Compassion is not a virtue

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.

 

 

The Echthros In the Mirror

“She tried to pull herself together. “Remember, Mr. Jenkins, you’re great on Benjamin Franklin’s saying, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’ That’s how it is with human beings and mitochondria and farandolae – and our planet, too, I guess, and the solar system. We have to live together in — in harmony, or we won’t live at all. ..”             –Meg Murray in A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle

The first time I read the “Wrinkle In Time” series, it was a trilogy – now it is a quintet. I began re-reading the series recently, primarily because there is a quote from the third book that has always stuck with me. In that book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet) the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Mr. Murry, an eminent physicist, tells his family that to live in a peaceful and reasonable world, they must first create a peaceful and reasonable world within themselves and their own family.

Lately, I haven’t felt that I am living in a peaceful and reasonable world.

In response, I found myself returning to these books I read decades ago. In my initial reading, I liked the middle book, A Wind In The Door, least. While I have yet to read the last two in the series, published years after the first three, I am surprised to find that this middle book is my current adult favorite. I would try to explain the plot, but I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and I am convinced that I would make a hash of it. So, without getting into too many of the story details, here’s my attempt to explain why I love this book now, as a middle-aged adult.

The story is cosmic in it’s scope, while taking the characters into the tiniest of microcosmic space – the mitochondria within a human body’s cells. Meg Murry, the protagonist, learns that literally everything in the Universe is connected, and that while we feel separate, that is an illusion. Once inside the mitochondria, Meg can’t communicate in the same way she would normally – words and sounds. Meg learns, instead, that “communion” (intimate fellowship or rapport) can happen, though, because of the very connectedness of everything. She is able to commune with other people, other sentient beings, even with the mitochondria in her brother’s body’s cells – and it is through this communion that she saves the day.

Meg saves her brother, and by extension human existence, from the Echthroi: the enemy that threatens to X things out of existence. X-terminte them. Cause them to cease to exist. When I was a kid, I often thought that ideas in books were solely the imaginal offspring of the author. Now I know that L’Engle didn’t make up the concept of the Echthroi – in fact, Echthroi (Ἐχθροί) is a Greek plural meaning “The Enemy”. The singular form of the word is Echthros (Ἐχθρός). L’Engle’s explanation of their purpose, a quest to erase things from existence, speaks to me on a deep level.

Just last week, I heard a story on NPR about the last three remaining Northern White Rhinos: Sudan, Najin and Fatu by name. They are currently living in Kenya, guarded by armed protectors around the clock. Scientists are striving to discover ways to prevent them from finally being X-ed out of existence. These rhinos have been hunted for their horns, believed by some to have magical properties, and depleted as well by the decimation of their habitats. When they are gone, somewhere in this universe the song of nature will hit a dischordant note, and a beautiful part of the whole will cease to exist. This fills me with dread and grief, for in that moment, the Echthroi will have been successful.

I can see the handiwork of the Echthroi all over this world: in North Korea, where the quest to deliver nuclear payloads halfway around the globe is progressing; in Syria and elsewhere, when we fail to prevent genocide; in the US, when we choose name calling and finger pointing over substantive dialogue.

In A Wind In The Door, one way Meg must fight the Echthroi is by seeking within and finding/summoning love for her nemesis, Mr. Jenkins. In our very real world, fighting the echthroi is often an inside job as well. I increasingly believe that we cannot change the world around us if we do not seek first to change ourselves. When I stop to think about this, I must admit that the echthroi reside in me. In fact, when I rage, when I hate, when I name-call or finger-point the echthros IS me.

It may sound strange that I would love a book that reminds me that I am responsible for the world at such a deep level; that I would love a story that bluntly suggests that the fight between good and evil in the world is real, and the battleground is my own self. But Meg Murry reads a lot like my insecure teen self – and she does, eventually, successfully embody love for Mr. Jenkins, despite the numerous ways he failed her. Meg helps me believe that I am up to finding this kind of courage in my own heart.

More important, the book gives us one imaginative interpretation of what we know in our hearts to be true and science is rapidly proving – namely, that we live in a connected universe. We are part of a vast web of life that is interdependent, born from the stardust of Creation. And our purpose is compassion.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.                                   –1 Corinthians 13:1-2

 

 

Puzzled

“A puzzle with a solution is a game. A puzzle without a solution is a work of art.” –Marty Rubin

My friend Wendy made a passing comment to me in December about her enjoyment of online jigsaw puzzles. I don’t remember the context, but it wasn’t as if we had a lengthy discussion about it – she mentioned it and we moved on to something else.

