Once upon a time oh so very long ago…I didn’t know…
I stumbled across this faded photo again tonight. A boyfriend and dear friend of so many years and I in front of the fireplace. I didn’t know then how time would pass so fast. There was so much life in front of me. I didn’t know how we would lose one another while we were busy making other plans. How years of illness or homelessness or death and marriages and so many other things would descend upon one or the other of us. I didn’t know how you can lose touch with someone you swore you could never lose.
These days, however, my intuition is stronger than ever. I’m learning the wisdom in living life with a heart that is willing to open to loss or joy or confusion. I’m learning that life with an open heart requires much wisdom. Wisdom–a bit of hardwon gain in exchange for oh so many losses. In that, I’m lucky. Wisdom is partly listening to intuition, that still small voice that says, go here, turn there, you’re okay. Wisdom is also partly resilience, learning how to bounce back from tragedy, how it’s okay to grieve or cry, how to let go of what fails to serve our life or the greater good any longer.
Too many people refuse the necessary changes that get you to wisdom. Wisdom requires boundaries in this world. Boundaries that are necessary for protection of your beautiful heart, for letting go of suffering, for not allowing the entire world, or even a smidgeon of it to take your heart hostage. Your heart is your own. You get to choose whom you share it with, whom and what you open it to. You must treat it well.
Change is inevitable. We are designed for it. We are not meant to hold on to anything too tightly, for in the tightness of our grip, we create suffering.
To be sure, life has a funny way of landing you in the most unexpected places. You never know where that might be or what will happen along the way. but I’m learning to live the questions, as poet Ranier Maria Rilke said to his young protégé. And as in all things, life is an inside job.
I believe it is ours to come into this life to learn how to lessen not only our own suffering but then the suffering of others, as well. Kindness helps, starting with you. But it can take many years to learn that. You are very fortunate, indeed, if you have discovered it and become infinitely and patiently kind with yourself while you learn the special kind of braille that is required to navigate your way through the darkness: Indeed, it is the first step towards living a few answers.
Uncertainty is hope when you don’t know the outcome.
Photo by S. Wolfington
By now, I’ve gotten used to an array of recent diagnoses I’ve been on the receiving end of…reminders of my mortality, some having the potential to shorten a life. In the beginning, admittedly, it throws you off balance. And after a time, life then becomes a new normal where adjustments have been made, answers are being sought. You learn to manage your new normal—or a new version of the old.
Apart from the most trusted of confidantes and after the first period of mourning and shock of news, whatever it might be, you learn to keep the bad days to yourself and share the good ones by putting on your dancing shoes, getting out to catch up with life and friends.
You’ve come to recognize your survivor-hood by now.
And when someone asks, you work to keep your answers brief and hopeful. You recognize quickly the glazed eyes, the subject changed. Vulnerability can feel awkward.
Yet you know in the end analysis, everything is alright.
Yesterday I ran into a somewhat new acquaintance who upon seeing me, recognized and embraced me immediately. Embarrassed because I was having problems remembering our exact meeting and conversation, I played along. So much has happened since then. Before we parted, she made sure to take the time to let me know the takeaway of our first meeting while she cried in front of me, how she had walked away feeling so much hope. Unbeknownst to me, I had apparently conveyed knowing that no matter what calamity befell me, I was always certain I would be okay (after a period of adjustment). Nothing was the end of the earth, not in death or life. And that gave her hope right up to moment we bumped into one another yesterday.
It’s interesting, while just being who we are, what we never suspect what people will take away in their meetings with us we’re not aware of. I wonder who of us asks ourselves if our presence is an ordeal to bear or a welcoming breath of fresh air.
My hope for each one of us in the darkness to always keep the vulnerability welcome light on. However it looks, there is a way home.
I am going through a dark night of the soul. Yet today, upon awakening, I slipped outside on to my porch with my morning coffee, sat and listened. Even the gray-skied Oregon shroud and the blur of cars racing by couldn’t keep the praise of the new day from winging through the trees in song.
