Tag Archives: compassion

How Little We Truly Know About Each Other

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” –Wendy Mass

Hello friend,

I used to know so much. I had a genius for reading people. Just give me a few moments to chat, and I had them all figured out. They were so transparent to my extraordinary powers of perception and discernment. Listen to these pronouncements I find in my journals from my twenties:

“I don’t wish to make myself to be above ‘the standard man,’ but I do feel I have always had an uncanny ability to know people to their depths in a very short time.” November 18, 1997

“I feel I have these gifts or abilities in my mind that make me feel unlike the rest of society or members of my species….somehow cut from a different cloth….I feel I can truly understand every man and his thoughts and feelings…” July 25, 1997

Wasn’t I great?

It wasn’t just that I believed I was unusually gifted at reading people. You hear in that second quote my sense that I was also, well, unusual. Of all these people I met–people that I was sure that I understood so well–I didn’t seem to be like any one of them. My quirks and gifts and troubles seemed to be all my own. There was a disconnect. For all of my ease in knowing them, they were unable to know me at all.

“I am destined to be a loner, for no one can understand the things that drive me.” July 7, 1994 

And it really annoyed me when anyone had the audacity to claim that they understood me or, even worse, could predict my success or failure.

“…because he doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t know what’s inside, and he doesn’t know what I’m capable of. I want no one to ever throw me in a group with others, judged like others, or compared to others. I set my own standards based entirely upon myself, and I needn’t try to compare myself to anyone…” January 31, 1995

I certainly was special, wasn’t I? So sure that I could read everyone as easily as cartoon caricatures–I didn’t need to hear their whole story to know who they were–and equally sure that no one could ever take the measure of me.

The Verdict: I WAS SO WRONG!

It is amazing the lessons that come with age and experience. Some things that you are so sure of in young adulthood get exposed like ancient fossils with the passage of time. It seems to often be the case that the greater the certainty and conviction, the greater is the folly to be later revealed. We take ourselves so seriously early on, and then we learn–well, some of us learn–that it’s all a little more messy than we thought and that maybe we don’t know quite so much. Bob Dylan comes to mind: “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” Wise man, that Bob.

Anyway, I was wrong. I may have a gift for understanding what makes different people tick differently–I assume that most coaches, teachers, and therapists have that type of gift–but the years have humbled me and made me realize that a personality type or a single conversation only reveals so much and that I would do well to be mindful of how much I don’t know about a person’s story and the types of burdens they are carrying around with them every day (and the burdens specific to this particular day).

There are so many layers to each unique person in our lives, so many different screens–laid on top of one another–to peer through in order to truly see someone.

There are histories. These include our traumatic events and happiest moments, our educations, our relationships, and our habits built over time. These histories shape the way we see the world and craft our unique reactions to shared life events.

There are genetic and soul inclinations. These contributions from our ancestors and our spirits can be both good and bad. Addictive tendencies, an easygoing nature, a mental disorder (diagnosed or otherwise). I can’t think of ways I have raised my two kids differently from one another, but they sure come at the world in very different ways. One is more dramatic, one is more contemplative, one is more confident but the other more boastful, one fears this and the other fears that. They go their own road, seemingly called that way by something I cannot explain. They arrived on Earth this way.

There are present circumstances. Someone next to you in line at the store just got fired, and someone else is up for a promotion. Someone in your gym class just got a cancer diagnosis, and the person next to her just found out she is pregnant. One couple on the sidelines at the soccer game has to go home and tell the kids they are divorcing, and another couple is going to tell the kids they are moving. One of your co-workers will go home today, like every day, to a parent who is rapidly declining with Alzheimer’s Disease, while another co-worker will propose to his boyfriend. One of your child’s friends at school cannot afford lunch today, and another was sexually abused last night. One of your neighbors thinks the country is becoming great again and feels more free to express his racism, while another feels betrayed by the government and genuinely fearful for her rights and her safety. Did you know all of that? These circumstances–and a million more like them–will surely affect the behaviors of the people in your little corner of the world today, with a fresh new batch arriving tomorrow.

