You Never Know (a story about breathing)

Teaching with Dr. Dan Siegel at NYU, April 2011

This story is adapted from Jack Kornfield. I used this short story in a guest lecture I delivered in NAFA recently. Enjoy!

There was once an army general, who had just come back from numerous tours of duty in an active war zone. As a general in the war, he had seen many horrible things — soldiers who came back missing an arm, missing a leg, and some who had to be packed piece by piece into a box to be sent home. He had to make sure his soldiers were conducting themselves with honour each time they went out, but he also knew that every decision he made meant death, no matter which way he decided.

When he came back from the flesh-and-bone war, he had to fight an inner war. Though he saw no actual fighting on the battlefield, and had killed no one with his own hands, he still lived with the weight of a thousand souls on his conscience. He began to have problems with anger — he would rage at his wife for a little thing like a window not closed, and he came too close to hurting his young children physically, when he punished them. With his wife’s patient help, he started to see that things needed to change.

The army general, who once commanded battalions of men, now struggled to keep his own emotions and thoughts in check. He learnt how to meditate, bringing non-judgemental attention to his breath. Breathing in, he took in clean air that would heal his body. Breathing out, he gently released the tensions and worries of his being. He learnt how to notice his thoughts and emotions, and started the tremendous work of dealing with the grief and anger that surrounded his whole career as a soldier for his country.

It was easy for the general to feel calm when he was in a beautiful place, like when he would run along the white sandy beaches near his home, but it was far more difficult for him to be calm when he was out in the city. On his way home from work one day, his wife called him up and asked him to buy eggs for the family. It was rush hour, but the general agreed — the grocery store was on his way home, after all.

It was rush hour, and the grocery store was crowded with people getting their groceries on the way home. The queues were tremendously long, and the general felt foolish, carrying the few items that he was. The cashier would take only a few seconds to scan his items, and he would be done, but he had to wait for his turn, just like everybody else. Waiting in line, he started to get a little bit annoyed, with his impatient desire to get back to the peace of his home.

The general’s annoyance reached a boiling point when he saw an old woman with a baby in front of him. She was carrying a single packet of tissue, the only item that she needed to pay for. Why would she hold up the line for such an insignificant item when she could get tissue from any store with a shorter queue? His brain raged. The general almost completely lost it and was on the verge of shouting at the old woman and the cashier when he saw that the old woman had reached the cashier, and instead of just paying and leaving, was cooing at the baby with the cashier, as if she was showing off the baby. To his utter disbelief, the old woman handed the baby over to the cashier for her to play with, prolonging the delay.

The general noticed himself getting thoroughly worked up, and put to use what he had learnt. Breathing in, he took in clean air that would heal his body. Breathing out, he gently released the tensions and worries of his being. He managed to calm himself down, just simply breathing and reminding himself that nothing was worth getting so worked up over. After all, the old woman had only held up the line for less than a minute. It was a minute he could have spent feeling calm and present, he reminded himself. The general gave himself an inner command, to stand down, to be calm.

When it got to his turn at the cashier, the general smiled at the cashier and said, “Wasn’t that a lovely baby you were playing with?”

The cashier blushed and replied, “Why, thank you! That was actually my baby. It’s been hard for me since I’ve started working these long shifts.”

The general unthinkingly asked, “Oh, why the long shifts?”

The cashier, taking a deep breath, explained, “Well, you see.. the war. My husband died in the war, so now I need to work. That old woman was my mother, bringing my child to see me, twice a day, so that I still maintain my connection to her.”

You never know.

Robert Fulghum — underrated master of the short story (or so I say!)

Robert Fulghum’s writing saved me. When I was in university, I was a little bit of a nervous wreck, as I was pushing myself a little bit too hard. I didn’t know how to stop, rest, and smell the roses — but I definitely knew how to read, and it was only through reading that I could recharge.

I first found Fulghum’s work lying on a table in my university library, a title that I found almost completely incongruous to the setting of a university library — All I Really Need to Know I Learned in KindergartenIt was a book that was just so full of joy, the hours that I spent reading it passed by with me almost forgetting my troubles.

Fulghum’s work is often filed under the self-help/self-improvement section, but that makes almost zero sense to me. His writing, to me, is self-help only in the sense that it helps me feel better about the world and myself, it helps me feel more hopeful, and it helps me to enjoy the English language just a little bit more. His work contains very little advice of the “do this and you will be happy” variety, and even if Fulghum dispenses advice, it never is pedantic.

I reproduce a short chapter from his book, Maybe (Maybe Not), to show my readers how impressive his writing can be. No copyright infringement is meant (this post is not for sale!), and I’d like my readers to go out and buy/borrow his books, because they are really that good. As Fulghum says below: Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.

(But if Fulghum or his lawyers ask me to take down the extract, I will :P)


Excerpt from Maybe (Maybe Not):

It is the year 2050. In a large Eastern European city — one that has survived the vicissitudes of more than a thousand years of human activity — in an open square in the city center — there is a rather odd civic monument. A bronze statue.

