November 18, 2013
Dillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?
According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.
When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.
In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same. In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.
Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?
Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.
So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?
May 27, 2013
Greg Noack was an adolescent, out for a stroll on a park bridge one night when two thugs came up form behind and battered him with a baseball bat to within an inch of his life for no apparent reason. Greg survived this terrible assault but it left him with critical and chronic brain injury.
Today he is a therapist who helps others with acute brain injury. A deeply thoughtful and spiritual man, he is inspirational speaker and motivator.
When he had done telling us about his assault and subsequent journey into recovery, I asked him how he had managed to forgive the thugs who did this to him.
Greg was silent, at a loss for words.
It occurred to me that perhaps I had made a wrong assumption. Perhaps he had not forgiven the thugs. Maybe forgiveness from victims is asking too much?
I often wonder about other victims such as the three young Cleveland women recently rescued from years of brutal captivity. Can they ever well and truly forgive their perpetrators? Or does a piece of the criminal permanently reside within the victims?
“Forgive and forget” is almost a cliche. People say it to others without realizing the enormity of what they are expecting from the victims.
From a metaphysical perspective, all of our actions, even the smallest, affects others in someone way. You know, the old if a butterfly fluters its wings a star falls somewhere poetic idea. In daily life I know that we are all so intricately woven together that even a stranger’s remark can leave our mood altered for the rest of the day. Why is it then that we should expect acts of sustained and planned cruelty be erasable? Of course the criminals have changed the course of Greg’s life. Of course they have a left a legacy within him. Why wouldn’t he think about them from time to time?
I think that when we have been the victims of horrific crimes, our recovery is a process not dissimilar to grief. The classic stages of grief recovery are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Nowhere is the word forgiveness used.
I think that acceptance of what happened to you, and that it was undeserved and unasked is the best we can expect.
Greg was gracious enough to give me an answer. After some thought he recalled how much better his life was now because of the injury. He was in a much better place emotionally and spiritually. He said he took comfort from that, and it allowed him not be too bitter about those thugs who did this to him.
What he said sounded familiar to me. Greg has made the best of a bad situation which was no fault of his own. Perhaps forgiveness means exactly that.
I can think of dozens of victims of senseless violence who became bitter, vengeful and mean-spirited. Their lives close in around them instead of opening up. Can we say that such people have chosen not to forgive their perpetrators? I think so.
Making the best of the damage done to you is an act of forgiveness but does that mean there are no regrets, no blame? If Greg could turn back the clock with full hindsight, would he undergo the experience? Does he wish the thugs would have not done that to him?
Each person must answer that according to his own reflection. For me I am beginning to see within my own life that some of the worst tragedies have been turning points. Because of my grief over my mother’s death, I discovered spirituality and my guru. Despite that, would I rather have my mother alive today?
My near-death, as physical and emotional traumatic as it was, remains the most profound experience of my life. But if I could go back and change some things, would I now undo it? Absolutely not.
Traumas are always life-altering events. I have watched my sisters endure the trauma of childbirth and then grow into wiser and more mature human beings. When they are hugging their children, I am sure none of them regret the trauma of labor, nor the pain and worry of the children’s growing years. Because motherhood is so immediately rewarding, they quickly realize that in the grand scheme of things the pain of childbirth and subsequent sleepless nights are insignificant in the bigger picture.
But that same perspective is lost when we are assaulted, robbed, injured, or left for dead. Yes there is much, much pain, but these events also change the trajectory of our lives, often for the better (depending upon the choices we subsequently make). But it takes so much longer that we sometimes get mired by resentment and blame for the perpetrator.
To me perfect forgiveness means no resentment. Forgiveness is accepting what happened and leveraging it to your advantage. But I don’t think that it is possible to be free from regret about what happened. Not while we are functioning through the mind. Any process of the mind fluctuates. There are days we have no regrets, no blame, and other days we are soaking in regret. The only way to have no regrets is to live beyond the mind, in pure awareness.
And all traumas are great aids in getting there.
August 20, 2012
It’s amazing how self-growth works: within one week I have been called upon to define boundaries not once but thrice within the same week! Sudden, but not so strange when you think about it. The more a man grows in self-awareness, the more inclined he will be to set boundaries in his relationships. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.
It was my birthday last week, and family and Facebook friends sent me cards, phoned, or wrote short, pleasant wishes on my Facebook wall. All except a niece in a far away city, who chose to use the the occasion to proselytize. She has converted to Christianity. Not mainstream Christianity mind, but one of those American evangelical cults. My Facebook wall was cluttered with a long tirade about her invisible best friend who died for my sins, yada, yada, yada. I was in a dilemma. This was not first time she had done something like this to me, she has been warned by her parents as well other family members. She was clearly in the wrong, but she is still a relative. A relative with mental health issues. Would it be unkind, uncompassionate to block her from Facebook, indeed from my life? Neither her words showed care for me nor her subsequent actions.
