Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 27, 2019 - Practicing Empathy

Our country, and even the world right now, is fraught with a deep lack of understanding for one another. We have sequestered ourselves into our little tribes of commonality, preferring to hear only the perspectives and opinions we share. We feel more divided than ever.

This is an illusion, in most ways. For we are all deeply connected to one another whether we are willing to recognize it or not. But the borders we have drawn around our own ideologies are very real. We have a hard time listening to others. It feels unsafe.

The rhetoric surrounding the subject of how to improve the quality of our world—and for whom—has revealed a deep layer of resentment on the part of those who feel left behind by social progress. You can see it in the rage of their tweets and posts. You can feel it in the way we avoid discussing it with the people we love the most for fear that our differences will divide us.

I have always believed that history does not repeat itself in the way we think it does. It is not a wheel, but a spiral. And we have been here before. Almost.

The division in American culture today rings very familiar to our history. History is repeating itself right now in front of our very eyes. But those eyes are not the same as they once were. They have seen more. They are now wiser by orders of magnitude.

In the mid-19th century, when our country perceived no alternative but to enter into civil war with itself over the institution of slavery, families were torn apart by the differences they felt. Brother against brother, we went to war over it. We killed and wounded one another by the thousands.

There are those who worry that we have now returned to that symbolic battlefield. And in many ways, we have. But we are not fighting with the same weapons anymore. And the likelihood of going into literal battle, with weapons intended to kill, is not very probable. We are in a heated battle of words, for the most part, with some tragic exceptions.

Yet from here, we may go in any direction we choose. We can continue to insulate ourselves against the opinions of others or we can welcome them. Both options are painful, but only one of them makes the world right; perhaps in a way humanity has not yet experienced. What future is in store for us?

The plain and simple truth is that our society lacks empathy. We need practice. We are not taught the skill of empathy in school. We are not even very often taught it in church. And when we are, it often is laden with a sense of superiority we give ourselves in misplaced gratitude for not being “like them.“ We love to pat ourselves on the back for being so advanced and aware.

While we cannot change the world by ourselves, we can alter the experience we have of it. We can lessen the burden on our own hearts. We can choose to listen to things we have previously shut out.

Moreover, we can use our imagination to perceive the hardships faced by those we claim to disagree with or even hate. We can use our imagination to glimpse their humanity.

Pick someone right now in your mind whom you physically and morally detest. Wonder about how well they slept last night. Wonder about what the first moments of their day were like. Think about their childhood and be curious. Imagine what they have had to eat today. Imagine the health of their body. Imagine the love they feel, even if you can’t see it. See if it’s possible for you to project love toward them. If you can do it, you have mastered all that you need in order to change the world forever.

But this is a lesson that is more for you than the world. The world will take care of itself in direct proportion to the ease of your own heart. You just worry about you. And the best way to worry about you is to find a way to be at peace with others. Allow difference to become an asset in your mind. Find someone who thinks differently than you do and be genuinely and respectfully curious about them.

I wish that empathy was taught in elementary school as a required subject. I wish the kids were given an opportunity to expand their imaginations around the lives of others. The future would be in good hands if only our children could reach across the divide which adult arms are often too short to span.

But in the absence of that, practice empathy anyway. Use your imagination. Dwell in the humanity of others whom you consider to be inhuman. It is there. I promise.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 20, 2019 - The Dogma Ate Your Homework

There’s a spiritual maxim which tells us that ‘we always get what we ask for.’ It’s a tenet of the law of attraction. It rings a bit like scripture, and it is, but this philosophy looks at the phenomenon of prayer from a different angle. Bluntly put, it means that if we are experiencing something today, whether good or bad, whether we realize it or not, it’s because we somehow asked for it yesterday. That seems like a harsh accusation to lay on someone who’s experiencing grief or hardship. Why would we ask for problems? The implication being that we are a failure at even daydreaming?

Of course not. We never ask for sorrow. We have simply been trained to trust it more than joy.

Our culture has a tendency to promote a paradigm of service to others at the expense of self. That second part is the flaw. the expense of self. That’s the part which only ends up encouraging a polar opposite of “service to others” to occur: The exploitation of others to the benefit of self. The more we teach people that we cannot truly be of service to others without some large sacrifice, the further we drive people toward looking out for only themselves.

Service to others is essential for our species. It has been taught since the first days of sentient humanity. But along the way, that thread has been pulled here and there. Plucked from its natural warp and woof by an outside force, bending it unnaturally for a time.

Allow me a sidebar thought. Prayer is not exclusively metaphysical. For those who do not believe in anything conclusively regarding the mystical or miraculous, this is for you. Prayer is just a loaded term we use to describe the way we mindfully apply our conscious thoughts toward an idea or emotion. For some that idea is God. But that is not the point of this discussion.

In practical terms, when we are directing our thoughts toward something it becomes more noticeable to us. We are paying attention, literally attending, to it. We learn faster because our attention strengthens our understanding of it. We uncover the finer details of how to incorporate it into our lives. We naturally experience more of it as a result. That is the technical function of the act of prayer. It is off limits to neither atheism nor agnosticism.

