Friday, April 12, 2019

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes

When he opened his eyes he was blind
~ Acts 9:8
Shoes on the Danube Bank

Why are we blind to those we oppress? How can we be deaf to their cries? These days we seem to care so much about our environmental footprint yet so little about stepping on the toes of people right beside us.  Why?

I don't have an answer, but I do wonder if the power of rank and privilege is something to which we cling just because it feels good, and looking under our shoes something from which we run- unless a foot catches us from behind and we *feel the heat*.

Saul of Tarsus was a Jew of Roman privilege who persecuted the early Christians.  Heaven only knows what possessed this man, not just to oppress other men, but hunt them down, put them in chains and murder them.  Beyond the thrill of power and privilege, a person has to be deluded.  Utter darkness.

When Saul was on his way to Damascus, he had a revelation.

The story goes that he heard a voice say, "Why are you persecuting me?" and Saul responded "who are you?", to which the voice simply replied, "I am the one you are persecuting."

In this confrontation with the one he oppressed, Saul immediately recognized the spirit of the other and called him "lord." Lit up by the mysterious touch of grace, he saw his own blindness.

I don't know how truth breaks through denial, how people come to know what (or that) they didn't know, or how a hardened heart cracks open.  Is it by force, stunned and humbled by a power greater than ourselves, or by mercy, melted by the blazing fire of love?  The transformative effect of light on darkness.

How?






Friday, December 14, 2018

reverse narcissism

Life is a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors (Eugene O'Neill)

Much has been written on the subject of narcissism: extending beyond personal boundaries and spreading, uncontained, onto someone else's turf; the inability to appreciate others who are viewed as mere extensions of one's self, or mere reflections.

Narcissists are extremely insensitive to others's needs, holding no regard for differences and all but obliterating separateness.  Nobody likes a narcissist!

At the other end of the sepctrum are people so exquisitely sensitive to others's needs (perhaps children of narcissistic parents) that they have no filter for someone else's drama.  This is what I call reverse narcissism: the absorption of someone else's problems as if by osmosis.  Reverse narcissists are so thin-skinned that others' realities can be experienced as intrusive or invasive.

Just as the narcissist can be so tactless and brash you want to put a mute on him, the reverse narcissist can be so vulnerable you want to give him a megaphone and some clothing, preferably a suit of armour.  And that's precisely what he has learned to do to protect gimself when he feels threatened by others.  He may suddenly trumpet "my needs!", "my time!", "my things!", "my space!" and withdraw to reclaim them, or use more drastic measures like bingeing, drugging or gambling to "numb out".

Unlike empathy which vibes with someone else's experience while maintaining ego separateness, reverse narcissism absorbs others' experiences to the point of saturation and flooding, threatening the very survival of the ego.  It's intolerable.  At that point, trying to buffer himself against another's reality, it might look and sound as self-absorbed as the narcissist but is actually the reverse: a gasping and grasping for air and dry land to avoid being engulfed by another...




Thursday, November 1, 2018

out of la la land

My phoenix long ago secured
His nest in sky-vault's cope; 
In the body's cage immured
He is weary of life's hope
~ Hafiz


I met a retired woman yesterday who finally, after years of toxic relationships with exes, parents, siblings and peers- it began in primary school when she was bullied- said to me with a great sigh of relief, "I've finally woken up; I'm out of La La Land, and I'm never going back."

She was a serial victim, not due to weakness or so-called "co-dependency" needs... but due to, as she put it, "dangerous naivety" or as I like to call it: pathological trust.

She had an idealism and hope that just wouldn't die; a good heart and misplaced faith which led her to place her trust time and again in the wrong people and situations.  Yes the roots of her poor judgment went back to early childhood. She'd been somewhat neglected by absent and hypercritical parents.  But she was not particulalry needy or dependent.  She had no addictions, no masochistic tendencies or attraction to danger.  She was self-reliant, strong, kind, educated and reliable, a wonderful mother to four beautiful children, a successful career woman, a good friend and so much more to many people.

