I was just reading a piece I have in draft, one I never posted here. It was a general rant about how much of what we read, see, are offered to take in via news and social media, is negative, derisive, and ugly.
I’m not going to post it.
I still agree with what I wrote. How I’m tired of the negative, how I yearn for the positive. But I’m too old to be on the playground, and that’s what it feels like. It feels like what it was to be out on recess, caught in the middle of some ridiculous name calling fight. How those fights seemed to escalate into the absurd and how the passion for those ludicrous arguments seemed to escalate as well. Escalation turned ugly, pushing turned to shoving, sometimes turning to blows. It’s exhausting.
I want a revolution of thought, I’m getting bogged down without one. I want kindness, ideas, offered solutions, compassion, a recognition of simple human dignity. I don’t think I’m the only one. I think most of us feel this way, even as we sometimes find ourselves participating in those playground-like antics.
What if, for a day, we posted only something positive. The old adage, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. If that’s you, post a photo of a sunrise or a cute puppy, or your grandchildren instead of that negative thing you are about to post.
What would that feel like?
I get up, I make my way to the french press and the tea kettle, I get my steaming mug of freshly made delicious coffee, I empty the dishwasher, I fold the laundry, I open my laptop to check email, then I head to my news feeds and finally Facebook. I’m shocked to see news articles about new inventions and good deeds and how even though I may not agree with this politicians views on this or that thing, they have good intentions, or are good in this one area, or they’re smart. I see that everyone seems to be posting how happy they are about this or that event, or friendship, or job opportunity, or the tasty hot meal they had last night. I read about how this guy, running for this office, had this idea to solve this problem. How interesting. I hear that even though Democrats and Republicans and Tea Party people are staunch, they are fair, and understanding, and compassionate toward those who don’t agree with them. I see kindness and forgiveness and goodwill toward fellow humans. I see us disagreeing with respect. I see sharing and helping and love.
Life is a matter of perception. It always is. We can look and see terrible things in our opponents, in the government, in each other, or we can look and see that even though we don’t agree it doesn’t make either of us a monster. It doesn’t make either of us an idiot. From there we can have reasonable discussions, we can listen to each other, we can gain understanding, and we can start to move forward, freed from the quagmire of distrust and finger-pointing and nastiness. There is something to like in almost everyone. Just as there is something to dislike. We see what we want to see.
We can see the negative in things, in life, in each other, and we can dwell there. If that’s the case, that’s what we will notice, that’s what we will pick up on first. The problems, the differences, the ways in which things are not right. Or we can see the positive in things, in life, and in each other. We can dwell there. In that place there’s forgiveness, problem-solving, things to build on, there’s hope.
It’s up to each of us to decide. I’d just like it if I could wave the magic wand and for one day we helped without criticism, we offered opinions without disparaging someone else, and we talked about solutions with kindness, instead of venom and animosity.
I believe, with all my heart, each of us is doing the best we can in the world. Making our way the best we know how. Sometimes what we do is not that great, and most times if it’s not that great it’s because we faltered, or we were never taught a better way, or we ran into something that spiraled out of control. We don’t know anyone else’s story. We can’t presume to know. We also can’t presume to think our ideas, our solutions, our way of doing things is the only way, or even the right way. There are many paths to a good solution, there are many “right” ways. Yes, there are wrong ways too, but we must make people feel safe in order to help them change. We must make them feel listened to, just as we like to be listened to. We can’t bully, or push, or strong arm people into our way of thinking. Most of us hate being told what we should be doing, but we don’t mind being talked to, respected for our opinions, and offered other opinions in return. We don’t mind a good chat. We all feel we should be respected. That doesn’t change with position or ideology or background. We all want to be respected as human beings, and we all should be.
I don’t expect that we’ll all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but wouldn’t it be great if we went at things with that in our hearts. If we were open, loving, and kind. If we all realized we were in it together. Facing it together. Because we are. None of us are in it alone. Everything we do, small and large, effects other people, and spreads like a ripple out from ourselves.
