America’s Choice Right Now is a Life or Death Issue

Pieter_ClaeszYou can tell a person’s priorities by the choices they make. If the job is more important than the relationship, their choices will reflect in their lives, for example. Likewise, you can tell a society’s or a nation’s priorities by the choices they make or condone. These choices, if we’re honest, have little or nothing to do with party or even ideology. They come down to just two things: Life and Death.

A culture or society that nourishes Life and keeps Life as its priority will show this by looking out for its citizens’ well-being and happiness. Its choices will value and support children, the elderly, the vulnerable, and the disabled. It will seek to provide a healthy environment for its people by mitigating the pollution that modernity has brought. (Sweden has practically eliminated garbage, for example, and Germany’s solar program is enviable.) The air, waters, and soil of a Life-affirming nation will be as healthy and clean as possible.

The means and opportunity to provide for families and earn a living are of course a priority for those who value Life. Such nations would seek to reduce income inequality and provide opportunities up and down the latter, with the understanding that when everyone contributes and is active in the economy, the stronger the economy is. (Henry Ford wanted his workers to be able to afford his cars, after all.) Looking out for the poor and lower income people is not an act of charity in a Life-supporting society; it is an act of self-preservation and stability for the whole.

Happiness matters, too, if you value Life. Music, art, leisure, and just being able to have fun are all important. A sense of community matters, as does a sense of respect for differences within that community. Homogeneity is not required for a Life-affirming nation, but tolerance and appreciation are.

And of course, all societies who prioritize Life would also prioritize Peace to the extent that it remains possible. Diplomacy, understanding, and dialogue are always the first attempts.

Sometimes, unfortunately, societies choose to prioritize Death. History is full of examples of nations who have done so. These societies build up their military, frequently at the expense of their citizens and their most vulnerable. Their worldview is more insecure, more fearful. Authoritarianism is a natural outgrowth of Death cultures. It is the ultimate attempt to control that which cannot be controlled: the world around them.

Death cultures are restrictive and reductive: everything is reduced to a singular value within the ordered system. Citizens either further the state or threaten it. Something is useful or not useful. Anything that is deemed to be a threat, unusable, or defective loses its value in the system and is destroyed. Death is punishment, whether physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Annihilation is acceptable.

Art is not needed in a Death culture, because it is either a threat or provides no value for the chosen priorities, which are strength, obedience, and control. The health of citizens and the environment are irrelevant, except for the elite who run the system. The death of a river, the soil, a person does not matter because Death is not the enemy. Death is the choice.

Death cultures fear creative minds. Thoughts that are in disagreement with the Death culture must be extinguished, because the culture fears its own Death. Different opinions and ideas create instability, which makes Death feel like it’s not in control. And it isn’t.

Death cultures support the idea that not everyone will make it, that some people must inevitably fail and die. People in Death cultures understand that they must succeed by any means necessary, even if others suffer. There is no sense of shared good or of the beneficence and plenty of Life. It is a rat race, a struggle until the end, with only a handful of victors on top. Everything is a war, and wars come easily and often, because that’s how Death does things.

Life supports the spirit; Death destroys it.

We always have a choice, every day. As an individual. As a society. As a culture. As a nation. When will we ever learn?

Sympathy for the Devil

By Alisdare Hickson from Canterbury, United Kingdom (Peter Tatchell at London's anti-Trump rally.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Alisdare Hickson from Canterbury, United Kingdom (Peter Tatchell at London’s anti-Trump rally.) [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was in my mid-twenties, when I had a genius flash of insight about people:

Most people are not reasonable.

This insight explained a lot about my own sense of frustration and anger when dealing with anyone, whether at school, work, or at home. Appeals to logic and rationality, I realized, are largely fruitless, because this is not what people respond to. My modern-day corollary is:

People voted for Trump based on emotions, not facts or ideals.

Angry people voted for the angry man. It’s as simple as that.

I forgot my own insight at times over the years, hoping that, with the perfect set of words, I could sway uncompassionate or delusional people into being compassionate. And it just doesn’t work that way, sadly.

I tend to see people as falling into three primary “groups,” in terms of how they react to the world. There is the expansive group, which I fall into. This group is able to empathize with others, or at least make the attempt, and views resources as essentially unlimited, meaning that just because one person or group gets a benefit, that doesn’t mean it detracts personally from my benefits.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the limited group, which sees a finite pot of goodies, and any outsider who dips into that pot is perforce taking away from their own pile of goodies. This group is seldom empathetic, and can only identify with their own problems and needs, or at least, their immediate clan’s problems and needs.

Most of the population falls in the middle, being expansive sometimes and limited in others, depending on the circumstances and their own prejudices. I’ll call them centrists.

In an enlightened world, I believe everyone would be expansive, understanding that abundance is unlimited, although Miami beaches are (not everyone can live on one). But our world is not enlightened, so the centrists have good reason, at times, to be cautious.

As for the election, it appears that everyone on the limited spectrum voted for Trump:  “This should all belong to me and mine, and I don’t want to share it with you people who are different from me.” Here you will find your alt-right, white nationalists, KKK, what-have-you, and any person who claims they are not racist, but who would still prefer not to give any government aid to black or brown people. But a lot of centrists also voted for Trump. Some of them were convinced that the limited crowd had a point: I’m suffering, and maybe it really IS the fault of those immigrants, etc. Some of them were convinced because of their own misogynistic prejudices (“He’s not Hillary.”) Some of them were not convinced at all, but were largely ignorant of the policies and issues and naively considered that maybe Trump would “shake things up” enough that they would benefit. “He’s on our side,” they said to themselves, and believed it.

After the election, Hillary supporters say, well, we need to reach out to these hurting people. And we do, up to a point. Many of those centrists, while not reasonable per se, can be reached with an emotional connection. In other words, “I hear you, and I see your pain.” The entire middle and lower classes are suffering in the U.S., regardless of their color. The question is, can the white centrists work in their own best interests even if those interests align with the interests of minorities? I don’t know the answer to that, but I haven’t seen it yet.