Not a soldier or politician.

Not a general on a horse or a king on a throne.

Instead, the figure of a somewhat common man, sitting in a chair.

Playing his cello.

Around the pedestal on which the statue sits, there are bouquets of flowers.

If you count, you will always find twenty-two flowers in each bunch.

The cellist is a national hero.

If you ask to hear the story of this statue, you will be told of a time of civil war in this city. Demagogues lit bonfires of hatred between citizens who belonged to different religions and ethnic groups. Everyone became an enemy of someone else. None was exempt or safe. Men, women, children, babies, grandparents — old and young — strong and weak — partisan and innocent — all, all were victims in the end. Many were maimed. Many were killed. Those who did not die lived like animals in the ruins of the city.

Except one man. A musician. A cellist. He came to a certain street corner every day. Dressed in formal black evening clothes, sitting in a fire-charred chair, he played his cello. Knowing he might be shot or beaten, still he played. Day after day he came. To play the most beautiful music he knew.

Day after day after day. For twenty-two days.

His music was stronger than hate. His courage, stronger than fear.

And in time other musicians were captured by his spirit, and they took their places in the street beside him. These acts of courage were contagious. Anyone who could play an instrument or sing found a place at a street intersection somewhere in the city and made music.

In time the fighting stopped.

The music and the city and the people lived on.

A nice fable. A lovely story. Something adults might make up to inspire children. A tale of the kind found in tourist guidebooks explaining and embellishing the myths behind civic statuary. A place to have your picture taken.

Is there any truth in such a parable other than the implied acknowledgement of the sentimentality of mythmaking? The real world does not work this way. We all know that. Cellists seldom become civic heroes — music doesn’t affect wars.

Vedran Smailovic does not agree.

In The New York Times Magazine, July 1992, his photograph appeared.

Middle-aged, longish hair, great bushy mustache. He is dressed in formal evening clothes. Sitting in a cafe chair in the middle of a street. In front of a bakery where mortar fire struck a breadline in late May, killing twenty-two people. He is playing his cello. As a member of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, there is little he can do about hate and war — it has been going on in Sarajevo for centuries. Even so, every day for twenty-two days he has braved sniper and artillery fire to play Albinoni’s profoundly moving Adagio in G Minor.

I wonder if he chose this piece of music knowing it was constructed from a manuscript fragment found in the ruins of Dresden after the Second World War? The music survived the firebombing. Perhaps that is why he played it there in the scarred street in Sarajevo, where people died waiting in line for bread. Something must triumph over horror.

Is this man crazy? Maybe. Is his gesture futile? Yes, in a conventional sense, yes, of course. But what can a cellist do? What madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box and a hair-strung bow. What can a cellist do?

All he knows how to do. Speaking softly with his cello, one note at a time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, calling out the rats that infest the human spirit.

Vedran Smailovic is a real person.

What he did is true.

Neither the breadline nor the mortar shell nor the music is fiction.

For all the fairy tales, these acts do take place in the world in which we live.

Sometimes history knocks at the most ordinary door to see if anyone is at home. Sometimes someone is.

Most everyone in Sarajevo knows now what a cellist can do — for the place where Vedran played has become an informal shrine, a place of honor. Croats, Serbs, Muslims, Christians alike — they all know his name and face.

They place flowers where he played. Commemorating the hope that must never die — that someday, somehow, the best of humanity shall overcome the worst, not through unexpected miracles but through the expected acts of the many. Sarajevo is not the only place where Vedran Smailovic is known. An artist in Seattle, Washington, saw his picture and read his story. Her name is Beliz Brother. Real person — real name. What could an artist do?

She organized twenty-two cellists to play in twenty-two public places in Seattle for twenty-two days, and on the final day, all twenty-two played together in one place in front of a store window displaying burnt-out bread pans, twenty-two loaves of bread, and twenty-two roses.

People came. Newspaper reporters and television cameras were there. The story and the pictures were fed into the news networks of the world. And passed back to Vedran Smailovic that he might know his music had been heard and passed on. Others have begun to play in many cities. In Washington, D.C., twenty-two cellists played the day our new president was sworn into office. Who knows who might hear? Who knows what might happen?

Millions of people saw Vedran’s story in The New York Times. Millions have seen and heard the continuing story picked up by the media.

Now you, too, know.

Tell it to someone. This is urgent news. Keep it alive in the world.

As for the end of the story, who among us shall insist the rest of the story cannot come true? Who shall say the monument in the park in Sarajevo will never come to pass? The cynic who lives in a dark hole in my most secret mind says one cellist cannot stop a war, and music can ultimately be only a dirge played over the unimaginable.

But somewhere in my soul I know otherwise.


Never, ever, regret or apologize for believing that when one man or one woman decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is doing and hear.

There is too much evidence to the contrary.

When we cease believing this, the music will surely stop.

The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of history. In my imagination, I lay flowers at the statue memorializing Vedran Smailovic — a monument that has not yet been built, but may be.

Meanwhile, a cellist plays in the streets of Sarajevo.