There was nothing wrong with this woman. But she was addicted to hope.

Basically she was like the proverbial phoenix rising perpetually from her own ashes, burned again and again in the crucible of hopes and dreams turned to smoke.

We can get addicted to hope as to food.  If the food is good, our hope is well placed.  But if the food is posionous, our hope is going to make us sick.  It becomes toxic.

That is the essence of addiction: uing a toxic substance to satisfy our hunger.  We may come to know it's making us sick but we can't stop using it.  The lucky ones come to a point where they can't do it anymore; they stop the cycle of abuse before it kills them.

There is an expression that goes "Either you're right or you're in a relationship."  Another that goes, "Addiction is a disease of relationship."  Someone who needs to be right or has an active addiction is in survival mode; and this, sadly, precludes their ability to relate to another person.

To break out of our solitary bubble, hope addicts need to stop partnering with others who are in their own self-defensive bubbles.  We need to let the hope die instead of us...



Friday, August 24, 2018

Platinum rules

So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them
~ Matthew 7:12


No longer the gold standard of moral conduct, the "do unto others" rule has been revised and expanded to include variations on the that theme known as the Silver, the Bronze, and- my personal favorite- the Platinum Rule.

Whereas the Golden Rule tells us to treat others as we would like to be treated, the Silver Rule flips the Golden Rule on its head and urges, "Not to treat others as we woudn't want to be treated ourselves."  It's a more conservative approach to reciprocity, based on the sound ethical principle of "first, do no harm."

The Bronze Rule takes harm-reduction one step further.  It admonishes, "If you're not bothering him and he's not bothering you, leave each other alone!"  Cute, but in my opinion it not only flips the Golden Rule on its head, it decapitates it as well... I don't like it.

Surely there can be more to inter-dependence than a "parallel lives" philosophy of well-being?

In comes the Platinum Rule.

The Platinum Rule, a term coined by Alessandra and Zimmerman in 1996* is about treating others as they would like to be treated, making them (not you) the measure of ethical and compassionate conduct.  Simple but brilliant!!

You can treat others well only if you first discover how they would like to be treated. If I do not know what you like, what makes you feel good or feel loved, how can I make you happy?  By giving you what I like?  Unfortunately not.  I need to know your language, what speaks to you, and give you that.

In his little book, The Five Languages of Love, Gary Chapman breaks down five main ways we give or receive love: as gifts, affirming words, time, physical touch or acts of service.  Each of us has a language (or two) which expresses love to us.

If we want to make each other happy, find out each other's language and speak that.

Go Platinum.

[ADDENDUM, August 26, 2018: The Platinum Rule preserves the spirit of The Golden Rule better than when we follow it to the letter.  By giving others what they want, we treat them as we would like to be treated.]




*although my philosophy teacher, Robert Misrahi, talked about this principle as early as 1986







Thursday, August 16, 2018

How important is it

How important is it?
~Alanon slogan

It was all planned.  I was going to bike to my internet service provider on Sherbrooke and drop off some cables, then continue on my way to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to see the Picasso exhibition.  I was little annoyed at having to do this since I'd already come last week after interrupting my television service to drop off my terminals.  That was inconvenient enough but, since they'd forgotten to ask me to also return remotes and cables, I had to make a second trip.  Today I called before leaving to ask if I needed to bring anything else.  After being transferred from their technical team to customer service, "No," the guy on the phone answered, "You don't."

I arrived at 10.  The store should have been open but it was still dark behind those locked accordion bars.  A few miutes later a young man showed up, sweaty with skateboard under one arm, key in hand.  He opened the door, slid quickly through it then began locking it behind him. I asked, "Isn't the store open at 10?"  "Yes, but I need another 10-15 minutes," he said.  I shrugged, "The store is supposed to be open at 10."  He noticed I had stuff to return and said, "Well, if it's just to return those, then come on in." 

In I came.

