The theme for SFR’s 2021 Writing Contest nonfiction category came from one staffer’s recent reading of What We Owe to Each Other, by philosopher T M Scanlon. We envisioned entries that might opine on how to rebuild the fractured society in which we find ourselves, and though the responses struck our guest judge as unconventional, she also found them “deep.”
“They were just totally different approaches than I would have thought of,” says former state senator Dede Feldman, whose memoir, Ten More Doors: Politics and the Path to Change published this fall. “My response was far more mundane. Wear a mask…something tangible. These essays were so much more than that.”
Indeed, first-place winner Janna Lopez rejected the theme altogether but did so in a way that leaves readers pondering significant questions. Second place Joe Cooke presents the questions of Japanese Naikan, and sentences ending in question marks are even pervasive as Jackson Buckley deconstructs selfhood.
“Be patient,” writes Ranier Marie Rilke, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”
Later the poet admonished readers to “live the questions.”
We’re down with that.
(Julie Ann Grimm)
“What We Don’t Owe”
By Janna Lopez
What We Owe.
What a peculiar prompt. First proper ode to the notion of owing.
I read the literal definitions of ‘owe’ and my chest hurts. Although I’m aware of what the word means, the implications—the weight of what’s behind the word—suffocates. Most don’t aspire for a reality of debt. The overwhelm of expectation closes in walls, closer and closer, until there’s no room to breathe. Wherever debt derives from, requirement’s swallow is stifling.
I get the initial implication of the prompt; as stated, this prompt could be interpreted as the collective owing. What we owe society? What we, as humans, owe one another?
More closely contemplated, aside from standard bills and responsibilities required of daily life, or the IRS, whom or what might we owe?
Do you feel you owe anything, or of your Self, to any of the above? To all of the above?
I wonder about obligation’s burden that presses upon us throughout our lives. We spend so much of our precious time striving to pay or repay debts of various kinds, including social, moral, religious, and cultural debts. Do we wake up alive, gifted into our being, birthed into debt? That’s a depressing thought.
If I look back on childhood, experiences that shaped me, like many of you, I recall the people who helped me connect, explore, learn, discover, or uncover invaluable insights that became embedded into who I am. Many names I can’t remember, yet I feel indebted to them, nonetheless. But not in the owing sphere of the word. The indebtedness I speak of relates more to gratitude than obligation.
The kind teacher who taught me how to read and write. The doctor who gave me stitches when I was stabbed in the chest with scissors when I was in first grade. The school bus driver with a missing front tooth who warmly greeted me as I got on the bus, and widely smiled as if he had a full set of teeth. The uncle who slipped me dollar bills at family parties. Boyfriends who taught me the true meaning of how to love myself through their rejection. Friends who extended their shoulders for tears, their wisdom, their encouragement. Records whose music became magic for the soundtrack of my life as I played them over and over again. Moments in which gestures were seen as currency of connection, not as favors of condition.
I don’t believe the purpose of life is to fulfill obligation—as in we owe. That would mean servitude, and servitude disparages the realm of service. To give. Because the heart can’t help itself from expressing love. Because it can. Not because it has to. What about those who don’t feel this way? Does a requirement of servitude make up for a gap caused from the less altruistic? Is there some karmic balance in our order of existence?
When I imagine who gives, who serves, who shares, who contributes, I witness how people do as they can. In ways that they can. I don’t get the sense that they give or serve, share or contribute, because they’re doing so out of owing. It’s not to say they may not hold a moral, religious, or social consciousness about helping fellow humans, but the origin from which they give comes from a place of wanting to give, not having to give.
Not everyone is capable. It is from the wellspring of our humanness that we provide. How can we pay something owed, if we ourselves have empty pockets? Socially, we’re inept. Have you considered how flawed, afraid, and fractured the source—i.e. our humanness—is? Expecting a complete clearing of a psychic, spiritual, or cultural contract, is a willful set up for failure. Reckless at worst. Selfish at best.
How might we love one another?
How might we extend compassion?
Might we be kind?
Might we extend thoughtfulness?
Seems the division of our times stems from false indignation.
The very indoctrination of owing and being owed.
People feel they’re owed some form of social bounty; a bounty that fulfills selfish ideals—ideals that mirror their own skewed righteousness.
