Tag Archives: Tragedy

Can You Love Your Country But Not Your Countrymen? IT’S COMPLICATED!

“Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” –from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok 

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” –Edward Abbey

Hello friend,

Last month we passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. When I woke up that ordinary day those weeks ago and started thinking about that extraordinarily awful day those years ago, I was transported instantly. I remembered it all so vividly: getting out of the shower to a phone call from my girlfriend, sitting transfixed in front of the little television in my office for hours, the emptiness inside me, the surreal feeling of actually going to a graduate school seminar that night and trying to have a discussion about something other than our completely changed world. The entire day was mind-bending and soul-wrenching. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Still, when last month’s anniversary came around, I struggled to fathom that 18 years had passed since that fateful day. So much water has flowed under the bridge in that time, and my country has revealed so much of its complicated nature.

I get nostalgic each September, first with those awful visions but then much more with thoughts of the beauty that followed. On this September the 11th, my attention was particularly drawn to the memes on social media about the way we, the people of America, came together in its immediate aftermath, with gestures big and small to show that we cared about each other and this country that we share. One example was a poster with imagery reminiscent of an American flag and these words: “I MISS 9/12. I would never ever want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper or lower class, Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat. We hugged people without caring if they ate at Chick-Fil-A or wore Nikes. ON 9/12, WHAT MATTERED MORE WAS WHAT UNITED US, THAN WHAT DIVIDED US.”

It reminded me of a book I read recently, an autobiography called A Dream About Lightning Bugs by the musician Ben Folds, who is several years older than I am but basically of my generation. He had made the difficult choice to keep touring in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feeling that people needed the music and the release it provided in that devastating time. Of those months, he wrote, “Anyone who was in the United Sates in the wake of 9/11 might recall that, rising from the ashes of the tragedy, something magical was also happening. People suddenly acknowledged one another in the streets, smiled, opened doors, and helped with groceries. Everywhere. I think this is often overlooked. As I toured the country, I saw a sense of community and humanity expressed that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.”

How sad is it that I miss what only a tragedy could incite?

We are one year away from a major election, so divisiveness is about to get extreme. Well, let’s face it: division and antagonism have been extreme for several years now. But I have no doubt that with the stink-stirrers who are going to be the central players in the coming show, America’s internal hatred is going to reach an all-time high. There will be tons of glorifying “us” and vilifying “them” for reasons real and imagined, despite the fact that we all belong here.

I know in advance–because I know how I feel here most days–that I will really detest the lows that we will have sunk to and the new “normal” we will have established in all this pettiness. “We” are America. As we enter the 2020s, the we I see in our collective mirror isn’t what I used to imagine we were. I say “imagine,” because maybe we were always this shallow and antagonistic. Maybe the modern age of cameras everywhere and social media and other perversions of media (hello, Fox News!) have not so much produced our lesser angels but rather simply revealed who we have always been. It was easier to imagine our country–the people and movements who make up our country and its character–as better, brighter, higher. You know, like the America that showed up on September 12, 2001.

Wrap your mind around this: the children who were conceived in those unified, harmonious months in America post-9/11 will be able to vote in their first election next year.

They wouldn’t even recognize the America that they were conceived into. That is really sad. As they are now beginning to raise their awareness of politics and our country’s position in the world, knowing only what they witness in these times, how lacking they must be in both hope and the confidence in our leaders–and our people–to do what is right and just.

There are just too many examples on all levels of our country doing things that we ought to be ashamed of. Why can’t we get some of this stuff figured out? Decent health care for all of us. Assault rifles that are unavailable to those of us not conducting military campaigns. Not caging children. Treating our politicians like public servants with whom we can agree or disagree on a policy-by-policy, action-by-action basis rather than like celebrities or deities to whom we offer our blind devotion simply because they belong to a designated political party. Acknowledging our role in the escalation of climate change and then taking actual steps to reverse our impact and to help make Earth habitable for our great-grandchildren. Ensuring fair elections. Simple stuff.

