Have you ever been at a restaurant or grocery store with a crying or tantrumming child? It’s awful, that feeling of everyone staring at you and blaming you for somehow disrupting their lives. Not to mention, the criticism and judgment! Some people are only too eager to point out just what you are doing wrong and how you shouldn’t be out in public if you can’t control your children. But, sometimes, a stranger reaches out and helps– offers to amuse the baby, gives you a wink of encouragement, tells you they’ve been there, too, and that things will get better. That little act of kindness makes all the difference.
We can’t control whether we will run into the kind sort of stranger when we are most overwhelmed. But, we can remember what it was like when someone was kind when we were overwrought and BE that kind stranger to someone struggling. When we remember what a difference that type of kindness made in our lives, we realize that simple things–holding a door for someone carrying packages, smiling when someone is overwhelmed with their kids, offering to help pick up fallen papers– matter tremendously.
Have you ever been the beneficiary of a stranger’s kindness? Can you think of a time when you reached out in kindness to someone else? Please share your stories in the comments. I would love to hear them!
What makes some people able to empathize more than others, able to help in dire circumstances, able to put the greater good above the personal good? Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Institute, fierce advocate against systemic racism, and criminal defense attorney for those on death row explains: “I do it because I’m broken, too.” That recognition of a common humanity and brokenness by a system that needs changing propels him to fight.
Who among us isn’t broken? Because we all are bound together, we all suffer in an unjust world. Because we all have known pain, we all have the capacity to put ourselves into the shoes of those hurting.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stephenson explains:
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt–and have hurt others–are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: ‘We are bodies of broken bones.’ I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We all have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity
…So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. …We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
How many of the problems we face today can be mitigated by recognizing our common humanity, by following the Golden Rule of treating others how we would have them treat us, a tenet found in many of the world’s religions? How would we have others treat us if we were the elderly, the sick, the refugee, the hurt, the accused, the other? Each of us would benefit from considering things from this perspective. Bryan Stephenson continues:
Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
…I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, If we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
We are all broken. Some of us don’t acknowledge that. We have all hurt and been hurt. It is that humbling insight that can help us recognize our common humanity across all divides. If we just have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Stephenson refers to an unnamed pastor who would preface singing: “The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” Amen to that.
From Shari: It’s probably obvious from the long post how much Stephenson’s book has moved me. I recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is a masterful look behind the scenes of criminal defense work, as documented in the movie, but it also interweaves the history of systemic racism in our country and highlights many areas that need our focus.
I would love to have your thoughts on this in the comments. All thoughts are appreciated. It feels a bit like whispering into the wind to write a blog. I would love to hear your thoughts to build a sense of community.
How wonderful it would be to count all joy– to recognize the gift in the difficulty, to see the growth in the hardship, to see joy as a reflection of sorrow. Grief, despair, hopelessness, loss can hit so hard, it may feel like we will never feel joy again. And yet joy follows us like a shadow if we can pause to be grateful.
Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
When Margaret Mead was asked what marked the first sign of civilization, people were surprised to hear her say a healed femur. They expected maybe ancient weaponry or farming equipment, inventions, communal housing, religious artifacts. But a healed femur shows community. A femur doesn’t heal itself but requires someone to assist in the setting of it. People helping people, and not simply abandoning the weak or injured:
Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts. But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.
Remy Bloomingfeld, in Forbes Magazine: “How a 15,000 Year-Old Bone Could Help You Through the Coronavirus.”
And we have seen this as we go through this coronavirus. People helping people, not abandoning the sick or weak, but working together to protect them. But how can those of us at home due to immunocompromise or other factors reach out and help? How can we, too, make a difference? Remy Bloomingfeld suggests practicing lovingkindness:
“Close your eyes and lay down, inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly.
Once you’ve regulated your breathing to long slow breaths, focus your energy on the beating of your heart.
Random thoughts may enter your mind, but send them away.
Focus on the beating of your heart, and give thanks for the wonderful job it does of keeping you alive, without you even being aware of it.
Now, imagine the energy coming from your heart as the energy of love, bringing sustenance and peace to all beings.
Give that energy a color that most represents love, for you.
Now imagine your love filling the whole of your body, from your toes to your heels, to your ankles to your knees. Right up your legs. In the center of your stomach, to the top of your chest, your shoulders, your arms and your fingers. Feel the colorful energy filling your head.
And now imagine that energy of love moving out from your body to fill the whole room.
Now, it’s filling the whole of your home. Every person, every animal, plant and insect under your roof.
Imagine the colorful energy of love filling your whole neighborhood. Every living being in your neighborhood is being filled with your love.
The love from your heart is spreading to everyone in your community.
And now, it’s spreading to the whole country, bringing love, sustenance and peace to all beings.
Focus back on your breathing and imagine the powerful love from your heart spreading out over every country to every living thing in the world.”
We assume people we come into contact with have it all together and are just having normal days. But often, people are carrying far heavier loads than we realize. Sometimes, we may inadvertently make those burdens heavier. But sometimes, we see and reach out like this little boy, and make a difference that can really turn things around for that person.
It’s so easy to miss people and their internal pain. Take your time, today, and really look for ways you can see another person and offer support.