Today—what a profound relief—a few inwardly quiet healing moments spent where gratitude could find me. When I arose from the chair, it was with much delight that I could feel the welcoming of it all no matter what or whom is showing up.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours, because, as my dear friend, Mystic Meena, says, “When gratitude is your only prayer, all begging ceases.”
Nevertheless, I am, this year, recognizing where in my life I have played the part of beggar. More than any other year, it has come to me this year that begging has no place in my life anymore. There are so many ways I could describe how it has manifested in my life.
I hesitate to share, but for the purposes of this blog, I will be brief. I know I am not alone. Many of us share similar stories—a lifetime’s worth, but more recently for me in my 40’s and 50’s (now in my early 60’s), I went through a difficult and abusive marriage and divorce, which was followed by a decade of illness interspersed with multiple major and/or near death surgeries; an immediate family member with severe bipolar disorder I took responsibility for, and thankfully,they are holding their own now. Subsequently, however, my mother dropped into my life fulltime with Alzheimer’s Disease. It fell to me to care of her for six years until she passed exactly one year ago today. There was a period in between my mother’s illness and death of insane traveling combined with the end of a challenging relationship. And it almost feels like too much to even mention, but in the last thirteen months, I have experienced seventeen other deaths both near and far to or from me. It’s more than I can process in one fell swoop.
No wonder I am outright physically and emotionally exhausted—part life happening because it does and part believing incorrectly about where answers laid.
Trauma hides in our organs and brain and skin and shows itself in some interesting ways, comes back to us as fate in illness or loss or poor choices with unfortunate consequences. Three weeks ago, I ended up in the hospital with crushing chest pain.
My overdoing, my attempts to save everyone but me have become my undoing—and thank god! I’m taking the year off. No one to care-give but me; no volunteering; no wounded bird projects. My mother is gone along with so many others. I love her dearly, miss her terribly, but I am free now to play catch-up with me.
Cumulative grief, my hospice grief counselor of the last few years calls it. I have lost body parts due to profound and overwhelming cumulative grief…grief of which I managed to push back down into my body out of guilt or shame or whatever other false notion I had about my life and how I needed to show up in it. My mantra has too often been “I’m fine, I’m fine”, when in fact I was not fine.
I have decided to out myself. I’m working on allowing what needs to surface for healing, surface. My agreement with myself is there will be no tolerance for guilt or shame in myself or through the well-meaning words of friends. What’s done is done. I take full responsibility, give myself complete grace. I’m allowing the imperfection of my life or my choices or what befell me to bleed through, to give in to crying or laughter or sleep. I am holding to the idea of giving up my quest for perfection in exchange for a more imperfect authentic self. There is work to do.
Grief can be an exquisitely painful, surgically exacting knife that reduces one down to their more essential self. It has a way of stripping away the superfluous, the pretentious, and the inauthentic. No less true in my life, I am greatly paring down to what heals, what brings balance and wholeness, or what feels restorative in the most inward parts of me, even as painful memories trigger tears or the sudden wash of anger at current injustices having nothing to do with me. I have allowed so much in order to be liked or loved.
These last months, there is a pull between living and dying. Every moment I am acutely aware as I feel caught in its tautly roped tension between “what’s the use?” and the desire to push through and forward towards my long held dreams and goals—dreams that have dogged my days since I was five years old. I still want what I’ve always wanted: to feel the length and depth and breadth of my days, to feel wholly alive. Most certainly, I’ve had my moments. Profound, they burn inside me. I want to live free from the inside out, maybe for the first time in my life.
There are days I often fail to make a lot of sense to even myself—those days when pulling myself out of bed seems like an insurmountable task, or my legs refuse to carry me. Then there are other days when grace shows up unexpectedly as a beautiful reminder that life is still good no matter what, and I am brought to my knees in gratitude just because.
