Truth and Empathy

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We don’t walk in anyone else’s shoes. We can’t know or bear anyone else’s burdens. We don’t feel anyone else’s pain. We can only know our own. And that being said, because we all have burdens, it should never be a competition…i.e., my pain is worse than yours or I learned my lessons faster than you have, etc. Our journeys on this planet are unique to each individual. When I weigh out my troubles during prayer time, I am often overwhelmed by the ripple effect that our actions have on other human beings. I am aware that when I allow my personal struggles and fears to fog my eyesight, my behavior changes: less open, less empathetic, less loving. I also know how it affects me when others treat me in a closed, judgmental or hateful way, its like a punch in the stomach making it harder to bounce back. In response, I am  continually refocusing my prayers to help me include bringing openness, empathy and love to all  people, specifically to combat the growing deficit of these qualities in the world. I know all change begins with me. I decide the tone and tenor of my journey on this planet and it is my belief that being open, empathetic and loving will have an even bigger ripple effect than being closed, judgmental and hateful does.

When I start at this small level I can build up the skills necessary to bring out the big guns when I need them. What do I mean? Becoming skilled at being open, empathetic and loving has changed my whole perspective, hope begins to thrive and my own burdens become significantly less. A simplistic solution, I know…that’s why working hard on the simplest circumstances help gird my loins for the tougher circumstances. Knowing the back story of a truly vile person that is rooted in the most tragic of circumstances does change the level of judgement that I have about them. It has to. If I am trying to evolve as a person…IT HAS TO! It doesn’t mean that people who break the law get a free pass, or people who make bad choices don’t have consequences. It does mean that when I respond back to them in an open, empathetic and loving way…I take control of the situation and that is where the truth lies. I learn a lot from friends of mine who are defense attorneys. They hear another side to the story. They stand for people who have made mistakes, or who truly haven’t, all of whom need help facing a complex system. They advocate fairness in a way that the world outside the justice system does not (OK an aside here, I am not referring to the inequities of the present justice system…just for the importance of hearing the other side of every story). I also learn a lot from friends and others who are counselors, pastors, doctors, etc. who hear the “other” sides of the stories we would like to bypass so we can feel comfortable in smug judgments. I am also privileged to hear many stories that have staid the hand of my own judgment of others in my own life. What I know is this: most people are not inherently evil, most were taught to hate (I have to be truthful here, I say most because the jury is out on some who actually are evil in my mind…but then I am a work in progress). And when you offer openness, empathy and love in response, they do react differently. Change has to start somewhere.

Being open, empathetic and loving isn’t just reserved for the more heinous behaviors of the population either, it also allows me to share in the goodness and wonderful experiences I hear about every day too. The joy of another’s win, accomplishment, and kindness all give me hope and encouragement to keep me on the road that I am on. And for those of you who share in my faith, Jesus affirms my celebrations of openness, empathy and love as well in MT 7:1-18:

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite,  remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s or sister’s eye. “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand their children a stone when they ask for a loaf of bread, or a snake when they ask for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.

The lesson here is clear: spend less time judging, help is always available, and the only acceptable judgement is determining who the wolves are by the fruits that they bear.

Truth and Circumstances

In a perfect world, truth would be so much easier if everything were transparent…except, its not. Transparency isn’t the norm. So much of the circumstance of every human encounter remains hidden to each participant. How much personal pain, damage, courage, experience, deception or thousands of other bits of circumstance color the reaction expressed in each encounter? I would venture to say a lot. And yet so often we behave as if we know it all and are completely comfortable in the quick judgments we throw out into the world. In the last few days, I have been part of many conversations and observed the behavior of many on the national level that were rooted in misunderstanding and steeped in unwarranted judgement. Its exhausting, pushing down the desire to quantify and qualify everything. In the war between “my truth” and “your truth” does “real truth” get lost?

