The Importance of Living by the Terms We Set
by Darius E. Bennett, Esq.
“Maybe the hardest part is if you teach, you have to live your teaching. You can’t say, ‘You do, not as I do, but do as I say.’ No, no. You have to say, ‘I’m doing my best to live what I teach.’”
— Maya Angelou
That reflection was made in the context of being asked how Dr. Angelou recommended one could sustain a full, respectable life, the kind of life with which a person could feel pleased. Her advice was to do what’s right, no matter how inexpedient. While answering, she reflected on a painting by Phoebe (Beasley) titled Sister Sookie’s Funeral. It portrays a group of sorrowful women gathered in a room. There is one empty chair. Dr. Angelou would imagine her paternal grandmother in that empty chair, and would ask herself what advice her grandmother would give while sitting among her own friends. The answer was to do what she knew was right. But, before providing this guidance to her own audience, Dr. Angelou counseled that a person must be prepared to live the lessons they teach.
And so, if the lesson is to “just do right,” then the practice must begin with the teacher, not the student. In legal practice, the contract and its terms are construed as against the drafter. In everyday life, the preacher is judged by what he practices, not what he preaches.
Three months into COVID, a close friend reached out to me about the collapse of his 4-year relationship and the further disorienting possibility that his job could furlough him. Sudden, compound fractures of his reality. I was prepared to be a great listener, a counselor, a safe place, and was open to share all the lessons I had learned from past folded romances and distressing career turns. My friend driftingly spoke of confusion, shock, and feeling unmoored. How could he start a new life when he was not prepared to give up the one he had just lost? I listened and offered my healed scars as evidence that one does recover from losing a relationship, and is not lost if his job abandons him.
In person, I distracted him with tales of a life generally misspent in Miami –seemingly without purpose. I had moved to Miami after being released from a dream job that went faster than it had arrived. Having opened those wounds, I bled confessions of once having felt defeated and rejected, having settled for a life that was less than the one I was capable of living. I served generously from the well of lessons I had learned. I waited. Nothing. No response, no emotion. No sense of consolation. I spoke of long walks to train my thoughts and deep meditation to train my focus. Yes, I remembered to stop and allow silence to create space for his thoughts. I opened the floor for him to deliberate over his options, without interruption, or to simply rest his worries. He rued, pondered, strayed into digressions, and eventually disengaged, retreating into his new life of uncertainty. And then more silence, and a pain so vibrational I felt off my own center. Uncomfortable, I made risotto. I broke the silence with plates pinging down onto the countertop. He shifted food around on his plate like he was examining its resilience. I ate like I had been starved. And then the lesson hit me, the lesson I thought was his: As long as he held the past in place, there would be no room for the present. This seemed to sink in.
A week later, he called to say that he needed to leave the clutter and disorder of our State behind for a few days. So, I agreed to care for his dog while he visited his brother in the mountains of Tennessee. He unplugged. No texts. No calls to check on his dog. Meaningful silence. I thought, “This could be good. Hopefully, some of my mistakes taught him too.” Over the background of deep sighs being pushed forcefully through the nostrils of a rather bored dog, I wrote an article about living “in the flow” based on various, lengthy and errant discussions the dog’s owner and I had belabored. When my friend retrieved his dog, he appeared at once rested and weary. I was also weary.
Days later, another friend reached out to me, and essentially asked how big my dreams were. She had suspected that they were small and driven by resignation. Something in the way that I actively avoided reaching for the metaphorical top shelf. She challenged me to assume I could have the career I wanted, and then asked me what that career was. How did she know that I did not have the career I wanted? (I did not.) Had I dropped the veil? It then occurred to me that it was I who was holding the past in place, not my grieving friend. My friend had brought that lesson to me. I was the preacher who was not practicing. That neglected plate of risotto was his thoughts, but my food.
A week later, I called both friends. The first to tell him that where I have a home, he has a home, that it should broaden his horizons knowing that, whatever he chooses, he has a safe place to land. The second to thank her for challenging me to make room for the present.