The great master Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What was the Buddha teaching his entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.” – from Reb Anderson’s Being Upright
When I came across this story, I wondered, “What would a world actually look like where everyone actually responded appropriately?” And before I even managed to go look up “appropriate” anywhere, my imagination quickly pulled up this drab, gray picture of a world where everyone was extremely well-behaved and emotionless—boring, unadventurous, unimaginative, and devoid of excitement or joy. It was a world filled with well-dressed people at afternoon tea served with all the “appropriate” silverware. Forever. (No offense to tea-drinkers. I really like tea.)
But oh, what a dull world that would be. Who would read stories about Appropriate Response World? And would anything interesting ever happen there? But I did go look the word up, just to check: appropriate: adj. suitable or proper in the circumstances. I did note the absence of the words “drab, dull, and lifeless,” though, and so I thought about it a little more.
Back to the beginning: what constitutes an appropriate response? In every situation, it’s different. As I shuffled through a deck of examples that came to mind, an idea generally started to emerge that any appropriate response would be made up of actions and/or words that are helpful to each particular situation and are given out of agenda-less caring. Someone’s excited? Be excited with them. Someone’s bruised? Hugs and band-aids. Someone’s hurt you? Don’t hurt back (not helpful)—but be patient, wait out your anger, and figure out what’s really going on. (So sometimes the appropriate response might even just be not responding.)
I began to realize I’d been confusing “appropriate” in Yunmen’s context with my idea of the word “proper.” So now this world is already seeming better. Helpful, supportive. Kind of a nice place. But what about passion, excitement, or adventure? And would anything be funny in Appropriate Response World?
And then I remembered a story about another very wise man…
“What my father figured out was if you can’t get out [of a joke], you just either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air.” – Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson, Muppet God)
And there it was—the “Eureka” moment where Appropriate Response World really came into view, and there were all these beautiful colors! I’d been selling it short, having a failure of imagination. Appropriate Response World is filled with options. Proper had been left on the side of the road, miles back where things had to follow conventional rules or fit in to status quo. Appropriate is different, hilarious and exciting. Find a beautiful mountain? Learn how to climb it, explore it, reach its summit. That can be one appropriate response of many. Love the wind in your face? Run a marathon. Try skydiving! (Not inappropriate if it works in your life.) Meet someone completely amazing? Choose to love! That’s definitely not boring and lifeless–and probably even more breathtaking than skydiving! Doing anything when it’s rooted in appropriate response just means that it’s coming from a place of helpfulness and courage a good chunk of wisdom. It has more than enough room to hold intensity, connection, and joy. Big and loud. Small and quiet. A caveat, though—Appropriate Response World isn’t free from pain or surprise or things not turning out as you expected. But in that world you would have learned how to deal with those things (that’s just life anywhere) in ways that were helpful, not destructive. Appropriate Response World would be full of wonder, whatever it involved. And, happily, sometimes it might even involve throwing penguins.
*(Note: While it is not entirely impossible that throwing real penguins would never be an appropriate response, it is more likely to be appropriate if using Muppet penguins.)