As for the limited group, I think they are a lost cause in terms of dialogue. This group tends to go for simplistic, black-and-white (literally, in many cases) thinking. This group thinks, “If I’m okay, then I don’t care.” People could be dying all around them, and as long as their clan was doing well, they wouldn’t be too upset. The cognitive dissonance and abundant excuses kick in:  it’s because those other people fucked up, they deserve it, etc. But the moment their own interests are threatened (“Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!”), they rise up in anger.

The limited group, and many centrists, has indeed risen up in anger. The 1% crashed the system, and while corporations and bankers recovered, they did not. Their anger was ripe for the shaping. In this, Trump was not stupid. He played them perfectly, and it will be awhile before they realize (if they do) that they’ve been had. But by then, what tragedy?

Can one have sympathy for a white nationalist? For Hitler? For anyone with such a narcissistic, me-first mindset? Of course. Compassion, like forgiveness, is not about erasing sins. It is about serving and nurturing your own soul, and preserving your own ongoing enlightenment. But compassion does not mean that you have to invite them to dinner or allow them to hurt others, either personally or on a national scale, which we are watching unfold.

Steve Bannon thinks our struggle is one of West vs East, Christianity vs Islam. He is wrong. All struggle occurs within the individual human heart. It is one of Love versus Fear. The limited group responds to and frequently lives in fear. Be sorry for them, because this is a great suffering. But do not succumb to it or put up with it, either. Love will win, because it is always does; nothing else exists, in reality. Yes, you can have sympathy for the Devil while you chase him out the door and say, “No more!”

Our Empathy Divide

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25656324

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

As some of us gaze around at the world, scarcely believing the divisions and violence that are now a part of our everyday lives, we can’t help but ask, “How on earth did we get here?” On one side, there’s Donald Trump, who stokes fear and violence with apparent glee, his devotees all too happy to ride his coattails and attack all who oppose them. On the other side is Hillary Clinton, whose primary failings are being female and being wedded to establishment and corporate interests. Her supporters believe in her in part, but as many support her because she is not Him, The Donald, who demands deification in capital letters.

More than a few Hillary supporters and people in between are asking, “How?” How did we come to the edge of the abyss, the fate of our republic hanging in the balance? How did we get to the place where white nationalist, openly racist and xenophobic people feel empowered and mainstream again? Surely these things are all relics of our hateful past, not our civilized present? If only.

My parents embody some of these views. They are conservative, racist, and have (weirdly) become hyper-religious over the years. I spent most of my life in the southern US (mostly Texas and Alabama), and I understand the mindset pretty well. While we like to separate people into “liberals” and “conservatives,” another way to view this is to see them as either “empathic” or “nonempathic.” Now, that is a generalization, and the fact is that most people fall on a spectrum somewhere in between. George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was meant, I think, to be a nod toward empathy while furthering conservative values. Most people believe in helping others, while at the same time exercising fiscal restraint. Many traditional Republicans tend to fall on that end of the spectrum, to varying degrees.

What has people so flummoxed now with the Trump ascendancy is that his obvious lies, flip-flops, lack of clear policy, and open nods to racism, violence, and general “Brown Shirt” behavior has excited, not turned off, a key part of the electorate. The alt right, or formerly fringe GOP, contains the most extreme nonempathic people. What does that mean? It means that they are not willing or capable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. They cannot see any perspective but their own. No matter how good they have it, the prospect of some “other” doing as well or better makes them feel insecure and slighted. Emotionally, they are victims, and they long for ascendancy. They long to win. The Donald promises them that they will win, but there has to be a loser. The Mexicans, Muslims, and African-Americans must be the sacrifice, trampled under white, Christian feet.

Empathic people are more likely to understand the gray areas of life. They are more likely to know that you can be brought low by no fault of your own. Chance can deal a harsh hand, and empathic people are more likely to help without judgment. Nonempathic people, on the other hand, are far more likely to view a person in need through the lens of judgment:  they must have done something to fuck up. Maybe God doesn’t love them. Maybe they’re alcoholics or drug users. Maybe they’re just lazy. Maybe they’re racially inclined to fail. These views enable the nonempathic person to walk away from a person in need with their ego intact, feeling justified in not lending a hand. The nonempathic person prefers black-and-white thinking. It’s easier.

When Trump followers beat up protesters, flip off the media, or worse, they feel justified because they are in the right, and the perspective of their opponents does not matter. This is also a narcissistic and borderline trait:  the only viewpoint that matters is mine. Socially, this dynamic presents itself in ongoing systemic racism:  the only people whose voices matter are white and Christian.

I wrote in “Guns and Empathy” that empathy is the only solution to gun violence. It is also the only solution to our divisions, to hatred, to racism (I have tried to reach my white brothers and sisters for years on that subject), and even to corporate and environmental exploitation around the globe. If we cannot connect, for even a moment, with another point of view, then we are doomed. If we cannot feel or imagine the suffering of others, the suffering of our environment, the pain caused by our systems, then history shall indeed repeat itself, and we shall fall into chaos and dissolution, led by the bloodthirsty cries of the nonempathic aggrieved, who believe that eliminating those who oppose them is the only cure for their ills.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and I believe that the empathic far outnumber those who have no empathy. But this is no time to stand idle and wait for others to come to our rescue:  we must rescue ourselves. There is no Messiah, no Martin Luther King, Jr, no Gandhi, who will rescue us all. We must take a stand, and it must be a compassionate one. It serves no one to adopt the tactics of the nonempathic horde. Compassion is essential to our survival, and we must be compassionate even toward those who would offer us none in return.

We must vote. We must behave in a civilized manner. We must teach our children to be empathic and compassionate. We must seek out and appoint people who embody these values. We must choose entertainment that uplifts rather than demeans. We must show playground bullies the door, and let them know that their behavior will not be tolerated.

It’s true that we are a nation divided. But the divide has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with empathy. Or the lack thereof.