These histories, these genetic and soul inclinations, and these present circumstances combine to form a combustible cocktail that changes from one moment to the next. Each one of us is like a beaker of this volatile stuff filled to the brim, and we go around this busy, crowded world bumping into each other and spilling over onto one another, creating increasingly complex mixtures as we go. And none of us knows exactly what is in the other beakers that we will collide with throughout the day.

If I meet you today and have a few minutes of open conversation, I may come away with a strong impression of you and a desire to either connect with you again or steer clear of you. I may even think I really know you and have a good grasp of your story. But how much can I really know?

I have recently been reading a fabulous book by David R. Dow called Things I’ve Learned From Dying. In one section, the author describes listening to his client, who is on death row, tell about how, at the age of six, he (the client) narrowly escaped being murdered with a butcher knife at the hands of his deranged mother after she tripped and loosened her grip, allowing him a split-second to run into the bathroom, lock the door, and call 911. It is obviously a shocking and memorable moment, but what resonated most with me was the author’s takeaway from this retelling: “Here’s something I’ve learned: When someone tells you something inconceivable, and you know for a fact he isn’t insane, you need to give serious consideration to the possibility that the occurrence’s very inconceivability is the bitter proof of how little you know.”

I suppose that is the lesson I am learning, too, as I age. I just don’t know very much. And even if I hold onto my idea that I am gifted with an extra dose of discernment and empathy, that only says to me that none of us knows very much about each other. None.

It makes me think of the TV news interviews after just about every senseless murder. The family and neighbors almost always give the same type of response: “He didn’t seem like that kind of person.” “I never would have guessed.” “Just seemed like a regular guy.”

We don’t know. We simply don’t know.

I think each of us is capable of both extremes: the worst kinds of Evil and the greatest kinds of Good. Our histories and genetic inclinations can load the gun for either, and our present circumstances pull the trigger. And since we scarcely know any of those three factors–much less all three–for the people we meet each day, we have no right to be confident in judging someone else.

Hopefully instead of judgment, this lack of confidence will lead us to a greater empathy. That is something interesting–and tragic–that I see now about my younger self and the certainty I felt about knowing everyone’s motives, triggers, and insecurities. While it probably struck me at the time as a wonderful achievement in Compassion to own such insight into my fellow humans, my certainty undoubtedly led me to be lazy in my interactions and incurious about going further to test the possibilities of deeper relationships. I assumed I knew everything, and that shielded me from the truth: that there was so much more beyond my view. My self-proclaimed depth only made me more shallow.

Shallow lacks empathy.

Empathy is just about all it takes to be good for this world.

We need to hear each other’s stories. That is how we come together. It is how we see how similar we are. So much more similar than different. But when we keep ourselves distant from the stories–either through disdain for the “other,” laziness, privilege, or assuming we already know enough (or know everything, in my case), we not only lose out on the richness of new relationships and a bigger, more beautiful life, we also fail to be of service to others. We fail to be good and do good. We fail in our charge as humans: to make this place better for each other.

So, what can we do to bridge this divide? How do we make peace with the dual reality that 1) we have almost no idea of the burdens that others carry, and that 2) our ignorance–often willful–of each other’s stories is no less than a catastrophic failure of our species in our role as chief stewards of Planet Earth? What are we as individuals to do about it in our little spheres of influence?

It is my hope and my personal challenge to become both more humble and more curious. I want to be crystal clear about how little I know about the person in front of me, and then I want to go after that missing knowledge with a dogged determination. Even if the entirety of the story forever eludes me, surely I will have learned–and thus grown–in the process and will have improved my behavior in the world around me. I will better empathize with my fellow journeyers and therefore act better toward them.

In the end, that is really what I want out of this maturation and this growing awareness of my ignorance: I want to be a better person. Yeah, that’s about it. I just want to be a better person.

