Jean Stimmell: The glass is already broken

  • A Buddha is shown in Jean Stimmell’s backyard in April 2014. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Published: 9/21/2017 12:20:06 AM

Everything seems fine, as usual. The days fly by. We get in our shiny cars, drive to work each day, come home to our families, buy lots of stuff on Amazon. Yet deep down, we have this persistent, nagging feeling that things aren’t fine, that maybe we are headed to hell in a handbasket.

But the consequence of admitting to these primal fears is more than we can stomach: We avoid thoughts and feeling about them at all costs, blocking them from our conscious mind.

Instead, like the addicts we are, we escape back to the sanctity of infotainment TV and our spending ways. But, if we could but just sober up, it would be obvious that these fears are real – with devastating consequences.

How can we not comprehend that we live in a supreme bubble of denial – mired in political gridlock and failing infrastructure while still insisting that we are God’s chosen people, destined to live on the shining city on the hill, even if the city is collapsing from neglect, graft and the cost of fighting a succession of futile wars around the world.

Meanwhile, due to the increasing risk from global nationalism and proliferating nuclear weapons, the doomsday clock has moved to only 2½ minutes from midnight – the symbolic moment humankind will be annihilated, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Finally, the Earth is in midst of a catastrophic mass extinction from a combination of toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. Billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have already been lost, and the rate of extinction increases each year.

Facing this tsunami of destruction, how could we not be in denial? How can we possibly wrap our minds around the devastation that lies ahead, becoming qualitatively worse each day that we continue to hide our heads in the warm, comforting sand of our material culture? Which, of course, paradoxically further fuels our addiction

What’s the answer? How do we break this cycle of addiction and start climbing out of the hole we are digging for ourselves?

I have a modest suggestion based on the answer Buddhist master Ajahn Chah gave to Mark Epstein, an American psychotherapist, when asked what he had learned from his years of contemplation that would be of interest to those of us in the West.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side.

“Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

I was profoundly moved by the wisdom of this story. As with the master’s glass, how can I take my world for granted when it is guaranteed to come crashing down – in most cases, sooner than later.

If tigers and elephants and countless other magnificent beings will grow extinct, it makes those still living more precious, fragile and worth saving. If great cities and cultures around the world are in danger of being incinerated – as we did to Hiroshima – it makes the cities still living and breathing more precious, fragile and worth saving.

When I open myself up to their ultimate fate, I can, for the first time, identify with them fully in the here and now. If I have the courage to open myself up to the truth of uncertainty, it sets me free.

I have a long way to go but feel like I am on the path.

Denying that our world is broken either numbs me (making me take my everyday world for granted) or paralyzes me (making me want to stick my head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich).

Conversely, wholeheartedly admitting the obvious truth that our world is already broken opens me up to a floodgate of emotions: sadness and grief at what has been lost but, at the same time, unleashing a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and majesty still surrounding us.

In a different context, Rob Acevedo’s sentiments expressed recently in his music column in the Monitor uncannily resonate with what I am feeling: “The simple beats, the heavy thinking wordplay, the triumphant hero leveled by a life less given. These songs filled me with a kind of beautiful sorrow that I wanted to drink in, feeding me in ways that didn’t require a textbook.”

Because I see the glass is already broken, it makes me more motivated to save my precious fellow beings of all species who have not yet fallen off the shelf due to human greed, hate and delusion, while savoring in every moment the faces of my loved ones and the splendor of everyday life.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at

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