little tribe asked why I did what I did I answered honestly: “I like running, i like eating curries, and I like smoking cigarettes.” The beauty of that.
My long-winded point is that it’s about balance. I like my warriors wise and intellectuals tough. I’ll write in more details about this another day but it came as a joyous surprise to me when reading a philosophy book last year to discover that both Plato and Socrates were decent wrestlers.
What they have in common is Love
I’ve been lucky enough to meet some great people in my life. Most of them were older than me, most of them were men, and all of them were flawed. Two in particular spring to mind immediately. One of them, Frank, is dead, but best illustrates what I consider to be the real spirituality Bolelli discusses.
I met Frank when I was a student in Luton, England. I had become a friend of his son, Dave, and often used to get the bus to their house about an hour before Dave would arrive back from work on Fridays. Frank, being a proud Irishman, loved speaking to me as a fellow Irishman and I’d sit in his living room with him while we waited for Dave to arrive. Frank’s wife Kathleen would give us tea and home-made bread while we waited. This hour long wait for Dave rapidly became the highlight of my week.
I was 21 and Frank was 71 but Frank spoke to me as a peer. Sometimes he would give me advice about situations I was struggling with. Sometimes he would tell me wild stories about when he was a foreman on building sites in London in the 1960s. Often he would get emotional when recounting running away from his Waterford home at 15 to join the British navy by lying about his age. Always he would be honest. Ruthlessly honest. I remember one time telling him a story involving a lie I’d told when he interrupted me. -Why did you lie? I answered as best I could. -No, I asked you why you lied? I tried again. -Will I tell you why you lied? You thought the truth wasn’t good enough. He left a pause before repeating, smiling as he said it. -You thought the truth wasn’t good enough. He was right, he was nearly always right.
My visits with Frank will never leave my heart and when I returned to England for his funeral a part of me went into the ground with him. Frank had what people I truly admire and relate to have, love and flaws. When you were in his company he overflowed with love and compassion. I told Frank things I doubt I’ll ever tell another living person because I knew he loved me. His love was in his wild, mischevious eyes right up until the last time I saw him. Even as his body crumpled his heart remained stout. But as important as his love were his flaws, and he had plenty of them. He was impatient, demanding, and selfish as a 4 year old at times, but this was what made him who he was. He didn’t try to hide these things from me, he never pretended to be perfect. At times he even took a childish joy when recounting some stupid row he’d had with Kathleen that week.
Frank’s love, and I was one of very many to be touched by it, was real spirituality. It was wisdom with curses. It was honesty with fangs. It was the real love of a man who wasn’t afraid to be imperfect. I miss Frank.