Fast forward to January. I found myself, most evenings, restless and fidgety. Too tired to go out, too wired and worried to relax. Wendy’s comment about jigsaw puzzles popped into my mind one evening, and I immediately downloaded an app for my Kindle. That first week, I not only did the daily mystery puzzle (no picture to tell me what I was putting together), I also put together three or four easier puzzles a day. I was so obsessed with these puzzles that my brain began processing normal objects all day long as if they were puzzle pieces needing to be fit together (the same thing happened, briefly, in the early 90s when I became addicted to Tetris). I realized that this was not a good sign. Gradually, I increased the difficulty level and reduced the number of puzzles, until I hit a steady groove of completing one puzzle a night.

As stressors amp up in my own life, compounded by the stress we are all experiencing on the political landscape, I feel almost a compulsion to solve the daily puzzle. When I finish it, especially if it is particularly challenging, I feel a sense of accomplishment and completion – a brief but satisfying relief of anxiety.

As my anxiety has deepened, my sleep patterns have shifted. I fall asleep for a few hours then wake, sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., for up to two hours. I’ve developed a bad habit of looking at social media in this interregnum between periods of sleep. I’ve read late-night screen-time is not good for my brainwaves and I know from my heart rate it is terrible for my emotional state.

The past couple of nights, rather than logging onto Twitter, I’ve been thinking about my sudden fixation with jigsaw puzzles. Why this particular activity at this particular time? At various points in the past, I’ve similarly questioned my Tetris addiction, my repetitive binge watching of “Felicity” and “Ally McBeal”, the weird card-counting solitaire game I invented one winter…and each time, the first answer I’ve hit upon has been a variation on the theme of control. In particular, when I feel as if I am inadequately meeting the challenges confronting me (i.e. under-prepared, under-skilled, and/or under-resourced), I have a tendency to take refuge in some meaningless activity that allows me to feel even a minimal level of mastery. I have everything I need to solve a jigsaw puzzle:

  • there are borders/boundaries; I know where they are and how to identify them;
  • I have all the necessary pieces (especially on my Kindle, where random pieces don’t end up on the floor or in the cracks between my couch cushions);
  • the variables are limited – basically, I find the right spot for each piece based on it’s immutable color and shape.

Wouldn’t it be nice if managing people or politics or my own fears and insecurities was as easy? How would it feel in other areas of my life to engage in a single activity that has shape, form, a clear goal and an easy way to assess that I’ve successfully achieved it? That might just be my definition of heaven on earth. Instead, my life is filled with complexities, from the people I interact with to the projects I engage with to the mission I try to live and serve. There are no immutables here: everything is changeable, everything shifts and forms and reforms into different shapes and very few of my tasks are of the kind that can ever be considered “finished”.

I said the first answer I hit upon was about control. Another answer for this fascination with jigsaws, which came to me in the quiet moments of wakefulness the other night, goes deeper than my control issues. This second answer is about interconnection and interdependence. Living in a “post-truth” world, where nuclear aggression is suddenly back on the table and, even in Iowa, the protests are loud and contentious, I feel the need to seek out models for a different way of being and interacting. Jigsaw puzzles are an excellent candidate. Each piece is unique, specifically both itself AND an integral part of a much larger whole. Without connection, the full picture cannot be viewed. Each piece is interdependent with every other piece in helping the whole image to coalesce into something meaningful.

If I am interdependent with all the other pieces of this jigsaw puzzle we call the universe, if we are all part of the same whole, then the very things that I am fearful of and rail against are part of that same whole; by extension they are part of me. Seen in this light, my sudden obsession with completion of puzzles becomes a quest for wholeness in a fractured world.

It appears that my commonplace problems and my deeper existential anxieties often surface and make themselves known to me through sudden behavioral anomalies. They enter my days practically unnoticed at first, disguised as simple distractions. It is only when I have (or take) the time to question what is happening, then to slow down and get quiet enough to hear the answers, that I begin to understand myself. But what do I do with this understanding?

After the election in November, Martha Beck published an article titled, “From Inside the Darkness“, in which she says:

“My job today is to feel all the parts of me that are like the darkest parts of my profoundly divided country, my profoundly divided species. It is to listen to them, to understand them until my own fear, anger, and sorrow dissolve into the light of compassion.

I can only do this inside myself–but that will be enough. It will be enough because one healed person broadcasts an energy that can pull dozens, hundreds, millions of people out of their own darkness.”

