One of my favorite stories...
A farmer who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, his horse ran away beyond the fields and across the border. His neighbors rushed to his side and cried, "How horrible! What a tragedy!", but he simply stated, "It's too soon to tell". Several weeks later, the horse returned. But it wasn't alone—it was accompanied by a splendid stallion! Well this caused the neighbors to exclaim with joy at his great fortune. The farmer just replied, "It's too soon to tell". His response was confounding to the neighbors, who scratched their heads and returned to their labor.
The farmer's household was richer with such a fine horse. His son took to the task of training the horse for work in the fields. One day he was thrown by the stallion and his hip was broken. This appeared to be a catastrophe to the neighbors, who knew the farmer relied on his son to harvest the crops. The farmer took in the situation and thought to himself, "It's too soon to tell". Soon after, nomad warriors stormed the nearby border and all able-bodied men from the farmer's village took up weapons and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because of the son's injury did the father and son survive to take care of each other.
The tides of life rise and fall—there is blessing or disaster to be found in every event. Emotional equanimity allows peace to flow in the midst of the most challenging of times.
I was browsing through the "Improve Yourself" table at Barnes and Noble today and I got a very familiar feeling as I scanned through books on conversations with God, increasing happiness, and spiritual growth through hardship. I feel frustrated with the pervasiveness of the "expert" voice. One book detailed a man's private conversations with God and presented his experience as a manual of Truth. Others offer concrete steps to follow to manifest all desires instantaneously. It seems to me as though the idea of an opinion has gone by the wayside as the specter of expertise has been extended to everyone within spitting distance of the blogosphere.
Spiritual experiences are incredibly powerful, as well as being incredibly personal. People have a tendency to generalize their own experience for something that is appropriate and accessible to every other person. Today we have authorities on everything; as easy as it is to find an "expert" on any subject from contacting God to eating for longevity, it is equally easy to find a contradicting "expert" offering research supporting their own claims. I believe that different life strategies and belief systems work for different people and there is very little that is innately "good" or "bad" or even "standard". I think many people hear ideas from characters they admire, or think they should admire (see my previous post), and take on their assertions as gospel truth. The danger in this is evident in the fact that the names of charismatic figures in history ("authorities") who have easily convinced masses to commit despicable acts come readily to mind.
Life and the Universe present humans with a vast range of experience and possibility. Our attitude undoubtedly affects our access to opportunity and insight. But humans enter the world in different stages of karmic expression, intellectual development, and psychic or mystical insight. It is highly unlikely that one person's life experience and trajectory will mirror another's. I often find books documenting people's psychological growth and spiritual development to be off-putting, as many of them are presented as the final word on their subject. There is so much to learn and experience—the value of maintaining a beginner's mind (and a healthy critical eye as well as a touch of cynicism) cannot be understated. It is crucial to remember that the advice offered by fellow humans is a subjective expression of their innate creativity and might be honored as such and tempered with patience.
It seems to me that one of the most common words in our American-English language is "should". We're taught as children what we should and shouldn't do to be good, or to avoid being bad. Life is set up from the start as a game of skill and luck to win good points and avoid bad points. We carry this training with us and evaluate all possible choices according to whether we should or shouldn't, usually unconscious of the subtle subtext of judgment—"If I do it, will I be good?", "If I don't, will I be bad??".
Whenever I think or hear the word "should", my immediate response is "Says who?". We have internalized the adult voices from our childhood and we whip them out regularly to flagellate ourselves and judge our every choice and action. My response is that of a typical rebellious child who doesn't want to do something just 'cause Mom says. As adults, we have finally gained the right and privilege to make our own choices based on what we deem best for us in light of the situation and the well-being of all involved. When we unconsciously continue to wag a judgmental finger in our own direction and guilt ourselves into doing or not doing something, we are bowing down to the "should" and surrendering the power of our own intellect and free will.
The word "should" can be ejected and replaced with healthier ways of thinking. Replacing "should" with "could" indicates that you have a choice in how you spend your time and energy and that, as an adult, making your own choice is perfectly acceptable. For example, "I should eat something healthy" versus "I could eat something healthy, if I want to". Taking the thought further, "should" can be expanded to "I want to do this because..." which puts the power of decision in your hands and allows you to clarify your own reasons for making your own choice. Furthermore, "should" can also be transformed into "It would be healthy for me to do this because..." which helps you identify real reasons for making that choice, rather than doing it because some authority or entity decided you have to.
A big piece of becoming an adult is making our own choices and dealing with the results those choices produce. We no longer have to do things because someone says we should. WE get to decide what we choose, why we choose it, and all the whens, hows, and wheres associated with the choice. This is an important aspect of appreciating freedom, using it wisely, and reveling in the joy of adulthood.