And it’s too easy to blame the government or the President or whichever political party is not yours. We–the citizens–are bad at this stuff, too. We create the toxicity. We tolerate the empty promises and shady dealings. We tolerate people getting rolled over by the system. We numb ourselves to the school shootings and the scandals and the record temperatures. We spout our own ignorance or hate or empty “thoughts and prayers.” We deny, deny, deny. We simply aren’t very good to each other.

That realization really, really aches to absorb. We are a hollow country right now.

How long can we last on just the founding ideals when we don’t actually act on them? Can we still be the shining city on the hill if we have dug ourselves a pit–or a “swamp,” as the lingo du jour goes–and dimmed our brightest lights? How do we become admirable, whether or not you think we ever were before? Short of our government suddenly making a bunch of wise, beneficent moves that might draw positive attention from the press and the rest of the world, how do we–the people–get back to that kindness and decency of September 12th? How do we get back to seeing ourselves, collectively, as occupants under the same tent, each responsible for all of our well-being, and believing that the person in front of or behind you in line deserves the very best of you?

I don’t want to have to wish for a “9/11 Version 2.0” just to get a 9/12 America. I feel like that is the weak way out of this and would only lead to a quicker and steeper return to our current shallow meanness. I believe we are better than that and should prove it the hard way: act by act, day by day, person by person. I have faith that we could pull this off. After all, we have done this before. That feeling that many of us remember, that sentiment that inspires the memes, those acts of simple decency that Ben Folds witnessed as he toured the country: all of that is evidence that we are capable of making each other’s lives–and by turn America itself–a better, more just, and more inspiring place to live. We just need to rise.

We need to. Because I am tired. I am tired of despising people who wear red hats, tired of feeling embarrassed by the actions of my representatives, tired of feeling isolated from my neighbors or family members based on which signs they put in their yard during election season, tired of the distance that we have allowed our screens and our busy-ness to create between us, tired of justifying my absence from the public square, tired of being disappointed in others but not doing anything to be a better example to them, tired of missing opportunities to take the first step to bridge these gaps, and, most importantly, tired of the shame I feel at allowing all of this to take place in my precious America. I am tired of being low. It must surely be time for me to rise.

How about you? Are you ready to rise up and be the kind of citizen and country that we can be proud of? Open up your journal and consider the best and worst of your country and what role you play in each. How do you characterize your country at this point in its history? Is it riding a good wave and showing off its best colors, or has it sunk to a place where all of its warts are showing? From your vantage point, are you more likely to notice and dwell upon the shortcomings of your government or of the citizenry? Does one group seem to rise and fall as a result of the other one, or do the people seem to operate independently of their leadership apparatus? Are you proud of your country? When you give your answer to that one, what does it actually mean to you? Do you mean that you are proud (or not) of the actions your government takes toward its people or toward other countries around the world–e.g. providing health care or good education to its citizens, joining a coalition military campaign to fight an evil dictator, providing humanitarian aid to war-torn or famine-stricken countries, etc.–or, rather, that you are proud of the way the people in your country act toward each other and proud of the causes that they stand up for at the polls and with their pocket-books? Do you believe it is important to examine the distinction between the two angles and flesh out your thoughts on each? How different are your answers on your pride for your government and pride for your people? Do we need to also add the layer of being proud of what your country theoretically stands for–things like Liberty, Equality, Justice–versus what it shows that it stands for in practice? How would you rank what you are most proud of in order from least to most: the people of your country, the government and leaders of your country as it currently stands, and the theoretical values that your country stands for? How disparate are these three categories in your country? Is that okay? At what point in your country’s history do you think the three categories were most in step with one another? How do all of these answers form your concept of patriotism and what it means to be a patriot? How patriotic can you be if you don’t have faith in the people of your country? Might it be of some benefit to your country to have a crisis–like a 9/11–to shake it out of the error of its ways? Does it require a tragedy to bring out the best in people and reveal our common humanity? What are some ways that you could be a better citizen? Are any of those things that you could begin to apply today? If everyone took on that challenge, how much better could things get? How do you imagine your country at its very best? What would the government be doing differently, and what would the ordinary people be doing differently? How would all of that affect your lifestyle and your outlook on the future? How can you rise to meet that challenge of creating a better place to live? Do you tend to look at the big stuff–government level–or the stuff that you can do interpersonally to make that difference? If we do the small, will the big begin to take care of itself? Can you start with the person across the street whose sign is different than yours? If not there, then where? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you love your country but not the people in it, and what good is the first without the second?

