with Jerry Stanecki
Author of Life Is A Joke And God Wrote It
Bloomfield, Michigan, June 22, 2001
© The Spiritual Traveler, 2001
Jerry Stanecki after having already reviewed his book, Life
Is A Joke And God Wrote It. We caught
up with each other at Starbuck's, on the corner of Maple
and Lahser on an early Friday afternoon at the very
beginning of summer. I was dressed a little
too formally in a charcoal suit and open-necked dress
shirt, especially considering that the sun was out, and
it was too hot outside to wear more than a short-sleeved
shirt. Jerry entered a few minutes after I
did, dressed more appropriately in a golf shirt and
Bermuda shorts. He greeted me briskly and
ordered a chocolate chip cookie from the counter, while
I carried a plush chair into the far corner of the
establishment to ensure the maximum amount of privacy.
He began by
complimenting me on the review. "It's
very aggressive," he said, in the blunt, economical
manner I had already come to expect from reading his
book and communicating with him via e-mail.
I wanted to
savor the compliment a little more, so I asked him what
he meant by that.
rarely do you see a review that's in-depth like that. Your
review is like my book. You just let it hang
out there. You put your issues into it. You
put the things that you felt into it, and said, 'OK. Let's
put it out there and see what happens. So
it's aggressively done, meaning that there's passion in
I appreciate that," I replied. "Because
the word 'aggressive' has a positive connotation for me,
especially in connection with spirituality. There
are a lot of qualities that go into spirituality, but
one thing it takes is a certain degree of courage
deal of courage, actually," Jerry responded. "The
scariest thing we look at in our lives is our self. When
you look into the mirror and something happens-when
something is brought into your life that may be
considered something terrible-it takes a great deal of
courage to say, 'OK. I'll hang tight. I'll
feel this feeling that I've buried before, with faith
that I'm going to come out on the other side feeling
much better about myself. And that's really
the goal of spirituality-to be at peace with one's self. I
look at things now, when so-called 'bad' things happen
to me in my life, and I think of them as having no
other reason to happen other than for my good."
the last few words in italics not because Jerry vocally
emphasized them, but solely to indicate the impression
they made on me as he spoke. In his own
'aggressive' way, I felt, he had honed right into the
central issue behind most human dilemmas. At
the same time, it was personally frustrating to think
that despite the fact that I knew this principle
backwards and forwards in my mind, I was still so prone
to forget it in the heat of the moment. "That's
a very good attitude," I commented, "but it's
surprising how elusive that attitude can be no matter
how serious we are about living the spiritual
he responded, "do I choose to believe that when bad
things happen, they are happening for my good, or when
anything happens it's happening for my good? When
good things are happening, I recognize them as good
things. I don't have to worry about them. They're
not stealing anything from me. But when bad
things happen to me-as simple as somebody cutting me off
on the road-if I believe that good things will happen as
a result of what is occurring to me right now, I stop
myself from feeling self-pity. When I feel
sorry for myself, the next step is I get angry: 'Why me,
damn it? Why me?' And then, all of
a sudden, I'm caught in the resentment trap, which leads
immediately back to anger and self-pity. So
I'm the dog chasing its own tail. All of
which steals my happiness."
The ease with
which he presented this analysis made me feel distinctly
self-conscious. "I'm connecting with
what you're saying, I understand it intellectually, and
I try to practice it, but still there are so many times
that I find myself in an anger situation," I told
why that is, don't you? You're human."
I missed the
opportunity to just relax and laugh at his blunt humor. "If
that mental recognition were just turned on all the
time…" I complained.
makes perfect," Jerry stated simply.