The Homeless Are Our Canaries

homeless_man_during_morning_commute_iStock_000004136154XSmall

Do some people “deserve” compassion more than others? A lot of people mean well, but based on my conversations, there is definitely a filter being applied to the unfortunate. I know someone who volunteered once for Habitat for Humanity. He lasted a single day. He wouldn’t go back because he felt that the people whose house he was helping with had a car that was too nice. And so the Judgment Engine roared to life:  clearly, if they could have a car that nice, they didn’t need his help. They didn’t deserve his help.

The problem with judgment is that without accurate information, you start jumping to conclusions—which are probably incorrect. Their car could have been a hand-me-down. They may have bought the car new during a time when they were able to afford it, but they have come down in the world since then. Who’s to say?

Probably the most maligned group of people, however, are the homeless. I spoke recently with someone who believed that they should be put to work by the city to get help. There’s nothing wrong with the city providing jobs for those who can work, but he was assuming that the homeless were there because they were idle, and not because they might be mentally or physically ill, which is often the case.

My wife Ahnna worked with the homeless for many years, so we know that there are many reasons that people become homeless. Sometimes it’s as simple as gentrification:  one man became homeless for many years when his apartment building was knocked down to make way for some fancy condos. The price of housing keeps going up, and many people are being left behind. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a school bus stop at the night shelter. There aren’t enough family shelters, so often the kids would get into the parents car, where they would all sleep for the night. The children would hand over what food they had managed to get at school to share with their parents.

While whole families do become homeless, more people are working to house them. Single adult males are the last in line to be helped. Approximately 33% of these men are veterans.

Statistics are important, but stories are what help build compassion. Ahnna ran a nonprofit to help people who qualified for Social Security disability to get their benefits. This is harder than it sounds; the Social Security Administration does not just stand ready to hand out checks to those who apply. Their first (and second, third, fourth) response is:  “Prove it.”

One of Ahnna’s more memorable clients was brought into her office by another homeless man. She had seen “John” around the day shelter, but he never spoke to anyone. He also had the habit of living in a layer of his own shit, so he was definitely fragrant. At first, he didn’t want to work with Ahnna. She had the mark of the devil on her forehead, he said. It took a long time to gain enough of his trust to get him to sign a document allowing her to help him. She found his grateful mother, who had been looking for him for five years. John was schizophrenic. He had a 4.0 grade point average in college before his first psychotic break at age 22. No one had been able to help him since then. Eventually, he got his benefits, which meant that he could be housed in a medically supervised situation. He was able to be medicated.

When Ahnna saw John some time after that, she barely recognized the polite, clean, soft-spoken man who thanked her. Hopefully, he is still housed and still on his medication. Drugs for schizophrenia can have unpleasant side effects, and sometimes the sufferer decides to quit them (maybe because they “feel fine”), which brings back all of the symptoms of their psychosis.

About 20-25% of the homeless are severely mentally ill. Asking them to do anything resembling a regular job is impossible. They literally cannot “earn” your compassion through work.

Some people become homeless by simply struggling to get through life. “Richard” came to Ahnna in midlife. He was afraid she would not want to help him if she knew the truth about him. The truth was that he had served time in prison in his youth for killing a man in self-defense. It was a drug deal gone bad, and he admitted that he was a stupid kid. He killed the man who attacked him with a knife. When he was released, he found himself in the unenviable position of having a criminal record. If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably seen that checkbox asking if you’ve ever committed a crime. Checking that automatically rules you out of most jobs.

Still, Richard did what he could. Although homeless, he started his own gardening business. He didn’t have a car, but he had a bike with a trailer and some tools. Richard was already disabled by severe dyslexia, but when a truck ran over his foot and broke it, that was the end. He could no longer ride his bike. Then, since he was living outside, someone stole his tools, effectively killing his business. JOIN, a local homeless outreach center, was able to get him housed because his broken foot made him vulnerable. Eventually, he was able to get on benefits and spend a few years inside before dying.

Some homeless people are physically ill as well. In the United States, most of us are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. This plays out on our streets every day. It might look something like this:  person becomes very ill. Person cannot work. Person eventually loses job. Person then loses insurance. Person has to make hard choices.

One of Ahnna’s clients had to make this choice:  cancer treatment or her mortgage. She could not afford both. No doubt concluding that living was better than dying, she chose the cancer treatment and ended up on the street. By the time Ahnna met her, she had regretted her decision. She wished she had chosen to keep her house instead, even though it would mean her death.

I’m one of those people who give money to the homeless when I have it. I remember being downtown once, and a young girl came up to me and asked me for change. In that moment, I did something terrible:  I looked at her youth and judged her. There was change in my pocket, but I shook my head. As she walked away, I realized she wasn’t wearing shoes. It was 40 degrees. I felt sick. That was my lesson. Why was she homeless? She may have come from an abusive home. Maybe her parents kicked her out (40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT). I don’t know what her story was, but I’ll never judge another homeless person asking for help again.

Aside from being thought of as lazy, many people assume that most homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts. That is a problem. We don’t have universal healthcare, so the mentally ill self-medicate. Veterans with PTSD and other issues self-medicate as well. And frankly, I’ve always said that if I were homeless, I’d drink, too. (Technically, I’m not homeless and I drink a cocktail every evening, so who am I to judge?) Some people do become homeless because of their addiction, but one thing is certain:  there is no hope for recovery without some help getting housed. It’s impossible to get your act together when all you can think about is basic survival.

Here’s what a basic day looks like for a homeless person:  Wake up and secure your stuff. Hide it or take it with you. The first order of business is food and a bathroom. If you’ve ever had to ask for the key to a restroom, you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t many public bathrooms available to the homeless. Finding a place to take a shit can take half a day. One of Ahnna’s clients was obsessive about it:  he couldn’t do anything else until that one task was accomplished. As for food, maybe you have a little change to buy some. Maybe there’s a soup kitchen or church willing to offer some. Some businesses make food that they would otherwise throw out available. In order to eat, you have to have a map of your area in your head so that you know where you can find things:  breakfast. A possibility to pee or change a tampon. Or get a tampon. Or just wash your rags.

