I met Jerry Stanecki after having already reviewed his book, Life Is A Joke And God Wrote It. We caught up with each other at Starbuck’s, on the corner of Maple and Lahser on an early Friday afternoon at the very beginning of summer. I was dressed a little too formally in a charcoal suit and open-necked dress shirt, especially considering that the sun was out, and it was too hot outside to wear more than a short-sleeved shirt. Jerry entered a few minutes after I did, dressed more appropriately in a golf shirt and Bermuda shorts. He greeted me briskly and ordered a chocolate chip cookie from the counter, while I carried a plush chair into the far corner of the establishment to ensure the maximum amount of privacy.
He began by complimenting me on the review. “It’s very aggressive,” he said, in the blunt, economical manner I had already come to expect from reading his book and communicating with him via e-mail.
I wanted to savor the compliment a little more, so I asked him what he meant by that.
“Well, rarely do you see a review that’s in-depth like that. Your review is like my book. You just let it hang out there. You put your issues into it. You put the things that you felt into it, and said, ‘OK. Let’s put it out there and see what happens. So it’s aggressively done, meaning that there’s passion in it.'”
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” I replied. “Because the word ‘aggressive’ has a positive connotation for me, especially in connection with spirituality. There are a lot of qualities that go into spirituality, but one thing it takes is a certain degree of courage sometimes.”
“A great deal of courage, actually,” Jerry responded. “The scariest thing we look at in our lives is our self. When you look into the mirror and something happens-when something is brought into your life that may be considered something terrible-it takes a great deal of courage to say, ‘OK. I’ll hang tight. I’ll feel this feeling that I’ve buried before, with faith that I’m going to come out on the other side feeling much better about myself. And that’s really the goal of spirituality-to be at peace with one’s self. I look at things now, when so-called ‘bad’ things happen to me in my life, and I think of them as having no other reason to happen other than for my good.”
I’m putting the last few words in italics not because Jerry vocally emphasized them, but solely to indicate the impression they made on me as he spoke. In his own ‘aggressive’ way, I felt, he had honed right into the central issue behind most human dilemmas. At the same time, it was personally frustrating to think that despite the fact that I knew this principle backwards and forwards in my mind, I was still so prone to forget it in the heat of the moment. “That’s a very good attitude,” I commented, “but it’s surprising how elusive that attitude can be no matter how serious we are about living the spiritual life.”
“Why,” he responded, “do I choose to believe that when bad things happen, they are happening for my good, or when anything happens it’s happening for my good? When good things are happening, I recognize them as good things. I don’t have to worry about them. They’re not stealing anything from me. But when bad things happen to me-as simple as somebody cutting me off on the road-if I believe that good things will happen as a result of what is occurring to me right now, I stop myself from feeling self-pity. When I feel sorry for myself, the next step is I get angry: ‘Why me, damn it? Why me?’ And then, all of a sudden, I’m caught in the resentment trap, which leads immediately back to anger and self-pity. So I’m the dog chasing its own tail. All of which steals my happiness.”
The ease with which he presented this analysis made me feel distinctly self-conscious. “I’m connecting with what you’re saying, I understand it intellectually, and I try to practice it, but still there are so many times that I find myself in an anger situation,” I told him.
“You know why that is, don’t you? You’re human.”
I missed the opportunity to just relax and laugh at his blunt humor. “If that mental recognition were just turned on all the time…” I complained.
“Practice makes perfect,” Jerry stated simply.
“Yeah.” I agreed. “It has to be drilled into you. And there’s no telling how long it’s going to take some people. It’s going to take some people longer than others.”
“Well, you see this chocolate chip cookie I’m eating?” he asked. “I’m eating this because I want to. I want this because it gives me pleasure.”
I had absolutely no idea where he was going with this. The chocolate chip cookie didn’t seem to have any connection with what we were talking about.