This is where we start to wonder what we are really asking for, aka subliminally attending to, on a daily basis and from what part of ourselves are we asking? Does our mouth or conscious mind do all our asking? I would argue that we ask with every part of our existence, both known and unknown, conscious and subconscious. If we truly do possess an eternal higher self, I’m sure it’s a part of what’s doing the asking. If we do not, that changes little. We will always experience more of what we’re paying attention to.

Winding back on the thread of service to others at the expense of self we see that we have been trained to feel guilty for thinking of ourselves. We forget there is enough love in a grandmother for all her grandchildren, no matter how many. It is not a vessel one can empty. The same goes for simultaneous service to both ourselves and others. They are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, interdependent. A lack of awareness of this poisons us.

Remember the golden rule which states that we should ‘Do unto others as we would have done to us?’ We say it but live only the first three words. Do unto others, but with an underlying assumption that it should benefit them in some way that excludes our own. We forget that we are the sustaining part of the golden rule. The fuel in the tank. We are the “us.” But as the “us,” we have a responsibility to know ourselves first in order to sustainably serve others.

Some early religious thinking which declares us to all be unworthy, unfit, unclean and perpetually sinful has infected the way humanity thinks of itself to this day, religious or not. We have been taught to be ashamed of ourselves, of our bodies, of our sexuality, even our love. How do you think that affects us, or the way it makes us subconsciously frame our desires?

What did you “ask” for yesterday? Did you ask for comfort yet perhaps subconsciously feel you are undeserving of comfort? Did you ask for fulfillment but think you have no right to want it? We don’t consciously invite sorrow upon us. It has been invited upon us by the dark thoughts of others in our history. But they are dead. Good. We are alive. Also good. We have the capacity to change our inner narrative.

This is not something that will be solved tomorrow. It’s not an action item on a task list we may someday check off. This is a direction to consciously face. For life. It will not prevent sorrow. But it will hold your hand while you go through it. It will not prevent problems. But it just may give you the presence of mind to solve them with grace.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 6, 2019 - Patriot Actions

As I write my column this morning, it is the Fourth of July. I imagine the thousands of parade participants who, at this moment, are marching in parades down the Main Streets of America. Do they all know what they are marching for? Do they all march for the same thing? The short answer is yes. The long answer is a series of winding roads charting up the same mountain. Two in particular.

One definition of the word ‘patriot’ is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.” That seems reasonable enough. Another offers, “A real patriot is someone who loves their country enough to speak up when they see something that needs to be changed; not someone who blindly assumes that their government knows best and is always right no matter what.” Definitely fair as well.

The differing tones of those two definitions are trail markers along each path up the mountain. One is a more reserved and conservative viewpoint and the other is clearly liberal, with an edge. Yet both say the exact same thing. They both have a love and respect for this national experiment of democracy we are still testing. Where they differ is in the definition of the word “detractor.” They have each drawn conclusions about who is doing the detracting and from what.

With apologies in advance for the generalization, as a liberal myself, I notice that I cringe a bit when I see a pick-up truck with a giant American flag jutting from the bed. But it’s not because I don’t love my flag or my country. It’s just that displays like this are often done these days as an act of defiance rather than of support. They are defying those who disagree with their definition of the word detractor. It makes me sad, really, to see that they are passively yet aggressively using the tenets of our Constitution as an opportunity to exclude from or disparage another out of the conversation. Of course this is not true of all who display the flag. There are many ways to advance our own ideas about what defines a patriot.

Ultimately, it is up to those who choose to take the high road in the debate to define the predominant course up the mountain. Those who are welcoming of the opinions of others will naturally have the most support. This is advice for both sides: Listen to one another. It will get you what you want much faster.

What we all want is the freedom to enjoy a safe and abundant life. It’s important to remember that there is enough freedom and abundance on this planet for everyone. Those who want more can have more and those who wish for simpler lives may have that as well. It seems that the uber-rich so deeply fear losing their uber-rich status, that they have smeared us all with their terror. They have pitted us against one another to maintain the old status quo on their behalf. Don’t let them. The secret of their power is our ignorance of it. Let it into the light and it will dissolve like a green witch in water.

Rise above it. Love your enemies. That is what the deep spirituality of our U.S. Constitution invites us to do. It welcomes all and loves equally. That’s why it challenges us so mightily. Humans love others easily, but not equally. And, for good or ill, we would all prefer to see the Constitution as a tool for building our world as we see fit.

The best way to thwart those who pull the majority of strings in this world for their own benefit is to just talk with each other. Use your freedom of speech to communicate as well as listen. Listen deeply. Use the Constitution as a sacred text—the true American scripture—to define the tone of our conversations. If you do, you’ll find that your neighbor is actually you.

An American patriot is one who defends the equally-created status of all people and loves the country which has made that idea into a law of its land. A true American patriot will either stand for, or kneel for, his country. Both are actions of deep respect. May they now come to respect one another.

I love the United States of America. Truly. I believe in its great intent. I believe that it is right to grant ourselves freedom and recognize we must take the time to stumble before we can walk, and walk before we can run. We have not failed ourselves. We are still growing.