The rest of the day is yours to live through. If the weather is good, you’re in luck. If it’s wet and cold, maybe you can find a place to sit and shelter that doesn’t have spikes on it. Maybe the police won’t bother you today. Maybe they will. Hopefully they won’t take your stuff. The business owners think you’re bad for business. But the cops might find your camp in the park and take it away. It’s difficult.

At night, where are you going to sleep? What’s the weather like? If it’s freezing, better get to the shelter early to get a place in line. They only have so much room, and it’s first come, first serve. Do you know a good place to sleep where you won’t get beaten up or sexually assaulted?

I’ve known people who think that the homeless somehow “chose” it or “prefer to live that way.” There are definitely some who don’t know how to live any other way at this point. When you combine mental illness and years on the streets, you get a little feral. You forget how “inside” functions. Transitioning can be tricky, but it can be done.

More than anything, however, it’s important to remember that we are the homeless. They are people. They are us. There but for the grace of God go I. Judgment condemns, but compassion heals. It is our first and best resource. Let us all choose the path of compassion.

Stuck in Judgment Ruts

Sarah Palin at the Chambliss rally, Dec. 1, 2008  Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearing for Secretary  of State, (Department of State photo)

Sarah Palin at the Chambliss rally, Dec. 1, 2008
Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearing for Secretary
of State, (Department of State photo)

The mantras of our times:  Barack Obama is a liar and a threat to our nation. George W. Bush was a liar and a threat to our nation. Sarah Palin is an ignorant Barbie doll who can’t put two words together. The police in Ferguson, Missouri are all racists. Black residents in Ferguson, Missouri are hyper-sensitive and see racism whenever white people are around.  And so it goes. We’ve lived together on this planet for millennia, and we’re still stuck in judgment ruts.

We love to focus on our differences, but what do all of the people in the preceding paragraph have in common? Simply this:  they are all acting out of their own sense of what is right. None of them wake up in the morning and think about how evil or wrong they can be that day. It doesn’t happen. They have their own perspective, certainly. They have their own prejudices, their own experiences to inform them. They make their own choices, and not all of them are good ones. But they are doing the best they can. Just like everybody else.

All people are “good,” even if they don’t act that way. Some folks are mentally ill, too, and may be a danger to themselves and others, but that doesn’t negate their inherent worth. Even nominally sane people are capable of deluding themselves and doing some very harmful things while being in denial of that fact. But everyone deludes themselves at some point. Why are we so hard on some people, but not others? Why do we single out certain people to vilify, while having compassion for others?

We are all raised with certain beliefs, emotions, and truisms that are not necessarily true, but we follow them blindly because they have left “judgment ruts” in our mind. For example, there are many kind, compassionate people who would gladly help a friend in need, support their local food bank, or perform any number of charitable acts. This same person, however, may reflexively avert their eyes from a homeless person on the street because they have a judgment rut that says, “All homeless people are either lazy or addicts.” And the corollary to this rut is, “Addicts and lazy people do not deserve my help.”

Of course, the truth is a gray area. Any given homeless person may be a veteran suffering PTSD, a sick person who lost their home because of a medical crisis, a victim of child abuse, mentally ill, or someone who just lost their housing for whatever reason. And yes, they may have addictions, but a person is more than their addiction. Does an addiction really make them unworthy of help? Does this judgment really vindicate our decision not to help them? What would a compassionate person do? What would love do?

Perfectly kind and reasonable people also make judgments on the basis of race as though it really is a black and white issue. You are a racist, or you’re not. Or, you see racism everywhere because you’re a paranoid victim; or racism, however subtle, still exists. Whichever view you prefer depends on the judgment ruts that you formed growing up.

In modern American society, we are as divided as ever. If you are a conservative, your judgment ruts may predispose you to defend Sarah Palin from unwarranted and often vicious personal attacks by the left. If you are a liberal, your judgment ruts may say that Sarah deserves what she gets. On the other hand, conservatives felt that they could attack Hillary Clinton with equal impunity, while the left defended her just as fiercely. And both sides accuse the other of misogyny. And the winner of this battle of judgments? Not a soul.

Jerry Rubin said, “Ideology is a brain disease,” and that is true, regardless of the ideology in question. You could say that ideology is determined by our judgment ruts—and we just know that they are right. The truly interesting thing about them, however, is that because of their nature, few of us have ever actually examined our reasons for our judgments. Because if we did, we would find that we don’t really know what our reasons are. This is the peril of inherited thought.

When we grow up in a given culture, we accept it as normal. We assume that this is the way the world works—the only way. But other people grow up in different cultures, with different ideas and world views. And they know just as certainly that this is how the world works. That is, until they find out otherwise.

This is why some people fear education. The Taliban love to burn down schools for precisely this reason. Becoming educated and being exposed to new ways of thinking can fill in some of those judgment ruts. It can help you to think about things from multiple perspectives. Of course, it’s not a panacea. Educated people still hold judgments. But the possibility for understanding increases. It can, if nothing else, make your judgments more flexible.

Are we doomed to judge, then? Must we always pick up a stone, knowing full well that on a different day, we might be the ones who are hit by it?

We can choose to pave over our judgment ruts, but we must recognize them, which isn’t always easy. Most judgments are unconscious. They come so naturally to us that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. We see a person or a situation, and bang! Our thoughts are instantly moving along that same old rut, making it deeper with each passing. So, how do we begin?

The key is our emotional state. When we make judgments, we feel fear, anger, contempt, or jealousy. There is always a feeling beneath a judgment, and it’s never joy. Recognize that. Are you angry with Sarah Palin for not behaving the way you think a woman should? Are you angry with Hillary Clinton for the same reason? Do they represent something that frightens you or makes you uneasy? What are you projecting onto them? What is it about the person that reminds you of you? What is that you are not able to love about them? Whatever your feelings are, they’re not about the person. They are about you. The answers to these questions will tell you what your fears and feelings are, as well as what you need to learn to love in yourself. When you address these issues in yourself, your judgment ruts will disappear.

