Tag Archives: loving kindness

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.

Soup and Empathy

New Food 001

It’s official.

Summer’s over. The reds, peaches, and blues of summer fruit are making way for the greens, burnt oranges, and purples of winter’s warming vegetables. Beautiful, isn’t it? Soup. Yum.

In my healing process, I’ve become more committed than ever to eating according to season. The soup pictured above was so easy to make, filled with the brilliance of the changing season. Sitting in my flannel nightgown and looking out at the nature trail, I feel secure.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a term for people and communities without access to affordable, nutritious food. food insecurity. Let that sink in for a moment. Food. Insecurity. The USDA attributes this to lack of money. Really, it’s more than that.

Five years ago I was visiting relatives in Delaware. We stopped at a large chain grocery for supplies and, as we were leaving, I saw an employee tossing bags of unsold bagels into a trash bin. I was, to say the least, interested.

“Are you giving that to a homeless shelter? A women’s halfway house? An orphanage?”

“It’s against the law. Liability.”

What? Someone might choke on a free bagel?

In some of our poorest communities, liquor stores—with a high-priced fare of wilted greens, squishy tomatoes, old, brown meats and yellowed chickens—are often the only access to food. In those same communities, some grocery chains have refused to open businesses claiming unprofitability. Now, I find that, in some places, giving unsold food to the hungry is against the law. Liability they say.

My father taught me empathy. We were a large family with limited income, and my parents were no strangers to nights sucked into the black hole of insecurity. But we were lucky. There was always food on the table thanks to relatives who farmed and owned produce stores. My father had a garden in the back yard. For us, the bear of hunger was never a guest at our table.

A deeply religious man who had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and suffered emotionally because of that experience, Daddy knew the meaning of empathy. In spite of his personal demons and contradictions, he cared for others and passed along the wisdom that has stayed with me all these years.

“Never judge another man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

I learned, at the table, that the rigorous road to freedom is paved with empathy and compassion. It is impossible to think of my father without those words whipping around in my mind like a line full of laundry in an autumn wind.

One sunny, summer afternoon in Berkeley, California, I was exiting the subway. A man, woman, and child were sitting in the entrance. The man asked for money. I told him that all I had was the lunch I was carrying. It was simple fare: a sandwich I’d made, some fruit, maybe some chips and a soda.  I don’t remember it all.  I asked if he would like it.

Yes, he said. I will never forget his eyes. His wife cried as he accepted the bag. I am moved to tears whenever I think of the incident. Since that experience, I have been generous with my lunch bags.

Every major spiritual path invites us to live empathetic lives and to take empathy to the next level: compassionate action. We’re invited to change things, to make things better. The palette of life offers a rainbow of opportunities for compassionate action: serving at a soup kitchen, making and delivering meals, passing a lunch along to someone, creating and sustaining community vegetable gardens, mentoring young people to become urban farmers, or teaching children what it means to select good food and eat well. From the White House to celebrity chefs, it’s happening.

I’ve said what I have to say this morning. Now, let’s eat. And share a meal with someone.

 

 

Truth. Apathy.

Truth-ApathyThe other day I contributed comments to a political blog. It’s kind of out of character for me and something I rarely do. I prefer story telling. But I was moved to address the apathy, yes apathy, of some Americans and  the lack of participation in our political process. Of course, being a Democrat, I was addressing my disappointment in the last election. But it’s so much deeper than any particular political party and so much bigger than money.

 

Now. (Yes, “now” with a period. It’s a complete statement. I learned it from my mother and it has infinite meaning. More on that another time.)

Now. (again) These are the things I am passionate about.

Optimism. Compassion and loving kindness. Service. Food (always.) And — owning the political process. Speaking truth to power. WE are the power.

I can’t help but wonder how an astonishingly astute population can languish in such an astoundingly apathetic civic consciousness (Nope. that was not a two syllable sentence). Not until the current demonstrations — extraordinary in the tens of thousands — about police shootings of unarmed black men have I seen such a conscious unified movement. Folks are actually protesting for human rights issues in the United States. It reminds me of my own coming of age in the 60’s and, by God, it makes my heart glad!

Now let’s see…

Apathy: Indifference. Lack of concern. Lack of interest.

Truth: Webster defines it as a case or idea accepted as true or a statement of fact.

Well. Here is a statement of fact. We have become a nation filled with pitifully apathetic people who do not or cannot understand that our participation in the political process is as necessary as breath is for life. Eating, sleeping or, er um, copulating is not required for political freedom; showing up is the requirement. We vote. We try to educate other voters. We help build a free and democratic society brick by intentional brick.

