Death by a Thousand Smiles

 The Life & Loves of a Failed Misanthrope # 2

Drummer Bob came in again yesterday. I noticed he had shaved.

He said, “At least it’s not raining” in his glum tone of voice. Then he added, “I probably shouldn’t say that. That’s all I need is rain.”

I suggested he get an umbrella. Bob never wears a hat and he is generally under or over-dressed for the weather, then complains about it. He said he had never owned an umbrella.

In a flash, I realized who Bob reminded me of. He was Eeyore!

He said he just woken up and then explained that someone had given him some hash to help him sleep and it had knocked him out. He took out the hash and showed it to me. I was surprised when he said it was legal now since, as far as I know, in the US hash is a class-A drug.

A little later Sharon came in. Sharon (not her real name) is a certain female physical type that seem to almost come from the same split egg: small, wiry, and prematurely aged, probably from drug, alcohol, and tobacco abuse. These wiry women—who range fromtheir twenties to their sixties—all tend to have similar faces and hair as well, always died, often changing colors (Sharon has recently gone from blonde to brunette). They are jittery and loud and love to shop.

Sharon looks like she is in her mid-fifties but could be ten years younger. In the past, she has been over-friendly with me, in a way that almost guarantees I don’t want to be her friend. She tries too hard. “Hello my love, how are you today?” she used to say, then ask me how “the book” was going, even though I knew she had no idea what book I was working on, or even if I was (often even I don’t know). I would try to force the words out, one at a time, hoping that some enthusiasm and ease would eventually creep into my voice. But usually it didn’t.

Sharon would try too damned hard. I know that when people are just talking to try and feel at ease, I find it hard to cooperate, because their efforts make me feel not-at-ease, so that’s what I convey back to them. I am learning that the best approach is to ignore these attempts and initiate my own—to ask them about themselves and take charge of the exchange that way, rather than being on the defensive.

From these previous encounters, Sharon has picked up that I don’t “like” her (i.e., her gratingly ingratiating manner). She has stopped asking me how I am or about my writing. So this time I asked her how she was. Since I knew she hears voices, I asked her about that.

Sharon told me she has been hearing voices for 54 months now, without stop.

“Right now?” I said.

She said she was but she’d have to tune in to hear them because of all the surrounding noise. Sometimes, she said, they come from the dead. Sometimes they come from the living. She mentioned hearing the voice of a Native woman who went missing a few months back and is presumed dead. She said that she is prisoner in someone’s basement. Sharon also believes that at least some of the voices are being electronically induced.

Many of our customers are clearly crazy, but Sharon isn’t one of them, so when she talks about these things I listen. There isn’t a great deal that I can say in response, however. Her problem is outside my jurisdiction as thrift store owner. I could suggest she read Prisoner of Infinity, but since it’s on display right next to her and my wife has certainly told her about it, it would seem to be over-selling myself.

I told her about a movie I’d just seen, Mad to be Normal, about R. D. Laing. In it, there is a character who hears voices that tell him to do things and he obeys just to keep them quiet. This character spent five years counting to a million to satisfy one voice.

Sharon said her voices tell her to do things too, such as quit smoking. “Oh,” I said, “so you have angelic voices too?” She didn’t seem to want to consider it might be good advice. She said none of them were friendly.

She went to look through the women’s blouses then, leaving her purse on the counter. A friend of hers shouted to her. Sharon came back and said she was always forgetting things. I suggested she could train her voices to remind her when she did, hoping it wasn’t in bad taste. She said they sometimes did.

That was yesterday. Today was garbage day. The stuff that piles up in the store is literally never-ending, and garbage day is the only day that, for a few hours, the store seems tidy and more or less under control. It’s the same day the Harvest Church picks up all the excess clothing we have bagged up for them; they have a free store and apparently they also send stuff to Central America.

We have been told that as of next week we can no longer use blue recycling bags but have to use plastic recycling bins. Probably the idea is to reduce the manufacture of plastic, or maybe it’s a scam so people have to buy special recycling bins. The most likely result is that people—including us—will start using black garbage bags instead, meaning it won’t go to recycling but to the dump along with everything else. Progress strikes again.

I managed to get a whole load of bags filled with all the unsightly stuff that had been lying around too long. I put them on the street corner, having to make my way around the customers every time. There was an even more massive pile than usual for the truck to pick up. Our garbage belongs to the whole town. I am the town garbage man. An honorable station, with no perks or status, like being a shaman: no one in his right mind would ask for it.

That reminds me, a raven came to our doorstep yesterday morning. I said to my wife, “Somebody must have died.” So far no word on that. Maybe he was coming for Halloween and got the day wrong?

Another thing about customers is they have an almost mysterious ability to place themselves wherever I need to be, or between me and where I need to be, at the precise moment I need to be there. Of course, I know that they are there to shop, and I am there to keep the space in order so they can shop. So we are on the same side and my annoyance is illegitimate, unjustified, and irrational.