The shouting among us is palpable.
The hatred is sharp.
These divisions we experience, in 2021, stem from the perspective poison of being owed. Worse than a child screaming in tantrum’s wake for a toy merely because they can’t have it. Once they get the toy they lose interest and want the next thing they can’t have, yet feel they are owed.
You owe me nothing.
You don’t owe me understanding.
You don’t owe me equality.
You don’t owe me justice.
You don’t owe me compassion.
You don’t owe me your attention of reading my words.
If you paid some form of understanding, would it be sincere?
If you paid some form of equity, would it have a veil of superiority, since it was you who granted it?
If you paid some form of justice, would you feel relief? Or regret?
If you paid some form of compassion, would your pity spill into unspoken debt’s messiness?
If you paid some form of attention to my words, would they guide or offer a heart shift, or merely temporarily simmer in your frontal cortex until they dissolved? Would temporary mind absorption count as full payment?
Owing comes with expectation.
Comparatively, to offer a revised concept, hope comes with intention.
I hope for understanding. Here we can go beyond mere toleration, and into a realm of deeper connection.
I hope for equality. That ensures judgement is a non sequitur when we enter a shared space.
I hope for justice. Because justice is one of the hardest to measure or qualify. Humility comes with this hope. What is just? If we intend for justice, then love willing, we might have more room to place all definitions of justice on our social table to survey and sample.
I hope for compassion because we’re all so fu*ked up, and flawed, and seek our place inside belonging. This recognition dwells deep in the well of compassion. Acknowledgement of this reality is so profound I’ll say it again: I hope for compassion because we’re all so fu*ked up and flawed, and seek our place inside belonging.
But what of owing to one’s Self? What, if anything, do we owe to our Self?
To be realized?
For many, these are tall unreachable debts.
For too many. Some feel lucky just to wake up or make it through another day. Some struggle to feed children, fight cancer, stave addiction. Some feel invisible, ignored, angry, dismissed. Are they owed something?
Think about things we once felt we were owed that 2020 into 2021 took away: Our confidence in forever. Our invincibility. Our cockiness that, without thought, we’re able to hop on a plane to vacation in Hawaii. Or go to a concert. Or hug a friend. Or eat in a restaurant without worry that we might get sick. Maybe even die. The ignorance we once basked in covering a truth of people we thought we knew who revealed vastly different values than yours. Or mine. That we can send our kids to school to learn, socialize, or fulfill a socially-trauma-free childhood. Rationality. Civility. Discourse. Science. Facts. Governance. At one time we may have negligently thought we were owed these things. Do we still feel this way?
I reject the notion of owing anything to anyone for any reason. I consider the source of who is the debtor, and who is the creditor: Humankind.
We are capable of everything.
We are capable of nothing.
We are cosmic.
We are hapless.
We are fragile.
We are resilient.
We are trapped.
We are free.
We are afraid.
We are courageous.
We are obligation-destitute.
We are experiential-wealthy.
We are limitless within human confines of limitation.
Little to no inspiration exists in the realm of obligation.
What if the shift of obligation moved to intention?
How can we make room for, or allow imagination, if shackled by debts we don’t understand? Who knows what we can create, or discover, if we were somehow able to wipe away the inherent debt of what we owe, and instead provided a clean slate of silence? Or stillness? What if we were encouraged to explore that expectation-free, obligation-empty, liminal place where potential is most fertile and alive?
Could we pay homage towards life’s nuanced experiential-coffers instead?
Janna Lopez is an intuitive book coach, creative writing teacher with a MFA, and published author of Me, My Selfie & Eye. She’s completing her second and third books: one, a collection of poetry, and the other, The Art & Invitation of Self-Conversation – Writing That Moves You Beyond Fear to Freedom based on her work with hundreds of clients. She leads creative writing retreats in Santa Fe, New Mexico, through Land of Enchantment Writing. www.landofenchantmentwriting.com.
By Joe Cooke
My father simply spills out of my mouth from time to time, causing me great embarrassment.
I hadn’t seen Dan in twenty years, and he had barely changed in all that time, while I have gone from a robust forty-something to a bald old version of Joe Sr., who, in fact, died just a few years ago with a full head of wavy white hair.
I said to Dan, “You haven’t changed a bit!”
