On trying to become fully human

Tempe, Arizona

Photo by  Shahan Khan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Shahan Khan on Unsplash

Something ‘powerful’ is holding us back. It keeps us from flight. At times it might feel like a dam holding back a great torrent of water. What is more, we feed this hold over us to the extent that years could pass and we remain grounded to its biggest lie. Whatever this obstacle might be, this ‘big lie’, it is known to our hearts alone. Often it is guilt over something we have done, or should not have done. Other times it is regret at an opportunity not taken to express our love, or to ask for forgiveness. This lie invariably tells us we are “not good” and that we do not deserve the “good fortune” incumbent upon others. Many of these instances which stop us from moving forward have to do with our despondency to set things ‘right’. Then the dreadful moment when suddenly confronted with the reality that it is too late. That is, the best of our intentions can no longer be realized. What then? Do we spend the remainder of our lives weltering in self-recrimination? Perhaps a higher providence has seen best for things to fall precisely as they have. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). This was the only way. It was the only way for ‘self-recrimination’ to turn out to be self-revelation. To become fully human, that is, to the extent which such a thing is possible [the ‘unity between head and heart’ Jean Vanier], means to engage with these hard experiences and to live through them. The final destination is what matters. What is done is done. There is the next hour to be lived to its fullest.

Such unbridled joy it does bring to the heart when we happen to come across someone who we sense to be fully human, or at least striving for this end goal. This aspiration towards a human teleology is our spirit’s greatest work. We might discover such people in our everyday encounters “by the well”: our teacher, coach, doctor, grocer, pharmacist, gardener, postal clerk, or cashier worker. If we might borrow from Sufism these are men and women with divinity written on their hearts. Occupation and social status have nothing to do with this luminous heart which is set before us. It is a true humility which recognizes the potential in the other and which possesses a love which moves and breathes outside the margins. Such a human presence is not easily given to cynicism and is slow to judge.

Writing and receiving letters was one of the delights of the ‘bygone age’. Outside the pure enjoyment of the physical processes of pressing out the paper, writing the date on the top left hand corner, putting down the name of the receiver My dear or My dearest…, thinking carefully [‘playfulness’ not excluded] on what you write, and then the final endearments… truly I am yours. And all of it in your own unmistakable scrawl. The letter will often enough, too, carry the unique scent of the sender. What is more the joy of receiving a reply, or a surprise from someone who went to the trouble of looking up your address to then leave his or her ‘biometric’ on the top right hand corner of the envelope. Emails [together with their lifeless emojis] possess little or nothing of such special wonder. Haruki Murakami says it so simply in one of his novels: “How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter!”

Little can compare to giving a fellow human being renewed hope, to encourage them through trials, or to inspire in the pursuit of new goals. It is as restorative as saying “I love you”. For love itself, if it be true, takes its first step in the movement of compassion. How can we do this? That is to offer renewed hope to a hurting heart? There are as many ways as there are expressions of love itself. First, the benevolent act of forgiveness. To forgive someone is perhaps the most liberating act for both the giver and the receiver. There are also secret acts of charity where they might most be needed. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). A simple letter sent with kindness and genuine concern in a world where self-centeredness is becoming increasingly the norm can make all the difference. To begin with to offer someone hope means to accept them. And there is besides the constraining of the ego in allowing another in greater need to ‘appropriate’ some of our spotlight. Where there is selfishness, hope cannot deliver.

“It all goes too quick” we will from time to time say to ourselves. In the Old Testament in the Book of Job it is described thus: “For we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow” (Job 8:9). The English writer Jenny Diski who endured much as a young person would afterward as an adult add her own addendum to this reality: “Everything passes, but nothing entirely goes away.” We are caught somewhere in the middle. We all know too well it will go quick, but in the meantime we experience profound emotions and our actions leave behind a legacy. The desert dwellers approach this mystery head-on by holding onto “the memory of death”. This contemplation on our brevity upon the earth is neither macabre nor defeatist. It is an act of true anarchism. They joyfully accept our transience looking beyond and live each day with such actual ‘meaningfulness’ as if it was their last hour like leaves of an olive tree which rotate to capture every tiny bit of moisture. So let us hasten to do some good while we can. It is later than we think, it has also been said.