“In one of John Muir Laws’s books, I read something profound that changed the way my brain thinks. “As you draw the bird,” he writes, “try to feel the life within it.” So now I look at the bird before me and imagine how it senses the world, how it feels breathing cold air, how it feels to have its feathers ruffling in the wind, how it feels to always have an eye out for possible food and possible predators. The bird sees me and is a nanosecond from flying off, but it stays. Why? By imagining the life within, the bird I am drawing is alive, no longer a shape and its parts, but a thinking, sentient being, always on the brink of doing something. By feeling the life within, I am always conscious that all creatures have personalities, and so do trees and clouds and streams. To feel the life within, I now imagine myself as the bird that is looking at me. I imagine its wariness, the many ways it has almost died in its short life. I worry over its comfort and safety, and whether I will see my little companion the next day, the next year. To feel the life within is to also feel grief in the goneness of a single creature or an entire species. Imagination is where compassion grows. Let us join with children to imagine and wonder, to use curiosity as the guide to miracles in plain sight. Let us enter with them into wild wonder so that we become guardians together of all that is living and all that must be saved.”
From Orion Magazine, “The Life Within”.
I wonder if we can look at each other that way, as something vaster, as thinking sentient beings with worlds of experience, some harsh. Would that help us to treat each other better? In her book, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean describes just this sort of thing as she works with a death row inmate, a man who admittedly committed a heinous act, seeing not just the man but also, though covered with tattoos and bathed in bravado, the little wounded child within. That empathy allowed her to see past the crimes to the human and to feel compassion for him.
Perhaps today we can look with new eyes to see each other as a composite of good and bad, but each fully human and fully deserving of respect and compassion. To paraphrase Amy Tan above, when we consider the person, can we try to picture the life within, the challenges and struggles, hopes and triumphs? Can we become, together, ‘guardians of all that is living and must be saved’ in a place where ‘compassion grows’?
John Lewis was an American hero. His whole life was a testament to fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better, more egalitarian place even in the most dire of circumstances. Today, he is laid to rest, but he left us words, every one ringing with truth, to give us light and help us find our way without him:
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
“That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.
“Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.
“Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
May his words hold true in our hearts, and let us live up to the example he set. Let us go forward in the spirit of peace with everlasting love as our guide. Let this be our solemn vow. Now is the time.
It’s easy to be grateful for the good things. But … everything? What about the fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness? What about the loss and persecution? What about the things that challenge our life and morality and soul? What of these?
Yes. All. Even these things that most pain us or make us worry. It is in these times we draw on something deeper than ourselves and grow. These are the times that cause us to reach out to others and embrace community. These are the depths we can survive and use that survival to offer hope to others.
Gratitude forces a perspective shift. From despair to hope. From loss to possibility. From chaos to peace.
Many are on the front lines of this pandemic, either working in health care or in essential jobs to keep the world moving, while others of us are on the sidelines waiting. We worry about ourselves, but also about our friends and family members on the front lines. Will they be safe? What are the right words to encourage them and let them know we love them?
In this interesting article, health care worker Dorothy E. Novick suggests Ring Theory as a way to modulate our expressions of concern. It works like this:
“I came across an article about “Ring Theory,” written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. In this construct, we imagine a person who is suffering, like Margi, sitting in a small circle surrounded by concentric rings. Her dearest relatives sit in the circle closest to her. Best friends sit in the next larger circle. More friends and colleagues occupy the next one. And so on.
“According to Ring Theory, a person in any given circle should send love and compassion inward, to those in smaller circles, and process personal grief outward, to those in larger circles. To Margi and her mother, I should have said, “I love you, and I’ll do everything I can to support you.” And only when talking to others should I have said, “Her suffering feels impossible to bear.
“Comfort in, grief out.
“Ring Theory works for supporting health-care providers during the trauma of covid-19. We are grappling with a complex duality of mission plus terror. We are proud of what we can contribute and passionate about our patients’ well-being. But we are frightened — for our safety, for our patients, for the spouses and children we might expose.”
When we speak with people working in positions of danger, practicing Ring Theory makes good sense. Our comfort, praise, and admiration gives those heroes strength and helps them continue. Our hysteria or forwarding doomsday articles simply doesn’t. In all of this, we should strive to do no harm and let our words offer comfort.
Novick relates a message she received that helped give her comfort, a message that gives us a good example for how we can show up for people in dangerous positions right now:
The message read, “I am holding you in my heart being on the front lines of these difficult times. The professional skill, kindness, support and tenacity you give your patients and your medical community I am sure is a comfort in this darkness. Sending much love, appreciation and admiration.
“My heart rate slowed and my skin warmed over as I read the message. Then I pulled my mask over my face and opened the door to the next patient room.”
That, right there, is the power of the right words at the right time. We each have that power to do good right now.
Sometimes we are surprised. Things aren’t as we expect, and that is delightful. Like this story of a male Mandarin wood duck, native to East Asia, in Central Park.
How did it get there? The mystery of it can’t help but raise all sorts of fanciful explanations, and the duck’s beauty can’t help but cause us to stop and marvel. What are we walking right past today? Perhaps we can stop and marvel.
Danny Ursetti put together this delightful musical montage, an ode to this wood duck in Central Park and to joy. Enjoy!