I can only start with me. So this is me saying to me that I’ll try to be more present, more aware of what I say, how I say it, what I put out into the world. I’ll picture the faces of friends and family, I’ll try to act with hope and kindness and understanding. I will try not to judge. I’ll try to be fair. I will try to be a better listener.
Sure, we have a lot of problems, but there are also so many things that are good and beautiful out there. Look around. See them. Feel what that feels like to see them. To use a line from The Abyss, a movie I love, “We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.”
Look with your better eyes. Look with them, and see.
In this second installment of the life lessons learned/what’s important to me at 50 I give you joy. And many other things.
“There are random moments – tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms – when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead.”
― Elizabeth Berg, The Art of Mending
Joy is such a hard thing to define. Elation, delight, pleasure. All those things, and something more, something intangible. I live for moments of joy, mine and those of the people I love. It’s where pure experience meets an overwhelming feeling of YES! It’s the ultimate ah ha moment. I’m always wishing the people I know, and actually even people I don’t know, could experience more joy. There’s never enough. Simple moments of overwhelming joy bring light and life. Joy is the nexus of a meaningful human experience, of meaningful relationships with our fellow humans. Joy radiates hope. It’s electric.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
― W.B. Yeats
Magic is everywhere. In smiles and light and the taste of a fresh strawberry. It lives in music and the wings of a butterfly. It flies on the wind and crashes with the waves. Everything around us is a miracle, full of magic. Most especially our family and friends, but also in the breath of our pups, and the swaying of a daisy, and the glint of the sun in a rain drop. There are amazing things all around. We just have to see them.
“Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. . . If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown in communication … and there is the real illness.”
― Philip K. Dick
Perception is key. We have opinions and ideas and see things with eyes that were formed from our own experiences. When circumstances happen to us or around us we look at those circumstances with those same eyes. We tend not to look outside of our own box of opinions and ideas. This means we only look at things from one angle. Our own. But looking and seeing are two different things. Perhaps it’s just a matter of perception. If we can somehow change how we view a situation that situation changes entirely. I’ve done this myself and been surprised by it. There’s always another way to look at something. We move around a beautiful sculpture to get a view from all sides if we truly want to see it. We need to learn to do that in our own minds. It would open us up to others, it would create connections where they might not have existed before. We have to look with our best eyes.
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Truth can sometimes be so hard, but it’s as necessary as breathing. The more honest and open we try to be with ourselves, with others, about who we are, about what we think and feel, the freer we are. Lies constrict our lives. When we tell the truth, we can leave that moment behind without another thought. When we lie, we live with it, carry it with us, forever. Telling the truth is much less burdensome. Telling the truth opens us up, makes us vulnerable, it puts us out into the world fully, as we are. It says, here I am, take me, or don’t. Risky, but with so much reward. We honor ourselves when we tell our truth. We bring integrity into our lives. We also bring trust, from ourselves, and from those we love. Telling the truth, truly, sets us free.
“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”
Silence is golden. I used to hear that a lot from my Mom. One of those Mom sayings that stuck with me, and so true. Quieting oneself, learning to enjoy and live in silence once in a while is wonderful. It allows you to hear the world in a more profound way. A few moments of silence can breathe life into a day filled with too much noise. Listening to the quiet of the world around us helps us to find the quiet within ourselves. Finding the quiet within ourselves helps us to center our minds, our souls, and our hearts. Silence opens worlds to us we might otherwise miss.
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
― Shel Silverstein
Hope, remaining hopeful, is as necessary as breathing. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with what is or has been or the worry about what could be. We’re human, we struggle with this all the time. But it’s so important to remember that anything can happen, and that anything can be good as much as it might be instead be frightening. We focus too much on what’s not right, not enough on what is. Hope is a big part of what’s right. There’s always room for it, and it can be cultivated. Trying to think positively, starting with one small thing that is right in your life, is good, can begin to grow a larger garden of positive ifs inside of you. That’s where hope lives. Hope leads to joy and laughter and an energy to get up and live life to the it’s fullest.