My most important job right now is me. I am working on my vulnerability, my transparency. I am making the decision, however challenging, to give voice to my secrets, to honor my emotions and my body, who both show up as messengers of what needs more loving in me. Sometimes I don’t feel so okay, yet I am determined to walk this path, ultimately give up my beggar-hood for the deepest practice of gratitude. I have a feeling this may be the most important work of my life yet.
You have not heard from me lately due to one of the following reasons—pick one:
1. I have been seeing a great deal of this handsome frog.
2. I’ve been having delirium tremens from using the wrong detergent.
3. I have been spending a great deal of time with my mom who is getting ready to make her final transition into the great beyond.
If you picked 1 or 2, sorry! Door number 3 it is, but, hopefully, you already knew that, although I have dated a few handsome frogs in my time.
My mother is getting ready to walk or sail or fly, or whatever it is we do, through that big door called death. We all have to go through it sooner or later. However, as her daughter, it is extremely challenging to watch. Hospice tells me she is experiencing terminal agitation, which is a stage where the body has run its course but is still fighting to survive. There can be intense anxiousness, twitching, jerking, and an inability to lay still, odd body contortions, combativeness and anger. This can start from hours up to a couple of weeks preceding death. She is already a week into it, but had been declining somewhat dramatically the last several weeks before.
There is a beautiful resident cat in the cottage of the memory care facility where my mother lives. His name is Jasper, and he is a silken black very Zen like cat. I am told that when a resident is getting ready to pass, he will climb on their beds and stay there. He starts at the feet, and as it gets closer, he moves to the middle of the bed and at the end he is on the pillow with them. In the past, my mother never appreciated him jumping on her bed, but last week she was found petting him as he lay next to her. Jasper has taken up residence at her feet.
It is difficult to watch someone you have loved your whole life shrink down to nothing and be in so much agony in their slide towards the inevitable. She has been in hell every minute and completely aware of being there even if the person who once lived in her body is no longer there.
I have had to make some painful decisions in these final days as to her care and comfort, and I have to tell you, it has been wrenchingly difficult and guilt producing. There is so much I don’t know here. She has a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate) in place, but what to do about getting water or a little bit of food into them if there is still the willingness or ability to swallow at all? She has been placed on heavy meds in order to keep her comfortable. Otherwise, she is attempting to get up and then repeatedly falling; shockingly, she’s even been found climbing on chairs and sitting on tables. No one would expect this from a very frail and skeletal 95 lb. woman who just two years ago, weighed in at 180 lbs. After several recent small strokes, her speech is unintelligible, but she is still amazingly strong and has a death grip when she decides to hold on to something. She has become a danger to herself at this point, and after getting as much water and a bit of food down her as she has been able to tolerate, she now sleeps, due to the influence of medication.
As her guardian, it has been up to me to tend to all the business of dying. I am either with her, or making phone calls and tying up a lot of loose ends every day. It is a tremendous amount of work, not to mention the emotional business. In the evening, I collapse and cry in my compulsion to try and make her dying as comfortable as possible. This is not always so possible, and there are daily emotional adjustments to her constant and many changes.
Still there have been some funny and/or meaningful things she has been able to say in the middle of it all:
She mentioned that she keeps seeing “Dad” hanging around a lot lately and didn’t know why.
The other day, my girlfriend, who has adopted my mom as her own and has provided invaluable help as Certified Nursing Assistant, was tending to her. Mom looked up at her and asked, “If you’re my sister, then why are you so short?!” (Her “tall” sister passed away several years ago, and my mom has been mentioning her a lot lately—so she must be hanging around, too.)
My same girlfriend told her that she was very beautiful, and my mom straightened herself and replied in a clear distinct voice, “Yes, I AM beautiful!” before slumping over and returning to her unintelligible speech once again.
