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.

 

 





Choice Reflections

30 03 2017

When I was in college, I had a job in the student accounts office. Every afternoon, it was my responsibility to reconcile the day’s receipts – to make sure that the total of cash and checks in stacks on my desk matched the ledger of payments made. It was meticulous and systematized work. And it had to happen every day. It was inexorable: I knew that every afternoon I would clock in precisely at 3:00 and spend the next two hours with my pencil, adding machine, and a stack of account ledgers.

One spring afternoon, late in my junior year, a friend convinced me to skip work in favor of a trip to the park. This was completely against my sense of responsibility. It took a lot of cajoling and needling on my friend’s part to convince me to be truant. Once I agreed, however, I felt something akin to the spring sap in the trees coursing through my own blood stream and I was lost to the glee of the moment. I had no excuse, so I didn’t call my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in. I just didn’t show up.

We had a great time at the park – I felt a bit guilty at first, but that soon gave way to the exhilaration of playing with abandon. In that world before cell phones, no one knew where we were, no one could reach us with sober responsibilities: we were free!

Returning to campus later, everyone I saw asked where I had been. “Mrs. Peacock was looking for you. She was worried when you didn’t show up for work.” It seemed that every student on campus had reason to stop by the student accounts office that afternoon, only to be questioned by a concerned Mrs. Peacock about whether they had seen me.

I spent the next day with my stomach roiling from a soupy mess of anxiety, dread, and regret. I had no idea what would happen when I arrived at work that afternoon, but I felt certain that I deserved whatever consequences Mrs. Peacock served  up. A tiny part of me resented that this awful feeling was the price of one carefree afternoon. I  felt remorse about causing concern and extra work for my boss, along with a generalized shameful flush of self-loathing: I was a bad person for shirking responsibility – people of character don’t just skip work to have fun.

All these years later, it doesn’t really matter what happened when I was finally face-to-face with Mrs. Peacock.  Obviously, I survived.

This could be a story about learning to accept responsibility, about showing up when you’re counted on, or about facing the consequences of your choices. OR, it could be a story about throwing off the shackles, making the best choices for yourself regardless of censure from others, choosing to live life fully in the face of pressure to conform to rigid social norms.

It could be a story about one perfect, pure afternoon of sunlight and laughter at Flora Park: a last gasp of childhood before fully facing the realities of the adult world.

It might be none of those.

That is the gift that time bestows on our choices: we can reflect upon them and see them from a variety of perspectives. Many of life’s stories can be crafted with multiple meanings, constructed as metaphors for a wide range of life lessons.

It is infinitely harder to construe meaning, much less multiple possible lessons, from the choices we are living with right now. We make choices and we live with those choices. Often, we must live with those choices regardless of how stressful or difficult or unfulfilling they turn out to be. In a world rife with inspirational quotes and “blame yourself” memes (“Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.” – Wayne Dyer) we learn that it isn’t ok to be unhappy with the consequences of our choices. Suck it up, buttercup – or make a different choice.

But what if it isn’t that simple? Just yesterday a friend commented, “…things are more stressful than I would like. And I see no way to change the choices we’ve made.” What if the choice is right, but the consequences, what we live with right now, are painful? What if, regardless of whether we chose rightly or wrongly, choosing differently now is out of reach financially, or prohibitively impactful in the lives of others who depend on us (children, elderly parents, etc.)?

Sometimes, the resources required to change the choice you’ve made are not simply inner resources – they are real resources you don’t have – like money, time, or knowledge. Lack of those resources might be insurmountable in this moment. What now?

These are the places where we get stuck, and there are no easy solutions for getting unstuck. Since there are no easy solutions, perhaps it would be best if we merely tried to withhold judgment – of ourselves or of others. From the outside, life might look static, like we are simply living inside the painful choice we’ve made. But on the inside, what if it could feel like we’re proactively holding space for what will emerge? If we replace self-loathing (the roiling stomach of anxiety, dread, and regret) with self-loving-kindness, with compassion, for the flawed, human person who made these choices?

Eventually, someone will emerge from the painful choice-cocoon we’ve constructed for ourselves. There will be time, then, to craft meaning and construct metaphors and life lessons; to articulate how our choices helped define the someone who emerged. Clarity tends to come upon reflection rather than in the immediacy of now. And because the attribution of meaning is one of – if not THE – great gifts of time, we have to wait for it. It can’t be rushed.