What compounded my dilemma was that I am raised to believe that defining strong boundaries was a symptom of selfishness. That it was an assertion of egotism. Enlightened persons have unconditional empathy, it is why they are compassionate. In my naivety I imagined good people are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior with good humor. I believed if I were to cut my niece out of my life, I’d be giving in to my weakness, strengthening stubbornness.
After some deep reflection, I decided that there was an important difference between making walls and setting boundaries. Walls are insurmountable, they are all or nothing. There is no communication possible with walls up. A man who sets up walls (as I once used to) is indeed defining his ego (and his ignorance). Walls are for the ego, it is indeed cutting oneself off from humanity. But boundaries define relationships, not egos. My niece has been warned before not to force her beliefs upon other family members. Yet she persists. There has to be consequences for breaching boundaries, otherwise they are meaningless. If someone is unable or unwilling to respect me, I have a right to make a choice about the extent of our relationship. I do not have to condemn him or her or be unkind. This is not unspiritual. In fact it is a sign of a healthy self-worth.
The very process of renegotiating relationships requires self-awareness, empathy, subtle consideration. And from the way the other party responds one can learn a lot about that person. Allow me illustrate from the past week what else I discovered. The person I live with made a rather disrespectful remark to me in front of company. Later, when I pointed out to him how unacceptable and inappropriate his words had been, he was dismissive of my feelings. Which made me feel worse, even more inconsequential. But then, in the following days, he demonstrated through his actions, gestures, small acts of consideration that he was sorry, though he was unable to ever say those words. I know from his subsequent behavior that he did not mean to disrespect. He is human and sometimes errs (just like I do). While his words did not show caring, his subsequent actions did.
And it is only through action that a person’s true intent is revealed. For the past six months I have been guest blogging on another website. My hope was to get more traffic for this blog (never happened). The web hosts on that other site have always been polite and professional in their communication with me, yet I was uncomfortable. I never received feedback of the type I get from WordPress. Here people leave me comments, likes, follows. I have of sense of communication with readers. I also am in control of grammatical and typographical errors. My articles on that other website always had obvious mistakes. No one proofread. I was expected to churn out an article every two weeks, more often if possible. Reminders would be sent to me if were late in submitting. It all felt, well, exploitive, like they did not care about me, only what they could get out of me. Perhaps they did not intend to be so, perhaps they were just unaware? So I asked them for feedback, less pressure to keep producing articles every fortnight. They replied, very politely, that it was time to end our relationship. Their unwillingness to adjust, or even discuss the reasons why they could not accommodate any of my requests, proved I was being used. While their words were caring, their subsequent actions were not.
I no longer feel guilty when required to define boundaries. Boundaries require openness and listening, and they need to be in constant review. I think boundaries (unlike walls) are necessary for continued growth because help separate those in our lives who care about us and those who only pay lip-service.
July 30, 2012
Treat others and you would wish to be treated yourself. Reasonable enough. Irrefutably logical. Every religion has it as part of its creed. Atheists, humanists, liberals all agree on it in principal. Then why is it that so few humans live up to it? What is missing?
John, a friend who is an avid bicyclist, related this story: he had locked his bicycle on a stand along the sidewalk. When he returned from his errand, someone had chained her bicycle to his. He was livid. When the woman did show up, he could see she had mental health issues, and his anger evaporated. He mentioned this incident on his Facebook page. A dozen of his friends immediately wrote comments insulting this woman’s behavior. The most vitriolic of which was from one of his friends who has HIV/AIDS. I found that surprising. Here was a man who expects unconditional compassions from others, he demands that he not be judged on why or how he acquired his virus. Yet he was quick to express contempt for the woman’s shortcomings. Of course, he is one of a billion examples. It seems that to blame is a reflex but applying the Golden Rule is just a philosophical ideal.
Perhaps that is the key. Can it be that blame is an emotion, a primitive reflex, whereas the Golden Rule is embedded in the rational brain? Critical thinking is slower, it takes time and energy and intention to summon. Emotions happen by instinct. Dogs, cats, monkeys have the same reflexes. We blame first, and if we are immature, we are content with that. If we are a little smarter, we blame first, then regret it, perhaps even apologize. Surely, the wisest eschew blame and apply the Golden Rule first and foremost. But how to get there?
It was my sister who first gave me a clue. In those days we still had door-to-door salesmen, which I found as annoying as telemarketers are today. My sister declined each one politely, without the slightest rudeness. I asked her why she did that. It turned out that our older brother had once worked as a door-to-door salesmen, when he first arrived in the UK, a fact I had not known. What she had done, inadvertently perhaps, was apply the Golden Rule by proxy. She treated each salesman as she would have wanted her brother to be treated. I thought that very smart.
