The Victoria Guest House here on Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem, welcomes a diversity of people from all walks of life, from around the world. Some stay here for but a single night, while others, like me, make this their home for an extended period of time, some for as long as a few years.
While I have been here but eight days, I have already found thorough enjoyment in the daily interactions with the other guests, both short and long term. One in particular, Thomás, offers insightful words and phrases which either cause one to contemplate the finer points of the meaning of life (sometimes in a very real, serious sense, sometimes more in the context of Monty Python) or stir the imagination as to how many ways there are to move through the world.
Thomás has spent the past sixteen years wandering, simply moving from place to place. He offers in his German accent, “My heart and my soul, they guide me.” He places his fingers, slightly relaxed, at the center of his chest. “Sometimes, I wake in the morning, and I don’t know where I will go this day. I just walk outside and I start to move, this direction or that, until it feels right. I listen. And when my soul tells me I am going in the right direction, I just keep going, like that.”
His eyes drop and his lips quiver, as though processing what he will say before he is given the words. He looks up again, and smiles, “Yeah, sure. Sometimes I get lost … but I always find my way, because it doesn’t really matter where I go. It is all the same, in the end.”
He has visited more than forty countries, including Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Thailand, and the United States. He welcomes opportunities to volunteer, to help people, and to work, but through some kind of accident, is living off what I gather is a small disability fund. In this regard, perhaps, he is a volunteer outreach of the European Union.
Some of what he shares is truly engaging, and I look forward to our conversations each morning and night. He speaks of clarity of mind and purpose of soul, and argues that thinking too much is destructive to the balance of ego and mind.
While I maintain respect for him, and verbally praise those exchanges which do resonate, I also counter some of what he offers, a healthy intellectual banter to balance his otherwise purely philosophical approach. “Thomás. I have spent my life enjoying and promoting the sciences, for they give us a deep understanding of how our universe works. They are the foundation for most of what we now take for granted in our modern world. It is difficult to hear that you ask me and others to not think too much, for thinking is one of our species’ greatest gifts.”
“But thinking too much, it is a problem. It takes us away from the purpose of our soul.”
“If you want people to stop thinking, then you had better say goodbye to your laptop, cell phone, and the airplane that brought you here. Hundred of thousands of people had to think pretty hard to enable those machines to serve you as they do.”
It seems like a silly thing to argue about, whether we should think or not, but there is value to what Thomás offers, for those who practice meditation do say something similar—we need to spend time each day disengaged from our thoughts, from the mindless chatter in our heads in order to come down from that place which keeps us overwhelmed with all we must do and be and say.
Thomás later admitted he sometimes says things to one extreme or another, to make his points. We all do.
This morning he moved me to write something about our interactions, the simplicity of our conversation such that I was able to capture it in words without a digital recording. Down the marble stairs, across the entry way, I entered the kitchen to fill my mug with hot water for tea. Thomás was there, and I said to him, “Guten Morgen Thomás!” and then added, “How did you sleep?”
“Ah, well. I slept ok? (raising his voice as he does) But it takes time to adjust, to sleep well in a new place. Right? And you?”
I was surprised to hear this from a man who has been in a new place every few days, weeks at most, for sixteen years.
“As my grandfather would say, ‘Two eyes closed.’ But truly, it has been hard, for this place is noisy, all day, all night. Horns. Sirens. Fireworks. Yelling. I spent the better part of my summer living on the boundary of the wilderness, on a remote ranch, going to sleep with and waking to the howl of the coyotes and bugle of the elk. It was glorious … so this has been a challenge for me. I sleep with the windows closed despite my desire for the cool, evening air.”
“Yes. I know what you mean.” Thomás stirred the small spoon in his coffee and then looked up again, his eyes telling me before his lips moved that he had something more to say, “So many people, they live in cities their whole lives. This cannot be healthy. We cannot hear the voice of our soul if our brains are always so noisy.”
I nodded, shifting my body weight to prepare for what I knew would be a short dissertation. He paused, his lips speaking without a sound again, his eyes darting across the floor before he looked up and met mine across the room, “There are two parts to each of us. The ego and the soul. The ego is the brain and it must always be awake when in the city, wanting something, needing things, and protecting. We can live our whole lives like this
“Yes. That is true. So much of the human population now lives in cities, their entire lives bathed in constant noise. I don’t know how they do it, how they do not go crazy. Somehow, they adapt and make it their norm.”
In 1800, only 3% of the human population lived in urban areas. In 1900, 14% with just 12 cities over 1,000,000 people. Now, more than 60% call urban areas home, this number expected to rise to 70% by 2050. (source: PRB)
Thomás continued, “But when we are with nature …” (this is one of my favorite expressions of native German speakers, for it can mean both physically living in a more natural environment, unaltered by man, or in the mental space that produces a similar experience inside) “… with nature we don’t want or need anything at all. And then the soul, the heart can be free.”
“Yes. That’s right. I can listen to the wind in the aspens or a stream just outside my tent and it never, not for a moment, gets on my nerve.” I relished what he said so clearly. In few words, he drew upon the depth of a volume of books and described as quickly much of the human condition. I nodded, and verbally agreed. I wished him a pleasant day and turned to walk back to my apartment.
I cannot help but wonder if in another time or place, where the world was much smaller, with one hundred million people instead of seven billion, degrees of separation comprised of who you knew face-to-face (not through Facebook), if Thomás would not have been received as a prophet or shaman. His intensity, his quirky mannerisms, his ability to find reason to spread the word at any time of day, all give him that singular focus of philosophy which could be molded into religion by someone whose agenda it would benefit, or get him run out of town if he did not know when to quit.
There are many like Thomás in the world. I have met a few. Some strike me as odd, lost souls whose bodies and minds seem to be at disagreement with each other. Some become spiritual leaders or founders of not-for-profit organizations, devoting their lives to the lives of others. Others harbor some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain resulting in a skewed perspective that while perhaps neither right or wrong, does not match the average of what the rest of us perceive to be reality. They stand on street corners and preach of the end of the world while the rest of us walk by, cell phones pressed to our ears, hoping we will not be called out to challenge their reality.
As for Thomás, he speaks of so many things that are true and while others confound me. But what I take from my interaction with him is this: Thomás is not afraid to be without a home, without destination, without a purpose defined by those around him. He lives day to day, week to week and is afraid of no man nor any nation. He moves freely with only the clothes on his back and a bicycle beneath his seat.
I have a lot to learn from this, to add to What I Learned From the Road as my journey continues to unfold. The balance of my ego and soul, brain and heart, according to Thomás, needs constant attention. And in those words, there is something quite valuable.