And then the ghost of my father piped in, “Because you were an old guy when I met you!”
I could have crawled under the table and died.
Dan was speaking to us about this idea he’s been researching called Naikan, which is a Japanese form of guided introspection based on pondering three questions about the effects a person has had on your life:
What did I receive from this person?
What did I return to this person?
What troubles, worries, unhappiness did I cause this person?
And purposefully avoiding any consideration of the troubles and difficulties that person caused to you. It’s much like the twelve-step program and many others that take this even one step further to making amends.
Dan graciously avoided my blurt. As a leadership coach, even after twenty years, he still knows me and the demons I struggle with. He has walked with me and guided me in the dark recesses of my psyche, and even though it was only for a few days, they were revealing days.
I owe Dan a debt of gratitude I can never repay. His work with me changed my life, and it wasn’t overnight change, or hyped-up-Tony-Robbins superficial change, it was deep, lasting, slow, sometimes tedious transition that began with awareness and has never ended. Asking questions about what I believe and how I might be a better person has become ingrained into my soul.
As for my father, he was my world when I was younger, despite the physical and verbal abuse. I had nothing to compare that to. I got my college degrees, three of them, to please him, mostly. I sacrificed my own dreams and aspirations to please my mom and to assuage her fears, to provide for my family and to not take visible risks, to be respectable and ordinary. When she died, I felt a great sense of relief for both of us. She suffered in her last years, more than she did being married to my misogynistic, overbearing, disrespectful father, and I can hardly compare my mental anguish with the physical abuse that many children experience, but still, my upbringing did not engender me with a success mindset. My family was poor and first-generation college graduates. My uncle used to say to me, “Hey there, Joey, I see you’re still taking those ugly pills, ha ha ha!” He passed away recently and his widow posted something about how she would miss his witty comments. I have only recently begun to see myself as a handsome man, a competent man, and a loving, empathetic partner.
I felt no sense of relief when my father died. A year before COVID, he came down with a respiratory virus that was going around the assisted living facility. He was 89 years old. I was recovering from a bone marrow transplant and should never have gone into that hospital, but it was my last chance to see him. He didn’t even know I was there. I came down with pneumonia and was not able to attend the memorial service or funeral. I was one of the four siblings that recommended he be placed in a care facility. He wanted to stay in the farmhouse he built with his own hands.
He wrote me out of his will before he died.
I miss the idea of a father more than I do the old man. When I was younger, we would golf together, sometimes fish, less often hunt. He bragged to his golfing buddies about my law degree and my CPA, but shut up as soon as someone asked him what kind of law I practiced. Mom was a teacher. I am a college professor. I built a charter school in rural Washington. He opposed that. Opposed my lifestyle. Opposed my divorce, even though he had cheated on mom many times, and she knew it. Children of the depression, they did not discuss such things. Ever. With anyone.
So, today my father bubbled out of me, and I am ashamed. Like a small child hiding behind the couch, cowering, and Dan asks us three questions:
What did I receive from this person?
What did I return to this person?
What troubles, worries, unhappiness did I cause this person?
I am not yet ready to answer these. I know from past experience though, that I must in order to move on and to receive the gift that has been presented to me. I still hold it here, in my hands, unopened.
Naikan. Introspection. And a few lines from William Stafford:
Some time when the river is ice ask me…
Joe Cooke writes fiction and non-fiction, “but what they have in common is my desire to inspire and entertain, in order to make your life better,” he writes. “My non-fiction is based on a lifetime of studying the fundamentals of meaningful personal accomplishment and my fiction is just pure fun.
“What We Owe One Another: a Spiritual Perspective”
By Jackson Buckley
I believe that happiness—and not just happiness but profound, unabating bliss—is our birthright.
Let me explain. When we are born, I believe that we are born into a singular, undivided consciousness which simultaneously contains all beings. This is spoken of in spiritual traditions as oneness, Christ consciousness, Nirvana, and various other names.
You can see this sometimes in infants and small children, who seem so bedazzlingly open as to puzzle the adult. When the child laughs, they do not laugh with the reserve which dampens the laughter of their elders; they laugh as though the world itself is delightful, the laugh emitting from some source within the earth and passing through them. Similarly, when young children cry, they cry as though the pain is overwhelming; there is no self-consciousness about the pain, no guardedness against experience.