One of the beautiful aspects of Hindu culture is that all elders are referred to as “Aunty” or “Uncle”. Sometimes, women of the same age are referred to as “sister” by the men. Even small girls are referred to as “Amma” or “Mother” by very cultured Brahmins. When such an epitaph is used, a shift happens in the consciousness. The baser, primitive emotional reflexes are supplanted by the deep feelings of love, respect that the words mother, sister, uncle symbolize for the speaker. While this tradition may be impossible to transplant in a Western social setting, the principle behind it can still be utilized, as my sister discovered. Remove the sense of ‘otherness’ by proxy. Any relationship where you have reverence will do. At school there was a boy who was a vocal racist, but he loved Jazz. Hence, he made an exception for African peoples within his racism. In a basic way, it seemed to me, this boy was seeing his Jazz idols in all African peoples. It’s a good start.
It actually takes very little effort to find a connectivity with most people you encounter. He is a male just like me. He is of my age group. She looks as stressed as I feel. Any excuse, no matter how flimsy, works. Even the love for a vapid celebrity (during the Michael Jackson crazy Eighties, many pretty white girls dated skinny black men sporting Gerri curls).
What is wonderful about applying the Golden Rule is that we lose the habit of assigning blame. By blame I do not mean the legal sense of responsibility, but the emotional sense of helplessness, coupled with a contempt for the other. Blame is not only illogical, it is most destructive for health and well-being. It is a shade of anger which, when left to fester, morphs into vengeance and violence. As far as I see, blame serves no useful purpose. I can’t think of an example in my life where blaming someone has helped the situation. And most importantly, I detest being blamed by others so much that why would I inflict that on another? That would be illogical.
June 11, 2012
I was late for a shift at the homeless shelter and decided upon a taxi. The new immigrant taxi driver was genuinely perplexed why anyone would give up his leisure time for free? I pointed out to him that millions of people around the world do exactly that because it is rewarding in other ways. Even as I said that I was aware that during the thousands of hours I have given in the service of others, not all of the work has been rewarding. Over time, however, I have worked out a few things about effective and satisfying volunteer work.
Be Selfless: The volunteer work I did in my youth was motivated by loneliness. Not an inconsequential motive, loneliness is the malady of our times. I had hoped that by giving my time to causes I would meet a better class of persons, perhaps strike up friendships that spilled over socially. I discovered that, just as in paid work, here too people move about in cliques. Judgments are made based upon age, race, gender etc. People seek out tribes. Now I no longer have expectations for myself when I decide upon volunteer work. I let the work itself be the criteria.
Repayment of debt: In my youth I abandoned some work because I felt my contribution was not appreciated. But now I do not expect gratitude, and I am no longer disappointed. I see volunteer work as a repayment of a debt to society for taking care of me all these years. Hundreds of anonymous strangers contributed to my safety and well being, from policemen to taxpayers. Now I am clear in my understanding that whatever I undertake is for my own growth only, and appreciation is not required or expected.
Tool for Learning: New immigrants and students often complain about being rejected by employers because of a lack of experience. Volunteer work can give that experience or perhaps a chance to acquire new skills. Granted these are not selfless motives but they are a reason to try volunteer work. I learned to write because of volunteer work, and now, through the literary magazine Descant, I have acquired a level of literary expertise. While this may not land me jobs or riches, I feel learning and growing are important in life. Cognitive dysfunction associated with aging can be curbed by cultivating intelligent new skills. I use my mental faculties to further grow spiritually. My volunteer work at Descant is a tool in this important growth.
Compassion muscle workout: Particularly at the homeless shelter, I find what I do there is a sort of gym for building up my compassion muscle. I stand at a window and give out a bag lunch and a drink to the homeless and the poor. The food is donated by someone else and the staff or other volunteers actually make the sandwiches. The only thing I can contribute in the act of distributing this food is a smile, eye-contact, and a pleasant word. These are things of which the homeless are particularly deprived. Too often we want them to be invisible. We walk past on street corners ignoring their request for coins. I have discovered that the skills I have developed in respectful compassion, are spilling over into my whole life. I am kinder to the people in my life. I forgive more freely. I am less inclined to judge. Everyone is in need of a smile, eye-contact, a friendly word.
Feel thankful for what you have. One of the worst disabilities in life is self-pity. It can make you needy, selfish, entitled. The cure is easy. Find people who are worse off than you and spend time helping them. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you begin to put your own problems into proper perspective. You appreciate the strengths in your life. This happens naturally, without any effort.
Be fearless: I used to dread the prospect of growing old. I imagined a lonely existence where my body was falling apart along with my mind. By volunteering with geriatrics, I have discovered that some old people retain their alertness and actually grow in their wisdom, despite an ailing body. Being alone does not have to mean being helpless or indeed even lonely. Some old people have rich spiritual lives, they beam with joy through their eyes and speech. All that is a reward of work they put in their youth. Bhagwad Geeta is correct in saying that no spiritual work is ever wasted. It accumulates. I can now envision getting old but with a confidence of greater peace of mind. Most people in the last stages of their lives are not afraid of dying. They welcome the rest while acknowledging the full, rich life they have experienced. This is a lot to learn from donating an hour a week.
I am puzzled why I ever expected gratitude for my time when I was young. Now I am grateful to the people whom I help for what they do for me.