Tuesday, August 9, 2011


A year or two ago, someone died when Caltrain hit them. This is unfortunately normal, between 1 and 4(!) times per month, and it's almost inevitably suicide, or occasionally stupidity. I mean, the train didn't go out of its way to hit you, right? You know exactly where it's going. It doesn't deviate from its track, and it takes about a mile to stop. To not get hit by a train is not rocket science.

This one was a little different, a driver who maybe misjudged and got stuck on the tracks when the lights turned and the gates closed. Why didn't he get out of the car? An old acquaintance, James, insisted the guy was a fool.

James studies Krav Maga, a deeply violent Israeli martial art that prides itself on real-world effectiveness. Maybe a year before, he got robbed at gunpoint in San Francisco. Like any sane martial artist, his instructors reassured him that peaceably handing over his wallet had been the right choice, but he beat himself up about it a bit anyway. James thought that he should have seen the lookout guy down the street, and been more aware of who was around him and what they were doing. He might be right. I wasn't there.

Maybe, on that street, James didn't fulfill his capacity. He didn't seem to understand that maybe, neither did the guy in the car? We're fragile beings: we get distracted, we panic. Sometimes, we fail.

The past couple weeks, I've felt like I'm failing a lot. Zen talks about life being "one continuous mistake", which is one way of saying that we can't tell how things are going to turn out, and we just stumble through, pay attention, and do the best we can.

(When things go the way we want, we tend to imagine a sort of determinism: we planned and worked hard, so of course stuff happened the way we expected. Mistakes are surprises. We dislike mistakes not only because they are often obstacles to getting what we want, but because their insistent spontaneity reminds us how precarious and contingent the events of our lives really are.)

Here are the things, all important to me, that I feel like I've been failing to do with any consistency:
  • sit zazen
  • study for the GREs
  • work on sewing for monk ordination
  • go to aikido
  • go running
  • cook
  • lose weight
  • be remotely as effective at work as I want to be
That's a long list. It's all in my head, of course. It's true that I'm not doing those things enough (or at all, in some cases), but my problem is really the feeling of failure, rather than the reality of it.

Here are things I'm not failing at:
  • being a good husband
  • being a good stepdad
  • being kind and patient with people
See, that's not so bad.

I'm intrigued that the "failing" list is things to do, and the "not failing list" is things to be...

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