What difference can you make?

streetsweeper

Are you making a difference in other people’s lives? Sometimes we feel that our lives, jobs, gifts, opportunities are too small to make a big difference. But consider the amazing difference made by this school bus driver who crocheted a personalized toy for each of her kids.

We all can make a difference. We don’t need tons of money or an impressive job or skill.

We just need caring hearts.

What’s the right question?

complicated

Figuring out the right question to ask is well more than half of the struggle. Sometimes it helps when we start with our foundational principles–honesty, integrity, loyalty, peacefulness–and work backwards. Wanting to stay true to the morals we value in ourselves thins out the herd of available questions to ask in a given scenario. Then, the right question to ask becomes more apparent.

Opening to gratitude.

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What can take us out of our gloom and melancholy? Sometimes the veil is pulled back and we can glimpse a larger picture, a connection between all things, an appreciation for the here and now, and we are grateful.

Brother David Steindl-Rast explains how these jolts into a different reality can change a day, and, perhaps, even a world:

My vision of the world? My hope for the future? This topic sounds a bit big. Allow me to start small—say, with crows. They are my special friends. Just as I am writing these lines, one of them, the shy one among my three regular guests, is gobbling up the Kitty Fritters I put out for them. This brings to mind a short poem by Robert Frost that might provide a stepping-stone for our deliberations about world-vision and hope for the future—if any.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Surely you will remember a similar experience of your own: some quirky little incident made you smile, changed your mood, and suddenly the world looked brighter. If this ever happened to you, the key for understanding a causal chain of great consequence is in your hand:  any change in attitude changes the way one sees the world, and this in turn changes the way one acts. When Robert Frost claims that the crow’s little trick “saved” part of a day he had rued, or of which he repented, he means this in the full sense of a redeeming change of heart. When he got home, I’m sure he greeted Mrs. Frost in a better mood than he would have been able to do without the crow’s nudge. And there is no telling what this did to her—and to the way she treated the dog afterwards, or talked more kindly to her neighbor.

He continues to suggest five small, easily adopted ways to bring this gratitude into your life and, consequently, into the world:

1.  Say one word today that will give a fearful person courage.

All gratitude expresses trust. Suspicion will not even recognize a gift as gift: who can prove that it isn’t a lure, a bribe, a trap? Gratefulness has the courage to trust and so overcomes fear. The very air has been electrified by fearfulness these days, a fearfulness fostered and manipulated by politicians and the media. There lies our greatest danger: fear perpetuates violence. Mobilize the courage of your heart. Say one word today that will give a fearful person courage.

2. Make a firm resolution never to repeat stories and rumors that spread fear.

Because gratitude expresses courage, it spreads calm. Calm of this kind is quite compatible with deep emotions. In fact, mass hysteria fostered by the media betrays a morbid curiosity rather than deep feeling—superficial agitation rather than a deep current of compassion. The truly compassionate ones are calm and strong. Make a firm resolution never to repeat stories and rumors that spread fear. From the stillness of your heart’s core reach out. Be calm and spread calm.

3. Make contact with people whom you normally ignore

When you are grateful, your heart is open—open towards others, open for surprise. When disasters hit we often see remarkable examples of this openness: strangers helping strangers sometimes in heroic ways. Others turn away, isolate themselves, dare even less than at other times to look at each other. Violence begins with isolation. Break this pattern. Make contact with people whom you normally ignore—eye-contact at least—with the cashier at the supermarket, someone on the elevator, a beggar. Look a stranger in the eyes today and realize that there are no strangers.

4. Give someone an unexpected smile today

You can feel either grateful or alienated, but never both at the same time. Gratefulness drives out alienation; there is not room for both in the same heart. When you are grateful you know that you belong to a network of give-and-take and you say “yes” to that belonging. This “yes” is the essence of love. You need no words to express it; a smile will do to put your “yes” into action. Don’t let it matter to you whether or not the other one smiles back. Give someone an unexpected smile today and so contribute your share to peace on earth.

5.  Listen to the news today and put at least one item to the test of Common Sense.

What your gratefulness does for yourself is as important as what it does for others. Gratefulness boosts your sense of belonging; your sense of belonging in turn boosts your Common Sense—not the conventional mind set which we often confuse with it. The common sense that springs from gratefulness is incompatible with a set mind. It is just another name for thinking wedded to cosmic intelligence. Your “yes” to belonging attunes you to the common concerns shared by all human beings—all beings for that matter. In a world we hold in common, nothing else makes sense but Common Sense. We have only one enemy: Our common enemy is violence. Common Sense tells us: we can stop violence only by stopping to act violently; war is no way to peace. Listen to the news today and put at least one item to the test of Common Sense.