Every person and situation that comes into our lives is a mirror. If we love something, then it reflects back what we love in ourselves. If we dislike or hate something, then it reflects back what we dislike or hate in ourselves. This is a gift. The people we judge or don’t like are showing us what we need to heal in ourselves.

There is no right or wrong in our ideological divides. No one side has it all figured out. What we have to offer each other, however, is healing and a third road, just there—on the far side of our judgment ruts.

Opening the Heart

Follow Your Heart by Asha HawkesworthYou can read all of the books about spirituality, you can take all of the workshops, and you can discuss what you learn with all of your friends for years, but true spiritual understanding will not come until your heart is truly open, and it can communicate with your head. Intellectual understanding is not a bad thing, and it is often the first step on the path. But in order to progress, we must take it further. We must integrate our mental knowledge with our emotional selves. We must know it in our heart.

What does it mean to have an open heart? Most people believe that their hearts are open, when in fact they are barricaded in some way. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t kind or loving. It just means that they are still protecting themselves by shielding their hearts from the things that they believe will hurt them emotionally. Everyone learns to do this; it’s our natural defense mechanism. Our challenge, however, is to un-learn it.

Fear makes us close our heart: fear of rejection, fear of being wrong, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of not being loved or lovable. If we fear that we are not lovable—and most of us do at one time or another—we internalize it and come to believe that it is true: we aren’t lovable. Our heart closes some more, as we try to keep out anything or anyone that we believe will threaten this view of the world or reinforce this belief by rejecting us. In effect, we close our heart to make our world a smaller and “safer” place.

Erecting barriers to others does not make you any safer, but it will isolate you and cut you off from other people. It is certainly possible to have so many barriers in your heart that your own spouse and children don’t have a way in. This is not unusual, but it does have painful consequences for everyone involved. When we close our heart, we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re keeping all of the painful emotions away, but they are still there. And worse still, if we maintain this lock on our heart, love can’t find a way in.

Love is the only healer that there is. It is the only thing that exists. It is our connection with Source, with each other, it is literally who we are. When we put roadblocks in the way of it, we inhibit our connection with God and with who we really are. To heal, we must find the barriers to love and remove them, thereby opening our hearts. Of course, if this were an easy thing to do, we wouldn’t need all of the books, workshops, and friendly discussions with our friends. But we do, because the process of opening our heart can feel very painful at first. Why?

When we begin to open our heart, we must allow ourselves to feel everything, including the painful emotions we’d really prefer to forget. But painful emotions don’t go away because we wish they would. They stick around in our subconscious and in our bodies until we allow ourselves to express them and feel them. So the first step to opening our heart is to reconnect with our emotions.

Once we have reclaimed our emotions, we can work on breaking down the barriers we’ve erected over the years. This is not going to happen all at once. Healing is a process, and it’s important that you be gentle with yourself. Opening the heart isn’t just about loving others; it’s primarily about loving yourself so that you can give that love to others. Paradoxically, when we begin to open our hearts and let love in, it can hurt. Love is intense and powerful, and we’re just not used to it. We have to become comfortable with feeling love, with living love. This, too, is a process.

When we open our heart, we are expanding ourselves. We are removing self-imposed limitations on who we are, how our reality looks, and what love really is. This requires us to stretch far beyond the borders of our comfort zone, which can be pretty scary at first. As with anything, however, practice brings comfort and confidence, and eventually our fears fade into nothing, which is all they really are—nothing.

Opening the heart leaves us feeling vulnerable at first. We worry that someone will “get to us” or hurt us. But as we journey toward our true center, the heart, we find our strength and power, not weakness. What is weakness? Is it knowing and understanding our Oneness, our personal power? Or is it living in fear behind our limitations?

When our heart is open, it can work in harmony with our head. Our mind is not the ruler of our heart, or vice versa. They must work together and balance one another, but this can only happen if our heart is open. When we reach this place, we can communicate from the heart, and we can heal ourselves, our society, and the earth. There are people alive today who still know how to do this, who still know the language of the heart. Often, they are described as “primitive,” or unadvanced, but the truth is that they are our teachers. They know, and they remember.

Opening our heart isn’t something that is idyllic or that “would be nice.” It is imperative. Our future, our survival, our happiness, and our joy depend on it. Let go of your fear and find where your true freedom is.

Letting Go of Violence

Match FlameIf you ask most people what violence is, you will probably hear a definition that includes physical force. Physical abuse, assault, and rape may spring to mind. While all of these things are indeed expressions of violence, there are more subtle expressions as well, including behavior that most of us don’t consider to be violent at all. As we ascend in consciousness, we have to look at these other expressions of violence so that we can recognize them, and therefore heal them.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes an interesting definition of violence that can help us to understand what it is: “abusive or unjust exercise of power.” Let’s explore this definition in society first.

People in society can do violence to you by trying to deny your voice. This includes trying to suppress your right to free speech, banning your writing or music, or firing you for being a whistleblower. In other words, officials in power can do violence to us by infringing our rights. This is a familiar enough concept. How might this play out on an everyday, personal level?

Do the people in our lives have power over us? Of course they do. We may give them too much power, as in the case of a child who tries to please a domineering parent. Or we may give them a more appropriate level of power, as in the case of a child who, while still hoping to please the parent, has retained enough of their own power to be comfortable making their own decisions. When we love someone, that person has power over our heart: we want them to love us back, unconditionally. When we respect someone, that person has power over our will: we want their good opinion. Finally, when we fear someone, that person has power over our whole being, because we will do anything to avoid what we fear. The kind of power that we allow others to have over us will determine to what extent we are affected by any violence that they might do to us.

