Building Castles and Slaying Dragons

“Why are you so obsessed with this good man thing?” she asks, her voice tinged with a mix of fear and frustration. Perhaps she’s tired of my loss. Perhaps she sees in me what I fail to see and, so, is frightened by my struggle.

What is a good man? I turn the question over and over again in my mind. The question echoes and reverberates in the hearts of many of my clients.

A good man takes care, answers one voice; that of my father, perhaps, or my grandfather? Perhaps it’s the elders who’ve helped raised me to adulthood. A good man, as I’ve been repeating lately, builds castles, slays dragons, and, if he’s opened his heart, tends the hearth–building a fire against the cold empty night so his loved ones are safe, warm, and happy.

On a walk on a hill in Marin (thanking God for the gift that is California), I met an ancient one, toppled by age, blight, and wind. Stopping in my tracks I realize: here lies a good man.

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If, at the end of my days, as this current meat-bag starts its inevitable transition to the Earth that birthed me, I can lie as majestically about the soil as this Elder, I’ll know that I earned my manhood.

His body ragged with the scars of actions about which he may not have always been proud but resting in the knowledge that for 50, 60, or maybe 100 years he grew into his purpose: sheltering others, providing them a respite from the glaring sun, the toppling wind, and the painful vagaries of life.

Gnarled and twisted by inaction, decisions taken and not taken; scarred by selfishness, with limbs stretched by acts of kindness and gentleness, I wish to end my days stretched out on the side of a hill, welcoming the slow decomposition of my anxieties and my flesh into nourishing earth.

Knowing this is possible strengthens me. I can withstand the demon that mockingly caws that I am unworthy; hissing that my failures outweigh whatever good I have done. The relentless voice which has whispered to me all my life.

Last week, in the middle of our last CEO Bootcamp, I had an epic dream–the kind that teaches you about yourself. I returned again, as I have written before, to a past job, the place where I became an adult and a father.

Working this gift from my innermost being, I found myself articulating fiercely my purpose. I found myself feeling an egoless pride in the man that I’ve become.

I have been taught, and so strive to teach, that one must be unattached to the outcome. We must resist the temptation, I warn, to merge Self with the company, the goal, the job.

But we must also be unattached to our actions. Yes, we bear responsibility for our actions–we are the owners of our own karma, Sharon Salzberg reminds me, and our happiness is the result of our actions and not our wishes. We must know, too, and own those actions–especially those that have harmed others. But liberation lies in separating our sense of worth from those actions. Feel the remorse, she teaches, but drop the ego-aggrandizing guilt.

I want then to be reborn with the bright promise of young irises. deathandbirth2A good man, I see, takes pride in his aspirations without using failure to achieve those aspirations as evidence of his unworthiness, un-lovability.

Last week, as the Bootcamp wound down, one camper–harkening back to my stated aspiration from the first night–shared his conviction that we had saved some lives that weekend. His words toppled me and I wept. It’s a good thing to save lives. It’s also sacred to simply try.