“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”—Rumi
Two weeks ago, I found myself in Los Angeles, driving past the spot where my life changed. It is on Washington Boulevard, a little west of Crenshaw. Now as then a nice neighborhood, with a church, well maintained lawns, pleasant white fences. No evidence that once a long long time ago a boy was utterly humiliated, and from that humiliation created a new life.
I’d been beaten up countless times, but one day when I was at Mt. Vernon Jr. High school was the final straw. A bully named Rudy, his brother and their friends followed me home along that street, hitting me, spitting on me, cursing at me and challenging me to fight an impossible fight. Rudy had plagued me since elementary school, pulling out a pair of brass knuckles (!) on me in fifth grade to separate me from my lunch money.
And this day, he decided that I had wronged him, specifically had narked on him to the Vice Principle, and that he was going to beat the truth out of me.
I couldn’t fight him: I’d never won a fight in my life, and even if I did, I’d have to fight his bigger brother. And if I won THAT fight, I’d have to fight his friends. Two of them? Three? My memory isn’t clear on that. But it was impossible. I could do nothing. But with every punch and slap, something was coming apart inside me, some sense of personhood. Agency. Worth. They were destroying that young boy, until, trapped between impossible alternatives:
Act? Be destroyed. Don’t act? Be destroyed.
Something snapped inside me. I put my books down on the ground, and walked out into the street. Washington Boulevard was the busiest street in that entire area, and I stood in the middle of the double yellow lines, cars and trucks whizzing past me on both sides, and looked at Rudy as if staring at him through a long, long tunnel. And said to him in a voice that was not my own:
“Come out here and do that.” He looked at me, and I looked at him, and there was a moment of genuine truth. No games. No play. No social roles.
If he’d come out there, I was going to push him in front of a car and kill him. And…he knew it, knew that he’d pushed me too far, and that I was ready to die, and ready to take him with me.
He blinked first. “Aw, man,” he said, “that nigger’s crazy.” And he and his friends laughed, and walked on.
And…he never bothered me again.
I knew on that day that I had found something I’d never known inside myself, and prayed that just maybe this was the space that was discussed in writings on the martial arts, and the various warrior paths of countless cultures throughout history. And swore right then and there to master it, to find that Way and walk it. I could NOT go back to being the boy who was so afraid that he let a thug nearly destroy him.
It would be impossible to detail all the pain, and disappointment, fear and shame, self-contempt and emotional turmoil that path brought me. In addition, though, it also brought joy, self-confidence, friendship, discipline, clarity and energy beyond belief. I wanted to quit a thousand times, and kept going a thousand and one.
I had a WHITE HOT DESIRE to be me. Just…be myself. Own my own life. Be able to speak my truth, open my heart. I was such a friendly, loving, studious little bookworm. And the world would not leave me alone. There was no tribe to protect me. I couldn’t even tell my mother what I was going through. It felt like death. And then…it felt WORSE than death, until death became preferable.
And that is what made life possible. A desire so deep you are willing to sacrifice, risk EVERYTHING to achieve it, cannot leave you in defeat: you win, or you die.
That is where you must begin. To be so connected to your desires, your heart, that you are consumed. This can be difficult, because life does all it can to dampen those flames.
I had a BURNING DESIRE to find love, and was gifted by life with two wonderful women, Toni my first wife and one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and Tananarive, my soul mate.
I had a BURNING DESIRE to have a writing career, and soldiered through every fear and disappointment, knocked on every door, and wrote until my fingers were bloody to create my life. Am I proud of everything I’ve done? Fulfilled every dream? Every CHILDHOOD dream, yes. And now have new, more adult dreams. But out of the three million words and thirty novels I’ve published, I feel that ten of them actually accomplished what I wanted, spoke my truth, and rose to the level I aspired to. Not bad at all.
I had a BURNING DESIRE to master the martial arts. Definitions differ, of course. But the finest karate man I’ve ever known, a master of masters, champion, street-fighter extraordinaire and tamer of tigers for generations, still a badass at 77, promoted me to one of the highest ranks in his entire system. Mastery? I don’t know…but if his definition is correct: “unconscious competence in basics such that you can create spontaneously under pressure” then I suppose so. I like the notion that mastery is a verb not a noun, a vector, not a position. And that once you have your basic vocabulary, and have committed to the path for a lifetime, you are on the “Path of Mastery” as much as anyone else, even if they are far ahead of you. And the Masters I’ve admired seem to concur. They are just students. The term “master” is for the benefit of students who need to believe that there is a goal at the end of the discipline and pain.
Doubt will always be a part of the path. And fear. And pain. And failure. But…if you begin with desire, then the Way itself is the end point. The actions you take on a daily basis ARE the reward. And you have simultaneously maximized your chances of winning the external rewards as well.
Begin with desire. What do you REALLY want? I say it is either to express something about yourself, or to create some change in the world. When you connect these two things, you express or discover something about yourself and the “wake”, the external evidence, the observable result of that expression or discovery is accomplishment observable by others.
But the real reward? Being yourself. THAT is what that boy promised to himself that day on Washington Boulevard.
I will be myself. I will die before I let anyone take “me” away from me, ever again.
From time to time I get discouraged, feel that my goals are out of reach. And I remember that boy, willing to risk everything just to be an honest expression of himself. And that is all the power I need.
He didn’t let me down. And by God, I won’t let him down, either.