I agreed. "It has to be drilled into
you. And there's no telling how long it's
going to take some people. It's going to take
some people longer than others."
you see this chocolate chip cookie I'm eating?" he
asked. "I'm eating this because I want
to. I want this because it gives me
absolutely no idea where he was going with this. The
chocolate chip cookie didn't seem to have any connection
with what we were talking about.
is the absolute most important thing here," he
explained. "If I perceive that you're
doing something to harm me, or you've done something to
hurt my feelings, or you've wronged me in some way, my
perception tells me that's not pleasurable. It
also says, 'Get angry, get impatient, get intolerant,'
all of which steal my happiness. Now, you can
say to me, 'Gee, I really feel bad for you,' but you
can't feel my feelings. Nobody can feel
anybody else's feelings. And if we are to
believe that we are powerless over the people, places,
and things in the world, but that we are powerful over
ourselves, then it's an easy job. Because all
we've got to do is make the choice. There's
the power. The choice is, 'Am I going to stay
angry, impatient, or intolerant because of this jerk? Am
I going to let this jerk live in my life rent-free?' Or
am I going to say, 'Check it, Jerry. Look in
the mirror and you're going to see the problem,' because
I'm the problem. You're the problem when it
comes to your feelings. I'm the problem when
it comes to mine."
"I was at
the bank a little while ago," he continued,
"and a woman comes up to me and says, 'Hey, does
that book of yours, Life Is A Joke And God Wrote
It, have anything in it about husbands?' And
I said, 'Yeah. The first sentence says, 'Look
in the mirror and see the problem. It's not
your husband.' And the woman looked shocked! She
said, 'What do you mean?' And we talked a
little about that. We talked about accepting
responsibility for your own feelings. I'm
eating this cookie because it gives me pleasure. If
it wasn't giving me pleasure I could choose not to eat
it. No one forces you to have your
completely forgotten about the chocolate chip cookie
until he suddenly came back to it. He was
connecting the idea of pleasure with choice, and the
idea of choice with taking responsibility for one's
feelings. So the ability to feel pleasure-to
be happy, in fact-depended upon assuming total
responsibility for one's state of mind. There
was something really staggering in the simplicity of
this. It felt somehow overwhelming to me,
until I realized that there was a difference between
assuming total responsibility for one's situation or
experience in life, and assuming responsibility for
one's feelings or attitude toward that situation. We
can't control what happens to us, but we can control how
we feel and act in any given situation.
has something to do with working with whatever you've
got at the moment," I made a stab at keeping up
you have is this moment. This is it. If
you've got breast cancer, that's it. That's
what's happening today. That's what you're
dealing with. And if you hide it, you don't
want to tell your husband about it, you're worried,
you're scared about it, what you're doing is avoiding
what is IT. And that's creating a hundredfold
more elements of fear in your life. Fear is
the most destructive force, in terms of stealing your
was hiking the other day," I said, "and I got
into an area where there were a lot of mosquitoes, and
they were biting me. And I was
little bastards…" Jerry interjected.
those little bastards. But I was thinking,
'What would happen if it didn't itch?'"
you wouldn't know you were being bitten. You'd
would happen to our resistance? People would
allow mosquitoes to bite them, and we'd have them
swarming around all over the place."
now hold on a minute. Don't underestimate
human intelligence. We're bitten by a lot of
bugs that don't itch."
true," I admitted.
tell you what's interesting in what you've said there. You
mentioned 'resistance'. Resistance is a big
problem. We are not put in this universe to
resist it. The universe has this wonderful
energy going around. You've heard of the Yin
and the Yang, or the balance between the Male and the
Female. You've heard of places in the world
where there is supposed to be a balance of these
energies. There is very little 'resistance'
in places like Sedona, Arizona, or Taos, New Mexico.
They're energy vortexes. If you could go
through your life without resisting… And what is
resisting? Resisting is trying to control a
situation because of fear. If you could go
through life without trying to control another person,
place, or thing, if you could just go naturally with the
flow of the universe, it would make you available to all
these wonderful things the universe presents to you on a
daily basis, on a moment-to-moment basis.
"Am I peaceful all the time?" he asked
rhetorically. "Hell, no. I
get irritated. I get angry."
do?" I replied. I had just convinced
myself that he was a total master of himself in all
situations, and for some reason I breathed a little sigh
of relief at this admission on his part.
replied. "I'm real pissed off right now
about (Attorney General) John Ashcroft and George W.
