July 23, 2010 § 2 Comments
It’s a well-worn maxim that every difficulty in our lives is also a lesson, an opportunity to grow and expand as human beings. That has certainly been true for this writer over the last two weeks.
Around two and a half years ago, I moved into a lovely apartment in the Hollywood/Los Feliz area. The rent was cheap, the apartment spacious, the people friendly and, for the most part, quiet. One of the most luxuriant aspects of the place is the pool and central area, also called the ‘patio’ by our curmudgeony building manager, a flowery turn of phrase for a guy such as he. My girlfriend Victoria moved in a year ago and our apartment, on the ground floor, looks out onto the pool, the trees, the modest yet well-tended desert gardens, some ancient, moribund beach chairs and, most importantly, a table under an umbrella surrounded by four chairs.
I point your attention to the table and chairs because they happen to sit directly outside our bedroom window. As a result, any conversation had by people making themselves comfortable there is heard by my girlfriend and I, in the finest detail.
For as long as I’ve lived there it hasn’t been an issue. People in the building like to use the pool intermittently; often the two children from a studio upstairs will use the area as their playground, which is fine by us- they don’t fight very often and collapse into hysterics even less frequently. With most of the tenants in the building being working people who seemed to enjoy coming home to a quiet living environment, harmony and relative tranquility was generally the rule.
That all changed a couple of weeks ago. It was as if some unconscious mechanism inside me could sense that a steep learning curve had presented itself. Two young women who I didn’t recognize were sunning themselves on the patio. Two others were seated at the table, drinking beers and kicking back. In an instant my apartment building morphed from living space to resort. In my eyes, anyway.
Before too long I was out there, standing over the two women, lying on beach towels. I asked them if they lived here and who they knew in the building, all the while acutely aware of how I must appear to them: stern, humourless, paranoid. We’ve all known someone like that; I never imagined I’d ever seem to be that person in anyone’s eyes. But my protective instincts had been aroused. My sense of peace was being threatened.
In halting English adorned with a thick Russian accent, they told me they were staying with a woman in the building, a woman that I knew. I retreated, unsatisfied. I felt like Gandalf in Lord Of The Rings, when he discovers the presence of the Ring. Dark forces were mounting, and I was powerless to stop them from bursting through my living and bedroom windows.
Finances must have been scarce for these people, for I discovered that the woman they knew, Nadia, was allowing them to stay with her in her studio. Further evidence of their limited resources came in the form of their never seeming to leave the building: morning, noon and night they could be found lazing on the patio, much to my growing distress.
I could continue with this tail of woe, relating to you every little vexation that proceeded to occur, from late nights of loud conversation well past the allotted patio curfew to strangers showing up from other buildings with pizza, beer and static-spewing radios which conspired to familiarize me with the latest Russian chart toppers, but that would turn this column into a tedious, glorified vent and that, dear readers, is not the subject of this post today.
What is at issue, and what has been my challenging opportunity for growth, is once again experiencing how easy it is to deeply personalize a neutral event, and how much suffering that can cause.
For it is clear that, at a guess, most people in my building have not had the same response to the presence of these three young ladies on vacation from Russia. The reasons for that will be varied: possibly (or probably) many of my fellow tenants don’t possess the same sensitivity to noise or desire, however unrealistic, for a more or less constant state of peace and quiet in the common areas of the building. Possibly some of them feel as I do, yet do not feel the need or are not prepared to confront the problem directly. Others, I am sure, are simply wholly indifferent to the situation.
So, as the days went by, days containing discussions with the people in question and demands for them to respect the peace of the building and the rent-paying tenants in it, I came to the fundamental question: what if these people were not going to return to Russia in two months, nor change their behaviour beyond tiny concessions on the fringes? What if despite the alerting of management, the raising of voices and the summoning of the police, I would continue to find them outside my window upon waking in the morning and resting my head on my pillow at night? How might I ever reclaim a state of inner peace?
Once I began to focus on that question, the answer made itself available. I would have to change what this event, which was beginning to consume my thoughts and feelings on a daily basis, represented to me. Once again I had returned to a truth that may not seem satisfactory to us in the heat of the emotional, irrational moment, but nonetheless always sets us free:
None of this was personal.
These people were not sent here from Russia to disturb my peace and torment me. Their actions were not designed to disrespect me. Nothing could be further from the truth. The worst one could say is that they were entirely, blissfully oblivious to me. Their intent was to spend two months of fun and frivolity by the pool in Los Angeles. I, on the other hand, interpreted every laugh, every word, every splash and buzz emitted from their radio as a slight against me. That somehow these people were taking something from me and me alone and the only way to peace was to eradicate them, annihilate them, make them wrong, change their reality by making them disappear. I needed to win. For peace. For self-respect. To end the pain.
Sound familiar? If you are lucky enough not to have been caught in that web of inner conflict, you surely can recognize it in the world around us, in the dynamic between lovers and ex-lovers, co-workers, competitors in business or politics and most evidently in masses of people represented through organized religious sects, communities and nations. One person’s reality is taken personally by another and the conflict begins and here was I, beginning my own little war in my tiny corner of the globe.
Some believe that the reason for the continuance of most large scale conflicts and many smaller ones stems from an appetite and desire for victory, revenge and ultimately validation and vindication which outweighs the desire to end the suffering that these conflicts create. I don’t believe this to be true. The problem lies in the misguided notion, taught to us in so many unspoken and, unfortunately, spoken ways, that inner peace resides in vanquishing that which we believe to have caused us grief in the first place. But the event itself is always outside us, impersonal, a projection emanating from a neutral person who is acting from inside their own deeply personal, subjective prism. It is only when we choose to believe that their actions say something true and valid about us, that we feel and engage in conflict. Therefore, nothing from without is personal unless we make it so, whether it comes from a stranger who knows nothing of who we are or a loved one (or hated one) who we feel understands us deeply.
This is not to say that behaviour should not be challenged. Nowhere am I advocating the passive acceptance of all conditions and actions. Far from it. We all must decide in each moment what will bring the most inner peace. Sometimes it will mean asking somebody in the firmest possible way to keep the noise down. In other moments it may require more drastic action. But in many moments it will also mean reminding ourselves that what others do says absolutely nothing about us and proceeding from that place always with a view to what will be the most harmonious action in the long term that will most allow us to accept the situation facing us in that moment.
This is a lesson I am engaged in even at the very writing of this today. As I type these words I hear, as on every other day, the laughter and conversation of these young women probably visiting these shores for the first time. They have been made fully aware of my feelings, as has the manager of the building. My sense of peace today will be contingent on my ability not to block them out, but rather to accept their presence as a benign entity, saying absolutely nothing about who I am. The struggle is no longer with a force without, but within.
The good news is that it is now a conflict that is completely within my power to end.