Learning or not learning

An old friend was lamenting the other night how many years it has taken him to learn the most basic things about being a kind person.  How to overcome the ready reflex to react violently to provocation, for example [1].  I commiserated, that kind of transformation is not accomplished overnight, if at all, particularly if you grew up regularly under attack in a family war zone.   On the other hand, struggling to be a more compassionate person is the right thing to do and whatever progress we make benefits those we love as much as it benefits us.

We’re taught many things as children that are not only wrong, but do great damage to our young souls, damage we’re often compelled to pass on to others who don’t deserve to be mistreated.   Every abusive person in the world was subjected to abuse as a young person.  It doesn’t excuse the asshole behavior, but it makes it understandable.   Nobody becomes a bully unless they grew up in fear, humiliated and shamed regularly.

I reminded my friend at one point of something he’d long ago forgotten, a random moment of kindness he had no reason to remember, but one that made a deep impression on me.   That moment showed me, more clearly than anything up until that time, that there was a gentle beauty to life that had been largely hidden from me during a combative childhood defending myself against an antagonist who waited until the last night of his life to express sorrow and regret for the lifelong war he’d always blamed me for.   The random act of my friends’ kindness opened my eyes to how nurturing and healing real gentleness is.

I reminded my friend of that long ago day at the lake (which I wrote about here) and he had only the vaguest memory of  it.    He recalled taunting me, at one point, until I laid back on the rock, a crust of bread held between my lips, and waited for the beaked kiss of a hungry Canadian goose.  The aggressive birds had surrounded us during lunch, looking for some lunch.  He’d been doing it, and laughing as the birds snatched the bread from his mouth, and urging me to try it, but I’d resisted.   He called me a pussy in front of two female friends, “PUSSY!” he taunted, and like a true pussy, I put a crust of bread in my lips, laid back and waited for the hungry kiss of a large bird.  It was pretty cool.  I then reminded him about swimming in the lake and Audrey, who he’d only met that one time, and I fondly praised her as a great girl, talented, funny, cute, sensuous.     

“Why didn’t you stay with her?” my friend asked, hearing the obvious affection I had for her. 

I explained that at the time I was still way too immature to know how to handle somebody as damaged as Audrey also was.   I loved hearing her laugh, her touch, her beautiful singing voice, many great things about her, but I was too big an asshole, still, at age thirty or so, to know how to take care of the parts of her (or myself) that were so broken.     

She gave me stern advice one day, late in our friendship, and I resisted what she was telling me.  She pressed on, telling me that she wasn’t telling me anything she didn’t also tell herself.  I smirked and told her, with a bit too much coldness, that the things she told herself included “put your head in the oven and inhale the gas” and “take the razor blade into the bathtub and end this suffering.”   I said, if somebody told me those things, I’d defend myself violently against them.

That wasn’t the point, of course.  I managed to reject her advice, and win that little round of an ongoing disagreement, but the cruelty was unnecessary, and damaging.   She had struggled against suicide (and I hope never afterwards succumbed to the urge to do herself in, I haven’t heard of her for decades now) and prevailed more than once against a self-destructive tic I could not relate to.   Others might kill me, and I’d fight them about that, but I won’t ever raise my hand against myself (unless, perhaps, I am in unbearable pain in the final stage of a terminal disease).   Those things might all be true, but it was very mean of me to use them against her like that.   At that time I was simply too hardened against critical voices, even if they were right, and too intent on being right.

The world of hurt in Audrey’s heart, the pain that sometimes made her want to die?  I had no way to touch it.  I could make her laugh, I could make love with her, I could accompany her on guitar when she sang and played the flute, but beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.  

What we learn, I don’t know how we do it.  I’ve sometimes thought that the things that trouble us most make us think deeply about them (if we are wired that way, denial is probably a more common response) and look for insights into how to have less pain.    Pain, of course, is famous for distorting our thinking beyond endurance.   

Look at the tens of thousands of deaths of despair every year in America: suicide by gun, drunk driving, drug overdoses.    There is no help for this kind of hopelessness in a nation that divides the world into great winners and fucking losers.   We can learn to repudiate this false, asshole version of the world, though it is not easy.  “Winning” is really about the love and kindness we have in our lives, everything else is deliberately misleading advertising.  If you live without much love in your life you know this, if you live with a lot of love, you know this too.

How do we learn anything?  I don’t know, even as I know I’ve learned some important things over the years.  Some things we learn without effort, because we love them, are fascinated by them, drawn to them, can’t help improving because we are involved in them all the time, curious, thrilled by them.  If you love the sound an instrument makes, for example, and how it feels to play that instrument, odds are you will get better and better playing it.   If you love to draw, you will draw all the time, and if you do, you will get better and better at it.   Writing, same deal.   Critical thinking may also be in this category– finding and assembling the facts to figure puzzling things out.

But the really hard emotional stuff — how not to behave like our earliest role models?  How not to blame ourselves for the cruelty that’s sometimes inflicted on us?  How not to be tortured by fear?   How to remain mild, and as kind as we can, even when we feel hurt?   Very hard things, all of them.

I don’t know that I have a nice bow to tie this up with.  I don’t.  Life rarely includes real closure, or black and white changes that are beyond dispute.  In our war-torn world, nothing is beyond dispute, if you are willing to fight to the death over it.   Our current president is the perfect example of this: never wrong, always justified, always perfect.   Angry too, of course, because he is so innocent and lives in a corrupt world with so much wrong, so many enemies unjustifiably hellbent against him, everything so imperfect. 