“Perception is the absolute most important thing here,” he explained. “If I perceive that you’re doing something to harm me, or you’ve done something to hurt my feelings, or you’ve wronged me in some way, my perception tells me that’s not pleasurable. It also says, ‘Get angry, get impatient, get intolerant,’ all of which steal my happiness. Now, you can say to me, ‘Gee, I really feel bad for you,’ but you can’t feel my feelings. Nobody can feel anybody else’s feelings. And if we are to believe that we are powerless over the people, places, and things in the world, but that we are powerful over ourselves, then it’s an easy job. Because all we’ve got to do is make the choice. There’s the power. The choice is, ‘Am I going to stay angry, impatient, or intolerant because of this jerk? Am I going to let this jerk live in my life rent-free?’ Or am I going to say, ‘Check it, Jerry. Look in the mirror and you’re going to see the problem,’ because I’m the problem. You’re the problem when it comes to your feelings. I’m the problem when it comes to mine.”
“I was at the bank a little while ago,” he continued, “and a woman comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, does that book of yours, Life Is A Joke And God Wrote It, have anything in it about husbands?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. The first sentence says, ‘Look in the mirror and see the problem. It’s not your husband.’ And the woman looked shocked! She said, ‘What do you mean?’ And we talked a little about that. We talked about accepting responsibility for your own feelings. I’m eating this cookie because it gives me pleasure. If it wasn’t giving me pleasure I could choose not to eat it. No one forces you to have your feelings.”
I had completely forgotten about the chocolate chip cookie until he suddenly came back to it. He was connecting the idea of pleasure with choice, and the idea of choice with taking responsibility for one’s feelings. So the ability to feel pleasure-to be happy, in fact-depended upon assuming total responsibility for one’s state of mind. There was something really staggering in the simplicity of this. It felt somehow overwhelming to me, until I realized that there was a difference between assuming total responsibility for one’s situation or experience in life, and assuming responsibility for one’s feelings or attitude toward that situation. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we feel and act in any given situation.
“So it has something to do with working with whatever you’ve got at the moment,” I made a stab at keeping up with him.
“Precisely. All you have is this moment. This is it. If you’ve got breast cancer, that’s it. That’s what’s happening today. That’s what you’re dealing with. And if you hide it, you don’t want to tell your husband about it, you’re worried, you’re scared about it, what you’re doing is avoiding what is IT. And that’s creating a hundredfold more elements of fear in your life. Fear is the most destructive force, in terms of stealing your happiness.”
“I was hiking the other day,” I said, “and I got into an area where there were a lot of mosquitoes, and they were biting me. And I was thinking…”
“Those little bastards…” Jerry interjected.
“Yeah, those little bastards. But I was thinking, ‘What would happen if it didn’t itch?'”
“Well, you wouldn’t know you were being bitten. You’d ignore it.”
“So what would happen to our resistance? People would allow mosquitoes to bite them, and we’d have them swarming around all over the place.”
“Well, now hold on a minute. Don’t underestimate human intelligence. We’re bitten by a lot of bugs that don’t itch.”
“That’s true,” I admitted.
“But I’ll tell you what’s interesting in what you’ve said there. You mentioned ‘resistance’. Resistance is a big problem. We are not put in this universe to resist it. The universe has this wonderful energy going around. You’ve heard of the Yin and the Yang, or the balance between the Male and the Female. You’ve heard of places in the world where there is supposed to be a balance of these energies. There is very little ‘resistance’ in places like Sedona, Arizona, or Taos, New Mexico. They’re energy vortexes. If you could go through your life without resisting… And what is resisting? Resisting is trying to control a situation because of fear. If you could go through life without trying to control another person, place, or thing, if you could just go naturally with the flow of the universe, it would make you available to all these wonderful things the universe presents to you on a daily basis, on a moment-to-moment basis.
“Am I peaceful all the time?” he asked rhetorically. “Hell, no. I get irritated. I get angry.”
“You do?” I replied. I had just convinced myself that he was a total master of himself in all situations, and for some reason I breathed a little sigh of relief at this admission on his part.
“Sure, he replied. “I’m real pissed off right now about (Attorney General) John Ashcroft and George W. Bush. I said in my column the other day that we’re about to get ‘Bush-whacked’. George W. has just told Ashcroft to go ahead and put together a team to see about putting an end to the lawsuit against the cigarette companies. How dare he do that? You know, we just killed Timothy McVeigh because he premeditatively killed people. But the cigarette manufacturers have been premeditatively killing people for years. They’re despicable human beings. I have a newspaper clipping from 1935 that shows that already back then they knew that cigarettes caused health problems. And they continued to lie for sixty years, and they’re still lying.”
