This morning I packed my bags for my annual visit to Breckenridge, Colorado to work with wounded veterans and their families. My job up there, which never ceases to fill me with a certain amount of dread, is to get the soldiers and their families to communicate again, something which doesn’t come easily when the PTSD has spread as equally to the spouses and their children as it has to the soldiers themselves.
Each of these warriors has returned from Baghdad or Afghanistan with severe PTSD, brain injuries, physical trauma, and emotional trauma. I’ve made the trip for the past four years, and since it always falls out either just before the Jewish holiday of Passover or during its intermediate days, leaving is never convenient. But as with many things —convenience, while much desired—is seldom fulfilling. It only serves to pad the way, to lighten the load as it were; and so, as we seek out what is convenient in our lives we often find ourselves forgetting about the things that matter most.
Santa Monica, California has been my home for the last thirty years. I love the jasmine scented air on warm spring nights. I love the ocean breeze that comes off the Pacific and wafts through my open bedroom door in the middle of the night as I watch the moonlit shadows play on the walls. I love the ochre-red sunsets and the silvery dawn light that pierces through the early morning fog. And I love the stillness of summer evenings, punctuated by the strange trill of our resident great horned owl, who sits on a telephone line from time to time, watching for rodents that creep near the tidy rows of garbage cans in the alley behind my house.
But what’s less lovable is what’s happened to my town over the past decade or so. The small beach houses and old Spanish-style homes have all but been replaced by overwrought mini-mansions; each one three sizes too big for their modest lots. Now it seems, every other parked car is a Maserati or a Tesla. And as opposed to a city like say, New Orleans, whose clearly defined culture embraces music, language, and history, what passes for culture in Santa Monica can sometimes feel a lot like a culture of —staving-off-death.
Take a walk down Montana Avenue, our main commercial street some afternoon. See how the hardware store has been replaced with a lemon peel skin-toning spa, and how the gas station is now a hot hair-curling parlor. You’ll find a half dozen gourmet coffee shops, two pressed juiceries, one which features a kale/cucumber drink for $7.99, and a hair removal salon that sits alongside a hair replacement shop. Walk another block or two and you’ll come upon a bakery dedicated exclusively to the production of organic low-calorie macaroons, three jewelry stores, and a cycling gym where you can sign up for spin classes on the hour from dawn until dusk. In an effort to keep death at bay, it seems we are clinging with all our might, not just to health, but to youth itself.
The maintenance of one’s youthful appearance has become something of a value, one that’s purveyed here with as much fury (and desperation) as you’ll find anywhere else on Earth — it’s a ritualization of vapidness and entitlement that boggles the sentient mind. In short, mine is veering towards becoming a city with a troubling and burgeoning interest in things that matter least. And so leaving, especially today, when I’m en route to Colorado to work with badly injured U.S. soldiers is something of a spiritual palette cleanser.
Last year, as I was standing in the hallway of a fluorescent-lit ski lodge, readying myself to meet thirty or more of these warrior families and “facilitate a conversation”, I was told by the two psychologists on hand that this was a hard session, “the soldiers are all highly medicated, they’re basically unreachable.” Then I was told —or rather, warned:
“This year’s group of soldiers have got anger issues, they’re severe and we’ve gotten nowhere with them thus far.”
But as I’ll soon explain, since I don’t actually do much of anything in my session other than providing a sort of, permission to communicate, their words weren’t as daunting as you might think. After being introduced to the families, I simply said,
“Today’s gonna be like Christmas, we’re gonna give important gifts to each other, except none of them are going to cost a thing.”
There were blank looks all around of course. The teenage kids with the neck tats and the soldier’s wives were the ones who seemed most like they wanted to tell me to go f^&k myself. But soon, when I told them that all I wanted was for them to write what were essentially love notes to one another:
“Tell your wife, tell your kids, and your husbands and your parents why you’re proud of them, why they make you happy, why you love them…” they got busy. All I really had to do was light a fuse.
My next ask, was for everyone to read aloud what they’d written, and this they did though tears and with a profound grace and an emotional impact that remains unmatched by any theater I’ve ever seen, any book I’ve ever read, or any religious oration I’ve ever sat through. Though these people might not have gone to Harvard (although in a true meritocracy most of them could have), and though they may not own a Tesla, or receive lemon treatments for their skin, in terms of being in touch with the fragility, the depth, and the sheer value of life, these people were among the most beautiful I’d ever met.
And so, perhaps, as nothing is truly coincidental, it is surely no coincidence that this window into a world so deep and so powerful takes place in proximity to the holiday of Passover, a holiday where we are “made free people” by recalling, and then bringing into our lives, the primacy of the spirit over the material.
What is always desirable is to have an opportunity to live in such a way as to see one’s own purpose come to life’s surface, and to have that sense of purpose make itself manifest for oneself, and for the service of others. In this way, we don’t simply stave off death —we live life to its fullest, and with a vibrant awareness of the things that matter most.