In what ways might I make a difference in my day-to-day encounters with the ‘other’? There are many ways. There are an untold number of opportunities in our everyday exchanges with our neighbor that might not only bring a smile to a needful heart but could also save a life. Are you holding back from sending a message to a friend who might be in need of a word of encouragement? Can you anonymously send a gift to a charity? Delete an email sent to you by someone during a moment of their vulnerability? On your way to work is there a homeless person you might stop to say hello and buy a coffee for? Might you send a card to an ‘enemy’ wishing them a bright day? Could you surprise a loved one with a gift letting them know how precious they are to you? Is it too difficult to nod the head at the stranger who has cut you off at the traffic lights? Make an impromptu visit to a hospital and ask if there is anyone in need of a visitor?  It all goes too quick and yet there is much we can do. In Japanese the word for charity is jizen. The characters of the word beautifully illustrate that at the heart of charity is mercy and compassion. It is amazing too, is it not? That in helping others we are at the same time helping ourselves. And it is no mere coincidence then, that in the New Testament, Jesus Christ would connect the love of God with the love of our neighbor “like unto it” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Many of the world’s problems stem from ‘egoism’. This is the condition where “self-interest” is at the center of one’s morality. One nation considers itself better than the next and robs the other of its rights and resources. And one person thinks he or she is superior to their neighbor so diminishing and blunting their potential. The first can lead to wars and to the spread of famine. The second will lead to despair and to the lessening of our brother’s or our sister’s personality which are the qualities of their character. Both are cruel and will only ever result in suffering, if not to catastrophe, whether on a universal or personal scale.

The early years at Kingsgrove North High School

Gerringong, NSW

I was in my first year of high school in 1974 when Gough Whitlam’s Labour Party retained government to afterwards introduce the country to the Australian constitutional crisis (the prime minister dismissed by the Governor General after a weeks-long deadlock over the passage of appropriation bills). It would have seemed highly unlikely that one day this legendary political figure and the young boy would cross paths. Around thirty years later we were invited to speak at the Mass Historia conference organized by Melbourne University, the Prime Minister was a keynote speaker and I presented a paper on the “cosmic villains” of the Apocalypse [1]. We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation and had our photograph taken. Father and Mother were very proud. The year Whitlam was returned to office (and Richard Nixon would resign over Watergate), was a defining one for me as well. I was a young boy with an offbeat name reaching outside the boundaries of his old world.

Childhood friends from my infant and primary schooling days at Newtown Primary [2] would be left behind, Bill, Claudio, Danny, Manuel, Milko, Peter, Rodney, and Carmen the black gazelle who never lost a race. Yet I looked forward with excitement to the new start at Kingsgrove North High School. [3] Given that during the 1970’s KNHS like most other outer suburb schools was not too welcoming of those who were not ‘true Australian’ the first years would be a test of character. After all, this was not the multicultural mixing pot of Newtown which I had been used to and where I was in the company of my ‘own kind’: the Greek, the Turk, the Italian, and the Yugoslav. There was at least one way for us boys to be accepted (it would never be so easy for the girls), if we were good enough to grab the opportunity. It was to play football, rugby league[4] I had played a few games of this contact sport in primary school, but to the absolute mortification of Mother, who thought it a game played only by “those barbarian Australoi!