If we knew more of the “circumstances” that were behind every encounter, would we behave differently? I would hope so. Would a rash of angry and misinformed threats fall differently if the other party knew the circumstances that the other party was struggling with? Again, I would hope so…even if it only meant that words, perhaps angry or harsh, were then not taken personally, or to heart, but created a greater sense of understanding and empathy instead. As Christians, (since I am one, I claim no expertise on any other faith, which is why I use my own as an example) Jesus tells us: to walk in another’s shoes, to judge not lest we be judged, to turn the other cheek, to take the plank out of our own eye before we point out the speck in another’s eye, to be merciful, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and above all to tell the truth. Truth and living mindfully of these commands go hand in hand.

The other side of the circumstance coin is the person who hides deep deception and all other deviant qualities, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I certainly have been the naive one in that equation, and I consider myself a pretty astute observer. The “truth” here cautions us to be careful, to take the time and effort necessary to not only give each person a break, but to remain cautious while the substance of what they speak is revealed, which usually takes more time than we are willing to commit to. Without trying to sound like a broken record, media, social, opinion or news, have created such a market that perpetuates snap judgments that do more to destroy the truth en-mass than any other mechanism I can think of.

In your next encounter, think of the mass of circumstance that you can’t see. Be mindful of how much you hold secret too. Truth takes time, and kindness.

1988

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My second trip to Russia was through Canada. We flew on the Soviet airline Aeroflot, a night and day difference from our commercial airlines. Cautious, I felt this would be a good thing, Russia from the perspective of the people. That hope didn’t last long. Beyond the clear evidence of what materially was not available to purchase in their home country, each citizen had bags and bags of stuff they purchased in Canada.

It is clearly evident that I am an American on a Soviet Airline. I feel like I’m on a 1950’s grey hound bus. All around me I hear incomprehensible Russian, full of enthusiasm to share the spoils of their trip with their loved ones at home. People have bags and boxes stacked on their laps and under their seats, unwilling to let go of the proximity needed to put them in the upper bins. Their “stuff” includes electronics, Reeboks, and blue jeans. I forget sometimes how accessible material things are to me (even if I can’t afford them). The air in the plane smells Soviet-a mixture of perspiration, musty air and an ointment like smell. It makes me feel like a prima dona because I’m more concerned about brushing my teeth and taking a shower. I helped a woman squeezed into the seat next to mine who looked at me suddenly panicked and I knew she was going to vomit. I grabbed the barf bag in the pocket of my seat and put it in front of her face just in time. I felt so bad for her because I know how awful it is to get sick in a crowded place (like I did last time I was in Russia). It is so easy to love when one who is so vulnerably helpless is forced to lower their guard and let someone help. I didn’t need to speak the language, only sit and be present with my hand on her back and give her a Kleenex when she needed it. She smiled and tried to communicate for the rest of the trip.

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I have always loved Leningrad, now St Petersburg. The Summer palaces, the Hermitage museum and churches are exquisite. Plagued by citizens trying to swap, poach, buy drugs was unsettling. I did not feel safe as a young woman there and wore my glasses most of the time, like it would make a difference (remember that I was young and a bit naive) I had such high hopes for a newer, fresher Russia. I expected a sense of moving with the times, but what I began to understand is that this was a country that wanted the benefits of a western society, but either didn’t want to do the work, or was ill equipped to handle the transition. And they worked so hard to create a smoke screen to make it appear that they would still be equal to or superior to America. It wasn’t a very good one though.

We’re in Leningrad-and it is the white nights. At 2:30 in the morning it looked like the afternoon. I met Leonard Bernstein in a shop. I was completely star struck. It was phenomenal, and he was surrounded by people here too.We went to tour the Hermitage Museum, such amazing beauty and art A young man came up to me and wanted to trade, which isn’t unusual, but then he wanted to know if I smoked or did coke and stared exclusively at my chest. I said “no” forcefully. It felt good, but I was mad that the only people who speak to me here-want something-money exchange or other stuff.

There were people we met with who really wanted to make a difference, but I never got a sense that they had much power or backing to really do anything about it. We met with a few peace summits, as they were called but there were always less than a dozen people present. You could hardly call them a summit. I give these people credit, though, they were working hard to make a better life for the people.