You have to find reasons to laugh. Yesterday after we left my mother sleeping and after we met in conference with administration and hospice regarding mom’s care where I chose comfort over everything else they could do, my girlfriend and I went to lunch and had a glass of wine. Jokingly, I informed her that taking care of the dying requires lots of wine. She said she thought she would write that into her contract the next time she takes care of a terminally ill patient.
Family and friends have made last minute visits to see her, but it does not appear that she recognizes much of anyone anymore. Yesterday while sitting next to her bed, this same girlfriend who has been there every step of the way through this journey with me, suggested to my mother that she hug me. On cue, my mother who was determined to lean vertically in my direction, put her head on my chest. I put my arms around her and for over an hour we stayed that way—her ear against my beating heart, my fingers playing in her hair, gently caressing her back and arm…it was the last moment of heaven together before she closed her eyes—maybe forever.
I cried and cried today. Standing in the hot shower, mixing tears with water, I cried. I prayed.
With tears, went breath. Not for myself particularly did I cry. It was all I could do though, the only thing.
Quite recently, I have been entrusted with stories. Overcome by the grief of others, I felt myself full with their pain, their stories of death, loss, and unimaginable grief. Stories told of decisions made I would have argued against had I been asked beforehand–sincerely believing nothing good could come from them.
However, what’s done is done. I have no power over any of it—except as witness to it.
What do I do with all of this? Where do I go and whom do I ask?
Some would advise it not in my best interest to involve myself. Look at the bright side, the light only, the bigger picture. Be happy, some say, accept what is and move on.
Don’t stare too long into suffering’s great abyss—or the abyss might stare back.
Some might say correction is needed or guilt conferred as if I some kind of judge, jury and executioner over another.
I say not necessarily so.
So much pain, not enough me. It’s feels unbearable at times to hold for long without paying an unbearable price in depression, apathy or anger. The tendency is to pick and choose what we will see; or at the least, we are chosen, unwittingly, without notice–a kind of in-your-face thing.
As humans, it is understandably natural to shy away from what causes pain in us and instead turn our attention to that which brings pleasure—you already know this. Yet there is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tonglen you may be familiar with. This is not my solitary focus here, but to be brief, it involves breathing in the pain or the wish for peace and healing of another and then breathing out peace and healing to that same individual or group of individuals. One can also practice this for oneself in identifying with others who also might be feeling the same pain or suffering around the world. We allow the pain to pass through our hearts, transmuting it into healing. At the very least, it changes us. If you are interested, you can Google it for yourself if you choose to learn more.
I am not a seasoned practitioner of Tonglen. I have used it more than a few times over the course of years. Today was one of them. When the pain of self or others becomes unbearable, it is a good therapy to change the way you see things.
This morning I blogged a poem here that came to me first thing upon awakening called, “Tending the Roses of God”. I was speaking about my mother and her descent into the deeper stages of her illness–Alzheimer’s. I referenced the idea of her tending the roses of God while her body slumbered. It occurred to me later my mother is one of the roses of God; and I, along with others, are tending her as she is bathed or fed or loved.
Yet it also came to me that we are each and every one a rose in that same garden of life, that it is our given service to tend one another by learning to bear witness to the pain and suffering of our lives, by offering up our gifts or talents as acts of healing.
In this, my mother has taught me well. It’s been a long and difficult journey I have often resisted. Nevertheless, witness is the wisdom I’ve learned here, the most valuable lesson, the only viable choice I could make in order to survive and not go down in flames of exhaustion and guilt. I’ve heard it said that the grieving we do is merely the love we are feeling making itself known in visceral ways .
I view many kinds of grief as a kind of stripping down to what’s essential, what is real and true.
What disservice would I be doing in my knee jerk attempts to short circuit whatever important work is going on just so I don’t have to feel uncomfortable?
It is this bearing of witness I am speaking about in not only the practice of Tonglen, but in our choices to become present, to hold space for everything that crosses our paths. It is a conscious choice though expansion of the heart, the still presence of witness. I am making a choice to do this, to recognize that my heart has its great capacity to carry the world in it and not be diminished by it, but rather to transmute it. It is a great honor to be entrusted with this and to trust no matter what a thing looks like.