All this talk — blah, blah, blah — about speaking truth to power can be so much wasted oxygen. We help speak truth to power by being a part of the process.

Sigh.

City Council, Mayor, and elected local leadership; County leadership; State leadership; national representation; president. Brick by effing brick. It’s not enough just to vote for the president.

What we have to understand is that folks are ignorant of how democracy works. Over decades, folks have come to believe that all they need to do is vote for the top.

Sigh. The presidential vote is not the sum total of our responsibility for living in a democracy. No matter what barriers are erected (district redistribution, voter ID laws, etc. –and folks will try to stop you) to negatively impact potential nonwhite and non wealthy voters, we who care about the quality of the political process and how that process affects our lives on a daily basis cannot underestimate the importance of participating in local to national elections of our legislators.

But folks don’t know how our political process works. I love this website: https://www.icivics.org/

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the chairperson of the board of this organization that helps folks understand the way our system works. Please pass it on.

“Speak truth to power” is a great principle. But a great principle is only great when the folks living by that principle make it so. Speak truth to power. We are the power, folks.  The truth shall set us free.

That’s my story and I’m stickin to it.

 

 

Committment

Photo by Melinda Zipin Copyright 2014

Photo by Melinda Zipin Copyright 2014

 

“You are a piece of work,” my physical therapist said lovingly.

I would be a liar to deny it.

 

 

Sometimes, this phrase, this being “a piece of work” might be a put down; other times, it is a grand anointing of a strong, deep, and independent spirit.

There are many things to which I am committed. Being a piece of work is one of them. I’m committed to personal growth and to learning how to see with more than the eyes and hear with more than the ears. I’m committed to the mystery of the heart. Yet, there are areas where I have run away from commitment.

He’s a runner and he’ll run away… Woman ain’t been born who can make and stay… Woman get away while you can

Several decades ago, the late singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro wrote these words and sang them. At the time, I embraced the song as an anthem for women who fall in love with men who can’t — or won’t — make a commitment. After a while, it felt like I could apply those words to me.

Ms. Nyro’s song was at the forefront of my mind this morning as I sat with my tea to have a chat with God. Chats with the Divine work for me.

I’ve tended to see romantic commitment rather like the Loma Prieta earthquake that I experienced in the San Francisco Bay area in 1989. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. It’s more like those subtle movements of the earth that rattled the dishes on my shelf as I sat quietly in the morning. The sounds were enough to get my attention, but not enough to force me to commit to action. In the case of the earthquakes, that would be to move the hell to another state. In relationship to people, it might be to engage in a lasting relationship.

“I just got a call from my girlfriend. I’ve known her since kindergarten.”

I stared at my friend. How on God’s earth could someone know a person since kindergarten? I felt sad. I could not think of one person I was in touch with that I knew since kindergarten. Or middle school. Or high school. Not a single person.

But I remember the kindness of teachers, vice principals, and principles; I remember the compassion of school counselors. I remember Mrs. Bowie in first grade and her kind, generous concern for children like me whose home life had some very rocky places. I remember Mrs. Gaines, the Vice Principal in my middle school. She was a dark skinned woman with short cropped natural hair at a time when such a style was unpopular. Some of the students (nope, don’t remember a single one of their names…) called her King Kong behind her back. But she was kind to me and smiled and encouraged me often. I remember these kindnesses.

And I realize, where my commitment lies. I am committed to the transforming power of kindness.

In 1985, I met a meditation teacher from India, and I found a spiritual path where my heart leaped to commitment. In one moment, everything changed for me. I became committed to meditation, singing songs to God, and offering service to myself, my community, and God. I became more anchored in my commitment to loving kindness.

29 years later, I am still on the path and experiencing commitment to the Heart. However, in order to recognize my commitment to kindness, I have had to make mistakes that were unkind. I have had to rebound, redirect myself to my commitment to do no harm. This includes loving kindness to myself with the words I use (you know, that self talk thing…) and the actions I take.

I am in physical recovery forever. Whether  I walk, run, cook, or perform, I will always be conscious of what I eat, the amount of energy I exert, and of things or people that suck my energy.  I am a piece of work. Healing takes commitment. It takes a commitment to faith and a commitment to action.

Yes, I am a piece of work in progress. I am the rock from which Michelangelo is carving David.