She goes on to state, “Compassion, friends, is the most revolutionary power on earth–not simpering and weak, but magical, powerful, the very force of Creation.” That compassion, according to Beck, must first be extended toward ourselves: compassion for our imperfections, our less-thans, our wish-I-weren’ts, and our hate-that-I-ams. When we extend the healing energy of compassion to ourselves, our little piece of the puzzle shines – and that shining light then radiates into the other pieces with which we connect.

It would be silly to suggest that I will heal the world by putting puzzles together on my Kindle. That said, thinking about why those puzzles have been occupying so much of my time has proven fruitful, and has led me to think differently about the divisions in my heart, my life and our world. It has reminded me that the way forward is one of healing and compassion. As the old song goes, “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.” Let it begin in me.

Skank

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I didn’t notice when the word appeared. One day I was looking at the abandoned house across the street, as I often do when I pause at my window, and something about the red paint impinged on my conscious mind. It wasn’t there when I moved in a year ago, but it is there now and has been for at least the past few weeks.

Skank.

The boarded-up house sits in the middle of the block. Of the four lots on that block, two have inhabited homes, one is an empty lot, and – smack in the middle – is the derelict: a relic of the flood that decimated this neighborhood eight years ago. My apartment building, a renovated warehouse converted into “urban lofts” sits across the street. Two floors of 8-foot high windows look out upon the other side of the block. From my shiny new apartment interior it’s hard to know who might be the intended recipient of the one-word message.

Skank.

I do not doubt, however, that there is an intended recipient. This word is a sharp weapon, used with a soft target in mind. “Derogatory term for a female, implying trashiness or tackiness, lower-class status, poor hygiene, flakiness, and a scrawny, pock-marked sort of ugliness. May also imply promiscuity, but not necessarily,” says the Urban Dictionary and all of my 1970s high school.

Skank.

One night, in my former life in college administration, a student nearly died as I watched paramedics attempt to revive her from an alcohol-induced stupor. Later, I was told, she coded in the ambulance – I was in my car waiting to follow them to the ER, but the ambulance sat for more than forty minutes before leaving the campus. She was legally an adult at 18, but the hospital called her parents anyway because they were next of kin and it was not a given she would live through the night. Later – technically the next day, but as I had never been to bed it seemed like one nightmarishly run-on day – I interviewed students about what had happened. The first person told me, “She had a reputation.” I asked what kind of reputation. “You know, she’s kind of a skank.”

Interview after interview I heard the same things. Always, first, the definition of what she was – skank, slut, ho. Then stories that made my heart break, stories that would normally have led the students on our campus to intervene or seek help for their classmate. But not for this skank. Even my usually empathic resident assistants had stood back and watched, judging but not intervening.

A lot of students felt bad after the fact: after they’d spent months sharing salacious gossip about her, but never reaching out to her; after they were forced to confront their tacit complicity with a campus-wide “freeze out”; after the skank had been returned to her residence hall, unconscious and dumped on the floor by several guys who then fled before any questions could be asked. But until she nearly died, no one questioned their indifference or compassionless judgment.

Skank.

I knew a young woman who was nearly annihilated by that word.

When I see that red scrawl on the boarded up porch across the street, I think of her. And I remember the incredible power of words. I think about the interplay of the words people use against us and the choices we make – a stranger in a car yelling “fat bitch” at me as he passed didn’t make me fat. But it did affect choices I made that day, including whether I felt strong enough to face the world, or worthy to even be in it. Over time, their accumulated impact was a wall of isolation I had to tear down brick by painful brick if I wanted to live my best life.

I hear a lot of angry rhetoric about “political correctness”, how it has harmed us, made us weak and unable to confront hard truths.

I’m calling bullshit on that.

There has, in my lifetime, been a movement away from using the harshest and most derogatory terms. A movement away from the weaponization of words to harm, hold back and harass whole classes of humans. Compassion and clarity are never misplaced, and they unify us rather than make us weak. What makes us weak? This backlash against “political correctness” being used to call forth all of our racist, misogynistic, jingoistic tendencies. Because we human beings have these proclivities – just as we have the propensity to feel empathy and care for others in distress.

Which of these tendencies do we really want to call forth in ourselves, to bring out into our world? I know which I always hope to share. That doesn’t make me politically correct, it makes me someone who consciously chooses to bring my best self to the world.

Every day I have an anonymous tagger with a can of red spray paint to thank for reminding me of that. Skank: every day, I see that word and I remember that I choose kindness.