Bush. I said in my column the other day that
we're about to get 'Bush-whacked'. George W.
has just told Ashcroft to go ahead and put together a
team to see about putting an end to the lawsuit against
the cigarette companies. How dare he do that? You
know, we just killed Timothy McVeigh because he
premeditatively killed people. But the
cigarette manufacturers have been premeditatively
killing people for years. They're despicable
human beings. I have a newspaper clipping
from 1935 that shows that already back then they knew
that cigarettes caused health problems. And
they continued to lie for sixty years, and they're still
it you didn't vote for Bush…"
voted for Ralph Nader. And the only reason I
voted for him was because I wanted, hopefully, to see a
percentage big enough so that we could get a third party
in this country. I'm tired of being held
hostage by the Democrats and the Republicans. They're
just the puppets of the lobbyists, and this is the
perfect the example. The first thing George
W. did was to give it away to the insurance companies. The
second thing he did was to give it away to the oil
companies. Now he's going to let the
cigarette companies go. It's payback for all
the damn money they gave him. To me, that's
corruption at the highest level."
"Well, I'm pretty much on your wavelength,
politically," I commented. I didn't
really know what else I could add to his indictment.
big question is, 'OK, you get pissed off, Jerry, over
this stuff. How long do you let it bother
you?' And the answer is, 'As long as I choose
to.' I'm kind of a blue-collar, working
man's, non-guru-ish spiritualist. The most
important aspect of spirituality, for me, is the ability
to choose how long I want to be angry, how long I want
to stay upset, how long do I want to allow other people
to live in my life rent-free, whether it's the guy who
cuts you off on the freeway or President Bush."
were a couple of stories in your book that were just
like experiences that I've had in my life," I said. "You
told this one story about a guy who has everything go
wrong for him, and then says, 'That's it, God? You
call that a hit? Can't you do any better than
that?' I had an experience just like that
when I was living in Egypt, years ago. Everything
had gone wrong for me there…"
that's probably a perception, if I dare say-and it's not
a judgment on my part-that came from being in a victim
absolutely. Of course, Egypt was not that
easy a place to live in. And I had various
health problems at the time. I had an
operation, I nearly lost a finger, I broke up with my
girlfriend, and I managed to get on the wrong side of
just about everyone I knew there…"
you almost lose a finger?"
clipped by a van while crossing the street. It
was a freak accident."
you grateful for that?" Jerry asked with an
I laughed. "At
the time, no. Not particularly."
saying, 'Why me?'"
was doing a lot of whining at the time."
could have said, 'Gee, that was only my finger. That
could have been my own life!' Life is how we
look at it, at that moment."
anyway, it got to the point where I was going down the
street one day, and I was saying 'Why me? Why
me?' And I came to a covered market-that is,
a market with a roof over it-and it had a sewage gutter
up above near the roof, almost like a rain gutter on a
house. I was just in the process of saying
'Why me?' and I got this load of raw sewage dumped right
on my head."
I hope you looked up and said, 'No shit!'"
up and said something that was the equivalent of 'Can't
you do any better than that, God?' Except I
said it in Arabic-I was studying Arabic at the time-and
there was a little extra degree of irony to saying it in
was another story you told about a goose dying in your
arms, and I had a similar experience on the outskirts of
Ann Arbor a few years ago, seeing a rabbit being eaten
alive by a flock of crows."
was that experience telling you?"
thing that you talked about in your book. I
felt I was getting a glimpse into the processes of
nature, and learning to feel respect for those
processes, and how to be detached from what was going
you would have been that rabbit, you sure as hell
would've wished you would have gone against that
the rabbit was taking it in an almost Buddha-like
manner. That's the way it seemed to me. But
in light of your suggestion, earlier, I guess there's no
way of knowing what the rabbit was feeling."
got the sense that it was in a completely altered
you remember when you were in Egypt, and you were
walking down the street, and the sewage hit you on the
head? That's what that rabbit was
possible." I could tell he had been
putting me on for quite a while, but I was intent on
following my serious train of thought.
obviously very important in my life," Jerry
interjected, in case I hadn't caught on yet.
possible that when something becomes so utterly painful,
the processes of nature simply take over," I kept
on my serious track.