The five steps I am suggesting here are small, but they work. It helps that they are small: anyone can take them. Imagine a country whose citizens—maybe even its leaders—are brave, calm, and open towards each other; a country whose people realize that all human beings belong together as one family and must act accordingly; a country guided by Common Sense. To the extent to which we show ourselves not hateful but grateful this becomes reality.

Who would have thought that a prankish crow shaking down snow from a hemlock tree could inspire this vision of a sane world? Well, if we leave it to the crows, there is still hope.

Small steps; big pay-off. And, to remember, keep your eyes open for the birds. They are there, singing songs of hope.

 

The complicated mirror.

reflection

Who really bugs you? Like get-under-your-skin and keep-you-up-at-night bugs you? There’s a reason, perhaps, and it’s not pretty.

In this insightful article, “I Am the Reason My Husband Infuriates Me”, Christine Carter tackles an annoying problem–projection:

We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people.

See, the thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make big elaborate behavioral plans and then I don’t follow through on them. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating (again) after making a plan to meditate more over the summer. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing Mark down for not following through on our picky eater protocol.

We humans have blind spots. It is often hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. The people around us, particularly our spouses, are like mirrors. We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards.

It’s not them, it’s us.

Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”

But there is good news. If we stop and realize we are projecting, we can take our own advice–you know, the advice you spontaneously give that annoying person:

That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.

Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress.

The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish otherpeople would do (or stop doing).

So if you catch yourself unusually wound up and emotional about something, pause, and take a good look in the mirror. Is it possible that the infuriating behavior is something you do, too?

 

Fear as motivation?

fearwilson

What should we make of fear? Of course, fear is often what helps us exercise caution and keeps us whole. But what of the fear that makes us give up before we try? Fear of failure, or success, or looking like an idiot, or putting ourselves out there just to be rejected–what of these?

Perhaps those types of fear should just be viewed as motivation for the next life stage to enter, another step on the journey. Perhaps, even if our ultimate fear is realized, it won’t be half as bad as not stepping out and trying.

ABCs of the heart.

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Reading level, standardized test scores, college prep–more, better, faster. Repeat.

But what of the heart? There is so much to teach a child about the heart:

  • How it breaks when someone you love doesn’t love you back
  • How it thrills to find a kindred spirit
  • How it is comforted when someone simply sits with you and shares space
  • How it hurts when we don’t treat each other with compassion and kindness
  • How it longs to connect
  • How it knows what the brain often forgets–that we are all family

There is no standardized test for kindness, no flash cards for compassion, no prize for finding the lonely person and keeping them company. But these, too, are where a well-rounded education lies. On these lessons, too, depends our future.

Err on the side of love.

errlove

We tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. What that looks like in practice is forgiving ourselves for a lot of things–selfishness, neglect, mistakes–that we don’t forgive anyone else for when the same harm is done to us.

But what if we flipped that and gave other people the benefit of the doubt and show them the same understanding we give ourselves? What if their statements that seem hurtful are merely ill thought out? What if  what feels like neglect is really just busyness with something else? What if everyone is intending to do their best, but falls short over and over?

Just like we do.

Instead of anger, hurt, and frustration, our relationships would be peppered with compassion and understanding and the ability to grow and blossom.

What’s constant?

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It is so easy to get settled in–to our homes, our lives, our ideas, our expectations, our views of the world. We put down roots, dig in, and clench, holding tight.

But, inevitably, something comes along to upset the apple cart.

And then what?

For those who insist on that one way to do or see things, what comes is a lot of frustration, heartache, and anger. But for those who can bend, open to another point of view, and keep learning–never stop learning– what comes is the next chapter.

What’s shadow?

suffer

How many of our daily fears and worries are consumed by things that may never happen? Or by inferences or assumptions that may not jibe with did happen? Or by reliving in our heads over and over again past trauma?

How much suffering is from the actual event or trauma itself?

Sometimes it’s helpful to breathe deeply and remind ourselves of our connection to the earth, our senses, this place and time. Our worries and fears can run wild if we don’t constantly remind ourselves that they are not solid like a pebble in our hand, but amorphous and changeable depending on our perspective.