Compassion is not a virtue

14 04 2017

When I was in graduate school, like so many students then and now, I was poor. So when my lower right wisdom tooth became impacted, without dental insurance I had little choice but to go the the college of dentistry where I could get low-cost care from supervised dental students. X-rays were taken, and I was given two options for treatment: pull the offending tooth now as an outpatient procedure, or schedule in-patient surgery and have all four wisdom teeth removed at once. Of course, the second option, while the preferred one presented by the supervising doctor (not a student), necessitated cutting the other three wisdom teeth from the bones as none of them had shown signs of descending into the gums.

Faced with the choice of ending my current pain swiftly and immediately, or fixing the problem by experiencing exponentially more pain at an astronomically higher cost, the choice seemed clear. I chose the “easy option”, and the supervising doctor shrugged his shoulders and signed off on it. Laughing gas was administered and two dental students (my dentist and another called to assist him) reassuringly told me it would soon be over.

Obviously, I wouldn’t be telling this story if that were the case. At one point, I opened my eyes to see one dental student standing on the table above me, pulling at the tooth which refused to come free, using his entire body weight for leverage. The second student stood on the floor behind him arms and hands up – spotting him in case the tooth gave way and he fell backwards. The guy above me saw my open eyes and said, “Honey, trust me, you want to keep your eyes closed.”

What the x-rays hadn’t shown was that the roots of the tooth had hooked backwards, and as they pulled the roots were actually digging in deeper, like a fishhook.

When the carnage was finished, I was sent to the waiting room. Dazed and unsteady, I sat patiently waiting for “clearance” to leave – I had no one to drive me home and more nitrous oxide than typical had been administered. At closing time, the receptionist told me I needed to go to the check out window. Once there, I paid my 20% cash down and was told that, if I experienced any pain, I could take ibuprofen.

I didn’t feel at all well, having just been through what I could only describe as a horrifically barbaric experience. I drove, unsteadily, to my brother’s apartment, praying that he would be home. When he answered the door, he cried out, “Oh my God, what happened to you?”, grabbing me and pulling me quickly into his living room. He swiftly locked the door behind me, before ushering me to a seat.

When I tearfully told him about the traumatic experience I had just been through, he sat back, visibly relieved. “Thank God!,” he exclaimed. “I thought you had been mugged or something!!”, which explained the swiftness with which he had locked the door behind me. We went down the hall to his bathroom, so I could see myself in the mirror. My face was swollen, bruised, and covered in dried blood and saliva. I was astounded, and angry. Not one person at the dental college had blinked an eye at my appearance, nor had anyone suggested that I should stop in the restroom and wipe the blood off my face before leaving.

My brother drove me home, made sure I was able to safely clean up and get into bed, then went to the grocery store. He came back with soft foods that were on the list I’d carried home from the dental college. And ice cream – he brought me plenty of ice cream.

Throughout that horrible day, I was vulnerable. First, because I was in pain I was vulnerable to suggestion. I knew that the supervising doctor had more experience and made his recommendation for surgery based on his superior knowledge and experience. But the dental student offered me an easier and less painful option. I took it, although in retrospect, both the student and I regretted that choice.

After the tooth was pulled and while under the influence of the anesthesia, my grogginess and growing pain made me vulnerable. I docilely followed the terse instructions I was given, assuming that those staffing the clinic had my best interest among their concerns. It never occurred to me that they would just leave me sitting there, unattended and unwashed. Or that they would send me home with insufficient medication for the trauma I had just experienced. Or that they would allow me to drive myself home, if it were unsafe to do so in my state of dazed confusion.

When I knocked on my brother’s door, I was a vulnerable mess. I was in serious pain, I was exhausted, and I was already feeling that I had made bad choices. I was fairly certain I was, at that moment, incapable of taking care of myself.

All that day, I interacted with people who ought to have been both aware of and compassionate toward my state of vulnerability. People who by virtue of their roles might have been expected to be concerned about my well-being – or at least worried enough about their own professional liability to see to my safety. Of all the people I had a reasonable expectation of care from that day, the only one who responded with concern and trustworthiness was my beloved brother.

