Category Archives: Kindness

Where We Are Gathered

My writing has been lagging, my blog posts few. I just could not get back to the page. I’ve been weepy. Enraged. Demanding answers about our political controversies and wondering, “How did we get here?” 

One afternoon, I was listening to Joan Baez sing “Brothers in Arms,” an antiwar song. I became distraught again as I remembered my days as a young political activist. How did we get here? The following is one of the recent experiences that has motivated me to write again─ with respect and an open heart.

The woman comes into the church social hall, dressed like she always does.  She wears a dark brown coat pulled tightly around her. Is it wool? I’m not sure. She’s been wearing it since the early fall, and it matches the dark brown, unkempt wig she wears. The wig’s ends are stiff and push out from under the brown hat pulled over her head for warmth. She walks timidly as if she’s ashamed to be with us ─ all of us, volunteers and pantry guests alike. Some of us are both.

For more than a year I’ve volunteered at this church food pantry where some sort of alchemy takes place in the social hall. I’ve put my frustration about increased partisan politics aside as I help arrange the tables with vegetables, fruit, baked goods, meat and eggs, and I find myself smiling. Thanks to the generosity of local grocery vendors in our area, this particular food pantry is transformed into a glorious market.  There are bouquets of flowers. Loaves of bread. Bread and Roses. When we are done arranging and sorting, the social hall looks amazing.

I watch the brown coat woman grab a cup of coffee. She almost never talks and sits with her eyes directed toward her coffee and snacks. She surprises me by asking, “Is there more sugar and cream?” Of course, there is. The minister makes sure there’s plenty of everything: coffee and tea, sometimes orange juice. A kitchen volunteer assembles platters of cake, cookies, and small fruit as a breakfast snack for the guests.

As I measure coffee and tea into food storage bags, I repeat a prayer for comfort to myself. Coffee, tea and the snacks help some of the guests start their day on a high note and, perhaps, will pull them out of the sadness of their situations.

It’s hard for me to stay angry about American politics in the presence of sacred work. I watch the minister who directs a steady gaze to the eyes of every person she speaks with. She comforts. I am moved by her dedication. To my knowledge, she has never closed the pantry for any reason. Twenty-four inches of snow? There will be food and the pantry will be open. She may be challenged but not daunted.  Her mission is to comfort and serve.

There is magic in this community of humanity. Service is a healing balm and a saving grace. For three hours each week, the heartless politicians in Washington who have sought to undermine and destroy the tenets of the United States Constitution become background noise, the least of my worries.

Still, I wonder, “How did we get here?”

As the summer wanes and October brings chillier weather, gold leaves, and rain, I take refuge in the cascade of apples brought to the church. There are enough apples for 100 people to each fill a small bag if he or she wanted. And I feel something. The motivation to write again.

I feel something else, too. Love.

Wherever two or more of us are gathered in the sacred name, serving each other and receiving, I know we’ll be okay. The woman in the brown coat smiles into her cup. We will be okay.

Philosophical Rant: Pity

I’ve been reflecting on the differences between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion for a long, long time. Today, I’m stepping aside from my kitchen and baked salmon to explore the murky waters of that soul sucking scoundrel: Pity.

This is what I know for sure: Pity comes with judgment. Pity ignores the right of a person to make the best choices for herself and presumes that a person is not able to do so. Pity is tainted with the poison of dehumanization. Some folks pity non-white groups or people with physical disabilities.

My mother just turned 94, and  speaks the language of those without memory. Alzheimer’s. I respond to everything with a cheerful “Yes,” and a familiar sadness washes over me. Empathy, not pity, is what’s called for here. In all of the years I’ve known my mother, I have felt  that behind her rigidity and unfriendliness is loneliness.

God, we must lose the pity.

Recently, a person I know—someone who has called me almost daily for more than a year and someone who I now understand offered contact from a place of pity—asked me to do a small writing project, a resume–for pay.  Now, there are reasons that I declined the offer.  One, was a sense that, for this person, “money equals power.” In accepting payment, I’d lose my right to establish boundaries around what I would or would not do. If I did the work for free, my skills would be devalued. And, finally, unlike a typical contract, the expectations were uncomfortably dodgy. I declined.

It’s been a difficult lesson to learn. I sensed that this person, rather than being a real friend, saw me as “needy,” a person in dire need of charity. And, perhaps in the beginning, when I was so blindsided by my condition, I was needy. Yet life offers myriad opportunities to learn from swimming in the muddy waters of pity—both self-pity and that which comes from others.

If you ask or comment, as others have, about how I’m recovering so well, the answer is always the same: I have allowed myself very, very little time for self-pity.

Now, what about sympathy?

Sympathy allows us to truly see pain, but we can remain distant. We may or may not take action, but generally when we do, the action is one that allows us to keep our distance and lets others maintain their dignity. Donating to a non-profit that serves the poor or disenfranchised, working for or in organizations that help others, these are examples of contributing to the greater good in a non–personal way. But, careful.  Sympathy can be a slippery slope to pity.

Then there’s empathy. Ahh, sweet empathy. I learned empathy from my father. Empathy is the ability to feel or identify with another’s pain.  Daddy would always say: “Before you judge another person, walk a mile in his shoes.” He didn’t mean for us to literally walk in another’s sorrow. He meant for us to understand that, as Phil Ochs sang, “there, but for fortune, go you or I.”

That walking puts us on the road to compassion.

Compassion is taking that empathetic feeling, that ability to feel another’s pain, and turning it into true, non-judgmental, loving action. Action coming from love is compassion. Compassion uplifts and heals. Compassion never dehumanizes. Ever.

What a day. I’ve had my rant. It’s time to enjoy some salmon.