Time for a Saturday story. About COVID-19 and listening to what it’s saying.
Remember Carlos Castaneda? The man Time magazine described in 1973 as, “…an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a tortilla.” For good reason. Because, by then he had been exposed as a consummate con artist.
A UCLA anthropology student, Castaneda became a global bestselling author in the late 1960s, early 1970s, for his books, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, A Separate Reality, and Journey To Ixtlan. The books chronicled his ethnographic experiences and excursions into the Yaqui Indian community. Especially his time spent learning shamanism from a sorcerer-teacher, Don Juan. Dazzled by his avant-garde exposition, UCLA awarded him a Ph.D.
Only problem, it was all fabrication. Every bit of it. His forays into shamanism, his apprenticeship with the master sorcerer Don Juan, his countless trips of learning in the Sonoran desert, his peyote-induced hallucinatory visions, were all fake. They all took place in his head, not out there among and in the real world of Yaqui Indians.
However, even as Castaneda failed the authentic ethnography test, he passed the bloody good fiction test. Whatever brand of peyote Castaneda was smoking definitely stimulated his story telling genes, because his books are full of fascinating anecdotes. Here’s one.
In one of their many “learning-thinking-conversing-reflecting” trips into the desert, Don Juan stops suddenly and puts his ear to a clump of cacti as if he were listening to them. Perplexed, Castaneda asks him what he is doing. Don Juan answers, a touch impatiently, that it should be obvious what he is doing; he’s listening to the cacti. Castaneda shakes his head in disbelief. The idea of a human being listening to cacti is absurd. Castaneda protests that cacti can’t talk. Don Juan assures Castaneda that they can. Castaneda decides to humor Don Juan and asks what the cacti are saying to him.
Don Juan steps back and suggests Castaneda find out for himself; he urges him to listen to the cacti. Castaneda refuses. Don Juan presses Castaneda for a reason; he wants to know why Castaneda won’t listen to the cacti. When Castaneda finally confesses that he doesn’t want to look foolish and embarrass himself, because it’s insane for a human being to speak to inanimate objects, Don Juan delivers a brilliant one-line lesson. He asks Castaneda, “Why do you take yourself so seriously?”
“Why do we take ourselves so seriously?” We do, don’t we. Something to think about and reflect on deeply, especially in today’s immobilized world.
Just like the cacti, COVID-19 is talking to us. The incisive question is, “Are we listening?” Or, are we so intoxicated by our own self-importance – taking ourselves too seriously – to truly stop and listen and learn?
Regardless of how we discern and decipher the meaning of this pandemic, regardless of who we blame and hold accountable for our pain and suffering, we have a choice of how we make sense of our current predicaments and prisons.
- We can either turn a deaf ear to COVID-19, dismiss the current predicaments as “not our story,” and continue cozy in our pre-COVID levels of taking ourselves seriously.
- Or we can listen to what COVID-19 is saying to us, embrace the current predicaments and prisons as “certainly our story,” and reconfigure the contours and limits of our self-attributed importance and power.
The choice is ours. The consequences will also be ours.