I’ve been thinking about this long ago day quite a bit the past few weeks. It sticks out in my life experience because, in general, the people I interact with, whom I expect to be trustworthy by virtue of their roles or jobs, actually do behave in a trustworthy manner. However, every evening’s news contains at least one story or reminder that this isn’t always the case. And for those in my community who don’t look like me, the possibility is greater that they will experience disinterest or even cruelty when compassion might reasonably be expected.

Brene Brown has said, “Compassion is not a virtue — it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have — it’s something we choose to practice.” I’d like to think that compassion is a commitment and a practice that I choose regularly – and not only toward those I already love. I like to think that I am especially compassionate toward those who are experiencing unsought-for vulnerabilities. But I wonder: how often have I just wanted the girl with the swollen face to go home already? How often have I purposely given the impression that my busyness trumped someone else’s need? How often have I done the barest minimum for the vulnerable person standing in front of me?

I want to be the kind of person who tucks someone into bed, then runs out to get them ice cream.

 

 

Advertisements




Never Too Late To Inspire

19 03 2015

Note: In the five or so years I’ve been faithfully posting to Jenion each Thursday, I have rarely written a post to or about a specific individual. When I have, it has generally been with good reason. Today, I want to share about someone who holds a special place in my life. If you are a faithful reader of this blog, you’ve read lots of references to my friend, Mike, but I’ve never devoted an entire piece to him outright. That changes today: on the occasion of his fifty-fifth birthday and in celebration of the two year anniversary of the transformational journey he has been committed to in his life. Please join me in wishing Mike a happy birthday and congratulations!

 

Mike, doing something he loves, Lake Superior.

Mike, doing something he loves, Lake Superior.

A person’s life story belongs to them. How that story is told, the ways it builds and is resolved, the character revelations, the plot twists and turns – these are all elements of a very personal narrative that each of us should be allowed to share in our own way and with whom we choose. That said, where people’s lives intersect, when they connect, there is a new story written. I’d like to share the story of such a connection in my own life, and what it has taught me about friendship, motivation, discipline, and inspiration.

When we met as college students, Mike and I were both emerging from childhood, a little enraptured with life, a little discombobulated by the exigencies of adulthood. Between us there was an immediate recognition – we moved speedily from introductions to inseparable. Not only were the two of us close, Mike quickly became part of my family. He played piano in my sister’s wedding and, two years later, was best man in my brother’s. But as sometimes happens, time and distance separated us. After Mike moved to California the fall of my junior year of college, we tried to stay in touch. When he, eventually, brought his fiancé to Iowa, I invited them to a homemade dinner at my first apartment (I still remember the menu from that meal!). The last time I saw Mike for decades was at the Iowa reception following their San Francisco wedding.

Often over the years I wondered about Mike. He had been a significant enough person in my earlier life that friends I met years after we lost touch knew him by name from my stories. I was the last person I knew to purchase my own computer – with my tax refund in 2009. Sometime, months later, I joined Facebook. It was only a matter of weeks once that happened before I began reconnecting with college friends. One day, I saw a post Mike had made on a friend’s timeline. I was so excited to reach out to Mike, to touch base again, that my fingers shook as I typed a brief hello.

As with our college selves, both Mike and I were emerging from other phases of our lives. As it happened, we were both finally moving forward, if incrementally, from years-long rough patches. We had each scraped our own personal rock-bottoms, and the road leading from these low points was littered with boulders to be climbed over, black ice to avoid, and quicksand that threatened occasionally to pull us under. Our friendship grew and was strengthened by a sincere desire to be one another’s cheering section and helping hand. “Need help moving into a new apartment or even a new city? I’m there.” That’s how we roll.

