Today, In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, I met a man. A retired man. A successful man.
His name was William. He asked me to call him Will.
Will is your average 71-year-old retired, widowed, tourist. Average except for one thing - he has gone almost his entire life knowing nothing about science. I mean it. He told me so. Nothing.
He failed biology twice and joked further that he never got around to failing chemistry but he was quite confident that he could fail, if he was given the opportunity to do so.
Will is accomplished in his field of journalism and was at one time an editor for a magazine based in upstate New York. He’s published several books on economics and other subjects that he took in school but didn't actually fail.
Up until just last year, 2018, Will had never heard of the periodic table of the elements.
He didn’t even know he was a mammal until his wife — a scientist, (I shit you not, I can't make this up) — told him that he was.
Will narrates his scientific discoveries with a childlike energy talking as though he's performing the coolest card trick for you as he tells you what he knows. Isn't this amazing? Did you know that the only letter not on the periodic table is J?" Here’s something you’ve never seen before! - except, well, yes, most of us have seen ... wait, — but, then I started thinking, wait, have we, though? Have we really opened our eyes?
What struck me most about Will was not that his school rewarded the “most clever” kids with classes in Greek or Art instead of science, nor was it the irony that his Scientist wife probably knew more about science than everyone on their neighborhood block combined. It’s that, after starting to study science for the first time at this ripe ol'age of 71 and realizing his affinity and love for it, Will doesn’t sit there crafting narratives about all the things he could’ve done with his life. He doesn't bemoan the time wasted for that which he did not come to know sooner in life. The past is the past.
What struck me most about Will was that Will's power is that he is just happy and grateful to know what he knows now. Will is forever looking ahead at what else he can learn.
Is time ever really wasted? Aren't we just spending it doing other things?
Who would Will have become if he spent his time differently? Another path might have produced a man with the inclination to simply stick to what he knows: the sort of man who, in his formative years, develops an identity and builds a lifestyle and proceeds to spend his retirement years a prisoner to both.
To exhibit curiosity — to try new things, explore alternative ways of thinking — would be an admission of not knowing-it-all, and this sort of man was taught, either directly or through social evolution, that knowing-it-all is the badge for his existence.
There was a time when we were taught that admitting to an imperfect performance would call into question our very right to exist. If I am the provider and the one with knowledge and the enforcer, then I have a purpose, a reason to live — even if it’s not the reason I would’ve chosen, personally — and so, for most, ceasing to question and dream is an act of self-preservation more than anything else. To cope with this, a person denies their human propensity for growth, instead accepting what he/she believes are unchangeable circumstances.
This, however, is not Will. At age 71, today, despite the time in his life where he evolved socially around this very way of thinking, this is not Will now. He makes different choices now and ironically, he exercises free will.
Our self talk and the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, keep us looking for fulfillment in the familiar, because we don’t know who we are outside of it and, for the most part, we’re too afraid to find out.
Everyone possesses curiosity to some degree, although people will differ according to the depth and strength of their curiosity and their willingness to act on it. Choosing not to act in your own self-interest is still a choice; it’s a choice to let other people decide the course of your life. Repressing your needs is not the same as not having any. Ignoring one’s inner life does not make it disappear.
So what on Earth does any of this have to do with Will?
One minute I am praising Will for leaning into his joy, but on the other hand, I am silently judging that there’s something inferior about the people that surrounded, raised and reared him most of his life. These people who can’t just be wrong about themselves, and can't admit that they don't know-it-all, even if being wrong means being happy.
We’ve all been in the company of an obviously angry person who has trained themselves to smile, an insecure person for whom paying attention to them is as life-sustaining as oxygen. All of us are constantly negotiating with people who are, to varying degrees, not dealing with their own baggage. And we have compassion for these poor souls, walking around inside-out.
It is kinda funny that we try to repress our “negative” emotions as though they won’t just find another way out: panic attacks, stress dreams, rants about people you don’t respect because they have the same exact limiting beliefs that you do. Most of us walk around completely oblivious to the issues we have and it’s kinda funny that if we only saw ourselves as human — operating within complicated-yet-predictable schemas; that is, not all-knowing; that is, of the universe and not simply floating around in it — we would probably learn our lessons a lot sooner. Maybe we’d even choose to study science and the periodic table.
Without even realizing his impact on me during this brief visit at Eureka Coffee House, Will taught me that a person who believes their needs are not important will have trouble making sense of their own thoughts and behaviors a lot of the time. That’s because their thoughts and behaviors are acting to meet needs they don’t know they even have. This is why we pick fights with someone we love when what we really need is reassurance, why we offer unsolicited advice when what we really need is to feel useful, or heard, or superior. We don’t need to be aware of our needs to get them met. We just need to be aware of them if we don’t want to mislead others — ourselves included — in the process.
