Sunday, October 1, 2017

Islands of mercy in a sea of self-sabotage

This space is seemingly chock-full of criticisms of public figures and yet….

There are other compassionate, and unbelievably generous acts of unexpected kindness being offered and delivered by human “angels” every day that never see the light of day.

We can likely agree that the headlines generated by public figures do not demonstrate our ‘best’ selves, and grind away at any residual sliver of confidence and optimism we have left about “humanity’s greatness’.

I just left a conversation with a co-worker whose vehicle, needed for her work, had recently sprung a leak of antifreeze from the radiator. After borrowing her sister’s vehicle, and booking hers into the repair shop, she got it back with a repair bill of some $500. Confident the problem was now in her past, she parked the repaired vehicle in her driveway, only to come out to use it next, to find a large pool of antifreeze on the driveway. When she called the repair shop, there was no apology, and no acknowledgement of any missed assignment on their part. Nevertheless, she had it towed back, not a small task given the distances and the variety of steps required.

Upon her discovery of the pool, she also noticed an approaching good Samaritan who offered to replace her car with his, to complete with her the duties she had to perform, and then to drive her to her sister’s home to pick up the same vehicle she had used when the problem first arose. This kindness probably took well over one hour, and even then this good Samaritan still had another hour drive to his home.
Amazing, inspiring and surprising….and well worth re-telling!

And, following a meeting last evening, I came out to realize that I was missing my car keys, while my spouse waited for me to pick her up at the mall, on the other side of town. To my amazement, one of the people attending the meeting offered and then delivered on the offer to drive me to where my wife was waiting, drive both of us home, another forty minutes, and back (a second half hour) with the keys to our car. And this, after a full day of work, a two-hour meeting and another nearly two hours of generosity. Only after she waited to assure herself that the car would start (it had been parked in an area of some uncertainty as to its safety and security), did she turn for home, another forty minutes away.

While I was expressing my gratitude, in the drive to pick up my wife, I heard her say, “Well, these things happen, and I only hope someone would do the same thing for me some day, if I were in a similar situation.”

Slogans like ‘paying it forward,’ ‘passing it on,’ and ‘a little kindness goes a long way’ float like shimmering clouds across the horizons of our consciousness every day. We hear about people rescuing trapped people in Mexico City, following a horrible earth quake, and others showing up uninvited to help victims of tropical storms and hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Dominica and the Florida Keys when real life-threatening trouble confronts vulnerable people. And we might text a donation to the Red Cross. Or when a raging fire overwhelms a town like Fort McMurray, neighbours who previously did not know each other are suddenly thrust into a needed closeness, compassion and generosity that would have been undisclosed without the emergency.

Conversely, our conventional attitude would indicate, at least to a visitor from Mars, that we expect our leaders to exercise a kind of muscular and even combative attitude, when, for example, a 220% tariff is intemperately imposed on a series of jets by a ‘neighbouring country’ whose leaders have decided to ‘draw a line in the sand’ on what they consider ‘unfair treatment’ under a historic trace treaty. “Fighting for jobs” becomes the battle cry we expect, at least nominally and extrinsically, from our leaders who, if they fail to “lead,” will have heaps of negative critiques imposed on their reputations. Emergencies of all kinds, some of them “man-made” and others from “mother nature” and some from a combination of both, abound, and the attitude we seem to take in our public discourse and in our conventional water-cooler conversations is also combative.

Nevertheless, we also all know (and we know it so deeply in our bones and in our finely-tuned moral and ethical compass) that our public posture can and will lead only to more of the same from those we are directing our venom toward. And it is not just our venom that generates the return of its own kind; it is also our indifference, our detachment, our “objectivity” and our fear that our “help” will be considered invasive, presumptuous, aggressive and overbearing. Like begets like; hate begets hates, indifference begets indifference, and withdrawal and distance magnetize their own in return. This principle applies to every stage of the human drama. It applies to the parent who so vehemently and too often violently “punishes” a child’s aberrant behaviour, a teacher who over-reacts to a student’s stepping out of line, a boss’s time-off without pay when conditions set by the employer contributed to the mis-step.

The principle (did it originate in physics?) that for every force there is an equal and opposite reaction, seems more readily recognized, acknowledged and accepted when the matter concerns some kind of physical energy. Well, it is not rocket science to postulate that a similar kind of dynamic is discernible in human relations, even if many wilfully or innocently ignore its power.

 To be sure, there are legitimate caveats when the compassion/generosity/empathy and political opportunism of governments and social service agencies are the source. The danger in each of those situations is that a growing number will come to consider such “social justice” as their right and their entitlement, come to rely on it, and even twist themselves and their stories to “fit” the criteria so that their dependence deepens. And, predictably, the resentment of those hardworking, law-abiding, quietly compliant taxpayers grows in conjunction and in concert with the abuses.

Although we try valiantly to keep our public and private lives separate and apart, there is little doubt that we persistently fail. Whatever happened in our early life, especially when it was traumatic, abusive, neglectful, abandoned, or isolated for whatever ‘reasons’ or ‘explanations’ has a half-life that might be compared with the half-life of radioactive iodine (the kind that is used to quell an overactive thyroid gland). It really never “dies” until we stop breathing. Sometimes our “pain” finds vindictive expression when we least expect it, and are least able and willing to acknowledge and to deal with it. It embarrasses us; it unites us to every other human on the planet; it demands to be heard, acknowledge, and healed….and that process, whether it is considered a psychological one, a spiritual one, a personal reconciliation one, or even a private gift of the imagination in answer to the question, “What would I do today if I were in the same situation?” discloses our shared and indentifying truth, that we have all suffered, and that the suffering is our gateway to new insights and gift of new wisdom, maturity and a life lived at a very different and rewarding level than we knew previously.