“Yes. We both have a bad feeling. Tonight we shall take our bad feelings and share them, and face them. We shall mourn. We shall drain the bitter dregs of mortality. Pain shared, my brother, is pain not doubled, but halved. No man is an island.”
― Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys
Sharing ourselves with others speaks to the essence of what life is about. Expressing our feelings, our ideas, our hopes, our fears to another person, to other people, makes those hopes grander and those fears smaller. Opening up our true self to someone else makes our world larger, grander, and fuller than we could imagine. Letting someone know you, the real you, the whole you, is frightening and vulnerable, but also brave. It’s an act of reaching out and of letting go. It’s beautiful and fulfilling and it brings us closer, creates connections that last.
“It’s okay to be absurd, ridiculous, and downright irrational at times; silliness is sweet syrup that helps us swallow the bitter pills of life.”
― Richelle E. Goodrich
Being silly, risking the ridiculous, is fun. It’s enlivening, life affirming, corny, dorky, wonderful, and beautiful. Not being afraid of being ridiculous and possibly absurd, while being out in the world, is a gift. I say this because I’m a total dork, and can be totally ridiculous. Singing in public places, dancing in the grocery store, putting on funny hats, doing a funny little walk because you’re trying to make yourself or someone else smile. Those moments of totally letting go bring so much joy, so much fun to life. And acting in a way that says we don’t care what other people think of us, only of what we feel like doing in the present, brings a strength and certainty in us down to our bones. Silly can generate confidence, and confidence generates silliness. It’s a beautiful relationship.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
― Lao Tzu
Love is everything, having and giving it. Not just the love for your partner in life, but love for friends and family. I can’t stress enough how very important it is to let the people in your life know you love them. The most important thing in life is who we love and who loves us. It brings meaning to everything. Nothing else really matters. Love is everything. Breathing joy and hope and compassion into everything it touches.
Listening, and not talking, is central to having great relationships with people. When you listen, actually listen without just trying to get your word in edgewise, you let people know what they have to say is important to you. That they are important to you. When you don’t really listen, when all you do is wait for the moment you can speak, you let them know that what you have to say is more important to you than actually hearing them. Listening engenders trust, true companionship, and warmth.
“The greatest wisdom is in simplicity. Love, respect, tolerance, sharing, gratitude, forgiveness. It’s not complex or elaborate. The real knowledge is free. It’s encoded in your DNA. All you need is within you. Great teachers have said that from the beginning. Find your heart, and you will find your way.”
― Carlos Barrios, Mayan elder and Ajq’ij of the Eagle Clan
I’m 50 now. The big 5-0. It doesn’t freak me out, worry me, or make me feel like I’m old and getting older (though I am). It has however made me reflect a bit on the life I’ve lived. There are things I thought were important when I was younger, when I was more self-conscious and filled with angst. Very dramatic. I wrote a lot then. Prose, poetry (some OK, mostly not), letters I never sent, some I did. Now, at 50, I’m much more certain of myself, much more comfortable in my skin, not as self-conscious. I’ve grown. Most of us do.
Through the course of this time I’ve spent reflecting lately I’ve made a mental list of the things I think are important in life. Obviously the people in our lives are the most important, but this list of things/ideals are what I believe make a life more fulfilled, the things that can actually make a life extraordinary. I strive to put them into practice every day. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not. But life is in the trying, and I try.
In honor of my turning the big 5-0 I’m going to throw the list out to the universe, as a gesture of good will and safe keeping.
I got a little carried away when I actually sat down to make the list (which is in no particular order by the way, just written as it came to me) so I’ve decided I will post it in parts.
Welcome to part 1….