I am choosing more and more, not always necessarily with success, to hold space for another when I am called. It is a life’s practice not learned overnight, but through the course of years and all the things that happen in a life. These others–they are me, my brother and my sister, no matter the story. How could I do less?
This does not necessarily mean there is something for me to do or to change. There is often no instant comfort or practical advice I have to offer; nothing I can affect or change without creating damage in the long run to myself or them.
I can only sit and be present with the grief or the illness carried by another whose load it is to carry it. I can sit with my discomfort or lack of answers. I can sit and allow my heart to sift through it all, to breathe out peace and healing the best way I know how.
The more difficult task is to remain still, to cease fruitlessly wishing for the proverbial wand of righting wrongs.
I am learning to let go of the need to “do something”—the guilt I’ve been raised with that has so often compelled me into instant action. I know I may still feel the guilt of inaction or answers, but I am choosing to not always allow it to have its way with me, to take time to be reflective and wait on my heart. I trust implicitly in my heart to do the right thing—but first I must listen and be witness to all it has to tell me.
This is the face of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is only one face among many and it belongs to my mother. My mother has always been a beautiful woman. I am talking about movie star beautiful. Always beautifully groomed and made up. In her younger years, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could almost see Natalie Wood–at least that’s what my cousin says. Natalie Wood or not, she was stunning! And she is still beautiful at 80 with this terrible disease that has had her doing things she would be utterly shocked at if she knew about. She was always a very proper and private woman, and taught me well in the rules of feminine etiquette–don’t know that it took so well with me, but she tried.
For five years, I have been and continue to be her overseer, protector, companion, bull dog, bouncer, secretary, gopher, care giver and moving man. Nearly two years ago, I had to place her in a memory care unit after a severe psychotic break sent her spiraling down into severe Alzheimer’s. She is in a better place with the help of medication now, although declining a little more every day. It has been hard work, and I have learned so much from her, but I also have Adrenal Fatigue as a result which has taught me big lessons about how we take care of ourselves or not while caring for others.
The surprising thing I didn’t know I would do is I have fallen in love with many of these dear souls that live alongside her, that don’t always fade so quietly into the night as Alzheimer’s exacts its toll on their minds and bodies. Tonight, surprised again, I fell in love when I went to visit my mother–let me share with you this endearing little story.
So this evening, I popped in to visit my mother. Happened to be the dinner hour, and they had a full house going with lots of energy. I am spoon feeding my mom and listening to the female resident who usually sits with her and who is blathering away about what I have no idea. But she telling me all about something she did using words that sound like gibberish interspersed with English and pointing to the Sloppy Joe she hadn’t eaten, but wrapped up in her napkin. I was agreeing and nodding and telling her what an amazing story she had, when all of a sudden, she stopped mid sentence, looked straight at me and said, “You look particularly beautiful tonight!” Wow! I thanked her profusely and told her I loved hearing that, and she replied, “Well, I just say whatever comes up!”
This was written awhile back after years of caregiving, illness, and death, and the demise of a relationship. Our lives can feel much like a proverbial pressure cooker at times–especially these days on the planet as time seems set on warp speed. Yet intersecting with the grief that can overwhelm us in doing our work, there come unexpected moments of pure release, a benevolence, an answer to prayer, as if to say, “go on, keep moving, you are not alone”. There is sweet grace in not knowing, in our confusion of not having exact answers but knowing they will arrive in the exact moment necessary–and not a moment too late. There is grace in allowing the knife edge of pain to do its best surgical work in our lives without trying to cover it over with the lid of denial. Better to accept our own vulnerability, our tears–there’s a new day coming when we do–even if we are the only one changed.
These are days when grief takes what it takes. When the best I can do is hold myself and cry. I am spent with it, pale and tired, worn down.
