Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Simple connection

Yesterday, I woke up with one of those migraines that make me long for the days when sucking my thumb and whimpering were an acceptable way of coping with things. Thus, I expected a day filled with a whole lot of nothing much. Once the pain killers began to take the edge off, I made myself an industrial strength, super-sized cup of tea, watched a few geese migrating and looked at some internet links that friends had sent me. Two different people had sent me a link to the same blog post. (here) I cried as I read the story and mulled over its meaning.

It is a simple story of a woman reaching out in a simple way to a total stranger. World peace is not achieved. Cancer is not cured. Nothing that the world views as grand is accomplished. And yet, something extraordinary does happen. And perhaps the tears were brought on by the very fact that it is extraordinary. Or at least much more extraordinary than it should be. I talked about it with a few folks who had read it as well. There were different reactions, as one would expect. These reactions, of course, made me consider it further.

One person was concerned about the impact her action could have had on her small children. Granted, we do tell our kids not to talk to strangers, especially strangers on the street, with very good reason. And every parent is rightly protective of them in that way. But the person seemed to miss the other side of it. What impact, indeed, might it have on her children to see their mother showing compassion to another human being on a regular basis. A very positive one, I imagine. It very well could inform how they come to view and treat others in their lives. The mother showed respect toward a stranger and, from her own need, shared what she could. Not a bad model to be putting forth.

A couple of others expressed concern as to whether or not the recipient was either really in need or was responsible for their own situation and thus, perhaps, not deserving of her compassion. This is a position that I understand. In our city, we've enacted laws about "aggressive pan-handling" because of certain people harassing others on the streets downtown. It became a big enough problem that the city government had to take steps. And, granted, we do have a number of groups of homeless kids constantly trying to beg money for coffee and puppy chow. It is no wonder that folks become tired of it. But, for me, there is another side to it. What do we do to ourselves, if we do not see and respond (in someway) to those who are around us? When we cease to recognize them as one of our own? I think we damage a part of ourselves. That part that was so alive on the kindergarten playground when another child was hurt. That cries over news stories from the other side of the world. That cannot bear the thought of a mother's loss of her child, no matter who she or her child might be. It's a part of our humanity that gets buried a bit each time we turn away from part of humanity.

And I believe that this goes far beyond street people and their obvious problems. It extends to everyone else around us with their not so obvious situations. Perhaps it is the fault of societal problems. Perhaps it is our myth of self-sufficiency. Perhaps it is nothing more than fear for our own security. Whatever it is, almost all of us pull our hearts in and shut them off from various people and situations. We believe that we cannot or should not cope with any problems other than our own. I fail miserably at it myself, but I do have two reasons why we should try to move beyond this belief.

First of all, whatever or whoever is before us is, by definition, a part of our life. We may not have invited them. We may not have asked for the event or situation or person to present themselves, but there they are awaiting a response. Certainly, our response can be to turn away. Sometimes that is possible. We can ignore the beggar, the sick, the criminal, the inconvenient, generally without overt repercussions. They (or someone just like them) will continue to be there, whether we ignore them or not. We can't fix all the problems of the world. Very true. But might we not also be able to address the small problem of this minute that stands right in front of us? And if we do not, who will? And if we do not, what does that do to us?

Secondly, every organized religion that I'm aware of (and most of the non-organized spiritualities as well) demand that we reach out to help others. The holy books and great thinkers do not suggest that it might be a good idea. They do not say, "do it if it is convenient." They do not say, "hope that someone else will come and do it." They just say do it. Whatever IT might be in the moment.

Do I follow my own ideas all of the time? Of course, not. I get wrapped up in my own worries just the same as anyone else does. I am only too aware that I cannot solve a single solitary major problem in the world and that can quite easily lead to not even wanting to acknowledge that they exist. I am frequently asked for money and, more often than not, I am unable to give even small change. And there is no way in the world that I could respond to each request that comes my way. So what's to be done?