Can we do violence to each other even in loving or respectful relationships? Yes—even unconsciously and unintentionally. The people in our lives have power, and, being human, they may abuse that power from time to time. As in the societal example, the people we love may try to muffle our voice, because we are saying things they don’t want to hear. They may try to change things in us that make them uncomfortable. They may attempt to goad or coerce us into doing things that they want us to do, even if it’s not in our best interests, or it’s something we don’t want for ourselves. These are all forms of violence.

Violence occurs when people try to impose their will—their ego—on another. This can manifest as physical (hitting, restraining), emotional (neglect, conditional love), mental (verbal abuse, lack of support, passive/aggressive behavior), and spiritual (repression and denial of true self, attempting to “mold”). In broader society, any group that tries to impose its will or way of thinking on other people—regardless of any good intentions—is inflicting violence on others. Likewise, any loved one who tries to impose their will or way of thinking onto you—by manipulating, being passive/aggressive, threatening to withhold love—is being violent to you.

So, if violence can be defined as imposing your will on others, won’t we have anarchy? Where do you draw the line? What about laws against theft or murder? Are the laws violent because they impose the lawmakers’ will on thieves and murderers?

There is a fine line between doing violence to others and being true to the higher good. Laws that seek to limit or prevent physical violence aren’t necessarily bad. However, when society tries to limit violence by inflicting more violence, it only breeds more of the same. If you want to limit violence in a society or in a relationship, you behave in a non-violent way. Violence is an illness, and we must have compassion for those who are still mired in it.

So, the way to deal with violence in a non-violent way is to practice unconditional love. Unconditional love comes from the Divine and frees us from fear. Conditional love comes from a place of fear. Violence, therefore, is bred of fear.

How do we arrive at unconditional love for others? We start with ourselves. We cannot truly love others until we love all that is perfect and imperfect in ourselves. We have to stop loving ourselves conditionally and start loving ourselves unconditionally.

When we love ourselves conditionally, we do terrible violence to ourselves. Are you a perfectionist, beating yourself up every day for not being able to adhere to an unrealistic ideal? Do you push yourself continually to do things “you have to do” without giving yourself a break? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good enough, unworthy, or bad? Do you think you’re fat, ugly, and unlovable? Are you unable to forgive yourself for an incident that occurred in the past? These are all forms of violence that we do to ourselves, everyday. If we can’t stop being violent with ourselves, how can we possibly stop being violent with others?

Ah, but how do we begin? How do we shed this legacy of violence in our world? We will; we must; it is time. But let’s not be violent to ourselves in the process. Enter into this process with forgiveness for yourself. You are not going to reach a state of unconditional love overnight, or even in a month or a year. It is a process that may last all of your life. The journey is as important as the destination.

If at all possible, find someone to help you reach your goal of self-love. It may be a trusted friend or mentor, a support group, or a counselor. Whoever you pick must be able to be objective with you. You can solicit feedback from loved ones who make you feel safe and who will be honest with you, but they are probably too close to you to guide you through the process.

As you travel the road to self-love, you will learn new ways to talk to yourself and about yourself. You will gradually be able to let go of old, violent patterns. You will learn to forgive yourself. You will learn that you matter. You have a voice. You are a divine spark who is just as important as any other divine spark. When you reach a place of understanding and love for yourself, you will not give your power away to others indiscriminately. You will be able to love, respect, and be open and vulnerable with others, and yet remain safe, because you know and trust your own heart and mind.

Violence is a two-way street. We do it to ourselves and to others; we allow others to do it to us when we give them too much power. But the buck stops here. We can stop the violence, but we must begin with ourselves. As we heal, others will begin to heal, producing an unstoppable chain reaction. We won’t help others to heal through force, but we will help them to heal when we lead by example.

Isolated in a Sea of People

Tillamook LighthouseTwo sets of parents lost their children the other day. One of those children shot the other at school, and then turned the gun on himself when the police arrived. As Ahnna Hawkesworth put it:

A child.
Carried a semi-automatic weapon and enough ammunition to kill hundreds of people.
To school.
On the school bus.
In a guitar case.
Yesterday.
Within 5 miles of my children’s school.
Why did his family have semi-automatic weaponry in the house? I have that question along with many others, but I have to say I am far more worried about the mental health of our children in this time. The guns would sit there unused if no one thought about them. Why do so many children have the thoughts in their heads that cause these incredible losses? That’s what I really want to know.

This has become so commonplace that it hardly shocks us any more. It has become so commonplace that suicidal teenagers, in their hour of desperation, now consider Death by Mass Killing to be a viable option. A viable option. How on earth did we get here?

Let us leave aside the complex issues of gun regulation and mental health for a moment and look at a deeper illness that is afflicting our society.

Americans have long worshipped at the altar of the Individual. We no longer see ourselves as tribal and mutually supporting, which is how we evolved to be. Instead, we see ourselves as collective Lone Wolves, each competing with the other and looking after good old Number One. Now, “Number One” may include our immediate circle of family members, but it is a small thing, this circle. The majority of humanity lies outside of it. The majority of our communities lies outside of it. The majority of our neighbors lies outside of it. It is hard enough, in this day and age, to care for one’s own small circle, much less anyone else.

But even within our circles, many of us live in emotional isolation. The child feels isolated from his parents, perhaps because they’re just busy or preoccupied, or he knows he cannot meet their expectations, or perhaps the parents are themselves unhealed and self-loathing, and they naturally passed on their frailties to the child. The parents feel isolated in a world of corporate uniformity, where they are expendable and largely undervalued, and they work just to live, barely knowing their competing coworkers. How did my dreams come to this? Where did it all go?

The seniors are isolated in shining apartment towers, where other people are paid to care for them, surrounded by their peers in isolation. It’s hard to make friends when they might die next week. It’s too painful. Where are the children? Where is the laughter? What’s on TV? I wish I could hear it… Their children come to visit now and then, taking time from busy, busy lives, trying to make ends meet, struggling in a race no one can win.

The new graduates look out upon the world and compete for jobs that they are overqualified for. They have been competing since grade school, taught from a young age that they must be better than That Guy or That Girl if they’re going to make it. Maybe they could get pretty good at making coffee. What is out there for them? Where can they belong? Where can I find true friendship and connection?