 

 

 

Re-Calibrating My Heart

“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” — Ted Hughes

Lately, I have been feeling a bit sheepish. Here’s why:

Most mornings, I stumble out of bed and, after a quick stop in the bathroom, head downstairs for coffee and a brief perusal of social media before getting ready to face the day. I’ve read numerous articles about the fact that getting on the computer, checking email and social media, first thing in the morning is the wrong thing to do if I want to be a productive and successful person who meets all my goals for the day. But this isn’t what has me feeling sheepish.

It’s the fact that I sit at my computer and cry.

One morning, I wept while watching a video of a little girl with a prosthetic leg joyfully receive the gift of a doll with a prosthetic leg “just like me”. Another day, tears leaked out while viewing the latest installment of Carpool Karaoke because…Les Miz! (Sorry, I’ve yet to fall completely under the “Hamilton” spell, but I’m sure it will happen!) I cried reading the letter from the young woman in the Stanford rape case; when I read a post about yet another pedestrian killed by a careless driver while crossing the street in a crosswalk with a “walk” sign. Happy, sad or moving for inexplicable reasons: I cry.

This is a little secret I’ve kept to myself for quite a while. I’m sharing it so that you will know that I do this, just like so many of you. Like so many others, I get caught up in the emotion of things far removed from me – the stories and experiences of people I will never meet – every day. And this is not a bad thing.

But it is a thing that concerns me. We expend a great deal of compassionate energy responding to social media these days. (And, yes, some people expend a lot of energy being trolls, but that is a whole different topic.) Whether we sit quietly and cry at our kitchen tables; whether we click “comment”, “like”, or “share”; whether we write an impassioned response that our friends quickly agree with – we are essentially engaged within a closed loop that we sometimes mistake for actually doing something.

Then we go about our days, feeling harassed and angry at other drivers, at the slow people in front of us at the checkout, at the coffee shop when someone doesn’t know before their turn what they want to order, for crying out loud! In the workplace, we complain about everyone else’s lousy work ethic or bad habit of bogarting the copy machine. We duck into doorways or restrooms to avoid that emotionally needy coworker (you know the one). We don’t engage with people whose political or religious opinions differ from ours, thereby making it easy to maintain strict boundaries between “US” and “THEM”. When faced with people who need our compassion – at the corner or in WalMart or as we drive through a particular neighborhood and suddenly think to lock our doors – all we feel is irritation, disgust, or fear.

I worry that one of the pitfalls of social media engagement is that, while it opens our lives up to a wider reach of people and stories, it also allows us to spend our compassionate energy without actually having to open our hearts and/or join our hands with others IRL. I worry that we prefer it this way, because we don’t get dirty or uncomfortable or risk vulnerability and rejection. We prefer it because it isn’t hard.

The truth is, our hearts are meant to be broken, which is not easy. Hearts broken open allow others to walk right in and find space to curl up and be safe. Hearts broken open let our love and energy to flow outward to touch real people with real needs. They aren’t meant to merely click a thumbs-up button and move on. Hearts broken open don’t press share and write, “I’m just going to leave this here.”

In his novel, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak says “Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.” With the exception of the sociopaths among us, we all feel the itch to make a positive difference. We all feel ourselves called to scratch that itch. And we all fear what might come leaking out. Still, our hearts are intended to leak in this way; we are meant to face our fear in order to add to the good of this world. I believe this with my whole broken-open heart.

And I worry that I am letting that good, compassionate leakage express itself in tears that fall on my keyboard and nowhere else. If, as Ted Hughes claimed, the only calibration that matters is how much heart we invest, I need to invest my heart in the world outside my kitchen, connected to me by something other than fiber optic cable or a wireless router. I think its time for a heartfelt re-calibration.

Learning factions

The school year has had a rolling start this month; some students began classes weeks ago and others just started today. My friend’s daughter, Abby, started seventh grade a couple of weeks ago. After school on the second or third day, my friend noticed that Abby was pensive, maybe a little down, and asked if something was bothering her. In a voice tinged with desperation, Abby responded, “Mom, I don’t have a faction!”

When my friend repeated the story to me later, I was grateful I’d read the Y.A. bestseller, “Divergent”, so I was able to immediately grasp the problem. (The story of “Divergent” takes place in a futuristic society divided into five factions. As teens approach adulthood, each chooses the faction with which he or she feels most aligned. The heroine, Tris, discovers that she is divergent – meaning she has no true faction.) In Divergent, Tris feels like an outsider, never quite fitting in. My young friend, Abby, feels the same.