Reach out,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with the world. Reach out and rise up!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself appeals to you, consider purchasing my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Beyond the Limits of Empathy: A Pain Too Great To Comprehend

“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… The land of tears is so mysterious.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Hello friend,

I have had a double whammy of friends in anguish lately. There are moments that their pains weigh so heavily on my heart that it seems I can hardly stand it.

The first came last week when I was sitting outside in the cold watching my son’s track practice with his good buddy’s mom, a dynamic, beautiful-hearted woman who has become my friend this year. As we sat shivering in our respective blankets, she shared with me that she was quite sure that her cancer–that I knew had been a recurring nightmare in her life over the course of several years–had just made a comeback. She had recently felt the physical changes that were its telltale signs and was waiting for her upcoming appointments and the scans that would make it official and thereby commence the fight for her life (again).

The news flattened me. The more it sank in, the more deflated I became. I tried to imagine the heartbreaking scenarios that must have been thrashing around nonstop in her mind as she waited: the empty helplessness of leaving her two young boys without a Mom, the guilt of leaving her husband alone to do the work they dreamed of doing only together, the milestones, and the million ordinary, extraordinary moments that come with loving your people wholeheartedly. I couldn’t bear these thoughts even in my imagination, so it baffled me how she could even be functioning with those cards in her hand.

After being enveloped the rest of the week in the cloud of her situation and prospects, ruminating every day in my journal on how she could handle it, I was hit with a second blast via a Facebook post. One of my oldest friends had lost his vivacious younger brother suddenly. At the age of 42, he was simply ripped from his joyous life and from his close-knit family.

My heart burst for them, especially my old friend. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and absorb some of his anguish, to lighten his new life sentence in Grief. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, imagining the wrenching pain and unanswered questions left by such a loss, amplified by its suddenness and his relative youth. How does one go on in the face of something that feels so wrong, so unfair? How blah does food taste? How pointless the television? In the ensuing days, I have often become aware of myself shaking my head, realizing that I was thinking about it again and going through that agonizing cycle of hurt and questioning. I think of my own brothers–who are not even as close to me as my friend was to his–and I shudder at the thought of losing either of them, ever, much less at an age so young. It is devastating.

Then I surface from my despair and realize that, as bad as it seems in my heart, these are not even technically my problems. I can even escape them with some denial or distraction. My friends are the ones who are truly carrying the burden. They are the ones with no fresh air when they wake up at night or sit alone in their car. No matter how heavy my weight of sadness is, no matter how much I feel for them, I see now that I can’t feel like them. I can’t reach that level. It is just not the same, no matter how empathetic I am.

My reaction to that realization, as my heart translates now, feels a lot like guilt. I feel bad–weak, like a poor friend–that I can’t fully feel their pain with them, like I am letting them down somehow by not being as deep in the trenches of struggle as they are. I guess it is because my idealistic self wants to believe if I could put myself exactly in their emotional shoes, that I could somehow take their pain away, at least some of it, by sharing the load. But I can’t.

