Tag Archives: compassion

I Get It, I Understand

You know who’s the best? You guys. After my last post I had so many people reach out to me, by email, text, comment, phone, Facebook message, husband, currier pigeon, pony express, smoke signal, morse code, and, dangnabbit, even in person. And just about everyone was saying, “Yes, I hear you, I’m in this place too.” or “I was in this place.” or “I think I’m headed for this place.” I’m humbled and honored by those of you who opened up to me about your own struggles and I’m buoyed by the love and kindness sent my way. And of course it has gotten me thinking a lot.

Why, if so many of us are burdened and struggling with one thing or another, is it so hard for us to talk about it? If there is a wealth of understanding and support out there, why can’t we just be honest with where we are at from day to day? Are we really going to be social lepers if we quit pretending that we aren’t a wreck when we actually are? Maybe. I don’t know. But I suspect not. I think we all crave intimate connection but most of us are well trained to keep our less pretty emotions tucked away. My Norwegian ancestors keep a close eye on me and they don’t mind shaming me from the grave for crossing the line of what’s appropriate. “Stop making a scene,” they say tersely, “and don’t embarrass anyone.”

I’m actually terrified of embarrassment, mine and other people’s. Once I was at the dentist and the hygienist thought I was pregnant when I wasn’t. It was like being thrown into a humiliation casserole. I was embarrassed, of course, over my size and shape, but also embarrassed for her for making such an ostentatious social gaff. I was full of guilt that my own body could cause such awkwardness between people and ashamed that I had no snappy comeback, just hot, red cheeks and sweaty armpits in an office full of other embarrassed people. While that experience had nothing to do with emotional openness, it had the result of everyone feeling mortified and I never want to be the cause of that. Still though, I know that the subjects that sometimes make people uncomfortable are the ones we need to share the most. I want to be bold and open and real, but I’m a wuss when it comes right down to it. I find it easier to share my inner workings in writing, here and in less public settings, because I can avoid seeing the reaction on someone’s face and if people disapprove or find me immodest, chances are they won’t tell me about it.

A friend recommended a podcast called ‘Terrible, Thanks For Asking‘. I’ve only listened to the first few installments, but I really like the concept. The idea is that every episode is an interview with someone who has experienced something hard (or awful in some cases) and the difficult emotional recovery that comes with it. It’s people who are unapologetically honest with their pain and shortcomings, even if it causes some discomfort. Some of the stories are hard to listen to, but it’s a refreshing look at how the dark sides of life make us who we are. Obviously, it’s right up my alley.

That podcast, combined with the feedback I’ve gotten on my last post has made me wish we had a different way to communicate with each other about how we really are from day to day. Of course it’s going to be hard to be totally honest when you see an acquaintance at the kid’s swimming lessons or while meeting a potential client or waiting in line to buy tampons, but what if there was another way? Humor me for a minute and just imagine:

Every morning after we get up and start the day we put on a name tag. But instead of writing our name, we write how we are really feeling. Write it in green and it means you are open to talking about it. Write it in red and it means you aren’t. Then you go to work or school or the grocery store and everyone is walking around with a tag. I’m lonely. My husband is cheating on me. I’m so excited for my trip tomorrow. I think I’m pregnant. I’m sick of people giving me advice. Abandonment issues. I got a great job that I’m completely unqualified for. This sunny day makes me feel like frolicking. I ate an entire bag of Cheetos. In laws. I screamed at my kid and I feel horrible about it. I’m falling in love. My wife has cancer. Bankrupt. I want someone to take care of me. I’m jealous of everyone who is better looking than I am. I had a hard time leaving the house because of my anxiety. I’m happy for no reason.

Of course this alternate universe relies on us always knowing what we are feeling and why, being aware of our issues and able to articulate them. As far fetched as that is, when we have a glimmer of insight I think it’s worth trying to be brave and vulnerable and generous with our truth. Most of us are floundering through life looking for the people with whom we are simpatico. It’s hard to keep in mind, when wallowing around in our own emotional shit, that people long to say “I get it, I understand.” as much as they want to be understood themselves.

Authenticity might be my favorite quality in a person. My own moments of faker-ness come more often than I would like but I’m striving to be more candid in the way I present myself to the world. When someone shares their real self with me, it brings richness to my life, another complex layer of flavor. Being open with our truth is a gift to those hearts that are in harmony with our own. It makes us softer and more trusting. It feeds the compassionate parts of human nature instead of the judgmental ones. It’s an awkward stumble into grace.

“Engrave this upon my heart: there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” – Mary Lou Kownacki

(Except that I’m too realistic to be completely sold on this. There are plenty of people that I will continue to dislike even if I hear their story, because some people are just plain obnoxious. But I like the quote anyway.)


To comprehend the incomprehensible

This is a long one, with no pictures, but about something that has been on my mind. Kudos to you if you make it through. And I’d love your thoughts in the comments if you have any wisdom to impart.

