Monday, September 15, 2008

My favorite question comes from an unlikely source – that is to say, an unlikely source if you’re an atheist as I am. It comes from the Bible. In John 18:38, Pilate asks the imprisoned son of a Jewish carpenter “What is truth?” The prisoner gives no recorded answer.

It’s a question that has challenged humanity through out the ages. No mind engaging in any sort of philosophical endeavor will find it possible to reach a communicable understanding or even an inner answer granting personal peace without first addressing this question and the ramifications that come part and parcel with it.

The key word in the last sentence of that paragraph is addressing. Like all major life questions (e.g. Who are we? Where are we going? What will we eat for lunch?*), this question doesn’t come with a sound-byte, one-size-fits-all answer. I personally don’t believe it comes any answer, but still the need to ponder it and to find some kind of resolution gnaws away at my mind as it has done in the minds of people across the ages. It is a question which leads the asker to seek for the sake of seeking. Through that process, the seeker is given opportunity to address the question of The Truth in a way that will irrevocably shape and reshape his or her life. This reshaping is the result of constant encounters of the truths that lead to the formation of the beginning of understanding The Truth.

At this moment in my life, I have come to understand these little-t truths as cardamom pods. When you eat a dish flavored with cardamom, you know it’s there. The floral scent it unleashes stimulates the olfactory and the tongue discovers sweet citrus flavors that would otherwise have been masked by stronger flavors like garlic. If you’re not careful, you bite into a cardamom pod. Your mouth will become overpowered by a airy, almost mentholated feeling. It’s too much, humbling even. It’s shocking. Then, it’s gone. The moment and the flavor passes but the memories and lessons remain. You eat slower now, looking at the food before each bite.

* * *

Let me tell you about John Doe #1. I have no name for him. He won’t tell it to me. He sits every morning near the corner of High St and Congress St. Often I find him at Starbucks; sometimes in Longfellow Square. He’s approximately 5’5”, 200 pounds. His curly hair, pear shaped build and skin tone makes me think he comes from one of the Franco-American communities that dot Maine (as I myself do). He is dirty. His clothes, always a sweat suit and sometimes a jacket, are perpetually damp with sweat or rain depending on the weather. Around his neck he wears a small set of plastic rosary beads like those Catholic children are given on their first communion. He often sits on the corner swearing at people who walk by, fighting with the voices in his head, and sometime arguing with walls and lamp posts. I’m not joking; I watched him chew out the south wall of Key Bank one day.

He created my cardamom pod moment last Monday. It was 7:30 a.m. and I was taking my dog for his morning mile long constitutional. We were heading north on Congress St., between High St. and Forest Ave., when we passed on the sidewalk. “That dog! That dog!” John Doe #1 began shouting at me as I passed.

In my most affable manner I attempted to defuse the situation. “Good morning,” I said smiling.
John Doe #1 stared right into my eyes and then shouted, “Fuck you! It’s not a good morning.” We each took a step backwards and then continued on our separate paths.

I made it three yards before I dissolved into laughter. I wasn’t laughing at him, but at the moment of truth that hit me with all the subtly of biting into a cardamom pod. I had been totally incorrect in my comment to him. It was not a good morning for him. He spends nights in a shelter (if he’s lucky), he needs medical attention and suffers from some form of mental illness. Who was I to trivialize his daily struggle with my presumptive “good morning?” Just another schmuck on the street blind to the dire struggles happening around me, that’s who.

* * *

This morning, while walking my dog and experiencing my little cardamom pod epiphany, I passed John Doe #1 again. I looked at him. He looked at me – there was no recognition of the other day in his eyes. He scowled and then made a chopping motion with is arm. “Case closed,” he shouted. I agreed and respected his pain with a moment of silence.

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