Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reading The Signs

In 1991, Steve Martin starred in one of my favorite movies, L.A. Story. It has become a classic comedy both for its bungled romance and its parody of Los Angeles. The main character is introduced to the joys of colonics by a spinning spokesmodel called SanDeE. He is told by a British journalist, in a tone that only the English possess, that his offer to take her on a tour of L.A. culture would take just fifteen minutes.

The film might best be remembered for its talking road sign. Martin’s character is lost in career and love. The flashing sign on the side of the Santa Monica Freeway gives him guidance and direction. At first cryptic, the sign realizes it has to be direct to get through to this guy and it does not mince words: “Kiss her, you fool!”

I recently experienced a talking road sign of my own.

A few blocks from my house, there is a church. Nothing particularly beautiful about it. Lackluster architecture. red brick, a little landscaping, but mostly parking lot outside. And a rectangular white sign where they announce the times of worship and occasionally post a line from scripture for the drivers passing by. I am not a church-goer and I’m generally not big on Bible verses. So I tend to ignore the sign even though I drive past the church several times a week. I don’t turn a philosophical blind eye. I just have other things on my mind.

I had had a bad week. I was tired and cranky. I was feeling uninspired by work and was beginning to consider a career change. It had been a poor month financially. My kids were needing more of me than I had to give and my marriage was in one of those places where we were bringing out the worst in each other, instead of the best. I was seeing my life as a glass half empty, taking my anger and frustration out on those I love. I was mean and miserable. I didn’t want to see anyone or do anything. I was one big clu mp of gloom and ill temper.

The worst of it was that I was fully aware of how I was behaving around my family and why. I knew I was hurting those I loved. They weren’t liking me very much at the moment and I didn’t care. Not only was I wallowing in anger and self-pity, I was ignoring the skills I had learned to get myself out of such a place. I knew I was capable of making better choices. I didn’t want to and I didn’t care.

I met a wise old teacher once who told me to shake off my old patterns with the following delightful command: “If the horse is dead, get off!” In the present moment, the lifeless steed of my irritability was patently not serving me well, but it felt comfortable in a twisted sort of way.

And then I passed the sign outside the church. Of course, it did not really talk, but it spoke to me as clearly as if it had. In big bold capital letters, a quotation from the Dalai Lama – this must have been a cool kind of church – “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

The words hit me with crushing force. This is what had been sorely lacking in my life for the past week and I was dying. I had shown no love and compassion to anyone. As a direct result, I had not received any in return and I was on a downward spiral into darkness.

I may well have passed that exact sign before and never noticed it. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The sign broke down all my difficult issues and presented me with an easy and simple solution. Show love, kindness and compassion to others and things will start looking up. It is essential to who we all are at our core. If I did not feel like showing compassion at any given moment, I made up my mind to fake it until it felt right. When my children wanted something from me, I became loving. When my co-workers needled me, I showed compassion. When my wife began a conversation with me, I was kind and attentive. It really was that simple.

The immediate effect in my life, in my heart, in my family, was astounding. Such a simple choice, a new way of looking at the same old things, and I was able to create transformation at will. The sign was physically in the church parking lot but it also came from within. It did not flash or have a mind of its own like the one on the side of the freeway, but it spoke to me when I was receptive to it. I listened and I am grateful.

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