Now it was
Jerry's turn to be serious. "When
something becomes so utterly painful, one must remember
that God gives us the gift of pain to bring about
change. And that is an absolute, because
we're basically very complacent people. We
don't like change. We like our own little
niche and our own ways of doing things. Change
is scary. But if you stop to think about it,
you change because of fear. And when you
change because of fear, you no longer are afraid."
I was thinking
of a response to this, when Jerry anticipated my train
"There are two kinds of fear-positive fear and
negative fear," he said.
"Fear can be positive, too." That's
what I had meant to say.
"Sure. It's what enables us to survive. You
don't run out in traffic with a car coming at you. If
you see a guy in a trench coat on a dark night, and
there's something in his hand, you don't go up to him
and say, 'Hey, got a light?'"
"Well, I had a similar conversation with a friend
not too long ago, and I told him that I was feeling
afraid about certain things that might be up ahead. And
he said that was actually good, in a way, because it
showed that I was pushing myself. If you're
afraid, but at the same time you're doing something,
you're probably OK."
"As long as you're not running away from that fear. That's
also 'doing' something. Instead of running
away from it, run towards it. Embrace it. Stop
the resistance. You'll be amazed what
Jerry really had me. My whole present life
flashed in front of me. I knew what my fears
were, or thought I knew. But I wasn't sure if
I was running towards them or away from them.
"As I said in my review, the statement in your book
that hit me the hardest was the one in which you said,
'I decided that I would try to do whatever I wanted to
do, whenever I wanted.'"
was the central issue for me. This was why I
had found Jerry's book so compelling, and what motivated
me to interview him. There was a question in
my mind, and the question had to do with what direction
I was running in. I wanted to do what I
wanted to do. But was I more afraid of doing
what I wanted to do, or of not doing what
I wanted to do? And if I was more afraid of not
doing what I wanted to do, then shouldn't I be doing
what I didn't want to do? It
"Why don't people do what they want to do?" he
asked me pointedly.
know," I replied.
because they're afraid to. They have feelings
of being less than… You know,
one of the great things about alcoholics is they usually
jump into the pit of fire and then say 'Now what do I
do?' For instance, I rebuilt my house. I
bought a home and then completely gutted the house and
rebuilt it. And I had reached a point where I
didn't have anything the carpenters lined up, I didn't
have the plumbing lined up, and part of me was saying,
'You can't start anything until you've got everything in
order. That was the old picture. The
old picture said, 'Everything's got to be perfect.' Well,
I got off of that and said, 'Well you know, what will be
will be, and this is it. I told the crew, 'Go
ahead and demolish the house,' and they demolished
everything. So all I had was studs left
inside the house-no rooms, just studs. Then I
knew I had nowhere to go but up. Then I
worried about what was happening, right then and there
that day. And the house is gorgeous."
I had put
myself into the situation Jerry had just described, and
was thinking that I was almost at that point in my life
where there were no rooms, just studs-but not quite. I
was just waiting for that last wall to be demolished.
important stuff," Jerry brought me back to
attention. "And this is basically the
power point in my new book. We are all born
with this wonderfully healthy ego, the one that says
'Good job, Jerry.' The one that says, 'You
really feel good about yourself.' The one
that says, 'Thank you, God. It's great to be
alive.' The moment we come into the world
that wonderfully healthy ego starts to become diseased. Our
mothers and our fathers, brothers, sisters, teacher,
friends-those folks who give us their love and their
guidance-also give us their character defects, the stuff
they haven't fixed. And that's how our ego
becomes more and more diseased."
becomes very confusing trying to sort what is you from
what is them, or from what you have inherited from
them," I added.
is what you should be, and this is what you need to do
to get there.' Part of this problem is
perfection. I refer to these as old,
unhealthy pictures. Now, to get new pictures,
generally what you need is some kind of jolt, a slap in
the face. In my case, it was the gift of
alcoholism. That was a terrific gift. Because
that gave me the opportunity to say, 'There are ways in
this world other than black and white. I can
look at things in a bunch of different ways.' And
what I did then was to start to form some new
other night," he continued, "I was listening
to Miguel Ruiz, the fellow that wrote The Four
Agreements, and his whole contention is to
search out the 'truth of the child'. Well,
what he neglected to point out, in my opinion, is that
the child is influenced by the diseased egos of the
parents, the friends, and the teachers. How
many times have you heard, 'I don't want to be like my
father or my mother.' And you're exactly like
that. So it's important to create new
pictures in your life-new, healthy pictures."