Two years ago this week, Mike called me (I was still living in Iowa then) to say he had hired a personal trainer. Mike had previously lost a chunk of weight working on his own, but wished to push himself further in reaching his health and fitness goals. Over the following two years, Mike has made incredible strides – he lost 75 pounds and dropped his body fat percentage to single digits. When he first met his trainer, Joe Cross (Cross Fitness), Mike told him, “I don’t run.” Ha! I was cheering at the finish line when Mike ran his first-ever 5K (and at several since). At each turn of the calendar, Mike has set new goals for himself and blown past them. It hasn’t always been easy, but he has remained both diligent and committed.

But that is Mike’s story, and I don’t want to presume to say I have all of the details or the “skinny” on what was happening in Mike’s heart, mind and soul. What I can, and will, share is what I’ve felt and learned as Mike has faced each obstacle or stepping stone in pursuing his own definition of personal excellence.

First, there are few things more beautiful than seeing someone you love bloom into full flower (sorry, I know that doesn’t sound like a very masculine metaphor but it fits!). The truth about discovering your own inner strength and drive to achieve personal goals, as Mike has, is that it suffuses every part of your life with life-giving nourishment. Not only has Mike’s physical self changed for the good, his whole life has opened up – with new friends, new interests, and a new youthfulness that starts at the cellular level. It brings me real joy to behold this new life of Mike’s – and it never ceases to remind me that this is possible for each of us, if we’re willing to put in the work.

Second, I have rarely known anyone who approached a personal vision with the level of self-discipline Mike has shown on his two-year odyssey working with Cross Fitness. Mike embodies the phrase, “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” The number of times Mike’s choices have brought that phrase to my mind have been instrumental in helping me make better choices myself. I am grateful each time that his example inspires me to choose well.

Third, it has been humbling to be close enough to Mike’s life to witness the inspirational impact he has had on others. Mike has always been an extrovert – he collects friends in virtually every situation he enters in his life. His joyful exuberance, his obvious good health, his visible physical transformation have truly inspired many of these friends who aren’t quite where they wish to be. They have reached out to Mike with questions and received both support and great advice on beginning their own transformations. Additionally, Mike always remembers to praise his trainers, never taking their roles in his achievements for granted. I wish I were half as creative in finding ways to give back to those who have offered me their support and expertise.

Finally, and most important, I’ve had the great gift of being present for moments when Mike has had to dig deep to find the courage to face deeply personal challenges. This work of self-transformation is never a smoothly-paved path. And while I won’t share specifics (those are Mike’s to tell or not), I will say I’ve watched him fight his fears and insecurities and rise to the challenge when the path has gotten difficult. In spite of white knuckles, shaking limbs, and heart in his throat, Mike has repeatedly chosen to move forward when he could easily have retreated. Most others wouldn’t have known, and among the small circle who did, none would have judged him harshly if he had stopped or given up. There are few things more spirit-moving than watching a friend or family member fight their demons and win. There is almost nothing more inspirational than seeing another human being reach for, and grasp, their own great potential.

The point of this post isn’t to set Mike on a pedestal – though there is much to admire. Rather, my point here is to share the story of an “everyday hero” – not a perfect superhuman, but an ordinary person reaching for their best. Each of us carries the seed of that everyday hero within – that best person we have the potential to be. Becoming that best self is hard work. It requires commitment and diligence and vision. It asks us to find a path to our own transformation. And while that sounds like a tough road, Mike’s journey also shows that it is a path toward joyful and energetic engagement in life. Today, on his 55th birthday, Mike is planning to celebrate. But his eyes are focused forward, already taking the first steps on the next phase of his journey to become the best Mike he can be. At 55, he is proof that it is never too late to become the person you hope to be. It is never too late to change. And it is never too late to offer inspiration to those around us.

 

 

 





The Goal

10 07 2014

After a short night and an eight hour shift on my feet, the last thing I felt like doing was riding. It was in the 90s, humid, windy. For so many reasons, I did not want to ride.

However, I changed my clothes. Pulling the chamois on over already sweaty skin wasn’t easy. Jersey on, hair up. I grabbed my helmet and gloves on the way out the door.

The first few miles were a leisurely ramble. Bike lane to bike path, to street (where I had to stop for a slow Sunday train). Finally, the Hennepin bridge and ramp back to bike path. The long, mostly straight one heading out to the near suburbs. Here’s where I got serious, pushing my legs and lungs to go as fast as possible into the gusting wind.

