Love a label? Finding compassion among the silos…

A couple of recent conversations with my younger daughter brought this post – originally published on October 19, 2015 – into my mind, so I’ve chosen to run it again as this month’s #1000Speak post & also as a potential conversation starter because I think, in some respects, it may be more relevant now than it was 20 months ago.

“As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.”
— Ram Dass

Recently a headline that I barely glanced at somehow infiltrated my subconscious and stuck there. And got me thinking about how our human need to identify with a group, and still somehow distinguish ourselves, may be making it harder for others to relate to us a people. Compassion is still possible. Compassion is always possible. But empathy? Empathy is harder to attain when dealing with such narrowly defined labels. Especially when those labels are often guarded so militantly.

“‘Pansexual’ Rises on National Coming Out Day” read the headline. Um, well, okay. I personally think that National Coming Out Day is a good idea – I think it’s important for people to be honest about who they are, and if having a dedicated date to do that makes it easier to do, then that’s all that matters.  It was the ‘pansexual’ label that drew me in. Perhaps because the adult  daughter of a friend varies her sexual-orientation label with quite a bit of flexibility. She is, primarily, lesbian. Sometimes she identifies herself as asexual. Or bisexual. And that’s okay, too, I think, but I do worry that sometimes she seems to assume that others just instinctively know where she is, and is annoyed that they don’t get it. Yeah, there’s surely more than a bit of drama here, which I think her friends mostly ignore, but it does make me wonder whether she ever feels isolated because of her strong need to label herself. But this problem of labels is one that exists far beyond sexual-orientation labels.

The notion that humans need to identify as a part of a group more specific than ‘human’ is well established. We identify by nationality, ethnicity, gender, color, religious affiliations, occupations, hobbies, sexual orientation, class, political views – and winnow it down further by subcategories within those groups. But we modern, westernized, humans have also developed a strong need to be seen as unique. The result seems to be that we seek increasingly fine-tuned labels because we want to make sure that no part of our individuality is missed, while at the same time needing those labels to help us find others that are more like us.

But group identification, and highly individualized labels, while helping us find our place in society and providing us some measure of support can leave us more isolated as well. Just when it’s possible that we need more love and compassion, we may find it more difficult to obtain.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of human behavior, rooted deep in our survival instincts, is a fear of that which is not us. We instinctively distrust ‘different’, just as we instinctively move toward ‘like’. This protects us from obvious predators, and from warring tribes, but does little for us in our day to day interactions. For the most part, we have those instinctive reactions so well in hand that we barely notice them, and they don’t prevent us from navigating through our lives, but they do lie at the base of our prejudices, and, occasionally, irrational dislike of people that we just met.

Each additional layer of group identification adds to those things that are different, or that fall outside of our range of tolerance. Or the tolerance limits of one or more of the groups that we identify with. Sometimes when we wholly embrace the views of a group, we end up cutting ourselves off not only from the larger society around us, but possibly from our families and friends.

I think our ability to be compassionate with those outside our silos is often limited because we confuse empathy and compassion, and we do not always understand that love can exist without a personal relationship.

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another”

— Thomas Merton

Compassion and love go hand in hand. Compassion can, and should, be taught. We recognize the suffering of others, and feel the compulsion to act. Love in this sense can also be taught, I think, for it is the love of our fellow beings, and animals, as well, that enables compassion and the desire and willingness to act in some way to alleviate the suffering of others. Empathy, which requires a way of relating to the others that cannot be taught – it requires a shared experience, or a natural ability that is possessed by few. Empathy can be particularly difficult when our own micro-universes keep us removed from those outside, but since we can feel love and compassion regardless of how narrowly we define ourselves, there should be no impediment.

And yet, in a somewhat ironic turn, the continual shrinking of the world at large seems to lead to a magnification of our differences. That magnification fuels fear, which fuels hate. So rather than an increasing globalization leading us to see each other as the same, we are focusing more on our differences. In order to move to a more compassionate, and peaceful, world, we need to open up our minds to the simple reality that we are all humans. To understand that we all are trying to make our way through this life as best we can, and that all of us need help and support from time to time. And that love and respect are something that we all need. And deserve.

“Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Do I have an answer? No, and there is no simple solution. But we all need to challenge ourselves to push past our preconceptions and prejudices – to suppress that urge to react to the different instead of interacting with it.