Believe me, I can totally identify with Abby. As a freshman in high school, I remember feeling factionless. I had a few friends, but they were from several different social groups and tended to identify most strongly with those groups, of which I was not a member. Many Friday nights I attended football games with a group of girls I never really saw, otherwise. The people I ate lunch with at school weren’t the same people I had sleepovers with on the weekends. Most of the time, this was fine. But whenever numbers were an issue, I was the odd man out – I got cut from the roster. Which left me high and dry, feeling “out” at those exact times when a freshman really needs to feel “in”.

The summer between my first and second years of high school, my siblings and I joined an inter church youth group (ICY). On a hot Tuesday night in July, we met about thirty other high school kids and four college-aged leaders at the Lutheran church. For an hour or so, we played some kick-ass volleyball on the church lawn. The game was relaxed, inclusive, fun. There was no cutthroat competition – though there was plenty of humorous braggadocio. After the game, we adjourned inside the church. In the sanctuary, everyone pulled up a piece of floor and the guitars came out. We sang a few songs, said some prayers, then began a style of interaction based on what our leaders called “Serendipity”. With our eyes closed, we mingled in the group until the leader told us to join hands with another person, eyes still closed. My partner was Dave*, one of the college guys leading the group. Each of us was given a paper plate and a crayon, and asked to make a nameplate for our partner. In addition to our partners’ names, we needed to answer four questions about the other person – putting an answer in each “corner” of the round plate. I don’t remember all of the questions, but I’ve never forgotten that, in the upper left-hand corner we were supposed to answer the question, “If your partner were a color, what color would they be?” Dave, making a nameplate for me, wrote “yellow”. I was shocked…and delighted. I’d been expecting gray, black, brown – no one had ever described me as yellow before! The whole evening was fun, but more important, I felt welcomed and included in a way that was so outside the norm of my usual, angst-y, teen interactions.

On the way home, I basked in the glow of every positive thing that had happened that evening. Later, when I went to bed, I lay there replaying it all in my head. And as the bright energy faded, giving way to sleep, I knew one thing: I had, indeed, found my faction.

From that point on, my high school experience was different. I had my ICY peeps in my corner, and I was loving life. Retreats, hay rides, late night guitars and bonfires. We met on Tuesday nights and Thursday mornings before school, cementing our connectedness with intentional yet fun activities. Interestingly, even engaged with my faction, I managed to maintain a few friendships outside the group. We liked each other for the sake of our shared interests and our individual personality quirks, without the need to be joined at the hip with one another – that’s what our factions were for! As far as I was concerned, it was the best of both worlds. I didn’t give much thought to the times that friends told me I was the only one in my group who would talk to them, or who was nice to them. I chalked it up to simple misunderstanding.

Junior year flew, full of adventures – from blowing up my chemistry lab to searching for the ever-elusive albino farm in the neighboring township to having my first jamocha shake at Arby’s. Then life happened and mucked things up.

The summer preceding my senior year, my family moved from Ohio to Iowa. I was devastated. At my new school, the senior class alone outnumbered the entire population of my previous high school. Back to being factionless, I had no clue where to sit, who to talk to, or how to address the rising panic I felt walking into the absolutely packed cafeteria. I had no one.

But here’s the interesting thing. Watching the other kids with their groups, I realized some important truths about factions. These are the things I want to say now to Abby, my young friend feeling so “out there” without her own crew.

First, factions always think they’re open to others, but they rarely are. For example, most of the students at my new school were decent people. Very few were actively cruel or hurtful. But most of them were also not actively kind. Or welcoming. Suddenly, I remembered my “outsider” friends commenting on the exclusionary vibe they got from my ICY friends. At my new school, the kids who were generous and open? The outsiders, like me.

I learned that having a faction can make you less compassionate – because compassion requires a reaching out beyond yourself, beyond your normal circles. When you have a faction, you don’t have to think about what it feels like to eat alone in a crowded lunchroom filled to bursting with other kids having fun – you’re too busy laughing for it to cross your mind. You don’t have to “reframe” to make yourself feel good about another Friday night at home with your parents when you’d rather be with friends…if you had any. Since you don’t have to do these things, you forget there are other kids who do. You literally forget to have compassion for them.

Another truth people don’t really explain ahead of time? Factions maintain their strength by a certain level of uniformity. Gryffindor is brave, Hufflepuff is loyal. ICY loved Jesus, volleyball and guitar sing-alongs. When you have a faction, you get lazy about needing to maintain effort to develop and keep friendships. The group all shows up and, voila! Shared experiences and assumed similarities of thought and emotion. Group membership becomes a shortcut to friendship – but like a lot of shortcuts, its doesn’t lead where you expect it to. Sometimes, you end up spending time with people you don’t really connect with. Or worse, you find yourself looking past behaviors you don’t endorse,  out of loyalty to the group – even when this makes you uncomfortable.