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
― Mother Teresa
Compassion is paramount to living a fulling life, without it we are acting alone in the world, separate from our fellow humans. We cannot pretend to know another persons story, or how they came to feel and think as they do, but we can honor them as human beings and wish the best for them. We can be open to the fact that they have had different experiences than our own, not expecting them to then act and think as we do. Compassion fills our hearts with love instead of animosity, it elevates us.
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” ~ Dalai Lama
Kindness is the most important tenet, to me. Above all things. It’s so important to me that I have the above quote about kindness on every email I send out – you might have gotten one. Kindness is always possible. We have to be kind to others, and to ourselves. I’ve learned a little kindness takes us everywhere we want to go. It soothes souls, can make a persons day, and costs us nothing. A smile, a kind word, a thank you, a simple acknowledgement of someone all work toward the common good, and good in ourselves. It is beyond valuable, beyond priceless. Kindness is key.
Sadness happens to everyone in life, let yourself be sad when you are, but don’t live there, wallowing in it. It’s a tough balance, but necessary. You honor the feelings by letting yourself feel them. You don’t let it take control of your life by remembering that there is more to life than just the thing that’s created your feeling of sadness.
Inhabiting yourself – feel your body, know your mind, feel your presence. Things will happen to us in life. Things we cannot control. Things terrible and strange and lovely and warm and awful and on and on. We get through it. We get through it best when we know ourselves, when we feel our own presence and our own power. That knowing helps us to understand that life will happen, but we can bear it, we can step through it. We can move beyond whatever it is that’s happened and into something new, something that could be wonderful in its own way.
“Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter, is Mozart’s Twenty-third Piano Concerto about?”
― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Beauty is everywhere, if you look for it. Noticing the wind moving the trees, the sun glinting through a fence, the way the dogs have that little walk they have, a phrase, a painting, a blade of grass, my honey breaking into song, in light and love and kindness. Beauty is everywhere. We choose to see it, or not. Life is so much better if you look for it.
“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
― Herman Melville
Connectedness Connection is everything. We are not islands unto ourselves. Our actions effect those around us, just as the actions of others affects us. It’s so important to remember that our ideas and ideals are ours and to dwell in the knowledge that other people, other creatures, have their own ideas, wants, needs. What we do, every day; the words we use when speaking to others, the actions we take in kindness, to our fellows and to our planet, all ripple out. One kindness generates another, one word of anger generates more anger, one positive thought spills out to create more positivity in the world, a negative thought spreads negativity. Everything we do has a consequence for others in small, and sometimes not so small, ways. Everything is connected.
Anxiety. I have it. Everyone experiences it. It’s not always rational, but it’s a natural part of living, of caring about people, caring about the world, caring about yourself. There is no getting rid of it entirely. The question is, does the anxiety control you, or do you remember to breathe, look it in the face, and try to keep stepping forward. Sometimes I succeed in that. Sometimes I don’t. That’s OK too. We can all wish for a little less anxiety in life, but we have to be careful the wishing doesn’t just lead to more anxiety. Acceptance, stepping into and through it, instead of constantly denying and fighting against it, helps. We have to remember to breathe.
“No one needed to say it, but the room overflowed with that sort of blessing. The combination of loss and abundance. The abundance that has no guilt. The loss that has no fix. The simple tiredness that is not weary. The hope not built on blindness.”
― Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures
Temperament and trying to keep oneself on an even keel is important. The energy we give out to the world matters. Not that we should live for others, we shouldn’t, but it’s important to be aware of our impact on others. That we do have an impact. It’s not easy when you’re in a bad mood, but it’s so important to try to be your better self, to try to remember not to inflict that mood on everyone around you. Conversely it’s important to remember that if someone you meet in your day is in a bad space, they may have had a terrible day, or be battling demons you don’t know or understand.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
Fear, or the lack of it, is one of those constants in life. We are afraid of what is happening, or what could happen, or what did happen. Fear eats at us and taunts us and reminds us that we have a lot in life we don’t want to lose. Fear is. I love the line in the quote above about letting it pass through. That rings true to me. We have to face the things we’re afraid of, as best we can, and then let that fear pass through us. We have to let ourselves look at what we fear, look it in the eye. Only then do we begin to take the reins back from it. We can never live entirely without fear. We love, we dream, we hope, and so, we fear. It is a part of living. A part of caring. But we can try to keep it from taking control of us, we can try to be its master, instead of letting it be the master of us.
