Working in jail is no paradise, watching over those who are serving their sentences on sick beds makes little difference either. But, working with someone, like C. H., at custodial ward offers momentary bliss in hell.
Being only a few years older than myself, C. H. possesses a number of extraordinary qualities that he has perhaps acquired from his career, drawn from his experience, or even developed through his practice in mindfulness. No matter where these qualities come from, they never come in harm’s way. Without ever being pretentious to know better, C. H.’s wisdom is carried and transmitted rather like air than light of which razor sharp beams can sometimes kill. His meekness coupled with appropriate firmness in principle has epitomized an ideal of a gentleman, junzi, in Confucian sense.
Shortly after I was assigned to the current office, C. H. has identified my uptight disposition with ease although I considered myself having such a shortcoming under control rather well. Whenever I was rushing to get thing done in my office as well as supervising the routine within the wards, C. H., when pairing up with me, could maintain his rhythm and keep his moderate paces undisturbed despite my uneasiness obviously displayed, and somehow manage not to make me mad as if a professional chess player was manipulating his restless novice opponent on a chessboard. Not until we got closer to each other did C. H. tell me that he had done so on purpose since he was well aware that the antidote to my worrying state lay nowhere but my capability of confronting and embracing my own restless mind. That reminded me of what Oliver Burkeman was proposing in his bestseller, The Antidote:
“The startling conclusion…was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy…Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them. Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumptions about what ‘happiness’ really means.”
He even confessed that he had been as compulsively nervous and obsessively fastidious as me somewhere back in time. When I wished to learn what made him change, he simply told me his experience with a simple exercise in which he tried to still himself by closing his eyes, relaxing his body, and observed whatever was passing through his mind without rendering any words to identify, pin down, or grasp it, and above all, without judgement. Not until later did I learn that it was a very exercise of mindfulness. Yet, C. H. went on talking with me lightly and giving out enlightening ideas every now and then as casual as any other moments in our conversation. I don’t know if this kind of experience is anything close to the Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow, but I am sure that the way how C. H. suggests in handling our emotion definitely is. Currently, I am happily doing the exercise whenever I can…and let’s see what happens.
In addition to my struggle and his C. H.’s ealier experience with stress, anxiety, and ups and downs in our work and life, we gradually found that we shared something more in common. Both of us get merrily married to the women we love and both our wives share the same ethnic background, both of us live in areas close to each other somewhere in the west of the city, and, above all, we both share more or less the same degree of zeal and curiosity about the world, life, wisdom, and what we mean by these terms. That’s why we tell each other stories, argue, exchange ideas from what we read and saw; we encourage each other to explore the knowledge that we may not have thought of; we even challenge each other to start writing down what we have in mind…Delightful though we are when we see each other at work, the fine line of privacy within which what we may be reserved to talk about remains reserved. Such relation which is as light and intrusive as stream water as an often-quoted Chinese proverb suggests is, I believe, as nourishing and sustainable as anyone can dream of.
C. H.’s cunning is equally remarkable if not less profound than his wisdom in flow. Once a colleague recounted how he witnessed an impatient middle-aged customer had lost his temper and knocked hard on the counter at the cashier in a convenience store complaining that it had taken damn long before he could check out. The man was said to have burst out every foul language he could while yelling at the female cashier who kept apologizing. Upon hearing so, C. H. said that he might have drawn all the money from the register and put it in front of the man and raised his hands without saying a word and let the CCTV overhead capture the scene. Even that the man might not be incriminated eventually, the act, C. H. suggested, would have been alarming enough to help the man in rage think twice. All of us who were present immediately fell into trance-like silence.
C. H. must have heeded my look of bewilderment, he broke the silence and spoke again,
“Know that having command of the rules of the game does not mean you have to play it, that is the difference between heaven and hell.”