It also surprised me to learn, after moving, that the strength of my faction didn’t make me strong. When I moved to a new city, I had to find strength within myself, not in the group. (Although it did help to know, when I felt alone, that there were people somewhere who loved me.) Interestingly, what helped me move ahead were the friendships I had maintained outside my faction. I still knew how to be friends with a diverse set of individuals who weren’t friends with one another. I remembered that sometimes what was truest and most valuable about someone was protected, and had to be coaxed out with regard and attention. I remembered that there were no shortcuts to developing relationships. True friendship takes time, effort, patience.

In life, I want to tell my dear Abby, you will find yourself part of many groups. They’ll come together in a variety of ways, around a plethora of shared experiences – and they will often bring you joy. As an adult, I’ve discovered that the best kinds of “factions” are created by the synergy that develops when individually strong friendships coalesce together into groups that embrace rather than try to usurp those connections. Because it is the individual relationships you nurture and develop over time that will fill out the depth and quality of your life.

Dearest Abby, I would say. Maintain your openness to people who engage your compassion; to those who invite and invoke your individuality in return. Try not to leave your integrity at the threshold of your latest faction, no matter how tempting it is to gloss over troubling choices made by others or within in your group.

And whatever you do, lovely Abby, never discount the real gift of a lone friend in favor of the dream of belonging to a “faction”. Group hugs are never as satisfying as the embrace of one dearly loved friend.

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*Note: I thought you might be interested to know that my partner, Dave, from my first ICY youth group experience, is none other than my beloved brother-in-law Dave Finnegan. 39 years later still in my life but now in the faction known as “family”!

Some day I may write a post specifically about the spiritual and religious formation I experienced through my involvement with ICY, but for the purposes of this post, it serves mostly as context for the joyful experience of finding my “posse”.

Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM
Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM

2014: Let’s Make it the Year of “It Isn’t All About Me” (In memory of Anita Mac, Travel Destinations Bucket List)

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On the morning of New Year’s Eve, I opened my email to find notification of a new blog post at “Travel Destinations Bucket List”. When I entered the blogosphere, TDBL was one of the first blogs I followed. Back then, I eagerly read of Anita’s solo transCanadian bike ride, reveling in the idea that here was a woman who had the courage to take on a truly daunting adventure – and speak honestly about the fearful as well as serendipitous moments. I was also newly in love with biking, and remember telling my friends, breathlessly, about TDBL and how much I admired Anita. Anyway, the last time she had posted was months ago, and it had been a sad post wondering how to heal from a broken heart. So I was thrilled that there was finally something new from TDBL and I clicked on the email link immediately to find out about Anita’s latest exploits.

Sadly, what I learned was that Anita took her own life in 2013. The post was a tribute in which other bloggers were sharing “bucket list” items they intend to complete in 2014 in honor of Anita. Their tribute ends: “We encourage you to join us in this quest and take on at least one bucket list item in 2014, but more importantly, we also hope you take the opportunity to (re)connect with friends and loved ones during this holiday season…Our friend and fellow traveler, Anita took her life because she didn’t see any other options. We don’t want anyone else to feel that way. Please share the momentum.” (You can read the entire post, here.)

I don’t mind saying that reading the TDBL post rocked me. I didn’t know Anita, except through her blog, so I have given a lot of thought to the reasons learning about her death affected me so deeply. My immediate thought was that her blog presented a woman who loved life – through travel (to far away lands and to destinations closer to home) Anita explored cultures, foods, experiences that she wrote of as joyful, difficult, instructive, and fun. The cognitive dissonance between what I knew through her blog and the reality of this particular woman losing hope and happiness so completely is difficult to reconcile – and so sad to contemplate.

There’s more, though. Anita wrote, excitedly, about transitioning in her life from her full-time corporate job to creating a life more in keeping with her passions. She travelled to Croatia, then walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, writing of this journey as an opportunity for discernment about her future. She was hopeful and excited about creating a new vision for her life. As a reader, I followed every step. As a fellow journeyer seeking a way to change my own life, I took courage from her bold choice to move forward – even without a completely clear picture of what came next.

And so I arrived at the crux of my emotional response. Selfishly, perhaps, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Anita’s life and mine. We both set out to make significant changes in our personal lives, to take leaps of faith. The jump into the unknown is joyful and adventurous, and we have faith – in ourselves, in the world, in the “rightness” of this step. But what we don’t have is control. Over circumstances, others, the future. In Anita’s case, her beloved father’s terminal illness and the desertion of her significant other (which she wrote of in her final post) were among the things she could not have controlled for when making her decision to leap forward. I’m still learning – but I do know that the reality of major transitions is that they are harder than we anticipate, but in ways we didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) necessarily account for. Maintaining a positive outlook and/or a centered vision of your life in these times is very hard.