“I take it you didn’t vote for Bush…”
“No, I voted for Ralph Nader. And the only reason I voted for him was because I wanted, hopefully, to see a percentage big enough so that we could get a third party in this country. I’m tired of being held hostage by the Democrats and the Republicans. They’re just the puppets of the lobbyists, and this is the perfect the example. The first thing George W. did was to give it away to the insurance companies. The second thing he did was to give it away to the oil companies. Now he’s going to let the cigarette companies go. It’s payback for all the damn money they gave him. To me, that’s corruption at the highest level.”
“Well, I’m pretty much on your wavelength, politically,” I commented. I didn’t really know what else I could add to his indictment.
“But the big question is, ‘OK, you get pissed off, Jerry, over this stuff. How long do you let it bother you?’ And the answer is, ‘As long as I choose to.’ I’m kind of a blue-collar, working man’s, non-guru-ish spiritualist. The most important aspect of spirituality, for me, is the ability to choose how long I want to be angry, how long I want to stay upset, how long do I want to allow other people to live in my life rent-free, whether it’s the guy who cuts you off on the freeway or President Bush.”
“There were a couple of stories in your book that were just like experiences that I’ve had in my life,” I said. “You told this one story about a guy who has everything go wrong for him, and then says, ‘That’s it, God? You call that a hit? Can’t you do any better than that?’ I had an experience just like that when I was living in Egypt, years ago. Everything had gone wrong for me there…”
“From your perception…”
“Absolutely. From my perception…”
“And that’s probably a perception, if I dare say-and it’s not a judgment on my part-that came from being in a victim role.”
“Oh, absolutely. Of course, Egypt was not that easy a place to live in. And I had various health problems at the time. I had an operation, I nearly lost a finger, I broke up with my girlfriend, and I managed to get on the wrong side of just about everyone I knew there…”
“How did you almost lose a finger?”
“I got clipped by a van while crossing the street. It was a freak accident.”
“And were you grateful for that?” Jerry asked with an inquisitor’s intensity.
I laughed. “At the time, no. Not particularly.”
“You were saying, ‘Why me?'”
“Yeah. I was doing a lot of whining at the time.”
“You could have said, ‘Gee, that was only my finger. That could have been my own life!’ Life is how we look at it, at that moment.”
“Exactly. But anyway, it got to the point where I was going down the street one day, and I was saying ‘Why me? Why me?’ And I came to a covered market-that is, a market with a roof over it-and it had a sewage gutter up above near the roof, almost like a rain gutter on a house. I was just in the process of saying ‘Why me?’ and I got this load of raw sewage dumped right on my head.”
“Perfect. And I hope you looked up and said, ‘No shit!'”
“I looked up and said something that was the equivalent of ‘Can’t you do any better than that, God?’ Except I said it in Arabic-I was studying Arabic at the time-and there was a little extra degree of irony to saying it in Arabic.”
“There was another story you told about a goose dying in your arms, and I had a similar experience on the outskirts of Ann Arbor a few years ago, seeing a rabbit being eaten alive by a flock of crows.”
“And what was that experience telling you?”
“The same thing that you talked about in your book. I felt I was getting a glimpse into the processes of nature, and learning to feel respect for those processes, and how to be detached from what was going on.”
“But if you would have been that rabbit, you sure as hell would’ve wished you would have gone against that respect…”
“Well, the rabbit was taking it in an almost Buddha-like manner. That’s the way it seemed to me. But in light of your suggestion, earlier, I guess there’s no way of knowing what the rabbit was feeling.”
“But I got the sense that it was in a completely altered state.”
“Well, do you remember when you were in Egypt, and you were walking down the street, and the sewage hit you on the head? That’s what that rabbit was thinking-‘Oh, shit.'”
“It’s possible.” I could tell he had been putting me on for quite a while, but I was intent on following my serious train of thought.
