I'm in seat 40G on a flight from Heathrow to LAX. After a couple weeks of playing rock and roll in Europe this long period of forced silence is a welcome change. International flights have become a meditation of sorts for me. Solitude. Breathing. Thinking. Forced air. Prayer. My tray table becomes a sacred temple among the transatlantic congregation -- complete with the plastic sacrament of holy bottled water. I close my eyes and try to meditate. Every sound feels louder than before -- every thought, amplified. Even the odoriferous results of my neighbor's poor bathing habits begin to play a part in the mental landscape. Today, unfortunately the nearby smell has become a centerpiece. A force to be reckoned with for rows and rows; a potent beefiness that commands my respect and a certain sense of awe. My prayers start to quiver, my inner peace is threatened. Will my grumbling stomach make it through the 12 hours test? The bigger question: will I break down and start to grumble inside? WIll the miasma destroy my meditation?
My mind wanders... I watched Braveheart the other day to gear up for a show in Scotland: good ol' William Wallace. Now there's a man's man: a fighter and a lover -- at least the Hollywood version. And yet, I'm pretty sure personal hygiene was not high up on his priority list. In fact, William Wallace probably smelled roughly like this. I close my eyes and take a deep breath... Ah, the enchanting scent of revolution, the bewitching aroma of freedom. We go to museums and pay big money to see the sights, why not smell the smells? I imagine that a lot of my heroes probably smelled like this. Maybe I'm on the wrong side of the coin here? Maybe my frequent bathing habits, (okay, relatively frequent bathing habits) have been keeping me from greatness!? I'm not sure my wife would agree with my backwards thinking on this one.
My flying partner's dubious scent has brought another radical notion to my wandering mind. Perhaps I am lucky to be sitting here. Lucky? Yes lucky. Lucky to have a nose to smell anything at all. Lucky to have lungs that function and a mind to take it all in. Lucky to be heading home. Lucky to be on an isle seat, flying high in a device beyond the wildest dreams of William Wallace. Lucky to be playing music, traveling, meeting new people, listening to other bands... it's a gift. Yeah, I'm lucky to be alive. Sure, I'm sitting next to a strongly scented feller but things could be worse. Besides, he's human soul with a story that is unfolding one day at a time -- just like my own life.
It's incredible to think of all the things that have to come together for the human body to exist at all. The ear, the eye, and yes, the nose: these are all miracles of sorts. The liver, the heart, the brain, every nerve and synapse and vein -- so many things have to go right for any of our humanity to exist at all. I take a deep breathe take in the intoxicating aroma of the miraculous. Yes, the human soul seated next to me is a walking miracle! All carbon based life forms are pretty lucky in general. The environmental needs for bipedal primates like ourselves are incredibly specific. Our planet is the only one we've ever seen like it. The perfect combination of gasses and gravitational pull and millions of other factors. I mean, what are the chances?! It's true, my potent pal and I are incredibly lucky to be here.
My friends, take a deep breath. And another. Breathe it in. Close your eyes for a moment -- you smell that? That is what luck smells like. This is the stench of luck. Dumb luck. Yes. Dumb luck, as far as I can tell there is no other kind of providence. The moment we begin to think, scheme, or deserve the situation we're in we can no longer call it luck or grace or a gift. We did not deserve to be born, but here we are. We did nothing to earn our eyes or hands or feet and yet there they are. We did not merit another breath but there it is. And all of a sudden, luck smells pretty great.
Some folks don't believe in luck. My laptop dictionary defines luck as "success (or failure) apparently brought about by chance rather than one's own actions." Sounds about right; luck is something that we don't really deserve. Some folks might get caught off by the religious connotations but that's really not what I'm concerned with. Let's think of some other terms: Grace? Undeserved kindness? Blessings? Whatever we call it, I'm pretty sure we get doses of luck more often than we'll ever know. Why don't we recognize luck when it comes our way? Well here's my theory: Luck and grace and redemption all smell pretty good. They taste good, they feel good. They are smooth and creamy and delicious. But the unlucky moments demand our attention, they stick out like... well like a sore thumb. Our eyes are drawn to the flaws. Our ears are drawn to the dissonance. And our noses are drawn to the stench.
How easily we forget about all the incredible gifts that we are given! How quickly we begin to grumble. We could call my theory "The Aroma Attention Ailment": Instead of meditating on all of the incredible gifts that I have all around me, I am bewitched by the one thing that's wrong. I am more likely to complain about what my neighbor smells like or sounds like, (he just broke into a deep guttural snore, no joke!) than to focus on the myriad goodness of my own situation. With so much luck, why do I give this one little flaw my full attention? meditation...