“The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.”
― Louis C.K.
Empathy is central to living a full life. Kindness, compassion, and love all come from a place of empathy. We don’t have to know or have lived someone else’s circumstances to ache for them or to hope for them. We tend to live in our own little worlds, sure of our ideas and opinions, secure in the thought that what we think, the way we think, is the right way. Sometimes we even believe what we think is the only way. We’re wrong. We have no idea what another person’s experience is, where they came from, what they’ve seen, what they’ve lived through. To have true empathy is to say that you might not understand someone, but you want to nourish their souls anyway. It is to admit that you don’t know everything, and that you shouldn’t judge what you don’t understand. To empathize is to step outside of your own set of rules and to say that you feel for another human, regardless of the presumptions you have about them.
So much of how we see ourselves is based on how our peers, our friends, our family, and our community sees us. Yes, if you are a person with good self-esteem you can be in the world as a more confident, relaxed, grounded individual. But even the most secure person struggles, at times, with how they think other people see them. We are constantly being influenced by what our friends, family, and society think of us. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not. We carry those opinions, thoughts, comments, with us throughout the course of our lives. Little voices of disapproval or questions about our actions, our look, and our direction pop up occasionally as annoying ghosts in our minds. It happens to me.
I’m a pretty relaxed confident person in that I don’t care much what others think of me. OK, more accurately, I may care a bit, but I don’t let that influence the decisions I make and the way I am in my every day life. Most of the time. Keyword — most. It’s strange how those little voices come up at the strangest of times. How those negative experiences, comments, criticisms, stay with us over time, no matter how hard we try to exorcise them from our heads and our lives.
When I was a kid I spent a significant amount of time with my paternal grandmother. She loved me so much, treated me so well. She was not a nice person. As I grew I realized she didn’t treat my brother as well as she treated me. She called him names, excluded him from activities, made comments about him. When I realized this I slowly stopped spending time with her. I loved her, but she wasn’t good to him and I loved him. It was my little way of standing up to her, and my not wanting to be around that sort of behavior and negativity. Even as a kid I felt that stuff profoundly. Negative emotion, action, etc. I can’t stomach it. No matter how many toys you buy me. My aunt, who was this same grandmother’s daughter and my dad’s sister, didn’t get along that great with her own mother because of this playing favorites type of mentality. Yet, she was her. Maybe it was to make up for how my grandmother was, but my aunt, who treated my brother like a little prince, was not nice. She was not nice to me. She called me names, excluded me from activities, and made comments about me. Once, when my brother and I were at her house we were eating a meal. She looked at me and said, “you eat like such a pig”. Bam. There it was. That moment changed me a little bit forever.
For years, and even still once in a while, that little line pops into my head. Because of that line when I was a teen and a young adult I never liked eating in front of people. I was so self-conscious, always afraid people would see the pig in me. The pig that she’d noticed and pointed out. The pig that in reality didn’t exist, but existed after her comment so much in my head and my heart.
I grew, and grew out of those feelings. My self-esteem took a long time (for not just this reason of course) to grow and blossom, but it did. I realized it was her problem and that I had never been a pig, but it informed so much of how I was in the world for so long. Perceptions. Judgements. Those ideas other people have of us and those we have of ourselves can be cruel and are often wrong. I saw myself as a pig because she’d seen me that way.
We tell ourselves internal stories. Stories about ourselves, about our world, about the people we see all around us — friends, family, strangers. We do this all the time. It’s how we explain things, people, interactions, relationships, to ourselves. These stories, told as a constant monologue in our heads, are our way of explaining our world to ourselves. This is what that means, this is what that looks like, this is how this or that person must be, and on and on. They are really just our stories, even if they are about other people, because they are based solely on our own thoughts and experiences. Our experience of ourselves, our histories, the path we’ve been on. Our experiences inform our stories. Always.