But the false self doesn’t listen to reason (except its own). It is always under siege; its door is never open, even when the sign says it is.

As anyone reading this can tell, I am divided. I am at the thrift store to sell stuff to customers and make money, but it’s not only, or even primarily, about money. It’s a way to connect to my fellow soul-beings and uncover a little more of what it is to be human. But the constructed identity—being a system of defense—always puts itself forward first. It needs to feel needed. And what it encounters, perceives, is an endless stream of stupid, desperate, oblivious humans. This perception becomes like a force field around me, keeping the world at bay—and also other souls.

This force field isn’t really who or what I am. It very rarely relates to any reality, or to any specific person or soul in the space, only to the idea of a “consumer throng”—a “humanity” in general.

The moment someone approaches me, is suddenly standing there in front of me, the hostility (generally, though not always) vanishes and something else comes to the fore, often as not without my conscious volition or desire.

There is a soul-to-soul encounter, vanishingly brief and fleeting, even quite trivial. Eyes meeting across an abyss, the wide open face of a smile that I know, each time, exactly mirrors whatever I am transmitting. The warmer the smile that comes back at me, the more I feel my own warmth emanating outward, and vice versa.

I—or that inner smile that can’t be kept under wraps—is communicating what (I feel) the soul before me most needs to receive: that they are loved and appreciated, not judged or condemned (as they may have been feeling when they were in my way). That I am enjoying their presence in that moment, unexpectedly; that in a strange way, I am unable not to enjoy it. Because they are my species.

This is a love that cannot be denied, contained, suppressed, sublimated or strangled because it expresses our true natures, the part of us that comes through, no matter how hard we try to stifle or distort it (and I certainly try).

When I tried to describe this to my wife, she said she doubted if many people felt like they had two or three loving encounters in any given day. That gave me pause.

Maybe the treasure is right in front of me and I am not seeing it? Maybe I am getting to meet “humanity” one soul at a time, to exchange deep love and understanding in the most general, nonspecific sense of, Here is a soul who is suffering and needs to feel loved and accepted for who they are? Maybe this is how, little by little, I am discovering my own humanity, which is to say, the soul of me that connects to every other soul out there, living or dead?

And the false self misanthrope, meanwhile, which I suspect is the only aspect of the soul that can despise, is gradually being sandpapered into non-existence, by the endlessly abrasive environment of unwanted soul to soul encounters?

Death by a thousand smiles . . . .

8 thoughts on “Death by a Thousand Smiles

  1. Enjoying these posts and Drummer Bob. Definitely can relate to the retail work experience and the false self.

    I did sense-out for soul experiences sometimes behind the greasy till, nice when it happened, rare for sure. Underneath it all material stuff, what else is there to hope for.

    Warm regards. Brian

  2. Wow! Wonderful to read your thoughts, Jasun. From reading the title I thought I knew what I was going to get, but the last line really flipped the switch to light up our shared humanity. Well done.

  3. Drummer Bob and “you”

    Why did Drummer Bob come in from the cold?
    Why did he shave?
    Why did Drummer Bob express a preference for no umbrella?
    Why did ‘you’ suggest Drummer Bob carry an umbrella?
    For Drummer Bob, what is rain?
    Why did ‘you’ project Eeyore onto Drummer Bob?
    Why is Drummer Bob having trouble sleeping?
    What is it about ‘ash’ that might help Drummer Bob sleep?

    Sharon . . .

  4. Nice rendering of these different characters, your puzzlement and frustration at them, but also the reach for connection. But why I wonder do you assume the “misanthropic” reaction is necessarily the “false self”? From my experience, human beings are nearly always a mixture of miserable banalities and pathologies, somehow cohabiting with sparks of spirit, insight and grace. It’s not certain that either of these impressions is “false” to me, just part of the ambiguity of human existence.

    As for that somewhat hapless refrain, “they are my species”… I am never able to feel confidence in how far this “species” aspect actually gets one in the cause of, let’s say, transcendental relatedness. We are part of a biological pool of organisms capable of interbreeding. “Very good”, answers part of me, “but so what?”

    I instead feel more and more that “humanity” is a cohesive concept only in the most blunt and superficial, e.g. biological senses. The more I get to really **know** other people or other cultures, beyond their basic anatomy and certain other broad-brush similarities, the more I am struck by how radically alien they are–a jungle-thick diversity, whole other forms of life with their own worlds that only loosely and adventitiously communicate with my own. I think culture and language are, to some extent, seat-of-pants attempts to create an operable bridge across these yawning strangenesses–to fashion a “common humanity” that would otherwise not be there.

    (Or it could be the opposite, with culture as the wall…)

  5. . . . Sharon.

    What’s eating this skinny, woman of indeterminate age?

    Where does the loud and jitteriness come from?

    Why does she dye her hair?