At the desk he asked for my account number.  I didn't have it.  I said I was told all I needed to come with were the cables and remotes, and they always pull up my account number with my name and telephone number.  He couldn't find it and said I had to produce a bill; or maybe call my service provider and ask for my account number.  I said his colleague was able to find it last week.  Anyway, I took out my phone and called the head office. I pressed 2, then 4, then another number, and then I was told I'd have to wait 10 minutes.  I started to smoke...

I told the young man this was ridiculous. That I had come twice to return my stupid equipment, spoken to at least three agents, even double-checked I had everything necessary to finalize my friggin account closure.  That on top of this, he was late and, because he couldn't find my number, I had to call their office myself, and now I'm on hold...

He held up his hand, looked away and said, "Madame, that's enough.  You used the F-word and I've already told you what I can and cannot do so it's up to you." His refusal to look at me or validate my frustration really pissed me off but, to add insult to injury, he said, "And I wasn't late, I got here at right at 10". I was beginning to feel more like an employee than a customer and reminded him that he was getting paid to help me and hear my complaints, not the other way around.

Someone finally answered the phone and my account number was found and we both settled down.  A few minutes later, he handed me my receipt and I apologized for losing my temper and asked if I could tell him something, a bit of advice as a friend.  He agreed.

I said, "I know you're young and, at your age, I might not have had the patience to deal with someone like me either, but you should understand that clients are paying and you are being paid to help them.  It is not personal for you, you get paid anyway, but these frustrationss are personal for us because they cost us time and money.  A little compassion would go a long way and probably avoid an escalation.  Anyway I am sorry I lost my temper".

Then the young man asked if he could now speak and I said, "Of course".

He said, "I wasn't supposed to open the store today but was helping out my colleague who is sick. I rushed to get here but on the way I wiped out on my skateboard and I'm bleeding.  I really wanted to clean up before starting work.  I'm also sorry".

I said, "Oh! Are you hurt?"  He had tears in his eyes and said, "No, it's okay", and held out his hand to shake mine.  I gave him a big hug instead because suddenly he felt like my own son...

I got to te exhibition in good time.  It was very interesting, all about colonialism and Enlightenment and art... But this silly mask of an elder spoke to me more than any famous Picasso painting:

It's the mask of an elder which, despite its silly grin, is supposed to symbolize wisdom and experience, and is used in a Mexican dance ritual representing a reversal of social norms and order. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Thy Will Be Done

My eyes fail, looking for my God
~Psalm 69

I have been on a spiritual retreat for over 40 days.  Toward the end of it and until now, I have been asking: what is the next right thing to do?  Where do I go from here?

I pray for orientation.

Sometimes I get promptings that are crystal clear about what I should do.  Other times a gentle rush of peace moves into a place that was previously dark and painful, a blessing in the form of knowing I am at the right place doing the right thing, even if most of the time I'm not doing anything at all. These are magic moments. And I am grateful for them.

Other times I am just plain lost.  I pray or meditate, read the Bible and ask for signs... Nothing.  I willingly surrender my will to God's and sit patiently like a blank sheet of paper waiting for him to write His message on my mind and heart...  Crickets...

I think of David and Job and Jeremiah and Jesus, all of whom felt forsaken by God and left in a desolate place of separation with the Devil breathing down their necks.  What a place to be!

You're God-forsaken.  Now what?

Here is the wisdom that came to me today in the form of an analogy.

Imagine you're driving in a car and you get disconnected from your GPS.  Maybe you took a wrong turn and don't know how to get back. Maybe you were listening to the radio and didn't hear The Voice. Maybe the noise of your thoughts or ambient distractions drowned out the directions.  Or maybe you saw construction ahead, or wanted to take the scenic route, or just misunderstood Her and made a mistake.  You took the wheel into your own hands and got off  track.  And now you're lost.  It doesn't feel great but it's not the end of the world. Why?

Your GPS will update its directions to match your new position!  Your wrong turn may have may cost you time and stress but, unless you drive off a cliff in a fit of rage, you're gonna make it to your destination provided you keep on listening. (That, by the way, is the meaning of the word obedience, from the Latin ob + audire: to listen!)