Something happens, riding alone like this, on afternoons when I think I want to nap instead. A part of me I didn’t know existed until a couple or three years ago presents itself. It still surprises: that piece of me that wants to know what I’m made of. How hard, how fast, how “flow” can I go?

Then, almost before I know it, I’m on the home stretch. The wind is finally, blessedly, at my back instead of in my teeth. This is when I can really think, when the air I’ve been sucking has oxygenated my blood and my brain; when my heart-rate is descending for the first time in an hour or more.

I know the only reason I made myself ride was that I set a weekly goal of 100 miles Monday-Monday. If I hadn’t gotten out, I’d have missed it by 20+ miles this week. I rode hard because I didn’t want to complete the goal as I had the previous week, circling the block to eke out that last mile. Still, both weeks I met (and this week exceeded) my goal.

I’ve never really been a goal-driven person. For many years, I didn’t believe in goals – setting them seemed like one of those things people give lip service to but no one really does. Like always having an up-to-date resume, extra batteries, or underwear in your carry-on in case the airline loses your luggage.

“Why,” I wondered, “does it matter if I meet this arbitrary goal I set for myself?” The answer that came was simple – because I set it. The goal was a promise I made to myself. The 100 miles target may have been arbitrary. But the promise I made was a commitment to myself and for myself and was in no way arbitrary.

I wonder what would happen if I set goals like this in other areas of my life – and made a commitment to myself to keep them? Riding my bike has taught me to appreciate my body – its strength and endurance, its potential (which has not nearly been reached). Can it also teach me to appreciate my intelligence, skills, experience? Can it teach me to celebrate all that I have to offer – and find a way to bring it forth from my internal world into the world at large?

Will my bike be the vehicle that leads me where I need and want to go in my life – that leads me to the person I hope to be? Now that I know goals can be set AND met – BY ME, of all people! – and that I will approach them with resolve once I’ve committed, it’s well past time to set concrete intentions in the other parts of my life.

My biking goal isn’t  “to ride 1000 miles”. But in 100-miles-a-week increments, it won’t be long before I’ve reached that milestone. Instead of setting my sights on my “Pie-in-the-sky” life desires, it seems logical to start with goals that allow me to collect the ingredients, combine them in the right amounts. Eventually, they’ll bake a pie.

I’ve read lots of articles about the health benefits of cycling. They almost never mention (actually they never do) increased capacity to set and reach goals. And while the benefit to mental acuity is sometimes mentioned, the fact that  it can lead to spiritual growth is generally soft-pedaled. I’m beginning to believe that, when people talk about how much they love their bikes or their time cycling, what they’re really celebrating is the fact that riding teaches us to love ourselves. To love ourselves enough to set goals – to make a commitment.

 

 





My Dedication to Dedication*

1 05 2014

So say it like you mean it boy
Be the seed in soil
Toil and reap
Keep the spoils
The road is steep
The pavement coils…

-from “Like You Mean It” by Sims/Doomtree Records

30 Days of Biking Kick-Off Ride: taking our places for the group photo

30 Days of Biking Kick-Off Ride: taking our places for the group photo

The hissing of sand dislodged from between pavement and rubber tires. Ka-thunk (my bike hits a crack)/ka-ching (my u-lock, dangling from the handlebars, jumps and falls back into place). Ka-thunk, ka-ching. The tink-tink-tink of the computer sensor counting every revolution of my front wheel. Always the rush of wind in my ears.

For April’s 30 Days of Biking, these were the sounds of dedication.

It is never easy to commit to a daily practice, whether that practice is meditation, yoga, taking a multivitamin or getting to work on time. April, famously the cruelest of months, makes the commitment to daily cycling particularly troublesome here in Minnesota. Our weather runs the gamut: winds from breezy to tornadic; temps from temperate to freezing-ass-cold; humidity from slightly damp to deluge-level rain with a little snow and a few “icy pellets of death” thrown in. Given these factors, I am proud to say I persevered, riding my bike with a deep willingness that conquered momentary weakness.