    She is as concerned with her outward appearance of her hair as Drummer Bob is not. Why?

    Her ‘overly-friendly’ manner makes ‘you’ declare, “She tries too hard.”

    Sharon ‘knows’ ‘you’re’ working on a book even when ‘you’ do not. How does she know? Still, ‘you’ writes.

    “So he with difficulty and labour hard Mov’d on, with difficulty and labour he.”

    Why does You write?

    Watch Sharon carefully, especially her hands. Does she carry a purse of bag of some kind? (Most women do). Is there a ball-peen hammer in the bag?

    For ‘you’, forcing words out is as challenging as trying to scrape gum off a sidewalk with your fingers. A hammer and chisel might help. A ball-peen hammer probably not.

    What do the voices say?

    [I once interviewed one of my students’ voices by asking the voice questions through my student as an intermediary. It was an unusual experience, and ultimately helpful to my student. We kept him going for a couple of years until he graduated, but things didn’t turn out so well for him.]

    Sharon. Sharon has been hearing voices for 54 months. That’s exactly, 54 months. Not 55 months? Not ‘almost 5 years?’. Is there gold here or is this just colours in the pan?

    Sharon left her purse on the counter and her friend shouted to her.

    Ah, she DOES carry a purse!

    Was her ‘friend’ in a temporal form or just one of Sharon’s voices?

    Too bad her friend didn’t shout to her some time after she had left the store. That might’ve set ‘you’ up for an interesting encounter with Sharon’s purse and its contents.

    Garbage Day . . .

  6. “The practice of Peace, in volitional terms, is islam: the constant and ongoing submission to the will of God, minute by minute, breath by breath (the Arabic words islam, “submission”, and salaam, “peace”, being from the same root). In intellective terms, it is to cultivate—painstakingly, constantly and deliberately—a subtle emotional sensitivity, and contemplate the Divine Beauty by means of it. Peace is the “introverted”, receptive complement to Fervor. The station of Peace, considered not only as the fruit of victory in spiritual Combat but as something to be intentionally developed in its own terms, is expressed in the following way by Jennifer Doane Upton:

    Developed feeling is refined and subtle, and far from being merely sentimental or demonstrative, it often withholds its own demonstration when such a manifestation would destroy the context which allows it to appear. Feeling must be cultivated, both for the sake of the fullness of human life, and because it itself can be a perfect vehicle for union with God, not only due to the psychic energy it releases, but also because of the particular perceptions which only developed feeling can give. This is not “bahkti” as we usually think of it. There are certain avenues to the Transcendent Intellect which open only through feeling.

    Peace is the station of Divine Beauty. The Beauty of God possesses an intrinsic rigor that casts all lesser beauties out of the soul, teaching us slowly but surely how to endure the Divine Mercy. According to Jennifer Doane Upton,

    Beauty is one of the paths to spiritual Truth. Nothing compares with Beauty—that Beauty which attaches itself to the True, the Real, that is, and not that other beauty which participates almost completely in the world, and demands that we love this crass, habitual world, even if we have to swallow our truest feelings. That beauty breaks our hearts by putting up a wall between us and God, and finally tries to convince us that we can no longer reach God, and that God no longer wants us. How that beauty hates the other more beautiful Beauty, and does everything in its power to keep us from seeing it. It even puts out our eyes. But when that other Beauty, the paradisiacal Beauty, still comes to us, and when we are blind it penetrates the pores of our skin, for nothing in this world can deny us the vision of Paradise. “

    [Charles Upton, Findings In Metaphysic, Path And Lore, Sophia Perennis, 2009].

  7. Jasun,

    Good material for the upcoming book, Notes from a Thrift Store! Do yourself a favour though. Go pick up a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories (link below). You’ll not find a better observer. She really was a magical writer.

    The world doesn’t need less Drummer Bob’s or Sharon’s, it needs more. We, here in the Southern United States, have lost many of our characters, for better or worse. I can’t think of a more hellish human condition than a mentally homogenous population (equilibrated with psychotropic drugs, no doubt) which drives their little autos from suburbia, or walks from their gentrified urban heap to their chic, little cubicles or paper pushing jobs. What a sickly existence.

    https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&cm_sp=SearchF-_-home-_-Results&an=flannery+o%27connor&tn=complete&kn=Farrar%2C+Straus+and+Giroux+&isbn=

  8. Yes, that’s retail, especially in a small town! We have a lot of characters come into our store too– There is one guy who comes in with his little dog, ‘Nelson.’ He often complains that people look forward to seeing Nelson more than they want to see him. He could be right about that–Nelson has even more personality than he does. It is very hard to explain.

    It is at once a very difficult thing, and a very good thing, to be available to listen to ‘characters.’
    Sometimes they do not have anyone else to talk to, since illness (especially mental illness) is the most reliable way to lose family and friends. You are likely more important to Drummer Bob and to Sharon than you know.

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