We are fundamentally lacking connection in our lives. Oh, some people are good at connecting. Many struggle. Some never learned, because they had no one who could teach them. But the overwhelming majority of us suffer from a profound lack of connection. Who are your neighbors? Do you know them? Do you know what they like to do? Is your neighborhood well integrated, with old and young, with people of many colors and faiths? Do you judge them, or do you have compassion for them?

I believe that every person who comes across our path is an opportunity for us to reach beyond ourselves. It may be that a person who comes my way is in need of a guardian angel that day. I can be that angel. We all can.

You can be surrounded by friends and family and still feel isolated. Is the iPhone more important than a conversation? Do you have so much homework or work that there is no time for fun and joy? Are you so tired and overwhelmed that you can barely function, much less reach out to your loved ones? We are not slaves to our circumstances. We can make new choices at any moment. We can take steps to reduce our stress, bring joy back into our lives, and to sit and talk with real people, right now. We can learn to be vulnerable, we can admit to our mistakes, we can hug our children and help them to cope, even when it’s difficult for us to cope.

Competition discourages connection and encourages contempt for others. There is no need for competition. There is enough for everyone. Everyone has something to offer, but it may not look like what people expect or test for or hire for today. That does not make a person’s gifts any less valid. We must begin to help people recognize and cultivate their own gifts, regardless of whether someone thinks it’s “marketable” or not. We must begin to see that every human being has value. There are no “throw-away” people.

People are highly creative beings, but when the creativity is snuffed out, what is left? What should a young man do with himself if he has no options? Men are made to protect and provide and innovate, but what if they can’t do that? What if their beautiful minds are not allowed to pursue their gifts? Because “that class” was cut from the budget, or they couldn’t pass the reading test and therefore couldn’t qualify for extracurricular activities? Or if the corporate cookie-cutter job actually punishes creativity and rewards sameness and safety? What should a young man, who is effectively told to waste his precious brilliance, do with himself? There is no place for me in this world. I do not belong in these boxes. Nihilism is one small step away from boredom. This is why gangs and fundamentalism can be so attractive. It gives despairing youth a place to belong and to feel accepted. But isn’t it better to show them acceptance to begin with? Isn’t it better to begin to live as though we are all connected? (If you doubt that we are, see what happens when a major tragedy hits your town, and the connections will rapidly become clear.)

As always, change begins (ironically) with the individual. But when many of us begin to change, we all begin to change. Reach out to others. That stranger over there is your business. Because we are not a multitude of tribes. We are ONE tribe, the human tribe, and we must begin to accept and love everyone as we want to be accepted and loved ourselves. It is the only way.

I don’t know what pain that poor child was suffering that made him do what he did, but I do know that the answer is always LOVE. Love, and compassion. These are universal spiritual values, and yet, they are so often the least practiced. But that’s what they take:   practice. Start practicing love and compassion. Make it a habit. Meditate. Remove some of the stress from your life so that you can breathe and relax. Learn to live joyfully. As you bring yourself up, you bring others up with you. You never know whom you will touch with your light, or whose life you will save.

Related:  Letting go of violence

 

Children Living in a Grown-Up World

children emotionally unavailable parentsWhen I was about 14, a friend and I went to a classmate’s house during a break in school exams. I can’t remember why we had so much time between classes, but we did. At any rate, we were killing time and “Eugene” asked if we wanted to watch a movie. He specifically mentioned The Call of the Wild, which I had read. So we agreed. As it happens, the movie that began to play did not feature Clark Gable, and there were no dogs to be seen. What was to be seen was a naked woman, a dumb guy with muscles, and a banana being used in ways that had never occurred to me. Yes, it was a porn film. “Eugene” found my inevitable reaction hilarious. I was appalled that he had access to a large (and it was large) library of porn.

Alas, little has changed since then. I think we need to rethink the phrase “growing up too fast,” because some of the things that very young children are being exposed to shouldn’t really have a place even in the grown-up world. The bit of the old ultraviolence held up for satire in A Clockwork Orange, which was shocking in its day, is tame now.

Last year, a third grader at our bus stop told me that he had watched The Hangover 2 the night before. His comment was, “Completely inappropriate, I know.” But his father was in the room, and he apparently didn’t find it inappropriate for an 8-year-old to watch. This same child once mentioned that his father had taken him out to shoot crows for the hell of it, and that it was fun to watch their guts coming out. I looked at this beautiful child, wondering what on earth I could say to that, and then I said, “That makes me sad.”

Today I was a chaperon on a field trip with my daughter’s first-grade class. We went downtown to see a live play. One of the boys who had been assigned to my supervision, who is a real sweetheart, volunteered to me, “I watch R-rated movies all the time, and my parents don’t care. I also play M-rated games, that only 17-year-olds are supposed to play.” When a child offers this information out of the blue to a near stranger, you have a problem. Here was a child who needed his parents to notice him and set some boundaries for him. He was begging for them. I wondered if he would one day up the ante and stick a needle in his arm to get them to notice. I hope not, but I fear for him.

One of the other parent chaperons on today’s trip spent the entire time with her nose stuck in her iPhone. I didn’t even bring my phone with me. Her child sat beside her, but she was completely checked out and self-absorbed.

It is true that emotional relationships are intense, and there is no relationship more intense than that of a parent and their child. No one will ever ask more of you than your child, and some people have a hard time dealing with this intensity. So they check out. A parent may be physically present and completely unavailable emotionally and spiritually. Very likely, such parents are products of parents who were also unavailable, and they unknowingly continue this destructive pattern. Passive parents are just as toxic and abusive as tyrannical parents. It just looks different.

I think one of the main reasons I like to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom is because I get to know the other kids. They are a microcosm of the world outside the doors. I can tell which kids come from a happy, loving home. I can tell which kids have parents who are checked out, either emotionally or otherwise (some have parents who are physically unavailable because they have to work several jobs to make ends meet). I can tell which kids get help with schoolwork at night, and which don’t. And when a kid walks up to me out of the blue and wraps their arms around me for a hug, I give it back to them with all that I have. You never know what they’re going through.