We biked through snow...

We biked through snow…

…basked in sunshine...

…we basked in sunshine…

…we layered up for cold and wet conditions!

…we layered up for cold and wet conditions!

…This is how we pull ourselves up
Overlook luck
Run til the tank spits dust
Cuz aint no spark thats bright like us
We do what we say say what we mean …

One of the main reasons I was able to maintain my dedication to 30 Days of Biking was community. Mike’s friend, Patrick Stephenson, whose warmth and joie de vivre are contagious, led us to 30 Days. Patrick, (aka @patiomensch on Twitter), co-founder, -creator and all-around-guru of 30 Days embodies the 30 Days tagline “community of joyful cyclists”. Through 30 Days, I’ve not only had the pleasure of getting to know Patrick, but also of meeting some other interesting, diverse, and genuinely amazing members of the local cycling community. Daily social media posts kept me apprised of what everyone was doing, where they were riding, and how they were meeting the challenge of April on two wheels. Knowing I was part of something bigger than myself injected the daily commitment with both more joy and a greater sense of obligation – not to the pledge I’d taken but to myself as an extension of that community.

Soaking wet, freezing cold, and fiercely joyful?!

Soaking wet, freezing cold, and fiercely joyful?!

 

Joy is a strange concept. In some ways, I’ve always thought of it as a feeling too big to be contained in an ordinary day. And I certainly never intentionally associated it with words like commitment or dedication. But cycling, over the past few years, has taught me that they can and do align. And during this 30 Days of Biking, I’ve felt the joy of follow-through that only comes after commitment. On days when no part of me wanted to get my bike out of the garage, the ride often took on an edge of fierce joy – as if my heart recognized something my brain was slow to comprehend. Namely, that fulfilling my agreements when I am the only one who knows or cares is one way to feel really good in my own skin. Would anyone have judged me if I’d missed a day? Not at all! A joyful community is an accepting and inclusive one.

We do tend to judge ourselves harshly, though. So moments that remind us we are capable of overcoming laziness and inertia help to silence our inner critics.  We see that we can rise to meet challenges placed in our lives – whether they come to us through external forces or whether we willingly take them on in the form of 30-day challenges. It is an act of self-affirmation to put our butts where our mouths promised they would be – in this case on the saddle of my bike every day in April.

Has the world been changed because I did this? Perhaps in a small way, since my participation and minimal financial contribution add to the number of Free Bikes for Kidz being given away via 30 Days of Biking. But if I am truthful, not really. Have I been changed? I hope so. When we wish to “be the seed in soil”, we are wishing for growth. There is no growth without dedication and self-reflection. Riding a couple hundred miles in early spring offers the chance for plenty of self-reflection (once you get past the “dear lord, why am I doing this?” stage).

I have often heard that converts are the most zealous believers. In this case, as one newly converted to joyful commitment, to my “dedication to dedication”, I zealously wish the same for you!

Take it all the way
No in between
My dedication to dedication
I dedicate this to you

Easter Sunday #30DaysofBiking ride in Delmar, Iowa

Easter Sunday #30DaysofBiking ride in Delmar, Iowa

*Please note:  The title of this post and the lyrics posted throughout are from “Like You Mean It” by Sims/Doomtree. Please check out the link and listen to the whole song – Doomtree is a collective of friends who create and make music together here in Minneapolis. I discovered this song, serendipitously, on the final day of 30 Days of Biking when the link was tweeted by @Artcrank, another member of the MSP cycling community!





3 Beliefs, 3 Wishes

24 11 2011

Hard to believe that another Thanksgiving has dawned! Another whole year has flown past at dizzying speed. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about today, and inspiration eluded me. To give you an idea where my head and heart were last night when I sat down to write, I began a post titled “Thanksgiving, Bah-Humbug” in which I intended to share 5 things I wasn’t thankful for about myself, and 5 I wasn’t thankful for about other people. At a certain point, I realized it wasn’t actually very funny – in fact, it was mostly snarky – so I gave up and went to bed.