 

 

 





“Gotta Get Through Here, Dude”

21 08 2014

 

Do not be your dorky self. Do not make a scene. Do not call attention to yourself. Do not show your feelings. Do not, under any circumstances, act as if you matter.

I don’t believe in any of these dictates.

I don’t believe in living life as if I don’t count.

I don’t believe in accepting whatever anyone else wants to dump on me.

But I sometimes find myself living as if I do believe those messages and dictates. As if I have no choice but to take whatever is being handed to me. When I feel insecure, when I feel alone, when I am anxious for people to like or love me, I revert to behaviors which, instead of making me more lovable just make me easier to take advantage of. To disregard. To hurt.

The other night, I was on a social ride sponsored by a local bike shop. We were riding to St. Paul for ice cream at Izzy’s, second-best ice cream in the cities (sorry, but Sebastian Joe’s remains number one in my heart!). We were a large group, and were asked to ride in pairs. I fell into place alongside my friend, Kate. As we rode, we got on the subject of body image and how it can impact every part of our lives. If we let it. If we choose to accept all of the cultural messages we receive. Kate told me that she had a “come to Jesus” moment in her own life.

“I realized, this is what I’ve got. Short of surgery, I can’t buy a new face or body. So I’ve got to be down with the ones I have. And anybody who tries to make me feel bad about that will just get the five fingers of death!” (she brandished her fist in the air to emphasize this point).

As we crossed into St. Paul, we faced the dreaded Marshall Avenue hill. I’d never ridden it before, but those who had warned that it was a tough one. I was feeling good, had been enjoying the ride and conversation, and I’m good at riding hills thanks to RAGBRAI. So while Kate waited to take the hill with her partner, Victoria, I forged ahead. I charged up the hill, passing friends and fellow riders. When I reached the top, I was winded but felt great – for about thirty seconds. And then…horrible, unbelievable pain whapped me in the head. I have never felt anything like it. My head felt both as if it was being squeezed in a vice and as if it were coming completely apart at the same time. I didn’t know what to do. Several friends rode up and, as they passed, asked if I was ok. At first, my indistinct answer was, “I don’t know”. But as the pain continued without abating, it became “I don’t think so” then, “NO”. I wasn’t ok.

As I stayed put, trying to breathe through the pain, the ride sponsor stopped beside me. He sat quietly and patiently while I tried to figure out what I might need. Kate and Victoria rode up and stopped, their faces full of concern. Then two other friends rode back from further ahead to see what was wrong. I was frightened. And I didn’t have a clue if the appropriate response was to shake it off or ask for an ambulance to be called. But what I focused on, what I was worried about, was that my “emergency” was interrupting everyone else’ good time. I didn’t want them to miss their ice cream, or have to stop having fun on my account.

So I insisted we move on to Izzy’s. I got off my bike and locked it up, and realized that Kate and Victoria were planning to stick with me. Victoria said, “If we’re bothering you and you’d prefer us to give you your space, just let us know.” But the last thing I wanted or needed at that moment was space. I don’t really remember waiting in line for ice cream or what we talked about. I was just doing my best to appear completely normal while feeling nauseated, in pain, and scared. Every time I made eye contact with Victoria, I knew she knew that’s what I was doing. As we got our ice cream and tried to exit the shop, our way was blocked by a bunch of guys who were just coming in the door (the line snaked halfway down the block outside). I stood there wondering how to make my way out, when Kate stepped up and just calmly said, “Gotta get through here, dude!” and the crowd parted with ease, apologizing for blocking the way.

Such a simple thing. The three of us burst out laughing on the sidewalk. Kate proudly repeated her line, “Gotta get through here, dude” several times, enjoying our response to her directness. And then she said, “Jen, you have to be more like that. You have to stop caring and develop an attitude. ‘Hey, I’m sorry if my health crisis interrupts your trip for ice cream, I can’t care about that right now – deal with it, dude!’ That’s what you need to say. And if anyone has a problem with that, you know what to do…”

In unison, we both lifted our fists and said, “Give ’em the five fingers of death!”

 

The Mary Lambert song, Secrets, is posted for two reasons. As a dedication to Kate and the great conversation/life lesson, and as my new theme song! My past theme songs, Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” were also aspirational. I love the message of Secrets: namely, that you shouldn’t hide yourself inside – be who you are, without apology or shame.