I read a news story a couple of weeks that just wrecked me. I feel haunted by the horribleness of it and I have to vigilantly push the details out of my mind. There is so much bad news, always, and especially of late. We hear so many sad stories, but from time to time there is one that just cuts me to the quick. We all have our triggers, the things that work their way into our core and cause an actual physical hurt. For some people it’s stories of domestic violence, for some it’s animal cruelty. For me, it’s children who are hungry. And other stuff too, but that’s the big one.

I remember my family eating dinner in front of the TV news when I was probably about eight years old and seeing pictures of starving kids in Ethiopia. I can still feel the way my stomach churned and my mouth went dry and bitter, my body’s reaction to something so horrific. And the shame. The shame of sitting there with my baked chicken thighs watching people starve on the screen in front of me.

That feeling of nausea and shame still rises up upon hearing some piece of gut-wrenching news and I had it the other day. I won’t go into the details because I know that many people have a hard time when bombarded with this kind of information, but I will talk about it in a general way because it has brought up a lot of questions for me in regards to my kids and how to talk with them about atrocities both close to home and far away.

The story I read was on Humans of New York. If you haven’t ever seen Brandon’s blog, I highly recommend it, even though it can be incredibly sad at times. He takes very moving photographs of ordinary people, in New York and around the world, and pairs them with snippets of interviews with that person. He has an rare gift for getting people to reveal the most personal parts of themselves and I’m struck whenever I look at his work by the fact that every one of us is ordinary, and also extraordinary. Everyone has pain and tragedy and beauty in them and it’s inspiring to see that captured in such an artful way. He was traveling in Pakistan last month and did a whole series on people who are entrapped in modern day slavery there. He also interviewed a woman whose organization works to end bonded labor. One story she told about a family that she had helped was what had me in such a state. I wasn’t the only one, Brandon set up a fundraiser for her organization that raised two million dollars in three days (that is the good news here).

My husband, bless his heart, is as sensitive as I am when it comes to this kind of thing. We usually try to protect each other from news that we know the other one can’t bear to hear, but I did tell him about this one while we were on a walk the other evening, and we both burst into tears. While we were hugging each other in the street, Lola rode up on her bike and asked what was going on. I told her that we were just talking about a sad story that I had read and that I didn’t want to tell her about it because it was too terrible. She pushed a little and I told her that in some places in the world slavery still exists and that I had heard about an amazing woman in Pakistan who is like a present day Harriet Tubman, trying to help people be free. That was the right amount of information for her at the moment, but it has me wondering how and what to say about the horrible things that happen in the world.

If I could pick one quality for my kids, it would be compassion. I think compassion is  the only thing that can really lead us to peace, globally, and within our own selves. When I see my dear ones tenderhearted and full of empathy, I’m as proud of them as I could ever be. But for those people with sensitive souls, and that is most of us, it’s detrimental to have no way to turn it off. I struggle to balance being an informed citizen of the world and protecting myself from knowledge that only causes me grief. We have so much access to information these days, but my ability to process it seems stuck a few hundred years ago, when we only knew the news from our own immediate area. How do we compartmentalize atrocities that we have no control over? Do we really need to be desensitized in order to live our lives without being constantly wrenched? And how we can possibly ask our kids to hold that kind of information when, as a grown woman, I struggle to hold it myself?

I’m baffled as to how I can help ease my daughter into this part of her adulthood. I want her to understand the privilege/responsibility/life lottery conundrum without just being filled with guilt. And I want her to be prepared when she hears some horrible story and I’m not there to hold her while she cries. I definitely feel like she is not ready to handle this kind of information but at some point in the next five years she is going to have to. Do I wait until she finds it on her own and deal with the aftermath then or do I start introducing the horrors of the world a little at a time?

All this has been floating around in my head for a week or so now, and then today I read this from Anne Lamott. She has been snooping around inside my head and then written about the things on my mind much more eloquently than I ever could. (She has done this before, and I have to say, Anne, it’s a little disconcerting.) Her writing is always insightful and charming and smart, but being a staunch agnostic, I don’t have her faith that God has our backs. I wish I did, and I wish I could tell my children to pray and have faith and that would be good enough. But that feels like a cop-out to me. A God that had control over such horribleness but allowed it to happen is not a God who is going to do anything because we pray.

The part of me that is full of shame wants to feel sick and guilty and foul as payment for winning the life lottery. And yet, to indulge in that is so very selfish and ugly. So what can we do? Donate money to whatever tragedy touches us? Yes. But it will never be enough to stop the suffering in the world. Suffering will continue as long as there are beings here to endure it.

I stood at the kitchen sink the other night, peeling carrots, and sent my best hopes for healing and peace to the family I had read about. A prayer, you could call it, I suppose. I looked around at my healthy children, my steadfast husband, my beautiful house and my table that has never once lacked for food and I cried some tears of gratitude. The only conclusion I can come to is this: small acts of goodness or love in our own lives work to shift the balance of good and bad in the world. Trying to tip the scale toward kindness might be the best we can do.