I felt that
Jerry had absolutely nailed my problem. It
went back to this dilemma of whether I feared doing what
I wanted to do, or not doing what I wanted to do. The
latter idea was one that I suspected had been imprinted
in me by my mother. The fear of not doing
what I wanted to do suggested that the antidote was to
do what I didn't want to do. But that was an
entirely negative suggestion, designed, in fact, to keep
me doing what I didn't want to do! This was
my mother's way of exercising control over me, because
of her own fears. I was so addicted to
assuaging her fears that I had given my whole life in
service of pleasing her, instead of doing what I wanted
to do. I hadn't lived my own life, and I
hadn't helped her overcome her fears in any way, either.
mother," I told Jerry, "would view this
attitude of doing what you want to do as an escapist
he said. "What did she do for a
"She was a physical therapist."
"Was she happy?"
to define happiness."
think my mother has this idea that people have to
discipline themselves by doing what they don't want to
absolutely. They do. But is that
why she was a physical therapist-because of discipline? She
was doing a disservice to her patients, if that was the
words, that's no reason to choose a profession."
course not. 'Were you a physical therapist
because that's what you wanted to do?' 'Well,
yes.' 'So why are you down on me for doing
what I want to do?' Why do you allow her to
have that kind of influence in your head?"
it." I was getting a real therapy
session from this man. I fumbled around for a
reply, feeling backed against the ropes. It
was undeniable that I had allowed my mother and other
family members to exercise an entirely unacceptable
amount of influence over me throughout my life. To
trace back the root of the fear, to identify the precise
nature of the ego disease that I had inherited from
them, was not something I could do in an instant.
can say at this point," I replied, "is that I
think for most of my life I've had a very mistaken idea
about myself. I thought I was a very
independent type of person, when in fact I wasn't. I
was trying to live up to other people's expectations all
along, but I didn't know that's what I was doing."
just remember that expectations, nine times out of ten,
will lead to disappointment. So don't feel
bad about disappointing those people, and their
expectations of you. The secret is to be true
to thy self. Maybe you're just a
thought I was, but now I'm beginning to think I
may you're afraid of being abandoned. That's
a very common thing with a lot of people, especially
among our generation. The question is, 'Why
are you doing it,' and the answer is, 'Don't.' Do
what you want to do. You know, if all writers
listened to other people, there wouldn't be any books,
probably. My biggest dilemma in writing is
that, even though it makes me feel wonderful, at times
I'll do anything I can to avoid it. So what
do I do about it? I say, 'OK, Let's adjust to
this. If you're feeling that way, why are you
feeling that way?' And then I remind myself
that I think too much at times. So I go work
in the garden. And then when I'm done working
in the garden, or all of a sudden I stop when I'm in the
middle of something, walk in the house, sit down at the
computer, and write."
some more about writing, and as things wound down, I was
already wondering what exactly I had here. The
interview with Jerry had left me feeling truly
disoriented. He had taken charge from the
start, and although I had tried to guide the
conversation in certain directions, he had very
effectively dug new channels that I hadn't anticipated,
taking the course of the interview, like fresh water, to
formerly unfertile ground. The upshot of it
all was that I hadn't felt very much in control. But
that was all right. In fact, it felt pretty
good not to be in control. I didn't mind it
at all. As we parted, I gave thanks,
inwardly, for that little gift-received courtesy of
Jerry Stanecki. Outside, the sun was shining. It
was a beautiful day.
To buy Jerry Stanecki's book or schedule speeches,
go to www.jerrystanecki.com.
Copyright © The Spiritual Traveler, 2001