The Most Interesting Man I’ve Met

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I purchased some wireless headphones, knowing full well they were being sold for double if not triple the normal price. I was dreading the six hour flight from LA to NY, restless and slightly stressed — I kept repeating questions over and over again, looking at decisions from almost every angle possible. Where in NY should I move? What next career move should I make? Should I take time off, put all of my energy into creating this organization from the ground up? Or should I begin at an established organization first and work my way up? Should I use the next three months to study and apply for more graduate school? Such great, first world opportunities to be considering and yet, I sat defeated, unsure how to proceed, drowning in a sea of stress and indecision, paralyzed with the fear of wasting my time.

Moments later, I found my seat, took out my headphones and felt a shuffling of movement to my left. An older man replaced the young woman next to me. He sat quietly and asked me, minutes later, “what do you do?”. I took off my headphones, saw his gaze and noticed him looking at the collection of Albert Einstein stickers on my laptop along with a “I voted” and a “end child trafficking” sticker. I told him about my job. He told me about what he does and within the first five minutes of our conversation, I was convinced this wouldn’t be an ordinary, superficial small talk conversation with a stranger — he had answers I was looking for. I stashed my headphones away, all ears for this man.

We talked non stop for six hours. I asked all of the questions that kept me up at night and he gave responses that deeply resonated. From relationships, to reincarnation, to dream analysis, to happiness, to time theories, to the meaning of life and what happens after death, he spoke to me patiently, explaining through careful words and examples of lessons learned in his sixty one years around the sun. I took three pages of notes — a desperate move to remember everything we discussed.

Two weeks later, I consolidated my notes into several points of conversation and described them below.


As the plane was taking off, I scribbled down one mantra Sean kept repeating. He said, several times, like a sage to a young disciple, “no judgement, no attachment, no expectations and no negative thoughts, Mannie”.

Sean said that all unhappiness essentially derives from these four components.

  1. Judgement of ourselves or of others
  2. Attachment to another person or object
  3. Expectations of other people
  4. Negative thoughts

He provided concrete examples for each. For example, the attachment to others was something we discussed at length. Previously married and divorced, he shared with me how easily and quickly we mistake attachment as love. In his younger years, he saw the next relationship as always at the light at the end of the tunnel — his next love would be the one who would make him feel secure, peaceful and desired. He cautioned me, like a father to daughter, to run away if a man says I make him happy. He wisely asked me, “if you keep him happy, then what happens if he’s unhappy, Mannie? That’s also your responsibility then”.

According to him, happiness isn’t found or created. It’s always lying under the surface for us. If we can remove judgement, managed our expectations, learned to not become attached and avoid negative thought, we can begin to unravel all of these barriers that hide our happiness. We have just to remove the debris that hides it.


Perspective

The way Sean saw his life was refreshing. He had a unique appreciation that juxtaposed with the world around me — he was excited, thankful and grateful. He was overflowing with appreciation and thanks for the world — he was the eight year old who woke up on Christmas morning, excited to see the presents under tree. While most of us are grudgingly finding our way through career and life, stressed and upset, he was a breath of fresh air with joy and extreme positivism.

It seems as though our cultural normal is to be upset, complain and spread negativity. The news presents back to back headlines of shootings, pending doom of the future and inevitable downfall of everything good — the environment is falling apart, kids are being separated from parents, our politics are a mess. Friends tend to call when things go wrong. Walking down the street, the subway announcements caution us to be careful, breeding omnipresent paranoia of others. The homeless beg for change. It’s the perfect landscape for George Orwell’s 1984. If you work in low income communities and city hospitals like me, then this negativity is further amplified by the desperation, frustration and poverty felt by those who work and live there, creating a sense that nothing is ever enough: our communities are polluted with drugs, violence and abuse; our kids can’t breathe; parents are absent. It is hard to believe, on a day to day basis, that the world is a good place.

Sean, however, sincerely believed that the world is good. In fact, he thought of his life as a grand adventure, overflowing with excitement, opportunity and love. Although his experiences as a Hollywood producer are the complete opposite of mine as a healthcare provider, I started to find parallels in our thinking. Can I change how I think so that it mirrored his? What if I also looked on the bright side, spread more positive energy and light into the world, instead of being someone who absorbs or deflects it from others?