How about you? How well do you think you know the people you cross paths with every day? Open up your journal and consider your world. Do you believe you have a clear picture of the lives of the people in it? What gives you this level of confidence? Is it a natural gift of yours to see and know people? Have you done a lot of work to get to know these people and what they are living with? Do you imagine that their lives are almost exactly like yours? How does your degree of confidence about how well you understand them dictate the way you respond to their behavior in ordinary, everyday settings? When someone acts in an unusual or unexpected way–e.g., has an argument in a public place, cries openly, dresses uniquely, has lots of tattoos or piercings, has a mohawk or a mullet, is loud, speaks in a different language, insults you–how do you react to them? Are you quick to judge? Do you lead with compassion? Do you make fun of them, either aloud or in your head? Do you attempt to learn more about the person or situation, curious about the uniqueness? Do you just notice it and let it slide by? Are you proud of the way you react to these kinds of situations? Would you teach your children to react the same way you do? How well do you know your family and extended family? Do their actions ever take you by surprise and cause you to second-guess how well you actually know them? How about your friends? Your neighbors? At what distance out in your circle are you fairly sure you don’t really know what the people are going through? Using that line as your border, do you make a greater attempt to practice empathy for the people inside that circle or outside? Is that answer acceptable to you? On the whole, how compassionate are you? Do you think you would do better if you knew the people in your world at a deeper level? How curious are you about others’ stories? How aggressively do you seek out those stories? How likely are you to engage a stranger in a public setting? How often do you have what you would consider to be a “deep” conversation, even with loved ones, to better learn someone’s story? How often do you share your own story in one of those conversations? Which way is more within your comfort zone? Do you think you ever surprise people in your life with your thoughts or actions? Do you tend to believe that you know them better, or that they know you better? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well do you really know the people in your sphere of influence?

Open your heart,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get to know each other!

P.P.S. If this type of thinking appeals to you, I hope you will check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

Open Season on the Voiceless: In Search of Compassion in the Age of Disrespect

DSC_0645“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” –Mohandas Gandhi

Hello friend,

My feathers are ruffled this week. I am stirred up. Anger, shame, envy, and simple hurt feelings are forming a combustible mix in my heart. They have been building up lately as I watch more and more of the political coverage on CNN, but what really tripped my storm this week was a simple Facebook post by a friend. It began with the type of snarky meme that I am becoming so accustomed to seeing—this time it was a baby shooting us the skunk-eye with the saying, “Why the heck do I have to press 1 for English? Did America Move?But instead of being accompanied by her commenting something like “Truthor “So sick of this! or some other diatribe against immigrants, my friend went the exact opposite direction. She blasted the people who post this type of meme for their perpetuation of hate and negativity, and implored us to move beyond the hate with some tolerance. She made great points, challenged the readers, and was super-passionate (her flair for the F-bomb is something I can only aspire to!).

“Yes!!!was all I could think to write in the Comments section, because it was exactly what came out of my mouth as I was reading it. Yes Yes YES!!! I was charged up. So many different emotions were swirling. For one, I was really proud of her, specifically for standing up to the ignorance and negativity that is so especially prevalent on the web and Facebook. I was also simply excited that someone was saying something, especially something with so much spirit and intelligence behind it. That also made be extremely envious of her for having the guts to do it. She said something I should have said any number of times when I read mean-spirited and ignorant posts, and I wished it was me with the guts. That made me ashamed of myself, especially as I am keenly aware of my privileged position as a White, heterosexual, middle-class male in America. I have a voice in this society that I didn’t do anything to earn. Nobody stood in the way of me putting my voice out there, and all of the characteristics I just mentioned automatically lend some credence to my opinions that people without those characteristics are denied. They are the voiceless.

I see all of these memes on Facebook—about welfare recipients, Muslims, immigrants and others whose first language is not English, and on and on—that are extremely mean-spirited and narrow-minded. And I understand that some people who create or share these things are trying to be funny—hey, my own humor is also quite sarcastic—but the clever factor in these pieces is far outweighed by the disrespect and complete absence of compassion. They perpetuate so many hateful and factually incorrect stereotypes. And they are EVERYWHERE!