Nonetheless it seems right that I should find myself here at the same time when everywhere trees are catching fire, going down in cloven tongued flames of glory, suspended between death and life in a kind of spectral breath stopping splendor—a brilliant colored luminosity that makes you wonder what it is that dying knows.
Sorrow has a way of opening me and ripening me, of letting everything out—and bringing everything in, while the whole world rises to meet me in my solitary pain while I fall. Yet not always so serenely as the dying leaves, while I am choking on the words, “help me, please”, and I think no one is listening.
What comes without predictability startles me—strong arms that gather me up in moments of laughter or surprise. Grief interrupted, I suppose, preempted by grace when the unexpected flare of golden light outlines dark clouds after heavy deluge; or falling words from a stranger’s mouth apprise I’m still here. It’s okay to cry—
or laugh when yesterday, as trick or treating goblins came out— as I went by a dark angel in bright wings receiving a ticket from a sternly posed uniformed man; and further along the road seen were old men in tutus teetering down the sidewalk in high heeled shoes.
These are gifts of pure release, a break in the storm, a kind of benevolence coming into my bones, won’t let go, that fiercely holds on. Laughter and transcendence, marrow building even in what is dying; even while I let go, and life goes on. Even while what needs to come around, comes around, and once again, I find myself spiraling down to my knees.
It is my hardest work in this earthly realm, to tell myself the truth, to tear this mask of pretense off. In this, I believe I am not alone. I am struggling daily to confront my own humanity, to be intently present for myself as I listen deeply. I am discovering as I listen, it has the unintended consequence of changing my entire view of life around me. Allowing this pain sensitizes me the humanity of others in a larger way. Labels about how I believe someone might be are falling away, and I am beginning to see an integrity in the basic goodness of life, no matter the outward appearance.
Concurrently, what comes is the knowledge of where I’ve failed to live up to my own commitments to others, where I’ve lied in order to gain something for myself, and in so doing, deeply hurt someone else; where I’ve failed to say what I mean and instead what I thought someone wanted to hear, the many occasions where my motives have been less than pure, where harm was done to another soul. It hurts to look at the many parts my actor self has played, and to take responsibility for where I have failed the test of my own humanity. It crashes in with a loud thud, and I am grieving also for what I have done at the same time I am feeling relief, a proverbial lightness of being.
Still and always, there are respites that come guaranteed, bring the necessary energy to go on, to see it from above, then the wheel turns instinctually to face me with what needs attending in my life.
My soul that needs its time in mourning, its difficult times of transitioning, the realization of what’s been lost or what was done. And I am tempted to run. Still I can count on my steadfast life of reckoning in the fated events and happenings that show up. It then becomes up to me to find the beautiful truth of what needs grieving? Or what needs loving? What needs amends?
As with everything in this life, this life of mine requires its struggling, it maturing and I am grappling with my relationship to it and my place in the world. Things take time to grow and mature on the vine as in me, to be fully what they are intended to become.
I am learning a certain approbation of the requisite pain, the obligatory difficult work of grieving what’s done. There is a fundamental understanding I cannot summon to myself everything at once. What is trying to be born requires turning over the soil again and again. Like biting into a sour green apple before its time, impatience would have us spit it out, leaving a bitter taste upon our tongue. What is vitally important is the struggle, then the acceptance in the rendering down where the most essential self is found, where the truth of the heart is let out. It is in the stripping away of façade, or the relief of laughter, in the unexpected support we receive, in the surrendering again and again that something necessary and bewilderingly beautiful can finally emerge.
Turns out that ruling the world from my bed has not been a total waste of time this last ten days. Sitting like queen, I have been holding court with boxes of Kleenex, cough drops and cups of tea. This was not a role I aspired to, however, and normally I would have resisted and complained at every turn about being ill. Normally, I might have muscled my way past body aches and fatigue out into the world believing I shouldn’t feel like this. However, you can’t believe everything you think. I should feel like this, because I do. It’s my body’s way of ensuring balance and rest—which I didn’t consciously know I needed—but I will defer to my body’s wisdom on this one.