Upon waking this morning, I had the thought that looking back at last year’s “Happy Anniversary” piece which I posted on Thanksgiving might help. I read the first paragraphs, then stopped just before the list of 12 things I had learned. I wanted to think about the past year and share what I feel are insights I’ve gained since that last Thanksgiving entry. Then I re-read the list of 12 insights. Its a good list, and I am happy to say I wouldn’t change the items on it – in fact, I should probably have read it a few times over the past months when I was feeling at low ebb.

My list this year is shorter. Three beliefs that I hope will hold as steady as the 12 thoughts I shared last year. Then, for good measure, three wishes for the coming year. After all, I have said more than once that voicing what you want is one of the most essential steps to making it a reality.

Three Beliefs

1.  I believe it is important to keep challenging myself to move forward. The key words here: challenge and forward. I’ve learned that without that challenge to myself, I won’t try new things, won’t step outside my comfort zone. And there’s no such thing as stasis. If I’m not moving forward, it isn’t that I am just treading water and staying in the same place. I start to move backward – in the fitness realm I lose muscle and tone, in the diet area I start to regain weight, in my spiritual life I stumble back into self-defeating beliefs. It is hard and time consuming work to change habits and behaviors, yet it is surprisingly easy and quick to undo that hard work.

2. If I continue to challenge myself, I believe that growth and forward momentum are occurring even when, to all outward appearances, nothing is changing. This one is tough, because outward appearances are such a nice, easy way of measuring things. We all want to be able to point to measurable outcomes – it’s supposed to be part of the reward for hard work. This year I’ve learned a lot about perseverance: “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”, (according to Webster’s). Learning to maintain the effort, to put in the work every day, despite the lack of desired results has been hard. I say desired results (i.e. significant weight loss) because there have been positive results of this perseverance. But they’re less tangible, less definable. For one, the fact that an inveterate quitter, like me, has not quit is pretty amazing.

3. I believe you cannot connect the dots going forward. This is something Steve Jobs said in his now famous and oft-quoted commencement address at Stanford. He said we can only connect the dots in our life path when we look backwards. So, that means that we have to take a step to whatever dot calls to us next – and we take that step with trust that in the big picture of our lives, that dot will lead to the right next dot. An example from my year is the whole RAGBRAI experience. The desire, almost the need, to successfully prepare for and complete that 75-mile ride came from out of the blue. It became a compulsion. Did it connect easily with what I had been doing? Or lead directly to someplace I was headed? Not really. Looking backwards, I can see some of the dots leading up to it, but I don’t know yet how/whether it connects to my future – still, I gave it most of my focus for the best part of this year. Commit to the next dot, and worry about how they all connect later. I looked for the definition of commitment, just as I did (above) for perseverance, and found this amazing, and fitting, piece from the Urban Dictionary:

Commitment is what 
Transforms the promise into reality. 
It is the words that speak 
Boldly of your intentions. 
And the actions which speak 
Louder than the words. 
It is making the time 
When there is none. 
Coming through time 
After time after time, 
Year after year after year. 
Commitment is the stuff 
Character is made of; 
The power to change 
The face of things. 
It is the daily triumph 
Of integrity over skepticism.

Once of the best definitions ever written, in my estimation! Challenge, perseverance, commitment – these are big words, and they tell the tale of a year which posed many difficulties for me, but which also forced me to stretch further than I knew I was capable of doing. Another great year to be alive.

And now, for my three wishes.

1. I wish for myself: wisdom. It is the same wish I have made since I first learned, in high school bible study, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom to choose well, to love deeply, to act rightly. Wisdom to live from my heart and soul, not from capriciousness or whim. Wisdom to, as I said last week, live with abandon.

2. I wish for you: joy. Both the joy of experiencing fully the moment you are in, and the deep joy of living the life you are meant to live. Whatever form that takes. I will help in any way I can – you have a friend in me!

3. I wish for the world “An environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on the planet”. A really big wish – but the idealist in me feels its possible.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!