Suddenly the chasm between the woman who wrote with joy and the woman who took her own life seems shallower and easier to cross. What was unthinkable becomes understandable.

Isn’t this what often lies at the heart of our response to tragedy? The sense that it could have been us – that we are not as inviolable as we seem? Once our compassion is activated, we see our own humanity more clearly, are forced to take a more realistic look at our own lives.

To my friends and family, to those of you reading this post: these musings are not cause for concern about me. Taking stock these past few days has been a very good thing for me. I have ample evidence of the love and support of incredible people in my life (and a holiday season mostly separated from you only served to remind me of your generosity and love). Even when I struggle with fear, uncertainty, homesickness – I am concurrently in love with my precarious new life in this frozen city of the north. Even when I catastrophize in my thinking, I know my personal “rock bottom” will suck if I hit it – but I have alternative places to land if necessary. I am lucky.

In the end, though, I think about Anita Mac and the many others whose “taking stock” results in taking their own lives and I feel a deep sadness. We are all so occupied with our own issues and days and choices, so engrossed in our culture of self-fulfillment, that often we don’t think about others. We don’t notice that people we love are engrossed in a deep struggle to hold on to life and hope (granted, they often work hard at hiding that from us). So I echo the writers who paid tribute to Anita on TDBL – I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. It isn’t a bucket-list item, but it is a resolution: to take my eyes off myself often enough to pay attention to others. 2014 isn’t all about me – its about us, and how we all move forward into the future with adventure and joy.

And we’re walking…

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. -Steven Wright

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In late summer I hurt my knee in what some might call a misguided attempt to take up running. They might call it that because I have made such attempts before, always ending in injury to one knee or the other.

I experienced pain and difficulty walking for weeks, though bike riding seemed to help and didn’t exacerbate the injury. But I reached a point at which my knee wasn’t improving and it was hampering my mobility to a degree that I found frustrating. And, truth be told, I still harbor a desire to take up running – perhaps not marathoning, but I’d love to be able, one day, to say I’ve run a 5k. So, I decided that cycling needed to share time with weight-bearing exercise, and I started walking. On my first walk (around Lake Calhoun, a perfect 3.1 mile – or 5k – circuit) I clocked in at around 1.5 hours and could barely self-ambulate to my bike, much less pedal, for the ride home.

I’m not going to lie: after a summer of cycling, walking seemed tedious. Plus, let’s face it, “I went for a walk” doesn’t have the same cachet as “I just got back from a run”. At first, I stuck with walking because it was the only thing I could think to do that would, eventually, lead to normal functioning AND the opportunity to try running again (after all, my friend and award-winning running coach Ryan Scheckel has assured me that running is, in fact, possible for me).

But a funny thing happened as I committed to walking daily. I discovered that the act of walking opened me up in ways I never anticipated.

First, it opened my eyes. I began to understand the layout of the city, especially my neighborhood (Whittier) and those surrounding it. The pieces of this urban puzzle began to come together for me. Then, I found myself noticing details I had missed in riding or driving through the neighborhoods. Occasionally, I would take a picture with my phone and show it to Mike. He’d say, “Where is that? How come I’ve never seen it?!” This led to the Instagram project in which I post a daily photo of Minneapolis. While it may seem like a silly thing, the daily photo project has been a way of connecting, albeit tenuously, with like-minded people in this vast city. And the sheer fun of discovering new things each day has added to the measure of joy in my life. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors… disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” This is especially true for city dwellers, and I love occupying these “in-between” spaces.

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A second thing that walking daily has done is opened my heart to the strangers around me. It isn’t unusual to have short, pleasant and quite interesting interactions and conversations with people on the street – when I stop to take a photo or we’re waiting at the crosswalk. On the next block is a center for the blind, and I often meet folks coming or going on the sidewalk, using their walking sticks expertly. We exchange greetings and shy smiles. As I walk, I try not to avert my eyes from signs of suffering, or to look past the individuals who ask me for a handout. I agreed to buy breakfast for one young man, who then surprised me by asking the server what the least expensive item on the menu was, and ordering that. I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk crying and in obvious misery. We made eye contact, and she shook her head slightly as she passed, as if to say, “No, you can’t help this.” I like to think she knew I wanted to. As in any city, the mix of affluence and poverty, of hope and despair, of insiders and outsiders is apparent daily. As I walk, my heart tries to embrace them all.

