Simple Things/ Lang Kenneth Haynes
First of all, I’d like to wish myself a happy birthday. I was born at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City at 7 a.m. on
March 11, 1949. Most say the hospital is in Harlem. Others say it’s in Washington Heights. I think it’s an estuary-kind-of thing. The place
where the ocean meets fresh water. An odd blending of realities. The place where different ways of seeing the world overlap. In the case
of Harlem and Washington Heights, language — English and Spanish respectively but not exclusively — may account for apparent
differences. But the glue that holds these worlds together contains the residue of colonization. In any event, the hospital was just a few
blocks from the Audubon Ballroom where I used to attend West Indian dances with my grandmother and we’d kick up our heels to the
sounds of calypso and steel drum bands. The Audubon was also the place where Malcolm X was murdered in February 1965. Anyway,
happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to all of us who are breathing and reading this and those who have gone on before whose breath is
the wind that we sometimes allow ourselves to feel.
The title and topic of this week’s column is “seeing,” and I think that the way we envision the world, our place in it, and how we see
personal, family, community, national, international and intergalactic evolution starts at the time we draw our very first breath. If this is
true — and I believe with all my heart that it is — then going back to the day of my birth is not that much of a stretch. In fact, it’s not a
stretch at all. Most or many would agree that the first day of life outside the womb is a pretty good place to start to look at how and where
we fit into the overall patchwork quilt of our environment.
When I think about growing up — and my parents and other adults who were close to me — a few pictures emerge. One is of
consistently hard work. A common shared belief was that people who looked like me would have to work twice as hard to gain benefits
comparable to my fairer skinned brothers and sisters. I grew up with that notion ingrained in my head, and my reaction — quite often —
was to opt out of the game. To seek ways to derive the benefits without investing the required sweat because the idea of having to work
twice as hard never sat well with me. Another memory or way of seeing the world was tied to luck that usually took the form of getting
rich or getting over by betting on a winning horse via illegal off-track betting. I’m far from being puritanical, and recreational gambling
can be fun, but when the slot machine becomes the only way that one can expect to prosper, then something is wrong. Very wrong.
But if I were forced to select the most prevalent and limiting way of looking at the world that I subscribe to, I would have to say that
my head and heart are filled with knowing how to try very hard to achieve whatever but I’m lousy at finishing the game. For example, I
make brilliant moves in the game of chess, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten to say “checkmate.” Actually
winning or closing the deal was as foreign 50 years ago as it is for me today. Sure, I’ve developed some skill at closing the deal for
other people, but not for myself. Why is this the case? I have a few theories, but I want to polish them a bit before I share them. It’s all
tied to what we see as possible and, when necessary, replacing non-functional or destructive belief systems with ones that work. And it’
s easy to tell what works. The things that work tend to make us smile a lot. Real smiles that radiate from the stomach, not the practiced
false smiles whose insincerity can be spotted three blocks away. The things that work make our steps lighter. Things that don’t work
make us feel like we are walking around in boots made of lead. Walking down false paths make us feel like we’re betraying the worst
person in the world to betray: Ourselves.
The ways in which we see the world determine what our worlds are. We (and good luck in defining what “we” means and let me
know how things come out in your exploration of the classic nature versus nurture exercise) aren’t much more than human tuning forks.
Things in the environment resonate with our vibrations. If we tend to consistently think gloomy thoughts, then gloominess is what we
attract. If we skip around like Pollyanna and see the bright side of everything, we will attract glowing situations and things to enjoy if we
are not first killed by the gloom and doomers. Something like that. Much attention is devoted, these days, to law of attraction and self-
fulfilling prophecy-type thought. There’s something to it. There’s a lot to it, but you already know that.
We have all heard some version of the story of a person who lives in a forest standing alongside a visitor. What the indigenous
person and visitor see are entirely different even though they face the same direction. They may be looking at the same scene but their
respective interpretations don’t mesh. The landscape is made up of tall trees, moss covered boulders, streams that grow from pencil-
thin to raging waterfalls, the call of unseen animals in the canopy high above and sunlight piercing the thick foliage in wondrous streaks.
The visitor might very well be overcome with simultaneous feelings of appreciation for the unspeakable beauty and intense fear of the
impending darkness. The indigenous person might blend into the scene because he realizes that he is part of it. No more or less
significant than the earth, leaves, shadows, setting sun, trees or calls of the animals that the visitor is not equipped to see. If he is
hungry he knows that there is sufficient food in the forest to nourish him and many signals tell him how to gather that nourishment. If he
is thirsty, he knows what parts of the stream to drink from and which sections to leave alone. Same scene. Different interpretations of
what is seen.
The most important seeing has to do with how we view ourselves. It might surprise you to know that many of us either don’t have a clue
as to who we are or attempt to hold this knowledge very close to our chests. As an example, I’ll share an eye-opening experience that I
had several years ago. I had spent decades trying to present myself to the world as a cool, calm and collected person. Cool was the way
to be. It was pretty-near a religion during the time I was growing up. Miles Davis was the epitome of cool. He was a lot of other things,
but you’d be hard pressed to say that he wasn’t cool. In 1960, Oscar Brown, Jr. came out with his first album. He composed and
performed a song called “But I Was Cool.” Talk about resonance! Don’t let “them” know what you think or how you really feel. Problem is
that if one practices enough, there is a pretty good chance that your essence will get lost, or at least misplaced, in the process.
Several years ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a unique birthday gift: a session with an astrologer/psychic/intuitive person in the
Milwaukee area. I arrived at her place and politely knocked on the door. She appeared and let me into the little entryway to the house. I
extended my hand as part of the introduction and she jumped backwards and grasped her chest. I thought she might be having a heart
attack. Then she said, “People might see you as a cool and calm person, but you are one of the most intense people I have ever been in
a room with.” She saw right through my veneer and challenged the face that I presented to the world. She saw the inner conflict and
rage. She let me know, in the first few seconds of our meeting, that my largely successful attempts to fool the world were so good that I
also fooled myself. And fooling oneself is not a good thing to do. Seeing ourselves as other than who we are is the ultimate deception.
The Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012 provide much fodder for Hollywood and seasoning for those who prepare main courses of
fear. But maybe what the calendar is making us conscious of is that a new way of seeing is imminent. There is a time to stay the course
and a time to switch direction. The decision is ours. Opportunities abound to see the world from different angles.