As I was writing this, possibly apropos of nothing, possibly in a sudden burst of insight, this quote from HG Wells came into my head and refused to leave:

“Sometimes, you have to step outside of the person you’ve been and remember the person you were meant to be. The person you want to be. The person you are.”

Perhaps if we all remembered, and became, the person we are, instead of being consumed by the person we’ve become, the world really would be a more compassionate place.

Thoughts on Listening

Very unoriginal this month, I fear. I’ve been giving a great deal of thought recently to the overwhelming lack of polite discourse (particularly political, but not limited to politics), and it’s disturbing how we seem to have stopped listening (or only listening long enough to get our own point across). That (very human) tendency only serves to further divide, and makes compassion difficult, and empathy all but impossible. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I’ve dusted off my August 2015 themed post on Listening. Instead of listening to find an opening for a response, think of how much better off we’d be if we simply listened, and really thought before responding – or realized that sometimes no response is necessary.

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

— Anonymous (but with many unconfirmed attributions to Robert McClosky – not the children’s author, a State Department spokesman during the Vietnamese War in the late 1960’s)

When I first started planning what to write for this month’s  #1000Speak post on listening, the quote above popped into my head. An old favorite from my youth (I think I may have first encountered it in an Art Buchwald column at the time). It is, perhaps, not entirely in line with the compassion theme, but it serves to start off with a reminder that we often hear the words and not the intent, and in order to listen compassionately, we have to move beyond our natural tendency toward distracted listening.

The next thing that popped into my head, and stayed there for days (oh, those pesky earworms) was Cat Stevens’ highly introspective, and very short, song, “The Wind”:

“I listen to the wind
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up, well, I think
Only God really knows”

This is also, perhaps, not entirely relevant to a piece on compassionate listening, but it, too, has its place. Compassion has to start within us. And learning to be still and listen to ourselves will bring us closer to being able to do the same for others. It is true that if we are not listening to ourselves mindfully, and with compassion, we will never be able to listen to others compassionately. It sounds trite, but we have to understand ourselves before we can understand others. So, listen to that voice in your head, and occasionally the one in your heart, so that you can find your own equilibrium. That makes is much easier to simply live in a world inhabited by other people, and makes it possible to reach out. With a helping hand, or to take one.

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”

— Margaret J. Wheatley

Hearing is passive, listening is active. We hear an overwhleming amount all day long. Those of us capable of hearing, are also incapable of turning it off. We are, in fact, bombarded by sounds, all of the time. Our brains, helpfully, do block out ‘normal’ sounds while we sleep – so that we can sleep – and they also filter sounds, in much the same way that they filter abundant visual stimulation, by deciding what’s relevant, and dialing back what isn’t (or hopefully isn’t).

Unfortunately, we filter quite a bit, unconsciously, while listening, also. This is very apparent when we listen while doing other things – we get distracted by email while on a conference call, or we are attempting to eat dinner while chatting with a friend on the phone, or we are trying to read while our children are talking to us about something that we have minimal interest in, or… There a veritable multitude that I’m guilty of and I know I’m not alone. Suddenly I realize that I have absolutely no idea what we are talking about – let alone why my opinion is necessary.

“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

When we attempt to listen while doing other tasks, we often miss the intent, if not the actual words. When someone tells us they are tired, it could be simply a factual observation. Or it could mean that they’re bored (a common problem with teens). Or it could be indicative of an existential crisis. Or depression. Unless we are really listening – to the words as well as the tone, the underlying emotion – we may miss something important. Perhaps even an attempt to reach out.

“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen

But, we have another, more difficult, problem when listening. Part of our brain’s filtering, categorizing, and self-protective functions, includes keeping ‘me’ front and center. Even when we are listening attentively, we are still hearing through our own filters – our own experiences, prejudices, belief system. A co-worker’s spouse has gout? How did your Aunt Jane deal with hers? We are often listening more with an ear out for how to respond. Even if our intent is sympathy, understanding, common ground, it is still making the listening about us, not about the person we’re listening to. Many times all that is needed is someone to listen. Not to offer advice, not to commiserate. Just to listen. This is perhaps hardest of all. Part of our desire to connect leads us to seek out a common thread that we can respond with, but that comes from our own desire. Ask if there’s anything we can do, if that’s appropriate, and sincere, but don’t preface the offer with a commentary about Aunt Jane’s gout, or your problems with morning sickness during your second trimester.

