Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Two things I want to remember...

I was talking with a friend of mine from high school on facebook a couple days ago about concepts of punishment and compassion in religion. This friend and I disagree pretty sharply on the relative merits or dangers of faith/religion and its effect on society as a whole. And since issues of faith are rather close to my heart, it is sometimes hard to participate in these discussion threads. But when all is said and done, I am thankful for them because nothing makes you re-examine your assumptions like talking with someone who vehemently disagrees with you (as long as you can keep your discussion from becoming a fight).

So, while I was going back and forth with this friend of mine, I discovered a few things that I hadn't really been able to articulate before.

First, I came to the conclusion that belief systems do not exist outside of people. Although anyone can see that an abstract concept, like a number, for example, may exist independently of people, other ideas (like justice, mercy, compassion, christianity, atheism, etc.) only manifest themselves through the interactions of people with each other. And people are complex, mysterious, and very, very valuable creatures. This means that no matter how much I may hate the idea of racism, for example (my friend and I weren't talking about racism, by the way), no matter how much I abhor the idea that one person should mistreat another person simply because of the culture into which they were born, I cannot simply hate the racist. Because that 'racist' is a person with a name and a story of her own. While there are times when the ugliest things come out of her mouth, there are other times when she is not consumed with racist bile, times when she may actually say or do commendable things. I cannot solve the problem of racism by rejecting the racist entirely. The real solution, I suspect, is a lot harder than that.

Which leads me to the second thing that occurred to me, and it has to do with 'fighting malice with understanding,' a phrase I used in this discussion, which my friend asked me to clarify. Here's the thing: I think that people choose to be malicious. And if malice is at root an act of the will, then it can only be abandoned by another act of will. No matter how hard I try, I can neither through force nor rhetoric cause another person to change his will unless he chooses to do so of his own volition. It's like in the classroom. The best lessons are those that require the students to come to their own conclusions, because the knowledge they build with their own metaphorical hands is the knowledge they'll keep when they leave. So, since I can't force someone to stop being malicious, I must find out where the malice comes from and then help that person build a new knowledge base. And in order to do that, I have to understand what makes this person tick, as it were, which takes...wait for it...Compassion!

Compassion is a beautiful idea, but it's darn hard to put into practice. Basically, it is when someone else becomes as important to you as you are. When you have compassion for someone, you step into her shoes, share her hopes and fears, and work for her good as you would for your own. Needless to say, it takes a lot of time and energy to have compassion for someone. But it is, as far as I know, the only way to effectively engage with those pesky ideas that wreak havoc on that person's soul and spill over onto the poor souls around her in the form of malice, cruelty, neglect, and other hurtful things.

So why, you ask, are we not all compassioning it up like an army of hipster Mother Theresas? Well, like I said, it costs a lot. And I'm not just talking about money here. Malice is almost always a symptom of some sort of suffering, I think. And if you're going to open your heart to someone, you are going to share their suffering. We've all been faced with situations where those closest to us had to suffer, and in those situations one of two things happened. Either we disengaged, out of self-preservation, and let our relationship starve, or we stepped in and felt the searing loss right along with them, maybe even the double pain of having our loved one lash out at us in their moment of weakness, but ultimately our compassion brought us and our loved one closer to each other and closer to wholeness. So that's compassion. It will cost you your time, your money, your comfort, and your heart, but I am convinced that it is the only way to truly fight malice. It may not win every time, because the thing about wills is they can't be forced without being broken. But when compassion does win out, how very beautiful the heart is that has been made new by Love.


So, yeah. Just a few little thoughts that have been rattling around in the old bean the last few days. Thanks, friend, for making me think.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Throwing the ruler away

I can't tell you how many times in the last few days I've despised myself for not measuring up (Did I say days? Heck, I've been doing that for weeks...months...years...decades, even.) It's like I see my life in negative space, only the failures register. I'm almost thirty. Where are all the flying cars? Why have I not written that symphony? Am I any closer to curing cancer? Where the heck is my happy little family? And let's not even mention the Olympics, which I am too old for by now anyway (unless I want to try the random cross-country skiing and shooting events). Makes you wonder why anyone cares to even talk to me.

Aren't you glad you don't live inside my head? You'd be dealing with this kind of stuff all the time.

Of course, now that I think about it, I can't quite persuade myself to believe that God thinks of me this way. I certainly don't value my students based on their personal accomplishments. No, I value them for the life that bubbles out in their pattering conversations and endless passions. I love their lopsided smiles and their home-grown left-field jokes. I can't get enough of their simple, unaffected affection. A small gesture of kindness from one student to another, and my frostbitten heart just melts. And if this is the way I feel about my students, limited creature that I am, how much more does God delight in me? If my scrappy attempts at living are enough to make God grin--God, the Creative Mind behind the Milky Way--who am I to complain? Apparently, I have been operating under a double standard. Either I am as valuable as my precious students, or they are as defective as myself. Maybe it's both.

So forget it. I'm done measuring. Weakness is not failure, it is what pulls us out of our cold castles of self-sufficiency to do for each other what we could never do for ourselves.

God made me this way on purpose.
He gave me this journey as a gift, and the thing you do when you get a gift is you say 'thank you.'
So, thank you, God. I know You do quality work.