The Chisel Chinks of Living

By viewing everyone as the same person is how I connect with others, and how I grow the qualities I glean from them.

By the ‘same person’ I mean that everyone is the sum of all their experiences; Traumatic experiences that crash into life with the devastative force of a derailed train; Experiences that influence with the steady pressure of waves grinding boulders into sand; Experiences that unnoticeably take root in the mind, but nonetheless irrevocably alter its landscape. Experiences of actions; Experiences of notions; And every kind in between. We are all the same person, structured by our genetics, and molded into our unique forms by the chisel chinks of living.

The superb utility of this paradigm has proven itself again and again; in personal experience and intellectual exploration. It makes everyone relatable and knowable.

One the other hand, the belief that identity derives from the soul leaves people innately divided and shrouded in mystery.

If you ask someone any of the questions: ‘Why are you like that? Why do you believe that? Why do you feel that way?’ And they answer with: ‘That’s just the way I am. It’s what I feel in my soul.’

Then no further discussion is possible. It is the introspective equivalent of explaining natural disasters as divine intervention. God and the soul alike are inherently mysterious, and mystery is impenetrable. Reason does not pervade in the metaphysical realm. So any deeper understanding of that person is lost.

The soul can also innately divide us. Whenever anyone deems another as a ‘bad’ person, they are invoking the concept of the soul to conveniently explain away a perceived immoral behavior. Far more difficult is it to consider that, placed in another’s shoes, we might act and believe and behave in their manner. This same principle is leveraged when someone vilifies an entire group of people.

I see the concept of the soul, of innate identity, as dangerous. It is an idea that wires the brain to dysfunction. And its adoption severely restricts the capacity of one’s compassion and understanding.

By submitting to the impact of environment, on myself and others, I can more easily connect with others. Example: when confronted with ignorance or bigotry, I do not fluster with righteous presumption. I do not reject the person with a debasing label. Instead I seek to understand the environment that sprouted those qualities. So despite the impasse of position, I can still find common ground.

And of course I bring the same inquisitive attention when I meet admirable people.

It was with that empathetic appraisal that I met Ken in the Cameron Highlands. He sat opposite a large table of laughing revelers on my second night there. I admired his gregarious charm, and his wit, which stemmed from a self-possessed confidence and bloomed alongside his infectious laugh.

He made his first impression on me when the drinks ran out, and a trip to the bottle shop was needed. The comfort with which he strode alongside traffic stands out in my memory. His elbows swung within inches of side mirrors. His knees polished front bumpers. He’d obviously taken many steps along hectic Asian streets. He was comfortable in the unregulated throng.

I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about what crafted this buoyant man. Ken, as it turned out, was living in Twin Pines on an extended basis. He’d been there a month and had no plans to leave. I learned a lot about him during our long conversations, treks through the jungle, trips to Kumar’s for Indian food, and over the occasional bottle of rum.

Ken is a true-blue traveler. His category on the nomad’s spectrum is perched on one extreme, far opposite the tourists. He’d been living in Asia for years, and traveling almost a decade.

His exuberant charm was refined by those years, marinated in his wide-ranging experiences, seasoned by his interactions with countless folks. Whether through intuition or conscious practice, he’d come to a masterful understanding of the common threads that wind their way through the hearts of every human. So he can approach anyone on the street with a confident ease.

He calls the old ladies in the kitchen ‘mama’, the old shop keepers ‘papa’. And with the same felicity he can vivify a table of backpackers.

He’s as capable hefting dense intellectual concepts as he is weaving hilarity out of absurd whimsy. An aura of confidence surrounds him. Sometimes mistaken for arrogance, but that’s the risk one takes.

His smile reveals years of laughter in the lines of his dimples. He sits cross-legged with a placid comfort that only those who’ve adapted, again and again, to the harsh terrain of distant lands and foreign cultures can possibly emulate. ‘Hard marble benches are downy mattresses after crossing the Tibetan plateau on motorbike.’

When I looked at Ken, I saw what might become of me should I choose to remain a wandering vagabond. His is not a fate I’d lament.

Ken walked with me to the edge of town on my last day in the Cameron Highlands. He waited some meters away until I’d hitched a ride. I jumped in the back of an old pickup truck, I caught his eye, and I waved farewell.

That was the last I saw of him.

But I’ve since cultivated some of his qualities. And I’ve since experienced some grand adventures similar to the ones he shared. In those tiny ways, I’ve merged his and my version of human being.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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