It’s been interesting to watch myself lie here without complaint, to observe life racing madly around me and not feel compelled to enter into the skirmish of getting it all done. This week, I have declared a truce with myself. I’m going to just lie here and be okay with it even while dishes and dust and paperwork pile up.
In my long hours of solitary idleness, I can’t muster the energy to even disagree with anyone. I have decided that I have will have no opinion as to who is right or who is wrong. I have decided that this week there shall be a truce, a kind of peace inside of me. It’s none of my business what others are doing out there—whose fighting with whom, who is right or who is wrong. I have no talking points, nor do I want to listen to them from anyone else. I’m tired of argument and the scrapping of ideas and ideology. Can’t we all just get along, and could you pass me the box of tissue, please?
It’s not that I don’t care. I care passionately. But I think I care more about the state of my being, the state of your sacred being right now. When I am still long enough, the truth has a chance to present itself before me for what it is, and I have recognized some very inconvenient truths, and as much as I say I am for peace, I also recognize my own hypocrisy in always being an ambassador of peace in what I think and do. So okay, I admit it. Yes, I am a hypocrite. My outward actions don’t always align with my more zen like thoughts or vice-versa. Yet I am going to be okay with that. I am going to lie here and know how terribly blind-spotted I can be because I know I am really okay in the greater scheme of things. So no, I don’t want to run with the pack anymore of who is right or who is wrong. No more name calling, denigrating, demeaning, reducing the other into some concept or label so that I can further dehumanize or categorize them. That includes the dehumanization of my own self for perceived mistakes. I am ready to step outside of the “group speak” when it comes to another individual or group.
I am not a concept or a label and I don’t want to put anyone else into that category where they become my enemy. Our primitive minds have been conditioned for this. We haven’t been around all that long in the history of the planet. In fact, you could kind of say, we just got here. We’re still learning. So it is natural—we had a need to stay aware of what surrounded us at all time in order to stay alive, to consider who was friend and who was foe. Our lives depended upon it.
These last days have given me further opportunity to look at my unquestioned thoughts and ideologies. I could be anyone, born into any life on the planet that looks different than mine, raised with ideas I consider as inhumane or insane or ignorant. We paint the world with broad strokes of disapprobation, the lenses through which we see one another like fun house mirrors. We decide in an instant who is worthy of life and who isn’t just because that’s the way it is or has always been in our tribal consensus. Yet there is no idea or act too strange or evil or charitable at any point on the continuum that I also do not carry within myself. Given different circumstances or in another lifetime, I might have very well committed the same act, envisioned the same deed for good or for evil, and indeed, carry the very seeds of Hitler and Mother Theresa within me.
I want to notice when I censor myself in order to be seen as loyal to the group to which I belong. Where have I believed something because my tribe believes it so without first examining that belief and where it came from? To accept carte blanche what informs my life without first having an honest conversation with it is dishonest. There are many things I don’t know but have accepted at face value because it sounds good or feels good, and heaven knows I want you to approve of me. Yet it only takes a minority or handful of people to be a mighty force for good when they begin to set aside their own selfish interests for the greater good of all by questioning their thoughts. In Mark Matousek’s book, Ethical Wisdom—The Search for a Moral Life”, he writes the following:
The good news about us versus them is that stereotyping can be reversed. A recent study of prejudice revealed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between different racial groups just as quickly as suspicion. Through something known as the “extended-contact effect,” which travels like a benign virus through opposing groups, “conscious as well as unconscious bias between people of different races can change in a matter of hours,” according to psychology researchers at the University of Massachusetts. Peaceful exposure to “the other” seems to be key.
And I would add this would also apply to any other group of people with which we find ourselves at odds because of their race, political persuasion, ideology, religious belief or sexual orientation.
This benign virus of which they speak, I want to be a carrier of it.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.”