What's more, God is God.  His will will be done, whether you are listening to His instructions or not!  The only difference between we who follow his guidance and we who do not is the trouble we get into along the way.  Going from A to B, Albuquerque to Boulder, we might end up in the Bullring!*

It is a great relief to know I do not have to figure out God's will in order to do it.  Even when I choose to surrender to His satellite-in-the-sky omniscience (after all, I want to stay out of trouble as much as I can), I might still get lost.  At those times, straining to see "what next?", I can find comfort in the fact that I am never really lost, that I'm gonna get to where I'm supposed to, because His will guarantees that. I can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride...

* Anyway, if it's His will that I'm skewered like a shish-kebab ain't nothing I can do about it.  If it's His will that I get out of there alive, well... Glory hallelujah! 



Tuesday, May 8, 2018

compassionate compass

We are asleep with compasses in our hands
~W.S. Merwin


I just realized that the words compass and compassion are only three letters apart.

They mean different things of course.  The word compass means to circle or go around, and comes from the Latin com ("with") + pass  ("a step"). The word compassion means to feel for someone else's suffering, and comes from com ("with") + passion  ("pati").  Both are ways of moving with, and being moved by, a person or situation; both are ways to orient ourselves.

How different are these orientations in fact?

A compass is set to be magnetized to true north.  Compassion resonates with others' feelings. Both are ways to find oneself.  Or lose oneself.  Or maybe finding and losing oneself are the same thing!

Setting our minds and hearts on something outside of ourselves, we find a path and direction.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Love yourself as your neighbor

~Love your neighbor as yourself  (Mark 12:31)
We applaud people who run out to save a child from an oncoming school bus, or rescue old ladies from thugs, or run into a burning building to save a dog or cat or a person.  They risk their lives for others and we praise them for their altruism.  We think of them as heros. 

But are they?

Altruism comes from the word "alter" (other).  Altruists are other-centered in their actions.  But when asked what they were thinking and why they did what they did, the altruist invariably says something like,  "I didn't even think; I just did what I had to".  They felt compelled to do it. 

What exactly is so heroic about that?  Isn't altruism just as compulsive and blind to potentially self-destructive consequences as self-centered acts like self-mutilation or drug addiction?

Of course it is wonderful to help others avert disaster when we can.  But why is it better to be other-centered than self-centered?  Or put our lives at risk?  Isn't each human life of equal value?  If we attempt to rescue a drowning person who pulls us under, get hit by a car and get killed with the kid, burn to a crisp because we didn't have enough oxygen to make it outof the fire... where is the merit?  I did it because I "had to"? 

Maybe inside every altruist is a self-righteous self-effacing co-dependent... a fake hero who, in truth, simply feels compelled to act in other-centered ways.  I think I may be one of those!  

The dictum quoted above urges us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and that is good; but every life is worth saving, including our own.  

I suspect that many altruists need to love themselves as much as their neighbours and maybe learn to be a little less cocky about their heroism.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The trellis*


The trellis stands by
A wandering rose whose blind and tender shoots
Poke the air, testing
Fingers curled around a tendril twirling itself around the fringes
Of the bent green wood

The triple cord, earnest in its unmoving state between Sun and rose,
Awaits, hurting…

“Come sweet Rose!” it pines,
“Lift up your head and let Him pull you to your feet!
The ground you cling to, even as it calls you to sleep,
Is a deathbed!”

It sweats until its sapless brow, bead by bead,
Moves the rose to weep
And stretch across the gap between where life begins and ends,
Hanging on.


*for my Rose

Friday, February 16, 2018

carefree caring

There is a type of caring that is responsible to a fault.  It is based on responding rather than giving.

What is the difference?

Caring as giving is offered, from me to you, from the inside out.  It is freely given; a choice. Caring as responding is an answer, to you from me, from the outside-in.  It is not given freely, but from a sense of duty.

