"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: compassion

love (almost) conquers all . . .

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I read a lot and am not usually patient enough to read a book as long as Hanya Yanagihara’s book, “A Little Life”. However, I found myself being lulled by the ease with which the novel progressed – the voice and long paragraphs that were more “tell” than “show.”

I found myself engaged in the voyeuristic and suspenseful plot which unfolded slowly through the novel, interspersed with the painful present-day life of the central protagonist, “Jude” (a namesake of another tragic character, “Jude the Obscure.”) Noteworthy also was the tender (that’s the only word for it) depiction of love and loyalty between men as friends and then as lovers. That the book’s author is female and Japanese, writing almost primarily about men (there are few female characters that have any development) is a marvel to behold. I don’t know how many times the words “I’m sorry” were uttered in the novel but I’ll bet there were a lot.

Only an occasional false note in the book appeared to me because I am a musician and a pianist – and that was a description of Jude playing Schumann’s Fantasy on the piano during an episode in which he is upset. That’s an amazingly difficult piece and it was already a reach earlier in the book to believe that he could play Bach Partitas at one point, but the Schumann was too far a stretch for my imagination to follow.

The story is almost unbearably painful. And the ultimate impact on me after reading it was to realize that so many of us are damaged goods walking around under seemingly okay appearances. Sometimes the hurts that we suffered from those who were supposed to be caretakers was repulsive and unforgiveable (as in this novel) or merely “normal” (benign neglect, selfishness, carelessness.) But all of us, it seems, have hidden hurts we are ashamed of and which we tell no one about.

That being said, we can have more compassion for what we don’t know about others (and might never know) that accounts for behavior that we don’t understand from those we care about. This compassion can be intellectual and abstract to help leaven judgment we might otherwise feel – and hopefully might last longer than a little while. That’s a lot to take from reading a novel but there it is.


terra firma . . .

5888374b3d6e88fab9e61f1f19e50ca9This morning, I noticed an advertisement for a Sealy’s firm mattress at our local store. We had slept on a firm mattress at a seaside studio that we visited for our granddaughter’s graduation a couple of weeks ago. Home again, we started thinking of looking for a firmer mattress.

As you know, I’ve had an injured ankle and my husband, G. has had a bad back from moving pianos. Me, with my arm crutch and G., with his cane, made a pathetic pair, hobbling along: you can imagine what we looked like tonight, trying out mattresses. The “firm” Sealy mattress on sale felt like a flat slab without much support. Then, we tried out a $3000 Stearns and Foster mattress. Whoa Nellie! I had never seen nor felt a mattress like that before: firm and plushy the way you imagine beds in very expensive hotels must be like (not that I’ve ever seen one!)

We asked if there were any other firm mattresses. He pointed to one that was extra firm and we lay down on it. Honestly, it felt and even looked a little like the Stearns and Foster but it was a lot less expensive. Then, we asked if we could buy just the mattress since we didn’t really need a box spring. The price a little pared down, we decided it was worth it.

I called the store when we got home to put a payment on the mattress. All went well until he said that if I bought $50 more, I would qualify for free delivery, otherwise it would cost $100 to deliver the mattress! Of course we needed delivery–are you kidding?–with our infirmities and inability to even carry groceries up the stairs, there was no way we could have managed a queen-sized mattress! Then, he asked me if I belonged to AARP (whose mailings I usually toss in the trash without opening them.) “How about Triple-AAA?” I asked in jest. “What’s your membership number?” he asked, saying, “I’m the manager.” I dug out my AAA card and read the number over the phone.

“Yep, that’ll do it–you can have free delivery,” he said and then asked for my AAA number again to input into a free gift program page on his website. “Yep, and you can also have a free $180 mattress cover as a gift.” By the time I had paid for it, an invoice arrived instantly by email. Then the phone rang. it was K., the manager of the mattress store, making sure that everything had gone through and that our free delivery was already scheduled for this Saturday morning.

Here is a perfect example of Helpers interceding on our behalf. I had also complimented K. early in the conversation about how good he was with all the customers, patient and taking his time. He appreciated my saying that. Honestly, I think this salesman/manager felt sorry for us with our cane and crutch, looking for a firm mattress without a box spring, needing a free delivery. . .

So despite all the truly awful things happening in the world these days and the frustration of so many things that have happened to us lately, something positive occurred tonight that truly helped us. All it took was a Triple AAA membership card in a mattress store–and a compassionate store manager who was willing to work his magic!


the middle way . . .

Have you ever overreacted to something and then felt sorry afterwards? I was thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that disappointment is directly proportional to expectation. And you know what a rocky road that can be, right? Sure, the Buddhists and the Taoists and just about everybody else, Zen and otherwise, caution us not to have expectations. To tamp down our ego so that we can take the middle way. That would be nice but difficult sometimes because we are also human. Oh yeah, I forgot about thatIMG_9691!

Being human, we get excited, pouring love into things that we give those whom we care about. Sometimes their reaction is lukewarm, or delayed or whatever it is that didn’t meet our anticipation of what we had hoped for as their joy.

I’ve learned an important lesson which is kind of embarrassing at this stage in my life. And that is, that other people are not like me. In other words, the way that I might react to things is not the way other people do for the simple reason that we are different. Or there are other things going on. Or, whatever. I wonder where my naivete came from and how it has lasted this long?

Acknowledging to myself that I can be human and that others can be human differently, expands my little window on life. Somewhere within, the middle way runs through it.

compassion . . .

It seems to me that we hear the word, “compassion” quite often. What does it mean exactly? And how does it work? Here’s what some say:

Compassion is a virtue — one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism — foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.

Sounds pretty important doesn’t it? In our culture, it sometimes takes on religious overtones, at least when I hear the word uttered. Feeling sorry for others is one way to go, I guess, but may also carry patronizing overtones of moral superiority. Maybe the opposite of compassion is to ignore people’s suffering, perhaps because you expect everyone to take care of themselves (Republicans) or because we feel that we have too much suffering of our own already and can’t take on any more. This last thought is enticing, especially since we are living in an economic and psychologically discouraging time. How can we feel sorry for others when we feel inundated with worry and frustration ourselves?

So, let’s take a deep breath. Where are we going anyhow? Perhaps nowhere. Or not very far. Maybe we’ve done what we can in our lives and look around to see how we want to live now. We’ve been working on getting rid of regrets because they’re an anomalous way of feeling sorry for ourselves with imaginings of what might have been–the outcome of which can only be virtual fantasy. Maybe we are feeling overburdened by the problems of others which is outside of our control, but impactive nevertheless.

To have compassion, I think, requires one to be present to someone else’s suffering. Not to try to swipe it aside like windshield wipers flailing away in a rainstorm. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to alleviate it (as in altruism) because just to be present and to accept it is a big deal, it seems to me. So, not cutting and wanting to run and hide in the face of someone’s problems can be an act of compassion, perhaps. Being understanding without feeling like you have to give advice or to “fix it” is a giant step also. I have a lot of trouble not doing this all the time because my project management career in biotech was to catch and fix problems no matter who they belonged to.

On the other side of the coin, being overly cheerful in an effort to make people feel better, I think, is dishonest and a disservice to everyone. Being real and present while maintaining respect toward the other person seems to be as compassionate a way to behave as possible towards someone who is suffering or is unhappy.

While reflecting about compassion, I remembered that family behaviors I observed as a child were laced with anger, resentment and contempt. It’s helpful to notice this history, so that I can avoid falling into those patterns, just because that’s all I knew as normalcy.

If we decide we can be compassionate as described here — not running away, not trying to fix it, showing respect and being present, it might allow us to be born again. At the very least, it might help.