The changes my friend and I discussed the other night are sometimes subtle, other times impossible to see at all.   We still react with anger when we feel provoked, but we probably react with less anger at times.   We still are unable to do much to heal the hurt in people we love, but we are better at it than we were.   We have learned a few important things, after many, many years.   I congratulate my friend for this learning, even as I commiserate about the hard road he is on, has always been on.   It is, of course, much easier simply to remain an asshole.

 

 

[1] If there is a harder trick, for somebody who was subjected to abuse as a child, I’m not sure what it is.

Empathy requires focus sometimes

Empathy is what we hope we always give to people we love, what we always hope for from those closest to us.   Sharing another person’s pain, fear, sorrow, weakness is the kindest thing we can do for them.  It’s not always easy to empathize, even with those we’re closest to, especially about things we ourselves have never experienced.   Empathy is an essential element of kindness, its absence feels like indifference, abandonment, even if the lapse in empathy is purely unintentional and leaves us aghast when it is revealed to us.

Some people are simply dicks, we can stipulate to that.  This type is too immature and selfish to think of anything but their own needs.   This tendency is exacerbated by the extreme nature of the on-demand winner-take-all society we live in.   In our individualistic, competitive culture it’s easy to get sucked into the prevailing mentality that it’s no vice to step over somebody weaker and do a crowing victory dance next to their fallen body.  We are unconsciously conditioned to view the world in a crudely Darwinian way.   That said, most of us are empathetic, whenever our hearts are touched.  

There are rare types on either end of the empathy scale.  Finely tuned empathetic souls who are always concerned for the feelings of others, of every stranger they encounter, about the fate of others they will never meet, the well-being of the planet itself.  On the other end of the spectrum is the clinical diagnosis for evil: the malignant narcissist, incapable of empathy under any circumstance.    The rest of us are in between, our own empathetic abilities varying according to circumstance.  

I give two illustrations of things I will always remember, pictures from both sides of the empathy scale.

Years ago I went to the lake  with three friends.  

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It was a warm spring day, but not hot.   Audrey and Alain went into the lake, up to their necks, and began cooing about how perfect the water was. They soon starting urging me to come in.  I was quite comfortable on a cool rock and the idea of being wet didn’t appeal to me.  It wasn’t that hot out and my clothes would probably stay wet and become increasingly chilly for the rest of the day is what I was thinking.

They called me from the water, laughing and smiling.   “It’s fantastic!” Alain called.  “You have to come in, you won’t regret it!” said Audrey.   They were both smiling from ear to ear as they eventually came out of the water towards me.

In my experience this was their chance to drip cold water over me, to hug me wetly, to behave like happy, dumb, obnoxious kids do.   To my surprise they did none of these things.  They spoke to me quietly, cheerfully, telling me to trust them, urging me on as they gently took me by my arms and helped me reluctantly to my feet.   There was no pushing or pulling, no coercion, just their reassuring touches and gentle slowness, letting me decide if I wanted to join them, doing their best to make my decision easier for me.   I stood and took a few steps toward the water.

It is perhaps thirty years ago, and I remember my feelings in this moment more clearly, more fondly, than almost any in my life.   It was the feeling of being loved, taken care of, supported, listened to, respected.  I felt like I was in the nurturing hands of my ideal parents, two gentle souls who truly wanted the best for me.  I felt protected, certain that they had my best interests at heart and only those interests.  

Step by step we walked into the water, which felt cold when I put my first foot in it, but which they assured me was perfect once I went in.   They were right, it was fantastic, perfect, delightful.  I’d worry about being wet later.  I certainly wasn’t worried about anything as we splashed and swam happily.   Gayle was not coming in under any circumstances and none of us tried to convince her to come in once she made that clear.

I think of those moments as one the greatest demonstrations of empathy I can call to mind.  So simple, so trivial, but their kindness touched me so deeply and the swim was so well worth it.   The odd thing is that Audrey and Alain had never met before that day, yet they worked in perfect, loving coordination.   As far as I recall they never met after that day either. For one moment in time the stars were aligned perfectly and I was given this beautiful gift: to feel in this random moment, as an adult, the beauty of a perfect childhood memory.

I was going to contrast this with another image, but, on second thought, it’s much better to leave off with that transcendent image of empathy.  It is easy enough for anyone to imagine the opposite of being treated with this much consideration.

 

 

 

Tucking Melz in (Two)

An illustration of the inherent feebleness of even a well-reputed memory (such as my own).  

I noticed that yesterday somebody had clicked on an old post called “Tucking Melz In” and I told Sekhnet the story.   Later I read the piece and was amazed to find a significantly different anecdote, bearing little resemblance to what I’d just told Sekhnet, which was, minus the first paragraph (which she already knew) which was:

Five and a half years ago an old friend, Melz, succumbed to a rare and deadly form of soft tissue cancer.   When I say succumbed, I mean he died.   The funeral was conducted by his long-time bosom buddy, trained as a rabbi and with a great talent for humanistic public speaking.   He conducted a beautiful funeral.   It’s hard to say how he held himself together the way he did.

Afterwards, at the golf course-like cemetery (no head stones) as we gave our shovels to others who were taking turns burying Melz, according to our tradition, Alan and his wife Terri came up to me.  Alan said (referring to the wonderful funeral oration we’d just witnessed) “you realize, if we die before Sokoll, we’re fucked.  Who’s going to do our funeral?  Think about it!”

I did.  As I was thinking, Sokoll walked by and we told him our concern.  The good rebbe told us not to worry.  “I’ll bury all of you fuckers,” he said, without breaking stride.   Oddly reassuring words.    

After a moment Terri said “let’s go tuck Melz in,” and we walked over and took over the shoveling for a while.

(compare with the original, written a day or two after the funeral)