When I was in grad school in 1972, I stumbled into Carlos Castaneda and his novels academic dissertations chronicles (whatever they were, other than fascinating) of his interactions with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer/philosopher named Juan Matus, known by the honorific don Juan. That name could be the source of much confusion. My iPad kept trying to capitalize the don, as if I was referring to the famous lover, or someone with a first name of Don. No, don is a title of respect, for mafiosos, drug cartel ceos and the most formidable and scary of all, the sorcerer who could apparently teleport around, and actually see the spectre of death stalking people. Reminds me of a tale often attributed to W. Somerset Maugham, but probably much older.
Long ago, there lived a merchant in Baghdad. Being low on supplies for his shop, he sent his servant to the marketplace with a list of things to get. When the servant reached the marketplace, he saw Death standing in the crowd giving him a menacing stare. Terrified, the servant ran back to the shop and exclaimed, “Master, Master! I saw Death among the people in the marketplace and He gave me a threatening gesture! He’s after me! Please, Master, give me your fastest steed and I will fly off to Samarra where he will never find me.” Convinced by the look of sheer terror in his servant’s face, the merchant gave him his fastest horse and off the young boy raced to Samarra. After some contemplation, the merchant became annoyed that he had lost his only servant and quickly strode to the marketplace where he, too, saw Death standing among the crowd. His anger outweighing his fear, the merchant walked right up to Death and asked, “Why did you give my servant a threatening gesture?” And in a cold, raspy voice, Death replied, “That was not a threatening gesture, that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see your servant here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight—in Samarra.”
This morning I read two different blogs about the death of Rachel Held Evans. Both bloggers stated that had significant disagreements with her theology, but spoke words they hoped would comfort her family, and wrote graciously. In fact, if you read both blog posts and didn’t know who the bloggers were, you probably would not have guessed their identity. They were similar. What was not similar were the comments! One blogger got uniformly positive and complimentary comments, the other got a mixture, but the critical comments took the form of personal attacks. It appeared to me that the commenters were continuing a feud, or responding to their feelings about other posts this blogger had written. Needless to say, he was far more controversial than the blogger who got positive comments.
The title of this blog is from a song by the British Prog Rock group Atomic Rooster, a group that Carl Palmer left when he joined Greg Lake and Keith Emerson. If you’re too young to remember Emerson, Lake and Palmer…..I’m envious of your youth though not your culture. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend you listen to that song on YouTube, and take it to heart. Death walks behind you, and me and everyone you love. In 1972, when I first read Castaneda, I really took the core of his teaching to heart, because two years previously I had mustered out of the army in Vietnam, where death walked behind, in front, under and over us. The core of his advice was, “be impeccable in every aspect of your life; what you say, what you do, who you spend time with. How does a warrior become impeccable? By thinking of your death.”
I failed many times to be impeccable, but could always say, “two steps backward, three steps forward.” The question I never ceased to ask myself, which I would also recommend to you, is “if this were my last act on earth before I died, would I still do it?” If not, take the step backward, get out of the line of fire, do something instead which would be worthy of your last act.