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I had a wonderful conversation with a man named Demetrius at our peace committee meeting. It was refreshing to talk to someone young who is educated and open. He gave me his address and said they would invite me to visit again. Maybe, someday. I also went to the ballet it was wonderful, of course-I’ve been lucky enough to see the Bolshoi Ballet in the States. We went to the tea room afterwards, simple and relaxing. No one to bother us. One thing I’ve noticed this tour, is that there are no visits to war memorials, last time we were inundated. The talk of war is almost minimal except for a breed of hatred for Stalin.

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Landed in Kiev on another greyhound type plane. It is much more relaxed than last time. I stayed in the same hotel, and this time had no less than three marriage proposals. Must not be a good place to plan a future. The peace meeting here, too, was just like last time-all party line.

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My time in Crimea was wonderful and awful. I had never been, which I now see for what it was, sexually assaulted before. I am thankful that I was surrounded by people and members of my group to support me, and empowered by my own willingness to punch his lights out. The picture it painted for me was that I thought there was a license to treat women in a way that was unacceptable in Russia, and I unfairly blamed them for a long time. When I returned home and the growing awareness of sexual violence that continued to permeate my own culture, and more personal experiences on a much smaller and subtle level, I had to come to grips when the fact that it wasn’t exclusive to a reforming communist country. Yet, I’m glad that I only wrote about the wonderful and kind people I met there in my journal. When I saw the news that Crimea was annexed by Russia, I knew why. It is the crown jewel of the Black Sea, of the Ukraine, and like Russia seems to always do…it takes what it wants.

We are in Yalta, the vacation paradise of Russia. The hotel is magnificent, the beach crowded with people, families unconcerned about body image, just happy to be on the beach, work first, though. We went to a pioneer village, a youth camp and we only met one official, which was quite disappointing.One distinction beyond the same universal educational curriculum for the last 10 years, rock music is no longer suppressed, and some pictorial art.

Back relaxing in the pool, a very attractive man swam up and tried to sell me lacquer boxes. I splashed him off and then felt bad. I saw him that night in the disco and danced with him and nearly punched his lights out when he started to mall me. Whatever decorum was present last time is not present this time. It is very disturbing.

me and Diana    1988 gala dinner

Back in Moscow at the Hotel Rus (*which is now an office building…original built in 1894) and there were cockroaches. Someone stole a pair of my shoes from my room. I am ready to go home.The city tour was OK, it is dirty now.

That was all I wrote about Moscow the second time, except for one funny ditty I wrote in my journal “Hotel Rus, 6000 rooms with 6000 unused bidets”. We did have gala dinner to conclude our trip and I remember it as lovely, but full of other tourists. I couldn’t wait to go home. The only memory of my return trip was that I had to convince so many on the plane when we stopped over in Ireland not to spend all their money in the duty free shop there. It was hard to convince them that Canada would have everything they needed. Going through customs took forever, one of our party got in trouble for trying to smuggle in caviar. I missed my connecting flight and stayed in Montreal at a new friends family home. My sadness returning home would have been oppressive, but I was ready to start my new teaching job. I didn’t journal for months, so I can hardly recall what my feelings were. I did pack up all my Russia books and materials and put them into storage…which speaks volumes.

Both trips to Russia were an instrumental gift in my life. How it presented and continues to present itself in my life may seem blurred at times. I do know that my devotion to truth and cutting through political subterfuge is a result of those journeys, and is the number one reason I am so pained by what is happening in the world right now. I have paid a price for it, but one that I accept readily. Jesus says the truth will set you free…I walk in that belief and understanding every day.

Rumor Has It

RumorsYou know what I find so troubling? I find it troubling that the internet/social media, while doing so much good to connect people and help them access information, also does a lot of damage in making it easy to rip people apart without any real consideration for the truth, or what it does to someone’s spirit, and, moreover, what it does to the often faceless, feckless, and feeble-minded people who perpetuate damaging rhetoric. It will never make you a better person to disparage someone anonymously or behind their backs. I have seen first hand what it does to people, nipping away at one’s soul, in varying degrees perhaps, but adding to the darkness nonetheless. I’ve posted before regarding an important lesson I learned, that no one can hurt you without your permission…a wonderful and freeing exercise that saves me everyday. However, I also think its important to address what it does to the one who doles out the damage. It just builds up the anger and angst.