I knew that to survive in this new environment and enjoy my secondary schooling, I had better make the school football team. We understood that ‘wog footballers’ were ‘honorary Australians’ and the better a player you were, the more honorary you would become. I do not believe most people have understood the extraordinary achievement of the Greek-born George Peponis who rose through the junior rugby league ranks to play First Grade for Canterbury Bankstown and then go on to captain the Kangaroos in a domestic Ashes series against Great Britain in 1979. He was one of my heroes, not only for his background and professional success as a medical doctor, but also because in the juniors I had played for the same club, the Saint George Dragons. [5] Here I would often do battle with the great Terry Lamb who played in the same junior competition with the Chester Hill Hornets. At KNHS I was elated when my name was read out together with those of my future teammates by our moustachioed history teacher who was moonlighting as the coach. I was not passed the ball during the trials so I tackled to the point of collapse. Defence became the key component to my game and this experience taught me to never stop looking for other ways. Each season I improved wolfing down rugby league ‘how to’ books and putting in lots of extra training, often tackling a truck tyre late into the evening until my shoulders were covered in deep blue marks and bright red ridges of stinging welts.

I loved the raw physicality of the sport and the courage it demanded. There was nowhere to hide on the football field. It was a game of gladiatorial dimensions. I also embraced its inherent capacity for ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’. Mateship was another of the great ideals of the game but came with a different set of consequences. Six years later when I would ask our coach for a reference contemplating a career in the military, he would write in one place, “Michael is a fierce competitor; he hates the thought of defeat.” Playing through to the school’s First Grade team and ultimately winning the prized Year 12 Best Player trophy, I was touted by some talent scouts as a player with a future in the game. We had some strong teams during those years and we contested and did well in all of the major competitions, Buckley Shield, University Shield, and the popular televised knock-out the Amco Shield. I would later be invited to trial with the Cronulla-Sutherland club after having had surgical repairs on a broken and badly dislocated right elbow. But this was a number of years after I had left high school and not being a naturally gifted player like some of my other team-mates who went on to play in the then ARL, it was much too late. Though the dream would die, the memories and friendships lived on, each to their allotted time.

After the initial distressing experience which included the cacophony of racial taunts and days of silent treatment, high school would become enjoyable. Within three years I would make my first appearance in the school’s First Grade team and gain selection in a number of school boy representative sides. Even my ‘troublesome’ and hard to miss name, the target of endless attempts at humour, Michael Michael, became the playful ‘Mick Mick’. I had graduated to the ranks of ‘honorary’. Earlier on it would have helped if I had known of such estimable writers as William Carlos Williams and Ford Madox Ford! Later I would come to realize that this unhealthy exaggeration of my personality and self-esteem was ultimately more detrimental than it was good. For afterwards when my depression and OCD really kicked-in living through the wreckage that these twin demons will normally bring into relationships, any form of rejection by friends or colleagues would be magnified a ‘thousand-fold’ and border on the unbearable. I had come to believe that I would be liked and remain popular wherever I might go. It would be one of the great shocks in my life when I would discover I was wrong. One of the most heartrending lessons I would have to learn was that not everybody would like me; that not everybody would want to become my friend; that friends would find fault with me; and that sometimes even those whom I loved and who in turn had professed love for me might one day walk away.    

My entry into Year 7 was with class 1L. I look back on that class photo with those expectant smiles and wonder how many of us would not change a thing to be at the place where we are today. In another classroom down the lime colored corridor was one more young boy with a background similar to mine, my closest friend during the next six years (and ball playing prop to my hard-hitting second-row), Andrew N.

Postscript In 1974, given my future research interests, The Six Million Dollar Man first airs in the United States on the ABC network; Robert M. Pirsig publishes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; the first extra-terrestrial message is sent from Earth into space; the Universal Product Code (UPC) is scanned for the first time to sell a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

And I am re-looping Terry Jack’s sickly-sweet Seasons in the Sun not yet understanding why.


[1] http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-anzau&month=0104&week=a&msg=TeA/prAuxXJCUTDbD/SgRA&user=&pw=

[2] http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/HeritageItemImage.aspx?ID=2420861#ad-image-1

[3] http://www.kingsgrovn-h.schools.nsw.edu.au/

[4] http://www.nrl.com/nrlhq/referencecentre/historyofrugbyleague/tabid/10440/default.aspx

[5] http://www.foxsportspulse.com/club_info.cgi?c=7-2149-25857-0-0&sID=28124