It’s very possible that we all know this on some level, and that a big part of the life-journey is one's own discovery of self love and paying closer attention to ourselves, our alignment and our own needs.
Leo Buscaglia reminds us in his book Love, “You are the best you. You will always be the second best anyone else.”
FYI - the best you is something that only you can achieve.
Many of us harvest the particulars along our life-journey from our family, various friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, strangers, asking for advice or feigning confusion as if the answers weren’t already swimming in our gut. For most people this gives them an out: someone to blame when things don't work the in the ways that we want them to.
Had I met Will before he discovered science, I highly doubt I would’ve suggested that he hire a science tutor. How the hell would I know what Will needs? He only knows what he needs.
To contribute in any kind of meaningful way in life, one has to look at oneself. We often tell ourselves this is a frightful thing to do, and besides, there are much more interesting places to look. Look at all those other people with bigger issues!
It is dis-empowering to spend our lives attempting to solve problems that aren’t our own. Because when we fail — which we inevitably will — we wonder why our help was not good enough, why we were not good enough. The most helpful thing we can do for others is develop the courage to look at ourselves, see our own issues clearly and take ownership over our lives. To stop one day, like Will has done, and say, "Hmmm, science. I shall study more about this periodic table."
So, instead of validating ourselves by presuming to know what other people need and forcing it upon them, consider taking Will's simpler, more boring task of figuring out what YOU need and making the choices that attend to those needs.
I’m drawn to Will because he is evidence that participating in the lifelong process of knowing, forgetting, and finding yourself, again and again and again, is an adventure, not a punishment. He makes it look exciting, fun and invigorating.
Will is proof that we are, at any given moment, simply one decision away from change. At any time, we can become reanimated, reinvented, reinvigorated, revitalized and rerouted by choosing to learn new things, staying curious and tending to our own needs. After listening to Will talk about science like it was the most interesting thing in the world, I thought to myself, "Hmmm, science. Should I take another look at the periodic table?" Of course, after I really thought about that for a moment, the periodic table could be anything that may need another look in my life - yoga, geometry, astronomy, Spanish or Psychology or the birds of Arkansas or baking or hiking, calligraphy, music or guitar.
One of our many gifts as humans is the ability to change our minds.
Will is an exceptional example in that life could've easily created a completely different version of him. One where he could’ve been too proud to acknowledge this gap in his understanding of the world. Yet, another version, might’ve discovered his proclivity for science, but chosen to spend his remaining days mourning the time lost and never making the choices to pursue it further. And yet another version could’ve shared this newfound joy with his inner closest circle of friends, but been too ashamed to talk about it in a coffee shop with a stranger in Eureka Springs. Instead, Will is the version of himself to which we all aspire: the one who knows it’s never too late to start. The one who sees opportunities for growth where we previously saw failure, loss, hopelessness.
We are human. We are mammals. We will always still feel those emotions, but now there is something to reach for that is counter to them - there is always a reason to be grateful.
Ponder this as Carl Sagan describes a photo of the Earth, as seen from outer space:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Whenever there is a struggle to find something you're grateful for, there is always this. We are all here on this incredible dot in the universe journeying together. That is certainly something to be grateful for.
I would not say that it's easy; to try to have compassion for oneself. And learning to have compassion for our fellow mammals has been challenging for most also, but have trust in this process.
I’m glad that Will had someone who told him that he’s a mammal. Although his wife is deceased now, she was part of the process for Will along his life-path. He still hears this as his reminder when he starts to act like something he is not. Honey, your acting like wolf in sheep's clothing. WOW, you’re angry like a bear. Dear, slow down, you're moving about like a bull in a China shop. Stop being cunning like a fox.
Hey, when times get tough, and they will at times, do your best to stay curious and stay grateful and don't be so hard on yourself.
Be like a curious cat.
It won't kill you.
Upon meeting him, I immediately felt the impulse to tell people about Will; for he is proof that it’s never too late to find a new source of awe when you find something that you love. He reminded me that this blog that I have created since moving here to Eureka Springs - www.iloveureka.com - is very much my new source of awe and love.
Like Will, I believe that I am the kind of person that doesn't care how silly something makes him look or what other people think about what he might be embarking upon next. I believe that everyday life is full of untapped passions, and that one should awake to be excited by all the possibilities ahead.
Find your inner Will. It's powerful.