Perhaps people are truly unaware that what they say or do has any affect on another, and that if they knew how hurtful they were being they may actually feel bad about it. I know, I’ve unwittingly hurt someone before, it is part of my process to rectify the situation any time I’ve been made aware of it. That’s why face to face conversations are so important, except the internet often makes it impossible to know the direct effect someone has on another…it is just too easy to click, send, or post, without ever looking someone directly in the eye and never face the repercussions of their actions. Ignorance is never an excuse, because the damage occurs anyway. My last post spoke about letting your light shine. But know this truly, when you condemn, disparage or judge another darkness spreads. Jesus speaks very clearly about this:

Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother or sister’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye. How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me remove the splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye. You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother or sister’s eye.

None of us is perfect. And we are all in this together. So let’s focus then, on what we can do to spread light and not darkness. Looking in the mirror, with humility and grace and judging by the measure with which we want to be measured is the place to start.

 

Beauty

cropped-cropped-cropped-gods-sunset.jpgI have been stumped on this one for days. My commitment to clarity has found fault in every attempt at bringing forward a response to the private sadness-es extended to me, the brokenness, and the unbearable burden of living in the skin that they’re in. Be it stress, self loathing, anxiety about the future, never fitting in…the list goes on and goes deep. I could write about societies skewed views on beauty, weight, identity, intelligence, gender, etc. but so many have done a better job at it…and I continued to feel like there was an idea, a word, a first step just outside my consciousness that others hadn’t addressed, that I could create a different context for. Then, this morning it came to me…Job.

While perusing the news and social media, I came across a post that made my blood boil about defining “who and what” is made in God’s eyes. In general, a pastor went on about who God intended men and women to be, which seemed completely contrary to everything I have ever understood about God. It was that moment when Job, in the Wisdom books of  the Old Testament, popped into my head. Here is a primer: Job has a wonderful life in every respect. God is reveling in how faithful he is, and the Devil speaks up and says, “well, sure he is…he has everything. Take it all away and he won’t be so faithful.” To which God replies emphatically, “Go ahead, take away all that he has, but do not harm him” The devil takes up this wager and takes everything and makes his life unbearable. Horrors unimaginable happen to him and throughout the story, Job’s friends and even his wife try to convince him that he had to have done something wrong to have received God’s wrath. Job wishes he had never been born, demanding answers from God. Then a man who claims to know God’s mind instructs Job in what he should do to get back in God’s graces. God has finally enough of people bombarding Job their opinions and claiming to know his mind. He goes on a long diatribe that begins like this:

Then the Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding? Who determined its size, do you know? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone?  While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the children of God shouted for joy? And who shut within the doors, the sea, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, And said “Thus far shall you come, but no further, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!” Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown dawn its place? For taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are taken from its surface?…….

 

God goes on for pages asking questions that no one could know the answer to until Job finally responds:

Behold, I am of little account; what can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth…I know you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. I have heard you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.

God then sees that Job has learned and repented, and restores all his blessings.

What strikes me most in this time, with this old and wise story is how often I hear men and women preach about what is in the mind of God. I wish God would come down and say to them as clearly as he did in that ancient story, that unless you can answer the litany of questions that I posed to Job, don’t speak as an authority of what is in my mind! At 56 years old, I am still trying to figure that out, through many trials and errors. The arrogance of the judgments made in the name of God make me physically ill. But that doesn’t mean we can have no understanding at all, we have a history of faith to pull from. First and foremost, though, I think the place to start is to learn to see and appreciate the beauty that he created, including the beauty that is each and every one of us. If we can’t start there, with what is right in front of our eyes, then we can’t begin to understand the masterful construction of God in anything else. Seeing beauty as God does, counter intuitively must begin through our own eyes, the created, at our own reflection. Until that happens, any beauty we think we see or strive for out in the world is nothing but an illusion to try to become something other than what we are at this moment, which is loved by an omnipotent and magnificent God. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take care of and nurture the beauty that we are, it just means we accept and celebrate the blueprint…which can include any amount of differentiation, like being born with the brain of one gender into the body of another gender. It is expressing that blueprint with each individual’s best effort and not defaming it in any way, regardless of the challenges, that we acknowledge the brilliance of God. Imagine how wonderful the world would be if each of us could just accept that God made us exactly the way we are for a reason and trusted us to do the best we can with what we have.

