Learning From Life

By Scott Wilson

I

Years ago when I was a bachelor living in Lancashire, England, an incident occurred that stands out like a revelation. My home, in an area where working-class houses were built in rows so that one street looked like every other, was located at the rear of a corner-shop. Thus my sitting-room door opened onto one street and just around the corner, my kitchen door opened onto another.

That particular evening I was alone, reading until a late hour. I had gone to the kitchen to make a cup of cocoa, when suddenly I was startled by a loud knocking on the front door. I fancied I heard someone tampering with the doorknob.

Cautiously, I opened the door just enough to see a dark figure stooping close against the door as if trying to peer through the letterbox. It was so eerie that I panicked. Slamming the door shut, I fastened the lock and went to the kitchen even though I thought I heard sounds as if the intruder had been knocked off balance and had tumbled down the front steps. Back in the kitchen, I turned off the lights and sat down to my cocoa. The drink calmed me. In a few seconds my panic disappeared.

It was then that I experienced a revelation. With my returning sanity, my rational, my higher self stood, as it were, face-to-face with my irrational, lower self and I glimpsed something, at least, of its nature and how it had affected my life.

Brought out in conscious awareness, I saw how the compulsion of my personal self, to withdraw from everything strange or unfamiliar had made me, even in childhood, something of a solitary. Failing to deal with this in earlier years, I had come to accept myself through adulthood into middle life on its terms. Had rationalized that this was not altogether on the debit side: I had read much and acquired some intellectual grasp of the world's philosophies. But now in this moment of stress I saw how subtly my lower nature had disguised my limitation; how vanity had made a virtue of weakness, thereby binding it the more securely upon me. "I am the reserved, studious type" — I had prided myself on this very weakness which had so greatly inhibited my freedom of association and action among my fellowmen. The shock of my egoism was painful in the extreme, but at the same time, the picture of my folly was so ludicrous that I sat there in a state between laughing and crying.

Then, suddenly, a knock at the kitchen door. This time I went forward without hesitation, turned on the lights and threw open the door. A well-dressed man stood outside. "Excuse me," he said, "I am a music-hall artist. After the show I went for a walk, but I'm afraid I've become quite lost. Could you please direct me to my hotel?" "I will get my coat," I said at once, "and take you there myself."

As we set off he turned to me gratefully, "It is particularly pleasing to meet a man so kind and helpful. Would you believe that your neighbor just around the corner actually slammed his door in my face. Sent me rolling down the steps into the street! He must be a great curmudgeon, surely?" "Yes," I replied after a moment or two. "He can be quite a curmudgeon. However, at this moment he may be taking second thought on the matter. Who knows?"

There is a split-second hiatus — a conscious pause — between thought and action, in which, can we but grasp and use it, the door to our higher consciousness seemingly is opened. Perhaps then, we get a glimpse of ourselves as we really are, and so find answers to our problems.

II

During the 1920's a friend of mine, Ted Arkwright, spent some time at a School of Philosophy in the western part of the United States. This was no ordinary college, for the Director, Mrs. Clare Carlton, was an unusually wise and enchanting woman. Her students adored her as friend, mentor, and teacher whose goal throughout was to develop philosophers of life rather than mere Ph.D's.

Now Ted was an imaginative, enthusiastic young man, who probably expected too much, too quickly. He hoped for individual instruction, startling revelations and so on; and the round of study and duty in which he found himself seemed dull and undramatic by cornparison. As the weeks passed, he began to invent ways of bringing himself into notice, demonstrating his aptitude and keenness.

Before long he had his reward — a brief personal note from Mrs. Carlton asking him to be at her office at 10 a.m. next day.

"When I got the note," he told me later, "I felt a deep satisfaction. I had begun to make the grade. My initiative had called forth this response from the teacher. What would she have to say to me, I wondered? Some personal communication of great importance, perhaps? Even in bed that night, I lay conjecturing on the outcome. Waking early, I had the sudden idea that she wished to send me to lecture in the city, or at another university. I rose at once and as a precaution packed a traveling bag with all the necessities. I imagined myself saying, 'Yes, Mrs. Carlton, I'm ready to leave right now."'

On the stroke of ten next morning he arrived for his appointment. The secretary who received him looked puzzled, and told him that Mrs. Carlton was out, would not return until late afternoon. He protested: did she not leave a message, or a note? The girl searched fruitlessly. "I faced a complete blank," he related. "What could have gone wrong? Then it occurred to me to show her the note I had received. She read it and then light broke, "Of course, you're the young man who is so good with animals?" I eagerly admitted to being a biologist. 'That's it then, Mrs. Carlton told me someone would come. There is a mouse living under the cupboard in the corner of the hall, and she hoped you would be able to get rid of it for her."'

Well, needless to say, Ted was considerably shaken. Fortunately he had enough strength of character not to rush out in offended dignity. After a moment he realized the chance that was being given to him and went down on his knees by the cupboard to humbly begin his task. However, in later years he often wondered if this had been a deliberate plan to strip him of his exaggerated self-esteem, or merely a small request, quickly given and as quickly forgotten. Whichever it was, he came to realize that he had brought it on himself; being unable then to resist dramatizing himself as the hero of every situation.

 (From Sunrise magazine, June-July 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)


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