So what happens to this undifferentiated, and therefore interconnected, consciousness?
In your own life, you can probably remember primary experiences of trauma, experiences in which you were palpably separated from those around you. Perhaps this separation came in the form of racialized trauma, the teaching that you looked different from your community and, concomitantly, that there was something wrong with you; perhaps it was other forms of exclusion, such as your gender, your intellect, your self-expression, or any other of infinite dimensions along which we can be individualized. Necessarily, this exclusion also came with some form of judgement, the feeling that there was something “bad” or “wrong” with you, the reason for your pain.
In response to these foundational experiences, you formed a self. The self is a construct which seeks to regain the boundless pleasure of undifferentiated consciousness, precisely by denying the “truths” which have been used to exclude us. For instance, if an environment has told us that we are not intelligent enough to belong, then a self arises which seeks to prove itself intelligent; doing this, the subconscious hope is that the comfort and peace which pre-existed the judgement will return. To use a different example, if the self-forming message is that one is overweight, then a self emerges whose goal is to lose weight, to fit a predefined cultural image, in order that the self itself can disappear—in other words, in order that one can re-merge with the collective, the site of peace children know so well.
It is not that the self is problematic—in fact, all of the literature and other art we humans have created recounts and explores the travails of the self, a canon of both great beauty and incredible diversity. However, it is important to note that the project of selfhood itself is doomed. Never in your life will you become “intelligent” enough that all self-doubt is removed; similarly, never in your life will the “perfect” body be attained, such that all worries about appearance vanish. There will be no perfect racial community in which to house your interiorized inferiority, no perfect relationship to quell your fears that you cannot adequately fulfill the role of partner. And so on and so forth.
This being the case, peace is found through relinquishing the project of selfhood as a whole, which is to say recognizing that that project lives within the unending equanimity to which we are inheritors. Just as the child laughing with the glory of existence, just as that same child crying when existence hurts, we ourselves are products of this undifferentiated, inarguable peace and love—regardless of whether we feel it in all moments, no matter how far we may stray from this awareness in any given behavior. What I have described in this paragraph can double as a description of faith itself.
And so what do we “owe” one another? Knowing that we are products of an unassailable bliss, but knowing simultaneously that the embodied experience is one of straying from that bliss, how can we help one another not only to enjoy, but to celebrate existence?
First off, we need to remember that all selfhood is conditional and, in that respect, that every circumstance bears gratitude. If we have been fortunate enough to attain the kind of awareness I describe in this essay, then that awareness itself is the consequence of our life’s circumstances; as such, we can no more take responsibility for it than we can take responsibility for being born. This being the case, we recognize simultaneously that everyone else’s awareness is a product of their circumstances, too; as such, it becomes obvious that our duty is to help liberate everyone else from suffering, rather than judge them for wherever they may meet us along their path. Political considerations arise from this simple observation that trauma and awareness are unevenly distributed.
Second, and perhaps paradoxically, we need to recognize that the self’s journey is as beautiful and revelatory as it is troublesome. For instance, suppose someone has been born into a body that is frail and that lifelong illness is a portion of this person’s lot. Well, from the perspective of singular consciousness, doesn’t this lifelong illness generate another experience which that consciousness then gets to explore? This being the case, doesn’t the person’s existence add to the whole in a way that no other life could accomplish? Once we see that the purpose of every experience is for divine consciousness to understand itself, we see also that there are in fact no “problems” in life, that even the origin of the self in trauma is something to be revered, something to be wished for. Without that separation through trauma, there could be no experience at all.
Holding these two teachings simultaneously—on the one hand wanting to help others, but on the other knowing that help is not necessary—we teach, as it were, with a light hand, offering our services as a gift, but more out of reverence and humility than out of ego. What we offer, we offer through our very gaze, our very being, and if others are not yet ready for nor interested in this offer… then that is fine. In this way, we embrace both our role as individualized beings with our own minute struggles, dreams, and personalities; and the divine consciousness which made that individuality possible in the first place. What we owe one another, is precisely the awareness of what we are.
A Santa Fe native, Jackson Buckley currently teaches English at Santa Fe Prep. He enjoys hiking, meditating, reading, writing, and yoga.