We can never, and I repeat, NEVER, know another person’s story. Not really. We think we do, we assume things and place expectations on every other person we know, see, and meet, based on what’s happened in our own lives, based on what we’ve been told, and based on what we’ve been through ourselves. But these stories and assumptions and ideas about people are false truths. We get arrogant and judgmental and place unfair expectations on others based on what we think we know of them, what we think we see, or what we think we would do in their place. Instead of really knowing what we’re talking about we often fill in the blank with our own ideas of a person or a situation. These ideas coming from, again, what our own thoughts and experiences have told us must be true. We, as humans, do this all the time. I do it all the time. I try not to. I fail.
To look at another person and automatically assume you know what they should do, how they are as a person, or how they should act, is arrogant. To hear about another person, another group, and assume things about them without having any real interaction with them is wrong and it’s sad. It’s harmful to them, to ourselves, and harmful to the world. It automatically separates us from each other instead of connecting us. Any time judgement seeps into a thought, a conversation, an opinion, we’ve lost a bit of ourselves. We’ve lost a bit of humanity.
This is not a particularly flattering story to tell on myself, but here I go none the less. Years ago I worked at a prison for kids. This particular one was called a youth correctional facility, but it was a prison. I’d just turned 23, and a few months earlier had graduated from college with a degree in psychology. I fancied myself as liberal, open, and non-judgmental. Part of the orientation were these little tours of the different units at the facility. One of those units, a place called the Secure Intensive Treatment Program, was on the tour. This particular unit, which I would end up working at three years later, after a lot more experience, was where the kids who’d committed murder and attempted murder were housed. Basically it was what would be called maximum security in an adult prison. I walked in there with expectation, pre-conceived notions, and prejudices I wasn’t even aware I had. When I walked in I thought I didn’t have any prejudice, any judgement of others. By the time I walked out I knew I was sadly and shockingly wrong about myself.
Part of the tour of this particular unit, other than a staff member telling me about what they did there, was a tour of the unit by a kid who lived there. I heard this from the staff and immediately started looking around at the kids in the unit. There were all sorts of kids there, pretty much all races and ethnic backgrounds represented. In my mind I zeroed in on this one particular kid. I’m not sure why. He was big, and gruff looking, and African-American. I was instantly afraid of him. There were other kids there that pretty much fit his same description, but I kept saying in my head, please don’t let my tour guide be that kid. Any other kid, but not him. Fate has a sense of humor. The staff couldn’t read my mind, but sure enough, he ended up being the kid the staff picked out to show me around. I introduced myself, he introduced himself, and off we went to the various parts of the program. He was soft-spoken, thoughtful, and explained the ins and outs of the place with wonderful perspective and detail. I liked him instantly.
My experience, which was non-existent with criminals, very limited with African-Americans, on the fringe with people who were gruff looking, and nil with teen felons, filled in a story about this kid. Before I even started talking to him I thought, I assumed, I knew who he was and because of those perceptions and assumptions I was afraid of him. I was sure he would be dismissive and sarcastic and intimidating. Sure of it. I knew he would be scary to talk to and deal with. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I learned a big lesson that day. A lesson about myself and about how we see our fellow humans without even knowing them. How we judge without having any real experience, the experience which then lets us know someone and understand them. Let’s us see them honestly, and in a real way.
These are the traps, the stories, and the falsehoods we find ourselves in. We go there all the time. Intentionally or unintentionally. I know I do. I don’t mean to. I try to be my better self, but I know I don’t always succeed.