“Humor is obviously very important in my life,” Jerry interjected, in case I hadn’t caught on yet.
“It’s possible that when something becomes so utterly painful, the processes of nature simply take over,” I kept on my serious track.
Now it was Jerry’s turn to be serious. “When something becomes so utterly painful, one must remember that God gives us the gift of pain to bring about change. And that is an absolute, because we’re basically very complacent people. We don’t like change. We like our own little niche and our own ways of doing things. Change is scary. But if you stop to think about it, you change because of fear. And when you change because of fear, you no longer are afraid.”
I was thinking of a response to this, when Jerry anticipated my train of thought.
“There are two kinds of fear-positive fear and negative fear,” he said.
“Fear can be positive, too.” That’s what I had meant to say.
“Sure. It’s what enables us to survive. You don’t run out in traffic with a car coming at you. If you see a guy in a trench coat on a dark night, and there’s something in his hand, you don’t go up to him and say, ‘Hey, got a light?'”
“Well, I had a similar conversation with a friend not too long ago, and I told him that I was feeling afraid about certain things that might be up ahead. And he said that was actually good, in a way, because it showed that I was pushing myself. If you’re afraid, but at the same time you’re doing something, you’re probably OK.”
“As long as you’re not running away from that fear. That’s also ‘doing’ something. Instead of running away from it, run towards it. Embrace it. Stop the resistance. You’ll be amazed what happens.”
Now Jerry really had me. My whole present life flashed in front of me. I knew what my fears were, or thought I knew. But I wasn’t sure if I was running towards them or away from them.
“As I said in my review, the statement in your book that hit me the hardest was the one in which you said, ‘I decided that I would try to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted.'”
This was the central issue for me. This was why I had found Jerry’s book so compelling, and what motivated me to interview him. There was a question in my mind, and the question had to do with what direction I was running in. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. But was I more afraid of doing what I wanted to do, or of not doing what I wanted to do? And if I was more afraid of not doing what I wanted to do, then shouldn’t I be doing what I didn’t want to do? It was confusing.
“Why don’t people do what they want to do?” he asked me pointedly.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Well, because they’re afraid to. They have feelings of being less than… You know, one of the great things about alcoholics is they usually jump into the pit of fire and then say ‘Now what do I do?’ For instance, I rebuilt my house. I bought a home and then completely gutted the house and rebuilt it. And I had reached a point where I didn’t have anything the carpenters lined up, I didn’t have the plumbing lined up, and part of me was saying, ‘You can’t start anything until you’ve got everything in order. That was the old picture. The old picture said, ‘Everything’s got to be perfect.’ Well, I got off of that and said, ‘Well you know, what will be will be, and this is it. I told the crew, ‘Go ahead and demolish the house,’ and they demolished everything. So all I had was studs left inside the house-no rooms, just studs. Then I knew I had nowhere to go but up. Then I worried about what was happening, right then and there that day. And the house is gorgeous.”
I had put myself into the situation Jerry had just described, and was thinking that I was almost at that point in my life where there were no rooms, just studs-but not quite. I was just waiting for that last wall to be demolished.
“This is important stuff,” Jerry brought me back to attention. “And this is basically the power point in my new book. We are all born with this wonderfully healthy ego, the one that says ‘Good job, Jerry.’ The one that says, ‘You really feel good about yourself.’ The one that says, ‘Thank you, God. It’s great to be alive.’ The moment we come into the world that wonderfully healthy ego starts to become diseased. Our mothers and our fathers, brothers, sisters, teacher, friends-those folks who give us their love and their guidance-also give us their character defects, the stuff they haven’t fixed. And that’s how our ego becomes more and more diseased.”
“And it becomes very confusing trying to sort what is you from what is them, or from what you have inherited from them,” I added.
“Yes. ‘This is what you should be, and this is what you need to do to get there.’ Part of this problem is perfection. I refer to these as old, unhealthy pictures. Now, to get new pictures, generally what you need is some kind of jolt, a slap in the face. In my case, it was the gift of alcoholism. That was a terrific gift. Because that gave me the opportunity to say, ‘There are ways in this world other than black and white. I can look at things in a bunch of different ways.’ And what I did then was to start to form some new pictures.”
