Jerry is sophisticated and bright. He is a scholar, author, activist, and entrepreneur with a long list of accomplishments. He knows President Obama and was friends with Princess Diana. Jerry lost his leg and almost his life when he stepped on a landmine in Israel. Since then he has worked to protect the dignity and equality of hundreds of millions of people with disabilities. He has spearheaded efforts to promote a mine-free Middle-East and was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.
All that is impressive; but when I met Jerry in India, I didn’t know any of this.
One day, I flopped down beside him on a tour bus and said, “Dude, we need to talk. I’m desperate.”
He looked at me inquisitively.
“Everyone here is so holy. I need some irreverence. I think you can help.”
I was right about Jerry. We became friends, instantly bonded in the art of sacred irreverence.
Our irreverence is sacred because it’s 99% self-directed. We laugh at our own imperfections. Jerry is particularly gifted at finding humor in his alleged disability.
He speaks openly about what it’s like to be a one-legged man in a two-legged culture. He speaks to groups all over the world and shakes his head at some of the questions people ask him, such as:
“Does your wife know about the one leg?” Seriously.
In India, we delighted in comparing ourselves to others and failing to measure up.
One night everyone in our group went to a restaurant and received flower leis. Shortly afterwards, Jerry found me.
“Guess what,” he muttered. “Kishan gave his flowers away to a street vendor.”
“We suck.” I replied.
Jerry nodded. We liked our flowers. And we felt like crap because we weren’t as generous as Kishan.
My favorite Jerry moment happened the night I sang at the Seva Café. I wrote about this in an earlier post. Nipun asked me to sing. I was grossly underprepared, but willing. Part of my lack of preparedness was complete amnesia around remembering the names of our local Indian colleagues. This included the name of someone I needed to introduce that night. I asked Jerry and others at my table to help me. “What’s that volunteer’s name?” I begged.
Jerry said, “Don’t ask me. You see that guy Josephji?” (Josephji was the renunciate who taught me the meaning of detachment).
I nodded, “Yeah, I know Josephji.”
“Well I called him David to his face, for a whole day.”
And then it was time to sing, and I laughed my way onto the stage, where I called up Boom-chicka Boomerang, whose real name was Bhumika.
Late that night, Jerry and I reconnected back at the ashram. We spoke about the joy of the evening and continued poking fun at ourselves.
“I have to tell you something,” he said.
“I couldn’t tell you before you sang. I thought you might lose it.”
“Tell me now.”
“So you know when I said I called Jospephji ‘David’ for a whole day?”
“Yeah,” I smiled again.
“Well it got worse. We were in the kitchen chopping vegetables. I called him ‘David’. And then a volunteer told me. ‘His name isn’t David. It’s Josephji.’ And then I put my foot in my mouth.”
“Really?” I said.
Jerry nodded, “yeah, so I found out his name is Josephji; and then I asked Joseph…. (He paused to collect himself)…. ‘What does the G. stand for?”
We both laughed so hard we fell to our knees on the cement walkway.
I don’t know why it was funny. Maybe because there were about sixty people talking about Gandhi-ji every day. Maybe it was because the volunteers often referred to us as Jerry-ji or Bonnie-ji. It was clear that ji wasn’t the letter “G.” It was not an initial for a middle name, but a term of respect.
Really, our laughter was delight in human frailty. Both of us trying to fit in, trying to avoid the stigma of American ego-centricity, trying to be respectful and as good as people like Kishan who gave away all their flowers. Trying to be like all the really holy people around us.
Jerry’s “What does the G. stand for” was simply dear. It revealed how easy it is for even the most sophisticated and accomplished among us to be well-intended but clueless. Jerry’s faux pas reminded me that we’re all partially blind, lame, disabled, and bliss-abled. Human disability becomes bliss-ability when we trade shame for laughter; laughter connects us to the achingly divine human comedy called existence.
Later that week, we got deeper into the teachings of Gandhi 3.0. All of us sat in a circle, skilled and noble colleagues together. We pondered unanswerable questions about things that matter. The conversations were deep and infinite.
Later we processed what we discovered over chai and exquisite vegetarian food. We talked about everything – life, service, and meaning. We answered questions then questioned answers. And every now and then, something led me to say, “Jerry I have one more really important question.”
“What?” he’d ask, eager to help.
“What does the G. stand for?”
And we’d laugh again, like old friends with shared history and inside jokes.
When I speak to Jerry or email him now, I often call him Jerry G. I think know what the G. stands for. It could be Grace, it could be Goodwill. I think it’s Greatness of Heart. Jerry has a Great Heart. A heart great enough to hold the impossible paradoxes of dark and light, irreverence and reverence, woundedness and triumph, human and divine. Namaste Jerry G.!
What paradoxes do you hold? Can you find a way to laugh at the divine comedy of existence?