Don’t multi-task, try to take your own experiences out of the equation, and just listen. Something that is increasingly difficult to do in our highly electronic, multi-tasking oriented world, but it is necessary to try as we continue our efforts to make our corner of the universe a better, more compassionate place.

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”

— Lao Tzu

As expected, a weekend of visitors – some expected, some not – has left me, late on a Sunday, unprepared, and so this post isn’t quite what I’d had in my head, but no matter – I will eventually get caught up, and get this month’s #1000Speak post written, and possibly some others that are floating around my head.

And so, I am instead sharing these words of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching as a reminder to myself that everything will be fine as long as I don’t get caught up in what is not fine now.

Thoughts on Compassion and the Dying

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to death, and the process of dying, recently. Not in any sort of morbid, depressing way, but because death is, quite basically, a part of life –  and as we age, as our families and friends age, and as disease strikes, we are often left floundering when confronted with the inevitability of death. We don’t know what to say, what to do. Quite simply we don’t know how we are supposed to act.

Those of you that read my blog semi-regularly know that my, still mentally alert, nonagenarian mother-in-law passed away last year, after a year of her body slowly failing. We all knew the end was coming, and she had long accepted it (welcomed it, even). Time spent with her in the last year, and also in the preceding years, was primarily for sharing happy memories and sharing our lives and those of our children (and in some cases, their children). Although not a terminal illness, the realities of living to a very old age allowed for mentally preparing for what would come – and it allowed us all to enjoy the time we had left together.

Age combined with natural causes is ‘normal’ – on some level all of us realize that our time is finite – our bodies will eventually give out. There are even theories that we all have our own unique, genetic, ‘expiration dates’, as it were, even though we do not know how to decode them. But terminal illnesses, especially when they strike well before advanced old age, are far more complicated for us to process. With three recent cancer-related deaths of friends – one my age, one younger, one older – I’ve been doing a bit of processing myself.

In her groundbreaking 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first laid out the 5 Stages of Grief. She posited that people commonly experienced most of these stages when confronted by a terminal diagnosis – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This process is now widely accepted to also be experienced by those coping with the loss of a loved one, or other types of grief. And we do begin the grieving process with the diagnosis that the end is near. Although part of our own grieving may be the hunt for the often elusive ‘closure’.

The concept of closure, from an overly-broad psychological perspective, is defined by the degree to which an individual avoids ambiguity and needs well-defined – and clear – outcomes. There is even a scale used to determine an individual’s need for cognitive closure. In recent years, however, there has been a ‘pop psychology’ type of belief which promotes closure as something that is needed, and to be expected, when endings come. Always. But perhaps it shouldn’t always be. I was surprised several years ago when a coworker’s spouse unexpectedly died during a chemotherapy session, and he mentioned to me when he returned to work that it was the lack of closure that he was having trouble dealing with – the things left unsettled and unsaid. And I understood, sudden death is always very hard – we are never prepared – but what surprised me was that he contrasted that with the death of his nonagenarian father. His father had slowly ebbed away over a two week period, and during that time, my coworker felt that he was able to resolve things with his father, and in that respect he was ready to accept his death. That notion always disturbed me a bit – surely the compassionate thing to do is not to look for resolutions to your own inner issues from someone grappling with the far more traumatic knowledge of their own imminent demise? I recognize that part of coming to terms with imminent death for some people may be by seeking closure with those closest to them, but that decision should be theirs to make.

Shortly before my third friend was diagnosed (his was a late diagnosis and a very rapid decline), I came across an article on Next Avenue that discussed the same subject with much the same conclusion – it is better to appreciate the bonds that tie you together and love that you share, than to try to clear any historical grievances. Few people really achieve the magical clearing of the air that they are looking for, and really, isn’t the important part trying to ease the worry that the one that is dying has for those about to be left behind? My own experience has been that telling stories when they are unable to talk much, letting them direct the conversation when they are, is a much better, and kinder thing to do. Saying a final good-by is never easy, but when we have the opportunity, we should use it selflessly.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross


Thoughts on Compassion – and why it matters

A bit late this month with my monthly #1000Speak post (no linkup or theme this month) & not at all original – this post was originally published in December 2015. But It still holds meaning for me.

