“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come to them from ignorance of real good and ill. But I, I have seen that the nature of good is the right and of ill the wrong, and I have seen that the nature of the man who does wrong is still similar to my nature. Maybe not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, in a portion of Divinity. So I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man can force me into doing wrong; Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together: like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another is therefore to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him would be to turn toward working-against.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2 #1, adaptation mine
As we stepped off the DC Metro at the Cleveland Park station, underground but well-lit, stately and very station-like, I patted my pockets, as I always do. An expression of horror coupled with embarrassment flooded my face as I turned to the departing subway car and watched my cell phone float away, travelling placidly in the middle of the seat I had occupied a minute before. The case was orange and grey, I could never mistake it. I could do nothing.
I couldn’t run after it–no automated car in the world would stop for me, especially not a DC Metro (noted for their cleanliness and timeliness, virtues I would normally appreciate). I couldn’t catch up to it. I had few options, and I felt as if they fled by the second. The longer we waited to take effective action, the likelier it seemed that my phone would pass into the crooked hands of some young thief, no doubt cheery at his good fortune, the lapses-of-vigilance of other humans.
Why should we have to be vigilant at all times? Was there no trust? Was there no decency, no sense of human family? My head buzzed with philosophies. My phone wouldn’t make it one station, I told myself. It was already lost, and like the Stoics I should regard it as having been so from the first. But I am not a Stoic. My heart throbbed, worrisome. It upset me deeply, thinking of how smugly satisfied the newfound owner of my phone must be, as I imagined him. Probably, he (probably a he) didn’t even need it, and would sell it for the price of pre-ripped pants, or to finance a dumb house party to impress texting friends. He’d probably misspell words on the eBay page, and use cAmeL caPs (ugh).
We approached a Metro employee, who did all he could to help us. The rest of the Topsy crew described the phone to him and he called all the forward stations, while I fumed on the ground, head in hands, losing all sense. I recalled my childhood, moments when I felt alone in the injustice of the world-at-large, press-ganged into fighting for the right, for my own rights, because I was alone in the good fight, or so I imagined. I imagined I was mild-mannered, and the fight was my duty. I had a very strong sense of right and wrong then, and I let everybody know it, and I threw tantrums. I don’t throw tantrums anymore, and I try not to cling so tightly to right and wrong. Sometimes, when I feel I have no options, though, I do get angry, and my energy turns to fighting off a tantrum. It doesn’t look like much, from the outside. But it hurts my head and I don’t enjoy it.
We tried a few things. I called Apple from France’s phone, but my wayward phone was dead and we couldn’t locate it. The station guard informed us that the trains were headed back our direction, and we should each board a car, investigate, and quickly hop off. We hopped on like little 007’s, scanning every seat, and got stuck as the doors closed, bringing us one station back. Always a step back. We returned on the next train, and I was a mile away. I thank the team for taking care of me and for interfacing with the world while I imagined the inconvenience and expense I would endure in getting a new phone and resetting it to fit my needs and habits. Childish, I know, but we all get angry. I needed time.
I let go of the phone in my mind. Not in the Stoic way. I mourned its passing. I wanted time to grieve it before moving on. I was about to put it in Lost Mode remotely, locking all my precious data. But the most amazing thing happened. All of the people I had recently contacted received a text message from a stranger, who had picked up my phone, gotten off the Metro at or before his destination, charged my phone, and told them that he had found it and would like to return it. The process of contacting and meeting him (I still don’t know his name) is less dramatic than the process of letting my phone go. But we did meet him, and he happily returned it. I gave him a 6-pack of root beer and asked if I could buy him dinner (it seemed the thing to do). He was busy, he said. He said another thing.
He could have left, but he shared a brief thought with us. A motivation for his actions, what we in TEVA would call a kavanna. He said (I paraphrase), “yeah, it was no trouble. People think with all the devices that we are getting further from each other. But I think as more people get hooked in, they realize how essential these objects become to getting along everyday, in planning and managing details and whatnot. I think when they realize how much they depend on it, they’ll look out for each other’s, because they know how important it is to that other person. They look out for each other because they know how much it means. I hope so. That’s why I did it. And I think some karma will come back to me when I need it.”
We talk about building communities. We try to teach kids and their supervisors (who are also kids, of a kind) to open space, blaze a holy trail to a clearing, where residents of a place can contribute and be uniquely valued. Where they can belong and become members of a community, and can work toward something together instead of floundering alone. I tell them to do this. I tell children that to work together is holy. I don’t tell them what to work toward. I am not a Stoic: I couldn’t let go of my attachment to an external object and I couldn’t forgive my imagined aggressor. But I know, to work against each other is to oppose nature, we have no choice but to work together. We can’t go away from each other: ‘there’s no such place as away’.
I still have a strong sense of right and wrong. I was right–a young man in stylish pants did pick up my phone. But I was wrong–first, I am not mild-mannered. And second, I am not alone in the world, in the fight to create what is right. Third, it is not even really a fight. There are no enemies. There are only people.
There are people working toward the things I am working toward, and there are people who are wrong. No, I mean it–it is ok to say that I think I see the right and that other people don’t see what I see. It’s also ok to say that I don’t see everything. I need other people to remind me, sometimes, of how the world is. I need people to take care of me sometimes. I need people to go out of their way to try to correct my mistakes, and I need people to look out for me, because they know how much it means. I need people to disagree with me too, but that’s a different blog post. Like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth: We don’t operate in isolation, one tooth cannot create holiness. I don’t always know what is right, what’s the best to fight for. But I know this: there are good people in the world. They need some help. The rest, we can figure out.