Reflecting on how we would act today in a situation that originally resulted in trauma can give light to our growth, and to the potential “pain” of those who inflicted that original pain or injustice. It can and will also confirm our shared humanity. Our prisons are populated with men and women who have so far been unable (unwilling, unsupported) to find a more healthy relationship with their woundedness. Our social service agencies, too, have files filled with narratives of emotional issues that began in early life. Our school populations, apparently increasingly, have issues for which the professional staff and faculty have been clearly under-prepared to cope with adequately. (Of course, there are a small number of people whose genetic code impairs their emotional,, intellectual and social growth.)

In fact, the rising issue of public service workers (police, fire, paramedics, medical profession, social workers, teachers) having to confront emotional and behavioural issues for which they have only a token of preparation is going to have a significant impact on our worker compensation budgets, as well as on our post-secondary curricula, in many academic disciplines. Similarly, the rising issue of wounded individuals not being able to discern when their woundedness from their early lives is impacting the public budgets (and the pocketbooks of all taxpayers) is going to continue to grow as we struggle with how to deal with it, without breaking personal confidentiality and private security issues.

An anonymous agency, against which to find “justice” previously denied, withheld, and replaced with the anger and resentment (and the unbounded need for control) has to pay an inordinate price for the acumulation of these injustices. Mis-directed anger and revenge costs individuals, agencies and the public purse generally more than we have so far taken into account. We all have injustices that have left scars on our psyches, imposed often by those who “loved” us (or so they said and thought and even believed) and yet….and we have also expressed those “resentments” in our personal and professional lives, without recognizing their source or their impact.

There is in our minds a field of both wish-fulfilment dreams (like the ‘angel’ stories above) and the other kind, avoidance visions of injustice tilting one way and then the other. Our familiarity with the plethora of injustices we have experienced and those we witness daily too often seems to wash away and to minimize the importance of those acts of human kindness, generosity, compassion and reaching out. The time it “takes” to reach out a helping hand also serves to restrain our better impulses.

We have so blinded ourselves by the notion that we must not be taken advantage of, that we must not be “used” and that we must not stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone, because….well because of so many excuses like:

·      if he wasn’t so stupid he would not have lost his keys, or
·      if she had taken the car to a more reputable mechanic, or,
·      I really don’t know this person so I had better be careful in reaching out a helping hand…or,
·      I don’t really care about their plight and
·      there are public services that’s/he can find to address this situation.

We are, each of us, a compendium of rationalizations, excuses and avoidances on a daily, hourly and even minute-by-minute basis…in order to protect and preserve our “confidence” and our self-satisfied and self-assured reputation that we can do this alone…

Nevertheless, there is a compelling force from our public media and the discourse over those details that puts barbed wire tightly and narrowly around our hopes and   expectations for our shared future in harmony. We continue to meet people whose “hopes” for mankind have dwindled to a dust ball in a hurricane wind, unlikely to survive. Yet we all know that without hope, kindness, generosity, compassion and the extension of ourselves that gives energy, meaning and purpose to our own lives, we contribute to a collective spiral of negativity that like a vacuum sucks even more hopes and dreams into oblivion.

Of course, there are millions on the ‘right’ who will protest that all of these traumas make us stronger, and more resilient and thereby more ready to meet other crises in our lives. That argument includes border walls, gutted social programs, a jungle of ‘survivors of the fittest’ and the kind of invisible social engineering that favours the powerful. They will also argue that kindness, from both private and public sources, breeds softness, complacency, laziness and a dependency on the public purse. The evidence, however, points in the opposite direction: that those who are helped when in distress are not only deeply grateful and moved to emulate their benefactors, but their stories ripple through the coffee shops, around the water coolers and into the locker and board rooms, the classrooms and entertainment dramas like a persistent wave of light, hope and promise.

Children who are raised in a home defined by meanness and detachment, withdrawal and unrealistic demands are more likely to generate ‘social’ turbulence later than those whose early life is supported not merely fiscally, but more importantly emotionally and spiritually. Children whose early life is stained with loneliness, coldness, and the desperate need to ‘prove’ to their parents their “ambition” (really to embolden their parents’ good name and reputation) know intimately the desert in which their spirits dry up, without knowing fully why they live in barren lands. Classrooms, too, dominated by mentors whose openness and willingness to get to know their students, beyond their capacity to demonstrate “skill development and proficiency, will nurture a sense of adventure, and a sense of wellness that is needed to provide stability and a reliable base for future risk taking.

And, ironically, and completely counter-intuitive to the macho, combative, rugged individualism of contemporary political and corporate culture, the real signs of human and cultural growth and development are not to be found in the range and the depth of our missile development, our deep internet capacity to spy on our enemies, our road-rage, our boardroom competitive intrigue nor in our capacity for mean and angry vindictiveness, revenge and dominance. Our finest and most longed-for growth can and will come from a focus on a different horizon:

·      the vista of honest acknowledgement of our having hurt others,
·      our deep and authentic steps to reconcile with our enemies,
·      our reaching a helping hand to those in need, and
·      our strengthening the muscles and the habits of compassion, empathy and shared vulnerability


And, clearly our political leaders, and our “thought-leaders” are marching to a very different, martial, and entrapping drum…as we engage in, enable or innocently foster a wave of individual and cultural self-sabotage. 

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