Perhaps the most important kind of opening walking has brought to my days is a spiritual one. It doesn’t matter how worried or anxious I am when I step out the door, walking brings me calm. With that calmness comes the ability to to relax into a prayerful state that I find difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Praise, gratitude, supplication, even a kind of meditative trance all flow with ease. “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility”, says the poet Gary Snyder. Finding the balance between spirit and humility is, I find, a necessary prerequisite for open communication with God. It is too often the case that my daily worries loom overly large in my mind. There is no perspective available when your sense of self is overinflated to the point of panic – instead of communion, what occurs is melodramatic monologue. And really, who among us wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in that?!

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard

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More Than A Flimsy Web

I know what they're going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!
I know what they’re going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!

Many people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality typology. (If you are not, here’s an easy introduction to the concept.) My personality type, which has remained fairly consistent over 20+ years of periodic assessments is INFP – which stands for introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. INFPs often feel a bit odd, resulting in part from the fact that only roughly 1-4% of the adult population assesses as this type. My type has been described as “passionately concerned with personal growth and development”; we may present a “calm and serene face to the world, and can seem shy, even distant around others. But inside they’re anything but serene…”. And this: “The INFP needs to work on balancing their high ideals with the requirements of every day living. Without resolving this conflict, they will never be happy with themselves, and they may become confused and paralyzed about what to do with their lives.” (read one full description of the INFP here.)

Do I really need to ask those of you who know me whether any of this is ringing a bell? I have heard many variations on the comment “Is there ever a time when you aren’t thinking?”, most recently when my friend Molly said, “I just don’t think deeply about these things like you do. I’m more practical, and go right to how to fix it.” (I’m paraphrasing Molly, apologies if I didn’t get the tone right – she was complimenting me!)

INFPs are idealists, and among the four types of idealists, they are categorized as “healers”. The problem with being in relentless pursuit of personal growth and development is that the INFP’s gaze – I mean MY gaze – is so often turned inward that we forget it is our mission to help others heal. I forget that I am my best self when I am turning an empathetic and loving gaze outward, rather than the more frequent self-critical (and inward-directed) navel-gaze.

This discussion of my “type” is all prologue to the heart of what I want to share today.

Two weeks ago I made what was intended to be a low-key trip back to Iowa to visit friends. I didn’t call everyone I know and make a bunch of advance plans for get-togethers. Instead, once in town I contacted people one at a time, setting up coffee or breakfast dates. These past months of major transition in my life have included so many great group activities, contrasted with long periods of aloneness, that I was craving deep conversation and one-on-one reconnections with dear friends.

As often as I have, in recent years, received exactly the thing I most needed, one would think I’d have learned to trust this life process. But I haven’t. It invariably surprises me each time. Throughout the weekend, my friends offered me the gift I most needed – the gift of their own questions, pain, struggles. The gift of saying (figuratively, not literally), “But enough about you, I’m ready to talk about me.” When friends trust us to take in their difficult emotions and return a commensurate depth of regard, to take their trust and return love in its place, it is an immeasurable grace. Denise Levertov expresses this so beautifully in her poem, “Gift”:

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

–Denise Levertov

If there is a gift and a lesson in the beauty of my friends choosing to trust me with their questions, part of the lesson is this: that my deep questions and broken places are also a gift to share. Not my angst-y whining about “what am I going to do?”, but the truth that lies beneath that – the hurts and cracks that I rarely choose to share (it’s so much more convenient to pretend that the surface concerns are the real issues, isn’t it?).

Saturday, I did my best to offer that gift to another friend. I found it so incredibly hard – I put my sunglasses on in a dark coffee shop so I didn’t have to make eye-contact, for crying out loud.   I did a horrible job of expressing what I was feeling, but my friend did a good job of listening. And he directly stated the action I need to practice: “You have to open up and make yourself vulnerable if you expect me to know what you’re feeling.” True words for all of us at those times when we feel lost or misunderstood.

I want to thank the people in my life who offer me the gift of their neediness, their hurts and their questions. I understand how difficult it is to see that as a gift you give rather than as a burden you drop on an “unsuspecting friend.” But I know it is a gift because of how much it means to receive it. This alone should be enough to remind us to pass the same gift on to others, though it often isn’t. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is not just a way of opening to our own growth and insight. It is also a way of helping those we love stretch their capacity for empathy and compassion, to take on the role of healer and give up (for a time) the incessant self-absorption endemic to our days.

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Handle with compassion