I think the most important part of the story in the blog is not that she gave a man a hamburger. I think the important part is that she recognized their common humanity and reached out to him. Even without the sandwich, the impact would have been there just in looking at him, smiling at him, calling him "sir". Giving him the recognition of his dignity as a fellow human, a brother. Every so-called bum on the street once had a mother who cradled him. Somewhere along his path something went terribly wrong but that innocent child still is there. Every cranky old person once had a vibrant young life full of promise that has been buried by time or tragedy. Every lonely person sitting in a theater had dreams of vital connections that never came their way. And that is the person we should acknowledge, respect and, if possible, reach out to. Even if only for a moment.

Did the lady of the blog permanently change the man's life? I guess that depends on what sort of change one means. Is he still homeless? Most likely. Will he be eternally grateful for the hamburger? Probably not. But in that simple interaction, several lives were impacted by her small, kind act. The man had a small amount of dignity restored to him. The woman, with problems of her own, was able to see a connection. Her children witnessed, what I am sure will be, one of many examples of how to be with other people. Many people read the story and forwarded it through the internet. And I felt compelled to write about it. Quite an impact from a trip to McDonald's.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


"Most people would rather be certain they're miserable, than risk being happy." -- Robert Anthony.

I believe there is a rather large kernel of truth in this quote. I know in my own case, in the past I have let myself get bogged down in the misery at times, rather than grasp at the possibility of a happiness that may or may not have been just beyond my reach. Sometimes going so far as to doubt a happiness that is right before me offering things that I knew without doubt I craved in the deepest parts of my being. I don't believe that I am unique in this, which brings me to the inevitable question of why. Why do many of us do this to ourselves? Why do we occasionally work against our own interests? And what does it take to release ourselves from this self-imposed misery? As with so many of these issues, I believe a great deal of it can be boiled down to fear and external expectations.

How do we come to the point of embracing our miseries? I seriously doubt it is a conscious act for most of us. Perhaps it is cumulative. We have innumerable small nips and bites take away small but essential pieces of our happiness over a long period of time, until all we notice is the pain and forget the happiness or potential for happiness that once inhabited the places now filled with pain and loss.

Perhaps it comes with an awareness that risk can equally lead to much worse misery as easily as to happiness, and the fear of that outcome deters us from reaching for the potential happiness that also could come about. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

Also, there is the risk of possible censure of family, friends or society because the happiness that calls to us falls outside acceptable norms and expectations. Perhaps our true happiness lies in running away and joining a circus. Without a doubt, others would warn against pursuing pipe dreams and not being mature or responsible. Conformity or fear of criticism frequently suppress the true desires of our hearts, sometimes to the point of killing them completely. In time, we become a self-policing organism that will not allow itself to acknowledge that the stars exist, much less reach out for them. Once this self-policing is firmly in place, we frequently don't recognize gifts of happiness that appear before us wrapped up in pretty paper and a bow. And, if we do notice it, we may be suspicious that the contents can truly be what it appears to be, thus perpetuating the all to familiar misery. In holding tight to the familiar misery, we seemingly hope to block out even deeper misery. But, of course, there is no guarantee of that either.

How do we shake off the shackles of long standing conformity, misery, pain, that restrain our hand's reaching for the possibility of finding our true bliss? I suspect it requires a conscious focusing on how we can move deliberately toward joy and release our hold on the constant niggling pains that we've allowed ourselves to claim as our own. Not an easy task, certainly. It is terribly easy to lapse back into familiar patterns. Too easy to substitute acceptance for happiness. To cling to stability rather than risk change for the sake of happiness and fulfillment. To exchange a proper public image for all out goofy joy.

As I was examining some of these questions with a friend, discussing the potential for a great happiness that had suddenly appeared in my life, she offered very wise words. "Accept it and say 'thank you'." And so I did. And so I shall. It is the only truly rational response.

"Say yes quickly, if you know, if you've known it from before the beginning of the universe." -- Rumi.