When the fire alarm went off, feline EmmaRose and I seemed sure it had something to do with me. She gave me her usual look of what now? My thought was I had finally succeeded in leaving an empty tea kettle on a hot burner long enough to melt the kettle’s bottom.
Quickly, I realized it was not our smoke detector but the fire alarm for the entire building. It was someone else’s burner/pan/tea kettle. I went outside into the warm, North Florida midnight air as did the rest of the building’s residents.
I did not put EmmaRose in her carrier and take her with me for she has such dread of any interruption of our routine—it upsets her for days—and although she is not fond of the fire alarm, it is not an unknown to her. Was this not yet another human event occurring for no apparent reason?
That seemed EmmaRose’s attitude, and she was correct. We never knew who pulled the alarm and probably never will. However, it would take 40 minutes before the alarm was finally silenced. Neither management nor the fire department could locate a key. This was not routine.
Within minutes, I decided the alarm was too much for EmmaRose’s ears. Standing among my neighbors, I heard myself say, “Well, I’m going to go get my cat.” I turned and walked toward my apartment.
Why I said aloud what I was thinking I have no idea but it produced another kind of human alarm.
“WHAT GOOD IS A CAT GOING TO DO??!? HOW WILL THAT HELP US?!?”
My back was to the man who was bellowing. I knew who it was, Carl. He had been talking nonstop to anyone and everyone but no one seemed to want his opinion, especially the firemen.
Still garrulous with my thoughts I shouted, “I think a lot more of animals than I do of people.” His retort was a strong suggestion that I grow up. I offered he might do the same and walked into my apartment.
“I’ve been on the battlefield! I was in Special Ops! This is nothing! We are all upset!” Then, he stopped and looked around. After a few breaths, he mumbled something to the effect that I was making it worse for everyone.
It seemed more residents were bringing their pets outside. Maybe I had made it worse.
I looked at Carl. “Well, I didn’t think I was but if I have, I apologize.”
“Well, I apologize, too,” he said, adding, “peace?”
“We’re done,” I said.
Both of us remained quiet for the duration of the alarm as did every dog and every cat.
The next morning, Carl and I found ourselves face-to-face, again. We rarely saw each other.
“Good morning,” I said to Carl and meant it.
“So, we’re okay after last night?”
“We’re fine, really.” I extended my hand to him, and he shook it.
“I don’t know why I said that about your cat.”
“The alarm is hard on animals’ hearing,” I said, adding “I didn’t need to say what I said, either.”
“No, that was all right.”
At this point, we actually heard each other; our own alarms had finally shut off. For longer than the 40-minutes at midnight, Carl and I acknowledged each other’s value—a traditional Catholic soldier and a Buddhist animal lover—each worthy of respect for the human beings we are, a veteran and a hippie.
Carl is a fine teller of stories and excels at revealing the punch line. We laughed a lot and genuinely. We found common ground in a thoughtful discussion on democracy, in our mutual disdain for both prejudice and the healthcare system.
As he started up the stairs to his apartment and I to my vehicle, I heard the limp in his step, something I had not noticed.
I called out to him. “How do you feel about acupuncture?”
“I believe in it. Why?”
“I know a good one. Would you like her card?”
He says he would. I return to my apartment for the card, and he comes down the stairs to get it.
He thanks me and adds, “When you make a mistake you just have to own up, don’t you?”
“Yes, and then let it go,” I say.
And so we separate with hearts awakened.
The quality of modesty, or humility, comes naturally when we’re attentive. When we see how reactive and unkind we can be, this humbles us considerably.
Instead of causing despair, however, this painful realization can connect us with the tenderness of bodhichitta [or, awakened heart].
Modesty, or humbleness, is the opposite of armoring ourselves: it allows us to be receptive and hear what others have to say.
(No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, pp. 134-35)