I think that is one of my “middle age realizations,” something I didn’t register when I was younger: we don’t really know anyone else’s struggle. We can’t fully know their pain because we aren’t in their skin. And even if we have experienced “the same thing” (e.g. each having endured the death of a sibling), we had different relationships and different pasts and different natural abilities to cope with Life’s inevitable tragedies and hardships.

I used to be sure that I was a true empath, that my ability to feel other people’s pain and understand them completely was almost supernatural. I don’t believe that anymore. I know I feel horribly for so many people who have been wronged by Life in any number of ways and want badly to ease their burdens, but at this age I am finally coming to grips with the fact that that doesn’t count for having walked a mile–much less a lifetime–in their shoes. It isn’t much at all, actually.

It illuminates another of my later realizations: compassion doesn’t count for much unless you are willing to act on it. It is all well and good to feel horribly for a friend with cancer or a sibling going through divorce or a family in your community who just lost their home or a whole race of people who were enslaved or robbed of their land, but if you aren’t willing to reach out and do something for them–a kind word, an apology, a meal, reparations, a hug, your time, your attention, your labor, your teaching of others–then your compassion is just wasted potential. You have to do something.

Maybe I am just getting old and this is what “wisdom of the elders” looks like, but it sure hurts my heart to know that as badly as I feel for my loved ones, I can’t even scratch the surface when it comes to their pools of personal pain. That is a hard lesson. Sometimes learning is no fun. But what is the alternative?

How about you? How much do you feel the pain of others, and how does that play out in your life? Open up your journal and explore your experiences with hardships and tragedies? Start with your own. What are the most difficult, most painful experiences that you have gone through in your life? Whose deaths have you had to face? Which relationships have ended or been severely damaged? Have you faced a health crisis? Have you been abused? Have you lost jobs painfully or wrongfully? Have you had to move away from loved ones or had them move away from you? Have you been the victim of a damaging crime, such as a sexual assault? Have you experienced war? Natural disasters? Have you lost your home or been in financial ruin? What else has left you traumatized? How alone did you feel when facing these crises? Did it seem that there was much that your loved ones could do for you emotionally, no matter how much they cared? Did it feel as though the burden was yours alone to carry, or could the compassion of others lighten your load? How would you rate the empathy of the people in your life at the time of your hardships? Could they understand your pain? Did you try to help them to understand? Was it worth the effort? Now turn it around. What are the biggest tragedies and crises that your nearest and dearest have had to face? Go back through the list of the questions above? Which ones have they gone through? Which are happening now, or at least most recently? How have you reacted to their situations? How badly do you feel when bad things happen to other people, whether you know them or not? Do you consider yourself highly empathetic, moderately, or not very? Does that vary widely depending upon your relationships and similarities with the afflicted (e.g. I have people in my life who are deeply caring and compassionate within their families but cannot seem to summon the slightest bit of empathy when it comes to different ethnic groups or religions or social classes; it is very disturbing.)? Have you been good about expressing your compassion (i.e. is it clear to others that you feel them?)? Have you found that your empathy has helped people in their times of tragedy? Does it make them feel better that you feel bad for them? How do you show it? Words? Simple presence? Hugs? Meals? Donations? Errands or other conveniences? Prayers or positive vibes? Do you sense that there is a line in each case that, despite your best intentions and best efforts, you simply cannot get a full sense of the pain someone is feeling, that there is a level of darkness that your light can never reach? How does that make you feel? Helpless? Frustrated? Relieved? When do you feel most alone? In that moment, is there anything that anyone can do? At the end, does each of us have our own final say in our recovery from tragedy and hardship, a point when others have done all they can and we have to shoulder the load of our survival and our happiness? Even if you believe that to be the case, is there ever an excuse to bail out and become less compassionate to the struggles and burdens of others? Leave me a reply and let me know: How deeply do you feel the pain of other people?

Give your heart,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it as you see fit. Let’s awaken our hearts to the pains of other people and then do the work to ease those pains.

P.P.S. If this type of self-examination appeals to you or someone you care about, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.