Why is this caring to a fault?

Because it holds the other responsible for my own sense of obligation, placing the burden of giving on someone outside myself.  It is not carefree caring.  It is anxious, heavy, laden with responsibility, like a job.  It is the care of a first responder, or an unpaid volunteer.

Ultimately, this kind of caring, when offered to a child, friend or lover, will feel unfair to the caregiver.  Resentment builds because they feel like they are owed something.  Then they begin to exact payment from their loved ones. They get angry and withdraw, or both, and escape.  They are like elastic bands that stretch beyond capacity then snap in your face.

The only person this is unfair to, is loved ones.

The caregiver-to-a-fault, in holding someone else responsible for their caring, refuses to see it comes from their own sense of duty.  They want to feel good about themselves so they say "yes" when they should say "no", give without being asked, shower their gifts on you until they burn themselves out, then yell at you "NO!!!" when you ask for a glass of water...

That is caring to a fault and it is not sustainable.

True caring begins with me: feeling good about me, allowing me to be me, shedding my guilt and meeting my own needs first.
Me. Me. Me.

Then I can care freely about you.




Saturday, October 14, 2017

taking the swords out of words

~ sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me

It has taken me a long time to not disregard that rhyme as just plain wrong. Words, never hurt? What about the pen being mightier than the sword? Harsh words can wound us to our very cores. You can remove a sword but you cannot unhear words.

No, I always thought, "Words hurt like hell!" and for that reason have long dismissed forgiveness as a disingenuous attempt to let something go when in reality it is killing us.  First we heal, I thought, and when it stops hurting, then we can forgive, truly forgive.

But I am changing my mind. I still believe there is a lot of fake forgiveness out there, and that it is better to heal organically by feeling our pain, telling our stories and getting a "hearing" which validates our suffering, than to feign forgiveness through gritted teeth.  But now I believe we can dodge and remove the swords through forgiveness.

We live in a world where words are used like swords to argue, prove, debate and sell.  We are always fighting!  When someone offends us, we pick up the sword and fight.  But what if we didn't?

Luke 1:20-21 reads, "You will be silent until the child is born". God took speech away from Zechariah when he doubted his wife had conceived a child. Zechariah could have ranted and raved, and poured all his energy into that, but the child would be born or it would not be. God did him a favour.

Saying and doing nothing is acting without reacting, engaging a situation by disengaging, making peace. With silence we disarm the voices in our heads and enmity in the world.  As the swords drop from our words, we not only make peace, we find it, no longer captive of others' actions and our reactions.

Originally forgive meant simply to give totally, with all one's heart, and it applied to good things like marriage as well as bad things like legal offenses. Give. Forgive. Save your breath, and make peace.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The power of suggestion… NOT!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
~John (1:1)

God said, "Let there be light", and there was light.  Some utterances fulfill the intention of the speaker.  They are prophetic words, potent words that create realities from the speaker's mind merely by claiming his vision out loud.

There is tremendous power in this. In the human realm, it is called suggestion. And it works.  If you say something emphatically, and repeat it often enough, especially if it is accompanied by a mental image, you can anticipate the future.  This is where the expression "be careful what you wish for" comes from.  Wishes pack the power of the verb*.  This can do good, but- like all power- it can also harm ourselves or others if we do not wield it carefully. 

When my friend's son was just a kid, his dad, well-meaning of course, told him emphatically, “Son, you will try drugs as a teenager and you will like them.”  It was meant as a warning but it came out as a positive suggestion.  He told his son this would come to pass. And, guess what?  It did. As soon as his son turned thirteen, he started experimenting with drugs, and he liked them.

Negative suggestion is just as, if not more, powerful than positive suggestion.

Everyone has heard of reverse psychology: tell someone not to do something and they will do the opposite.  God created the World by speaking it, but Adam and Eve fell because they ate from a tree He told them not to eat from.  He gave the Jews commandments telling them exactly what not to do, but they were a “stiff-necked” people who disobeyed at every turn. When he offered his son and said, “Go ahead, people, sin. Jesus loves you anyway!”, suddenly everyone who believed in Him behaved.  A coincidence?  I don’t think so!