There is a wave of insensitivity sweeping over us. It has become perfectly acceptable to bash anyone and everyone at any time. Perhaps it is the Internet age, where any nutjob—perhaps I am one of them—can get their opinion out to the world, and negativity draws more attention than positivity. But it is not just in crazy, underground blogs. It is in the mainstream media, and no one is safe from it. The Pope is sweeping America this week, mostly drawing positive reviews for the way he seems to galvanize support even while challenging people on both sides of the political spectrum. And yet, there I was watching CNN a few nights ago after stirring speeches to Congress and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the woman representing the Tea Party was completely slamming him in the most petty and mean-spirited tone. Look at the level of disrespect shown to President Obama that goes way beyond simply disagreeing with him; it is off the charts! It is as though we have lost control of our manners. The old, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,has been replaced by, “If all you have are nice things to say, save your breath! Negativity leads. If you can make your negativity “funny” and add a photo to it, your ideas can reach a lot of people in a short time. Even the Pope and the President aren’t immune to the onslaught of disrespect and disdain. Nothing is sacred.

But the Pope and the President are big boys. They both have lots of privilege and lots of protection. They can handle a skewering on social media, no matter how classless the attacks. They have a loud, public voice to respond. On the contrary, the other groups I mentioned—Muslims, immigrants, welfare recipients—have no accepted voice in this country, no way to inform the conversation. So, they are easy targets for disrespect and inhumane treatment. Bullies pick on the kids who can’t fight back. Unfortunately, it seems we are becoming a society of bullies.

I look at the astounding level of animosity toward Muslims as an example of this bullying. Even though there are millions of Muslims in America—almost all of them peace-loving, hard-working, and tolerant, by the way—they are a voiceless group right now. And because of that lack of a voice, they are being demonized and disrespected at an alarming level. Yesterday I saw a couple of my Facebook “friends” share an anti-Muslim meme, and all of them, I am quite sure, neither know any Muslims nor know anything about the central tenets of mainstream Islam.

I said to my wife the other day, “Muslim is the new Black. I was serious. There was a time not long ago—and stretching back to this country’s beginnings—when you could write or say anything you wanted to say about Black people without fear of backlash. Public figures could call them names and tell racist jokes and chastise them, and nothing would come of it. Black people had no voice. They do now. Sure, all sorts of awful things still happen to them on a daily basis in more covert ways, but a shift has been made in our society. What was once socially acceptable when it comes to Black people in America is no longer. But Muslims? Not at all. You can still say whatever you want without fear of reproach. The meme I mentioned above joked that we have been at peace with Japan since we dropped atomic bombs on them, concluding with, “IT’S TIME WE MADE PEACE WITH ISLAM (you can tell the high intellect of the creator of this one, as it makes perfect sense that we can bomb a religion).

This kind of bigotry and absence of compassion is on display on my nightly peek at the Presidential candidates on CNN. Ben Carson tells us boldly that a Muslim should not be President. Donald Trump fails to correct a man at Trump’s own rally who says that the problem with America is Muslims. These are the two leaders in the race for the Republican nomination right now. Leaders.

Trump says he doesn’t have time to be politically correct. The poll numbers show that a lot of people love that philosophy. Unfortunately, too many are taking that as a license to act like bigots. They are checking their compassion and decency at the door and attacking every voiceless group that comes into their ever-narrowing minds. It is open season. It really saddens me. It frightens me, too.

With all that we know and all that we, as Americans, have been privileged to claim as our own as part of our residence in this great land, how dare we betray our gifts and turn our backs on our responsibility to be a positive example to the rest of the world? We have an amazing amount of privilege. If any of these characteristics describe you—White, American, Christian, male, middle or upper class, employed, English-speaking, heterosexual, healthy—then you have power in this society and a great advantage over many others. It is an advantage that you probably did little or nothing to earn. When we don’t acknowledge our privilege–and especially when we don’t see it as something we didn’t earn—we tend to lack empathy and compassion. Instead of seeing ourselves in the eyes of others, we see our differences. We build walls instead of bridges between us. It becomes easier to dehumanize “them” because they are not “us”. They are different, and as long as we have the power to define the terms, they get defined as less than us. Not as good. Not as human. Not as deserving of respect and compassion. There are very few things in the world as damaging as the absence of empathy and compassion. It saddens me to think we are living in that absence.