You say, "Jon, you're just losing your mind on a long flight." This is true, but it's the same when I try to meditate anywhere else. That one housefly on my nose. That one itch on my big toe. That one phone call that I forgot to make. That one car alarm. And these are only the unwanted distractions. Add them to the cell phone, the ball game, the e-mail, the TV -- how can there ever be inner peace within with all of these innumerable outer distractions lined up?
Sometimes the stench around us helps to wake us up. The uncomfortable potency drives us to make the world a better place. We see what is wrong around us and try to fix it. We push to find a cure for cancer. We fight for human rights, animal rights. We look for ways to preserve our natural environment. We invent deodorant. It's true, sometimes our tendency to focus on the wrong becomes a fight for a better place. But most of the time my concerns are much more self-serving. I'm fired up because someone cut me off on the freeway rather than being furious about the horrors of human trafficking. And worse yet, seems I'd rather complain about my luck than try to fix it.
I sip on a black coffee in seat 40G and ponder it all. Up from the turbulent bouquet of my transcontinental temple another question arises: Why is it that the folks who have every reason to complain rarely do so? I'm sure you've met these types before. Maybe they have cancer, or they've lost their legs. These are your friends who have every reason to grumble, every reason to be bitter and yet, they complain less than the rest of us. They run races with with prosthetic limbs. They get degrees in spite of their disabilities. They seem to be fixated on all that is good in their life. It seems to be an incredible mystery. The folks who have the most complain the most. Why is it that the BMW-car-seat kid is miserable in Orange County and the dirt-football-field kid is content in Ensenada? Why would the one who has less (materially) have a greater propensity to call himself lucky?
Maybe luck is a choice. Yeah, maybe luck is a choice. A choice to be thankful for the myriad blessings that you have rather than complain about the few smells that are unpleasant. Seems like luck doesn't pour out like it does on the beer commercials: the young, rich, good looking, famously lucky few turn out to complain more often than their "unlucky" contemporaries. Maybe luck is a choice chosen by those whose roots sink deep into the grounds of community, sacrifice, family, worship and service. Yes, maybe luck is a choice.
"But what about the pain?" you say, "What about that awful smell?" It's true, we will all feel pain in this life. Most of my songs are driven by pain, fueled by discomfort. But I still think luck is a choice. How can I be so sure? I'm not. But I've seen glimpses of this choice before. I've seen it through the eyes of a child in South Africa, orphaned by the death of both of his parents to HIV AIDS. I've seen it in India through the eyes of the Dalit: the outcasts -- worth less than cattle in the eyes of the caste system for thousands of years. And I've seen it in my own back yard, through the eyes of the homeless adolescents at Stand Up For Kids in Oceanside. I've seen the choice for hope. the choice for joy. The choice to care for the kids who have even less than they do. To rejoice in unlikely situations. The choice to rise up and be counted among the lucky.
At Stand Up For Kids I've seen her eyes shine with joy when she gets a cool pair of donated jeans. How lucky! Yes, her mom might be in prison. Maybe, she doesn't know where her dad is. Chances are she has nowhere to sleep tonight. But you see a resilience in her eyes. A fire. A spark. How lucky, a pair of jeans that fit! How lucky, my friend is here! How lucky. And us. We unfortunate souls. Complaining about our lukewarm coffee, about our cellular service, about the smell of this airborne neighbor of mine. At the Bro-Am I met a young man named Sean who graduated from high school while battling homelessness. He went to Haiti a few weeks later to help kids that were less fortunate. He chose to call himself lucky and overcome his situation. He chose to call himself lucky and help other less fortunate folks out.
In all of my years I've never heard any of the aforementioned kids complain about their situation. Not even in passing And yet most conversations I overhear around the world have grumbling overtones. We're so good at it. It comes so naturally. And besides we've had years of practice. If you're dressing for the occasion, grumbling is always appropriate. I am not throwing stones! I've spent an embarrassing amount of time grumbling better than anyone. But I'd like turn in my grumbling rights. I'd like to burn the authorization that I was born with, the authorization to complain, moan, and sigh heavily. I'd like to surrender my weapons of privilege. Here and now, I lay them down. Maybe their ashes float gracefully in that exquisite air that lingers between 40G and 40F.
Yes, we're lucky to be alive. And this is what luck smells like.