“The other night,” he continued, “I was listening to Miguel Ruiz, the fellow that wrote The Four Agreements, and his whole contention is to search out the ‘truth of the child’. Well, what he neglected to point out, in my opinion, is that the child is influenced by the diseased egos of the parents, the friends, and the teachers. How many times have you heard, ‘I don’t want to be like my father or my mother.’ And you’re exactly like that. So it’s important to create new pictures in your life-new, healthy pictures.”
I felt that Jerry had absolutely nailed my problem. It went back to this dilemma of whether I feared doing what I wanted to do, or not doing what I wanted to do. The latter idea was one that I suspected had been imprinted in me by my mother. The fear of not doing what I wanted to do suggested that the antidote was to do what I didn’t want to do. But that was an entirely negative suggestion, designed, in fact, to keep me doing what I didn’t want to do! This was my mother’s way of exercising control over me, because of her own fears. I was so addicted to assuaging her fears that I had given my whole life in service of pleasing her, instead of doing what I wanted to do. I hadn’t lived my own life, and I hadn’t helped her overcome her fears in any way, either.
“My mother,” I told Jerry, “would view this attitude of doing what you want to do as an escapist attitude.”
“Really!” he said. “What did she do for a living?”
“She was a physical therapist.”
“Was she happy?”
“I don’t know.’
“Ask her to define happiness.”
“I think my mother has this idea that people have to discipline themselves by doing what they don’t want to do.”
“Oh, absolutely. They do. But is that why she was a physical therapist-because of discipline? She was doing a disservice to her patients, if that was the case.”
“In other words, that’s no reason to choose a profession.”
“Of course not. ‘Were you a physical therapist because that’s what you wanted to do?’ ‘Well, yes.’ ‘So why are you down on me for doing what I want to do?’ Why do you allow her to have that kind of influence in your head?”
“Answer it.” I was getting a real therapy session from this man. I fumbled around for a reply, feeling backed against the ropes. It was undeniable that I had allowed my mother and other family members to exercise an entirely unacceptable amount of influence over me throughout my life. To trace back the root of the fear, to identify the precise nature of the ego disease that I had inherited from them, was not something I could do in an instant.
“All I can say at this point,” I replied, “is that I think for most of my life I’ve had a very mistaken idea about myself. I thought I was a very independent type of person, when in fact I wasn’t. I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations all along, but I didn’t know that’s what I was doing.”
“Well, just remember that expectations, nine times out of ten, will lead to disappointment. So don’t feel bad about disappointing those people, and their expectations of you. The secret is to be true to thy self. Maybe you’re just a people-pleaser.”
“I never thought I was, but now I’m beginning to think I am.”
“Or you may you’re afraid of being abandoned. That’s a very common thing with a lot of people, especially among our generation. The question is, ‘Why are you doing it,’ and the answer is, ‘Don’t.’ Do what you want to do. You know, if all writers listened to other people, there wouldn’t be any books, probably. My biggest dilemma in writing is that, even though it makes me feel wonderful, at times I’ll do anything I can to avoid it. So what do I do about it? I say, ‘OK, Let’s adjust to this. If you’re feeling that way, why are you feeling that way?’ And then I remind myself that I think too much at times. So I go work in the garden. And then when I’m done working in the garden, or all of a sudden I stop when I’m in the middle of something, walk in the house, sit down at the computer, and write.”
We chatted some more about writing, and as things wound down, I was already wondering what exactly I had here. The interview with Jerry had left me feeling truly disoriented. He had taken charge from the start, and although I had tried to guide the conversation in certain directions, he had very effectively dug new channels that I hadn’t anticipated, taking the course of the interview, like fresh water, to formerly unfertile ground. The upshot of it all was that I hadn’t felt very much in control. But that was all right. In fact, it felt pretty good not to be in control. I didn’t mind it at all. As we parted, I gave thanks, inwardly, for that little gift-received courtesy of Jerry Stanecki. Outside, the sun was shining. It was a beautiful day.
To buy Jerry Stanecki’s book or schedule speeches, go to www.jerrystanecki.com.
Copyright – JS