The homeless are many in Portland, where I used to live. When I was a kid visiting Portland for various activities at various times they were called bums (which speaks a lot to our judgmental nature as people). Later on, when I was an adult living in Portland there’d be the every so often news story about the homeless problem. I used to avoid them at all costs, try not to look them in the eye, and generally sort of pretend they didn’t exist. I assumed I understood them, knew things about them, without knowing them at all. Harsh, but true. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. On the other hand I was always sensitive to kids who lived on the street. I worked with teens and had (still have) a soft spot for them. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved that at risk youth population. They are tough and vulnerable and resilient and sensitive. Many are just downright amazing. I had experience with homeless teens so when I saw a homeless kid on the street I often gave them some change, said hello, acknowledged them in some way. I looked them in the eye and I saw them. Adults living on the street — that was different for me. I had no experience with them, other than what the media portrayed and what I’d heard other people say, so I’d avoid eye contact and walk quickly past to avoid any sort of interaction that might happen. I didn’t really see them at all. Where’s the humanity in that?
Things changed, my perceptions were altered, when on my second date with K we met a homeless woman. We were sitting outside at a café having coffee. The date had been going on for a while. We were having great conversation, enjoying each other. I saw this homeless woman half a block away, heading our direction. She hadn’t noticed me yet so I did what I always did, I avoided her gaze, I looked away. But as fate would have it, she approached us anyway and asked for money for coffee. I didn’t know what to say, hemming and hawing, looking around, being generally uncomfortable. But K — she rocked it out. She looked at the woman, in the eyes, and said that she wouldn’t give her money but she’d buy her a coffee. The woman said she didn’t like the coffee from the place we were sitting in front of and wanted the money so she could buy it elsewhere. K offered to walk down the street with her to buy her coffee at another place. The woman still refused and again asked for money. K then offered up her own cup of coffee to the woman, who again refused and then walked away. The point of this is I learned a great lesson that day, one of many from the woman who is now my wife. Compassion, interaction, and most importantly — acknowledgement. K saw that woman. She interacted with her. She didn’t avoid or dismiss or shun. She engaged and talked in a meaningful and genuine way. I loved her all the more for that. And I learned something from her. Now, when I see a homeless person, I see them. I look them in the eye, I say hello. I now, because of real experience, see the homeless as people. People whose stories I don’t really know. People whose experiences, the experiences that led to their homelessness in the first place, I have no way of knowing and definitely no right to judge.
I was perusing the internet the other day and came across a video of a homeless veteran who had agreed to do a little exercise with a crew of people from a ministry who have made it their mission to work with, help, and try to enrich the lives of homeless veterans. They did a time-lapse video of the exercise. In it they cut and colored his hair, trimmed his beard, and put a new set of clothes on him. He couldn’t see himself until after the transformation has happened. Finally, when they were done they brought out a huge mirror and showed him to himself. He was stunned, mouthing the word wow before he got up and hugged a member of the team.
Seeing this video started me thinking, which led to this blog post. This guy, who in the beginning looked exactly like what you’d expect a homeless person to look like, looked like a CEO of a company when they were done with him. A haircut and a change of clothes is all that really happened, but it changed the perception of him. Ours and his own.
We carry what others think of us, say about us, and the judgements they make of us around inside of ourselves. Those thoughts and judgements always end up incorporating themselves into our lives, into the framework that makes up who we think we are. It happens to each of us and when it does it makes us uncomfortable, chiseling away at our foundations, even though we try to keep those judgements at bay. Yet, we turn around and do it to others. We see people, groups, other humans and we think we know them, without knowing them. We make up stories about them without hearing their stories. We judge, without knowing anything about their real experiences.
We should know better. We obviously don’t know better. We should strive to do better.
Maybe if we think the best of the people around us, they will think the best of themselves. Maybe if we work hard at being interested and connected with people they will be interested and connected. Maybe if we treat each other with kindness and compassion instead of judgement and accusation they will be more kind and compassionate. Maybe, just maybe, if we treat people as human beings, they will be more human. And maybe just the act of being more connected, and compassionate, and kind, and human gives us each a bit more humanity. Maybe if we listen more and judge less the stories we tell ourselves will contain more fact than fiction.