When I saw my friend’s post on Facebook with the offensive meme, it triggered that sadness in me. Her passionate response, on the other hand, triggered my belief that we can do better. That excited me. As the guy who is always striving to live his best life and help the world do the same, it made me envious of her for putting herself out there, knowing that she has a powerful voice and could use it for good. It also made me ashamed of myself for not squashing so many other negative and pitiless messages that I have seen and heard. After all, I have a voice. It is to be used. It is to be heard. I must take responsibility for my privilege and use it to not only share my own message of gratitude, positivity, and self-knowledge, but also to give a voice to the voiceless. To make sure they are represented, not misrepresented; that they are respected; and that they are seen as part of the universal “us”, not “them”. I can do that.

How about you? What kinds of messages are you sending with your voice? Open up your journal and think about what role you play in this drama. I mentioned Muslims, immigrants, and welfare recipients; what other groups are out there that catch a lot of negativity and seem to have very little voice to defend themselves with? Go through my list and yours, and with each group, ask yourself what your impression of them is and how that dictates your interactions and your judgments. Are you being fair? Why not? What is it about certain groups that make you separate them into “them” versus “us”? Is it appearance? Religion? Economic class? Who comes to mind when you think about public figures—whether politicians or talk show hosts or religious leaders or celebrities—who deliver a message that really speaks to your heart and mind? What is it about that person’s message that appeals to you? Is it more inclusive or divisive? More positive or negative? How often do you see Facebook posts or shares that run counter to everything you stand for? Do you just fail to “like” it, or do you comment on it or unfriend that person? How do you feel about your track record for standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of hostility? Do you engage in political or social justice issues when you are online? If I were to look at your posts, shares, comments, and likes, how compassionate and positive would I find your message to be? Are you doing enough to fill the world—even just the Internet world—with examples of empathy and inclusion? Do you protect the voiceless, or do you tend to do the bullying? Are you proud of your message? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is your voice calling for?  

Be the change,

William

Privilege & The Eyes of God

IMG_1072“When you see nothing but you wherever you look, you peer through the eyes of God.”

Hello friend,

I have never been one for keeping up on the news of the day. I don’t watch much television, and when I do, I really don’t want to hear about crime and death. I could certainly be accused of burying my head in the sand and ignoring certain things. It is not as though I don’t know bad things are happening; I just don’t like to dwell on them too much. I want to pick and choose my spots, not be flooded with it every day. I am grateful for the privilege of not having to deal with such constant negativity.

There are times, though, when either I come up for air after one of my mental hibernations to research a tough issue, or a story becomes so big that I can’t even hide from it with my head in the sand. The recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri and its aftermath seems to be one of those stories. While I haven’t followed it closely and certainly don’t claim to know all the facts, I think I know enough that it has seeped into my soul and really saddened me. Of course the death of Michael Brown is horrible in its own right, but what has been most on my mind is the way Black people in that area have been mistreated and disrespected by the White people—especially in positions of power (e.g., the police force)—since the beginning of the town itself. The message “Black lives don’t matter” seems to echo loudly from Ferguson. Unfortunately, it is not the only town in America sending that message.

I have lately been reading some articles and papers about being an ally to members of disadvantaged groups, whether that be a racial or ethnic minority, members of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) community, non-Christians, poor people, women, the mentally or physically handicapped, overweight people, and many more. I have tried to become increasingly aware of how wildly privileged I am as a White, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, American male, and how easy it can be to ignore the unearned advantages I have over others not in my categories (this blissful ignorance of my privilege is, of course, just one of the privileges of my station—scary how that works!).