And occasionally, you run into a kid who remembers you from before. “Katie” would smother me in hugs if she could. “I remember you,” she says to me. Yes, I’ll bet you do. We have known each other before. How lovely to see you again in this time and place.

Every child has a story, and every child has challenges. Some are physical. “Lottie” is autistic and has medical challenges. She is precious in her own way. Some challenges are environmental; hunger is a problem in some families. Some challenges are emotional. And some challenges are the worst kind. I always hope that if an abused child in need were to cross my path that I would have the capacity to see it and then do something about it.

It has become a cliché to say “a child needs a Village,” but it’s still true. We are all one tribe, one community, one being. We do bear responsibility for the health and well being of the whole. And every child is going to come in contact with a large number of adults over the course of their young life, all of whom have the opportunity to impact that child for their good or for their detriment.

It is a quick and easy thing to lay all blame for a child at the feet of the parents, and of course, they do bear a tremendous responsibility. But we all have the capacity to help and to have an impact. If the parents are tired and overwhelmed, or struggling in poverty, we can provide assistance. If a child crosses your path and makes a cry for help, consciously or unconsciously, then we can reach out to them.

Our society has become too complex for us to handle, and our kids are the canaries in the coal mine. The requirements for merely existing on this earth, sleeping, eating, and breathing, are extraordinary. You cannot simply go catch your dinner and pitch your tent where you like. We are trapped by an arcane economic framework that benefit the few clever ones who have gamed the system and poisoned much of the planet, leaving many to struggle. No wonder that people can’t cope and the children are left to veg in front of inappropriate television shows. We are desensitized because our own pain is so great, and becoming immune to it is easier than addressing the brokenness in our way of life.

We can simplify our world, though. We can reconnect emotionally to each other. We can reconnect spiritually to each other. We can care. We can have compassion. We can hug that child, look into his or her eyes, and say, “I will help you.” We can all make a difference. And as we learn to connect and feel again, we will lose our need for such drugs as unhealthy sex, violence, and sedation in the form of hours of TV or emotion-numbing drink or pills. Our own souls can provide fulfillment enough, and we can remember this. We can teach it to our children.

“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
—Dalai Lama

Measuring Our Worth

Extreme poverty in Rand, WV, USA in 1973. Roads were unpaved and housing was substandard. Source: Environmental Protection Agency Archives

Extreme poverty in Rand, WV, USA in 1973.
Roads were unpaved and housing was substandard.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency Archives

If I had to distill the essence of our social and political discourse as a nation and a global community right now into just a few words, I would say that the biggest source of all our divisions and quarrels lies in the measuring of our worth compared with others. Now, what do I mean by that?

In theory, our disagreements are about concrete things like economic policy, social policy, budgets, and the firm belief that there just isn’t enough money to go around, and some people are going to have to suffer to make up for it. The question at the core of the fighting is, “Who must suffer?”

It is a hard thing to condemn another to suffering, so it is human nature to make excuses for it in order to lessen the psychic burden of the person who is doling out the suffering. This feat of mental gymnastics is accomplished by simple rationalization:  the person who suffers must somehow deserve it because they are morally deficient, lazy, subhuman, or they simply “screwed up” somehow. When these ideas are born, compassion dies. And therein lies the root of every problem.

There is no question that sometimes people make poor choices, even harmful choices for themselves or others. It is true that some people may try to find an “easy” way to get by—which is quite the judgment, actually. A person who scams government benefits may “win” $200 a month in grocery money and a few hundred a month in other assistance, but is this really easy? Ask anyone in poor circumstances, and they’ll tell you how hard it is to live on such a meager income. If that’s “the good life,” then I wouldn’t want it. No, anyone who would work so hard for so little deserves my compassion for having set the bar so low for themselves.

In our modern money-centric society, we now measure everything by its perceived monetary value. If the “cost” of fundamental services (such as education, healthcare, road maintenance, etc.) is too high, then we’ll just have to cut back and “live within our means.” Abundance, however, is a river that flows in whatever direction you focus on. If you are generous with it, it is generous with you. If you are stingy with it, it is stingy with you. This is true for individuals and society as a whole. If we tighten our belts too much, we will no longer be able to breathe.

On a personal level, regardless of our political beliefs, we are accustomed to comparing our worth with the worth of others. If someone gets “more,” we take it personally, as a reflection on ourselves. If someone gets “less,” there is always the nagging belief deep down that maybe they deserve it, which makes us feel better because being better off makes us less “bad” or “wrong” than they are.

Everything is measured in dollars and bling, and now our self-esteem is, too. Our worst fears seem to be that someone else may get “more” than what we have without “deserving” it. Of course, what we’re really afraid of is that we don’t deserve it.

But of course, you do deserve to be abundant. So does your neighbor. So do the mentally ill. So does the guy down the street who’s getting public assistance, or the woman who’s sleeping in doorways. The key to everyone’s abundance lies in our compassion and willingness to share in it. You must give, without judging whether someone “deserves it” or not; likewise, you must receive, without judging yourself and understanding that you also deserve it as much as anyone else.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus stood on the beach, surrounded by thousands who came to hear him and learn from him. He passed his hand over the baskets, and as the loaves and fishes began to flow, he said, “I will give a loaf of bread and a fish to every person who can prove to me that they deserve to have it. The rest of you will have to fend for yourselves!” No compassionate being would say such a thing, and whatever happened on that day, Jesus didn’t either, or we wouldn’t know who he is today. When he offered compassion and unconditional love, it was for everyone, no matter who they were or what they had done or thought or believed. This is the definition of unconditional love. If you want to follow his path or any other enlightened path, then know that there is no such thing as a “measure of worth.” We are all worthy. We are all deserving. We are all One being, the Great I AM, and there can be no greater or lesser here. When we come to know this, we will know peace and true abundance for all.