Terrible two-year olds and teenagers predictably rebel against parental imperatives when phrased as commands to “not ” do something.  Just as it is in our nature to go through doors when they are held wide open, it is in our nature to resist closed ones. We are compelled to resist in order just to BE.  This is how we came into the world!  Taboos prohibiting us from being self-directed will surely find their way through the back door…

You can make a negative suggestion even when you are consciously inviting someone to be free.  Depending how you say it, they can end up taking the back door anyway:

Last week, someone sent money to the same friend's son for his birthday with a note, “Do something you wouldn’t normally do but don’t hurt yourself”.  The young man went out Saturday night with the cash to buy some weed and ended up in a dark alley where he got mugged by a group of thugs at knifepoint.  They took the gift of money and all other valuables the young man had, including his brand new jacket.  

The friend unwittingly gave the young man a negative suggestion: he told him not to do something dangerous, and he did it.

Negative suggestion can be as powerful as it is subtle.

I went to a conference on hypnosis once where the instructor demonstrated this very nicely.  He invited a volunteer up onto the stage and held his arm down by his side.  He said, “Try lifting your arm”.  The volunteer couldn’t budge it.  The instructor encouraged him, “Try again!”  And then louder, “Try harder!!” To no avail.  The man could not lift his arm.  The instructor dropped the man’s arm and said, “Relax.”  Then he bound it tightly again and said, “Now lift your arm.” Guess what?  He lifted it with ease.

When you ask someone to “try” in essence you are inviting them to not succeed.  It is a type of negative suggestion!  It is much more effective to say simply, “Do it.”

So be careful what you wish for.  And be as careful about what you wish not for!


* "verb": part of speech that expresses action or being" (12c.) directly from Latin verbum "verb," originally "a word," from PIE root *were- (3) "to speak" (source also of Avestan urvata- "command;" Sanskrit vrata- "command, vow[the Online Etymology Dictionary] 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

the meaning of sacrifice

~ And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

I'm not a Christian but I have struggled my whole life to understand the meaning of "sacrifice", the mystery of the cross, and the human obsession with offering blood (goats, lamb, body parts or whole persons) to atone for our human condition.

Raised by hard-working parents who loved us well but, like many of their generation, reminded us daily that they bore the cost of our privilege and good fortune, I rejected and was unwilling to pass that burden on to my own children.  So in my twenties, I completed a Master's thesis entitled "Le Sacrifice et la Générosité; Réflexion sur Autrui" that skewered the notion of sacrifice in favour of generosity as an act of giving from the feeling of abundance rather than from the pinch of obligation. If this was not love for another, I thought, at least it was not a need for personal atonement.

Still I found myself drawn to churches, returning over the years with wonder and an inexplicable thirst for what was inside of them.

I could not understand the cross, confession or the ritual of communion, and saw in the expectant lineup of believers nothing more than a convoy of confessed failures and neuroses seeking redemption in a tiny piece of bread that dissolved in your mouth the minute you turned around, and was completely digested and excreted by the following Sunday.

I have prayed to understand.

Today, Labour day Sunday, I had a breakthrough (and I am grateful to my friend Oscar the Wild who let me break down a little last night to allow the light to shine through, because it comes down to that):

"Sacrifice" means SACRED ACT and "picking up the cross" following your heart by listening to that "still, small voice" that just knows what is good, what is right, what is love.

In this we are bound to encounter, in ourselves and the world, resistance in the form of misconceptions, fears and defenses which stand in the way of breaking us open to live that truth. (Hence perhaps the misguided notion that sacrifice is about suffering, and the cross about dangling from nails in perpetuity.)  But the story doesn't end there. It ends with the resurrection, the reunion with the source of life that renews us from within every time we are true to ourselves.

Sacrifice is living.

(Amen to that!)