Sean not only believed that the glass was half full, but also that the glass held something special, invaluable and worth enjoying rather than just quickly drinking. He wasn’t just optimistic — he was over-the-moon excited and thankful to be alive. He wanted nothing more than to meet whoever orchestrated his life and say, “thank you”. In his own words,“everything is a wonderful gift”. How beautiful and powerful is that? How many of us consciously thank someone or something bigger than us for waking us up this morning, for our health, our ability to walk and talk and create a change in the world? How many of us see our life events as always working out for the best?

In ‘Zen and the Art of Happiness’, Chris Prentiss wrote, “I am thinking in unlimited terms, where every event that befalls you is absolutely the best possible event that could occur — that there is no other event imaginable that could benefit you to any greater degree”.

Everything that has happened and will happen will work out for the best.

Instead of being upset about the toddlers who can’t breathe in our waiting rooms or angry over the four year old who was abused, I can move my focus so that I can proactively do something productive and good. Instead of seeing the injustices in our society, I can consciously remind myself of how many ways we’re also doing something right. According to good ol’ Newton, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

It’s a matter of changing how we think of the world and our place in it.

In the words of Mister Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”


Self Acceptance

The second part that struck out to me was his compassionate acceptance of himself. He said, “I never feel guilty for how I feel. I sometimes feel guilty for how I deliver that information, however, I never think less of myself for the way I feel.”

I unconsciously let go a deep breath when he said this, as if I was liberated from my own constrictions. It’s as if Sean gave me permission to feel what I feel without paying for it with guilt.

As an Indian American, first generation immigrant, I feel guilty for almost everything — pushing off marriage? Living alone? Choosing your career over a husband? Giving up on a relationship? Moving across the country away from family? How selfish.

Most of us grow up with strict expectations from our families that include a preset timeline of attending a prestigious university, graduating, starting a career, finding the perfect person, getting married and settling down with two kids, a white house and picket fence — all before the age of 30. We’re on a treadmill running at twelve miles per hour. We can’t stop. What if we don’t follow that trajectory? What if we don’t go to med school or get a Phd or become an engineer? What happens if we decide to not get married or have kids? The regret, disappointment and sense of failure can be crushing.

Interestingly, in Japan, this phenomena has a name. Roughly 541,000 young Japanese suffer from sekentei, described by one study as, “a social construct that causes a person to worry about others’ evaluations of his or her behavior”. These individuals are paralyzed with anxiety, depression and fear of failing to impress their families and community. Without proper coping skills, they can feel powerless and instead lock themselves away from society, a response labeled as hikikomori. Similar to Indian culture, Japanese women stay with their families until marriage and men are expected to stay with their families, pursue prestigious careers and succeed in perhaps professions they didn’t choose. Pushing back against familial expectations is taboo and rare.

With my own family, for example, I am the only female to get up and leave home to live on her own. I left after high school. My sister still asks me to move back every other week. My parents constantly ask me to apply to jobs in California. The guilt is debilitating.

When Sean said he doesn’t feel guilty for how he feels but rather how he says what he says, it’s like a mental switch went off. What if, instead of believing guilt was a payoff to doing life my way, like an exchange at a deli (“number two guilt special. I told them I didn’t want kids. Thanks Chris”), I did things a bit differently? I don’t have to beat myself for wanting to get off this treadmill of life milestones, to take a breather and rest — I can explain to my parents why I think what I do, show them I still cared, still valued their ideals, respected their values, still was their daughter, without discrediting what we both envisioned with our lives. We can start remolding and removing certain expectations and pressures we seemed to have caged our children in.


Aftermath

I connected with Sean a few days after our flight and he asked what had changed since we met. Ironically, everything changed. After I met Sean, I began to rethinking what I prioritized and what I spent my time on. I shaved my circle of friends by half in New York. I dropped out of a business deal. I started saying no to job offers. I spent two whole weekends staying in my apartment, writing on large blank post its, asking myself what I wanted to do the next few months. I’m dreaming bigger, pushing barriers out of my way so that I can live up to what I imagined my life to be. I only have one shot at this.

He taught me to celebrate being alone, to really enjoy the life I’m living, to be appreciative of my journey, to let go of control, to loosen the death hold I had on my future, to let things happen. He told me, “all is well”. He showed me, through his own life experiences, to pick a life that included struggle, difficult decisions and challenges. In his own words, “the worst life is when everything is given to you”.

Thank you for sitting next to me Sean and confirming that the earphones I bought were a horrible purchase.

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