With all of these thoughts in my head lately, I have still been a bit unclear where my voice is, what my role needs to look like. I went to bed last night wondering fruitlessly about that. When I woke up this morning, I turned to what has become my version of “reading the news.” Its name is Facebook. Yes, I count on those articles and videos that people share to keep myself marginally informed. There I found an article called “5 Things You Should Never Do (or Say) to a Little Person”, which featured a 22-year-old man who lives in New York City and the awful treatment he receives on a daily basis just going about his normal business as a dwarf/little person. He made a six-minute documentary called “Don’t Look Down on Me” (I highly encourage you to look it up), in which he wore a hidden camera to detail his experiences. It made me very sad to watch.

As the film came to a close and the young man’s cold reality had dug out an aching hole in my heart, his honest voice came over the images:

“I don’t want to TELL anyone what to do or what to think or how to feel, but instead what I’ll do is I’ll ASK. I’ll ASK that the next time you see someone who is different than you, think about what their day might be like. Think about all of the events of their life leading up to that point. Then think about their day, and think about what part of their day do you want to be?”

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Stopped me dead in my tracks. His question seemed directed right at me. Its probing depth is absolutely brilliant, and my daily response to it could be the only thing I might do to make my heart feel whole. It is an obvious question that must be addressed by people of privilege, but the lesson is a universal one. What part of someone’s day do you want to be?

It is so easy to be mean, even easier to be insensitive. But gosh, when you look at all of the travails that we have put so many people of the world through—see the seemingly endless list of disadvantaged groups I mentioned above—don’t you think we could all make the effort to do better, to show up for one another just because each one of us MATTERS?

As a White, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied male, the world shows up for me every day; it rolls the red carpet out. It is time for me to not only become more aware of how much easier and better it is for me than for others, but also for me to do what I can—every day and in every interaction—to share with others the privileges I get for free. It is more than that, though. It is not just about not harassing, not looking down upon, not being insensitive. It is NOT about inaction nor about ignoring others and just “letting them live.” It is not about neutral.

It is up to all of us—but especially those of us with privilege—to become a positive part of everyone else’s day. In gestures big and small, interpersonal and political. It is time to stir the compassion from our souls, to look into the other’s eye and see ourselves. When we do that, we can begin to act from Love. When we act from Love, we find ways to be the positive part of someone’s day. We help them rise rather than tear them down. We joke with them, not about them. We share with them rather than horde for ourselves. We see them. We hear them. We seek to understand their experience of the world. We sympathize with them, and we do our best to empathize as well. We know them to be—just like ourselves—valuable simply because they were gifted life on Earth and are thus of Divine heritage. We are family.

So, the next time I see someone who looks or acts different from me, I am going to do my best to remember that Truth. I will ask myself, “What part of their day do I want to be?” Armed with that Truth—that they are me and we are One—and emboldened by my multi-layered privilege, I will answer with certainty, “The most LOVING part!” 

If I can walk that walk of Love every day—if I can “see through the eyes of God” and live accordingly—I can make change. Now just imagine if we could all show up for each other and live this way. We could make serious change! Positive, world-shaking change. So, what do you say: Wanna take a walk with me??? 

How about you? How can you leverage your privilege to make the world better for everyone? Open up your journal and examine your place in the world. In which of your many statuses are you privileged? On a day-to-day basis, are you aware of that privilege—most people are not, so don’t feel bad admitting it—and how it affects your interactions? Where do you feel it the most? Now look at the other side of the coin. Which of your statuses are definitely NOT privileged? What are some examples of how that plays out in your daily life? How does it feel to be treated that way? Does lack of privilege in one area give you more empathy toward people who are mistreated due to their lack of privilege in another area (e.g., does being Black make you more likely to feel the pain of someone who is overweight or transgendered?)? Are we all inherently valuable? If so, why don’t we treat each other that way? More specifically, why are Black lives in Ferguson (and so many other places) not valued the way White lives are? Why do we slip so quickly and so badly when it comes to our treatment of people who are different from us? Is it evolutionary, in our genes? Do you think that if we believed there was enough of everything to go around—love, opportunity, money, etc.—that we would not fight so desperately to keep our spot in the pecking order? Do you think you can do better? Can you show up for EVERYONE, no matter how unpopular that might make you with your own group? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready to see through the eyes of God?

Be a light today,

William