I have no idea what made me walk into the little shop. It was almost hidden under a brown stone archway, and in the grey afternoon light of Prague, seemed barely a shadow. Medieval architecture and cozy brew pubs are generally my siren call when traveling in Europe, not curiosity shops on the corner. Still I crossed the broad cobblestone square to get to it, feeling a strange sense of puzzlement of no known origin. There was no sound of the door when I entered, or if there was, I didn’t hear it. And in my mind there seemed no theme to the collection of stuff lying around on shelves and haphazard table settings. To be honest, I now can’t recall even a single item that was there, even though I lingered and held a few in my hand. It just seemed like a place of stuff. Lots of stuff.
Unless I’m in a music store, when a shopkeeper notices me is generally the time I try to leave. I had no reason for lingering there, couldn’t remember the phrase in Czech for “No, thank you”, and anyway, I wanted beer. But when she turned from the counter to smile at me I stood standing, looking back, frozen like an idiot. In that one instant her large, azure eyes, set into solid, elegant features had made her face seem like a single radiant gemstone. My eyes then followed the way her thick dark hair joined with her sweater to make the gem’s black velvet setting. I felt the flush of utter stupor and then stupidity course through me, so turned away in embarrassment - and started fumbling with more stuff. I should leave, I should leave, I kept thinking, but didn’t. A minute or two went on like this until I realized she was repeatedly looking toward me - seemingly nervous and worried. Great, I sighed. I had finally become the creepy psycho women were always being warned about. As I hurried to exit she called to me something in Czech which I knew meant she was calling the cops. Halfway out the door, though, I heard an emphatic “Wait… Can I help you?”
I don’t remember the first sentences we spoke to each other (and especially thankful I don’t remember what I said), but I’ll never forget when she suddenly stopped after a few minutes of small talk, collected herself and then stared into me like she was bracing for impact “There’s something I have to tell you… you will absolutely not believe. You will think it is so crazy, you will not believe what I have to tell you.” Before I could say anything, a customer walked in. She greeted him briefly and turned back to me with a worried but excited smile “Will you have a coffee with me when I close the shop in ten minutes?”
Her name was M___ (even though this is fictional, it’s still better not to use her real name). The shop was part time; her real calling was psychotherapy and spiritual research. OK, today is a good day for an open mind, I thought as our coffees came. Fortunately, Irish coffee; somehow I knew I was going to need it. She was getting married, she said… that is, supposed to be getting married… in three days. Uh, OK. I took a big gulp that half scalded my lips, but still congratulated her without missing a beat. I decided to settle in for whatever was coming next.
She had been having doubts about the wedding. For complicated reasons. She paused, thought for a second, then waved her hand dismissively. The point was: last week an astrologer told her that, just before her wedding, a stranger – a foreigner - would walk into her life, and change it forever. Someone with eyes just like mine, she said with a nervous glow. I was tempted to ask how she could even see my eyes past all the folds and wrinkles, but just took another gulp of coffee instead. She suddenly giggled and pointed out the wad of whipped cream on my nose.
Then out of nowhere M told me her whole life story. An impressive, dizzying mess from beginning to end that I - sorry - had to pledge to keep to myself. But really, I was deeply impressed at her creative life, not to mention her multi-tasking coping skills, and told her so. Sensing now a true comrade at arms, but wanting not to be outdone, I said I’d trump her mess with my life story, a true iconic catastrophe of the first rank. In the context of our discussion, there was actually a certain pride in saying that. M listened intently, and at times her eyes appeared to well up with a caring and compassion seemingly impossible from a stranger. At one point her hand reached out to hold mine. But when I was finished, she only smiled lightly, knowingly, as if to say my story was not so astonishing after all. Huh. My shoulders shrank slightly. Don’t take it personally I thought. After all, I’m in the presence of a true Bohemian Master. Suddenly it was all delightful and we started to laugh ourselves silly.
Did she know what she would do about her wedding, I asked, shifting into my concerned- friend mode. Complete stranger though she still was, the shift felt still natural and effortless. As I pondered that surprising fact, M just sighed and looked out the window. There was no point in following up with what might seem normal questions: did she love him; were they happy together, that sort of thing. She would have run through those questions a gazillion times without my prompting, and if those were not the right questions, she’d know herself why. Instead I asked if she had ever run across the Tetralemma method in psychology, seeing that psychotherapy was her interest. Her quizzical frown and searching eyes signaled she was ready to hear anything new that might be helpful, even from a babbling, goofy American that randomly wandered into her shop.
I explained that classical, Aristotelian logic allows only two truth values to things – True or False. The notion of ‘dilemma’, which M was obviously confronted with, comes from seeing only two alternatives – true/false; right/wrong; good/bad, this-way/that-way, etc. We humans seem lost without these types of binary choices. Maybe it’s all just part of the neural wiring for our fight or flight instinct, who knows, I shrugged. Anyway, a much older system from Bronze Age India was brilliant enough to allow multiple values. In this multi-valued logic, things might be true; or false; or something of both; or nothing of both. Buddhist philosophy, which you said you liked, is actually big on this idea too. Only sounds hopelessly impractical, I continued: Court judges of that period would sometimes use this system in a rigorous way to decide murky legal disputes that needed more than just a good guy/bad guy decision. I paused and waited for her eyes to start rolling but instead they stayed fixed on mine, quizzical and patient. I decided not to push her patience by mentioning that multi-valued logics were not only a lively area of mathematics research, but some artificial intelligence programs and integrated circuit designs also used them.
I think what you’re talking about is just how real life is, she laughed.
Maybe... I said - realizing how hard it was to faze her - but we real humans sure don’t seem to understand that in thinking about our real lives. Like I said, maybe it's hard wired into our brains. Everybody pretends to live by the binary choice code... or at least pretends we have to... or pretends we want to. Even your much more free-thinking Buddhists - who of all people should know better! - fall back into that binary trap.
Yes, I like Buddhism... she said with a slight hint of a frown. What trap you mean?
To be continued