“A movement is only composed of people moving. To feel its warmth and motion around us is the end as well as the means.”

— Gloria Steinem

As I was finishing getting my thoughts organized for this month’s #1000Speak post, Yvonne’s post with the monthly linkup hit my inbox. So as I finally begin putting this together, I’m also reflecting a bit about the the past near-year that I’ve been involved.

When I’d first heard about this, I thought it was a wonderful idea – no, I did not expect that the world was going to change. I knew it wouldn’t – that takes many more people, and much more time, but you have to start somewhere. And the best, in fact, only, place to start is with yourself and your own corner of the universe. No matter how much we may think otherwise, everything we say and do has an impact on those around us. Sometimes intentionally, most times not. Sometimes the impact is direct, sometimes not. But when we are compassionate, or at least kind, most others will pass that positive feeling or action along to those that they come into contact with – in the same way that our rudeness or carelessness can negatively impact someone else’s day. Or someone else’s thoughtlessness can ruin our day – especially if we we are dealing with our own challenges. Everyone has challenges of their own to work through, and they are not always obvious, so part of being a good human is to be mindful of other people. All of the time.

I still think it’s a wonderful – an important – idea. Not only has it given me the opportunity to share my own thoughts with a wider community, but it’s provided me with perspectives, and individual stories, that I would otherwise have missed. It’s also helped me to focus my thoughts on what it means to be human, and perhaps has kept me more aware of my own words and actions, and the impact that they can have.

Humans are social creatures. We need other humans – and their interactions with us are critical to our own well-being. Just as we are to theirs. Yes, we are highly individualized and do not function as a hive (although mob actions may sometimes make it seem so), but that does not mean we can discount the crucial fact that we need society. And it also needs us, or the social compact fails.

Human societies have historically formed in order to protect and support it members. The nuclear family is the initial society, the extended family the next level. Eventually we find others outside the family unit but still like us that can supply us with food, shelter, protection from outsiders. Expanded, these become the states and nations where we live, or where our roots lie. Within these, and frequently moving beyond, we also affiliate ourselves with others through our religion beliefs, our genders, our race and ethnicity, our hobbies, our interests, or anything else that means much to us, and fulfills our basic need for someone to share with. Someone to identify with. Someone to understand.

But since societies exist for the benefit of all members, we have obligations to the group, and we have rules that need to be followed. Legal, societal, religious – whatever their source in our lives, each group has rules defined in order to keep order, provide for the common good, and keep the group protected. Living with those rules require us to give up some individual rights, or to limit others, because the entire point of a community is the benefit to the majority.

Over time – millennia, in fact – the base communities that formed undergo changes. People move – for trade, for food, for a more hospitable climate – and the outsiders integrated with their new community, sometimes not so smoothly, and the community, as a living organism, adapts itself to these changes. Assimilation for the newcomers, yes, but also adaptations in the old guard to fully integrate the newcomers.And many times the newcomers became the dominate culture, and rules and expectations changed – perhaps not always for the better. But, through it all, humanity survived. Flourished, actually. And still we moved, conquered, assimilated, and endured. We are likely to continue doing all of the above as long as their is life on this planet. But the world has gradually become smaller in a very real sense – transportation and communication have improved that our movement, and our information flow has reached ever-increasing speeds, at the same time that population has increased, and there are fewer uncharted territories. So, then, all movement now tends to be to areas already populated, sometimes densely so. For those regions have available jobs, relative tranquility, relative prosperity. We move seeking more opportunity, or simply to flee an untenable situation at home. We do this locally – within our own borders, and in too many case, we do so globally – to new nations that are not suffering drought, famine, war. And our very human desire to close ranks and keep the outsiders on the outside is in conflict with our equally basic human need to connect, to reach out, to care. And for many, that internal conflict inexplicably causes us to close ourselves in tighter.

I don’t have answers – I wish I did. Like most of us, I understand the complex, and not so complex, reason why we behave as we do. But I do firmly believe that we each have the capacity to do good in small, localized ways, and that those acts of kindness and compassion do ripple out outward. And if enough of us continue in that vein, knowing that we are not alone in our endeavors, that slowly we can begin to change things – one small piece of the universe at a time.

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

— Robert F. Kennedy