When an individual or group condemns one of God’s creations, be it gender, or size, or ethnicity, or class, it is also how we can know with surety that someone does indeed NOT speak God’s mind. There are no mistakes. When anyone says, “this creation is an abomination”, or denies the beauty of it, they move further away from understanding God. The New Testament is full of opportunities to see and hear things in a new way, the way God intended. When any person tried to trap Jesus into condemning anyone, he refused and usually threw the judgement back at the accuser, because all are welcome into God’s kingdom.. We need to be more like Job, recognizing our smallness compared to God, and admit that there is just too much out there that we cannot know, and most importantly humbly trust in God even though it might be beyond our understanding.

 

Dying by the Sword

fluer de lisAt the conclusion of the trial in a stabbing death in St Croix Falls, WI yesterday, I felt nothing but profound sadness. I feel sadness for the family of the victim, sadness for all those young men who will no longer be mentored and coached, and sadness for the community who will struggle with the loss of a friend, father and community member. I also feel deep sadness for Levi Acre-Kendall. So,let me say this to you young man: You will wake up every day knowing that it was by your hand that a man died. It was by your hand that five children are fatherless and a wife is without her husband. It was by your hand that a life that impacted many was cut short. Regardless of the circumstances, which by all accounts was a horrible example of testosterone, alcohol, and confrontation gone awry, and the legal result…which in all fairness, as an attorney, was decided as it should have been, there is much to be done to make this profane moment in time into a sacred one.

Yeah, I know, how is that even remotely possible? The choice between the sacred and profane lies in a choice to choose a path of light or darkness. To not choose one or the other isn’t an option. The inevitability of what path to choose lies in how much you can trust the power of God, of love, to work in this mess. Yes, a good man is gone, and a young man is still here. That is the place we start…with what is still here. If any of the words of Jesus are to have any meaning at all, it is in these moments that we embrace them wholly. We have to be the prodigal son story, we have to be the seed that bears fruit, we have to treat the lowest among us as Jesus would…and in this moment it means Levi. Levi, you still have a life to lead, and if it to be one of any legacy at all, you can never compartmentalize away this horrible tragedy. I, for one, believe that your destiny can be a good one and in order for that to happen, you should embrace the struggle of the road ahead because you have to be in those very words of Christ too. You cannot forget about what your actions did to the Kelly family either. Beyond a not guilty verdict, you killed a man and that will always be a painful truth for you. You have to become worthy of their forgiveness or your actions will eat away at you and limit your ability to be an instrument of the light in this world.

Facing up to the consequences of our actions and how to resolve conflict is never easy, and these skills are grossly lacking in today’s society . This is just one of too many examples of what happens when we live by the sword. Let us then, choose another option. Let us teach our children to resolve differences as Jesus taught us to.

Against Perpetuities

the rule againstThere is an obscure rule in the law called, “The rule against perpetuities”, to which I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out in preparation for the bar exam, (even though my instructors almost guaranteed a question regarding it would certainly not appear on the bar exam…of course there was…they obviously didn’t know that when it comes to me and odds, I’m of the, “May the odds be ever in your favor, Hunger Games” ilk, and so I apologize to everyone else who took the test that day…) Sidebar concluded. Anyway, the rule against perpetuities basically placed a statutory limit as to how far a dead person will have control over the distribution of assets to future descendants.  While I still may have trouble with the particulars of the rule, I always thinks it’s a good idea to limit the power one has to control the future of another.

But how often do we hold on to, in perpetuity, our own sins, the sins of others and even sins projected onto future descendants who remain tethered to those past injuries or judgements?  It is takes so much energy to hold on to all that anger and is just as unfair to future generations who have to deal with the fallout.  I think if more of us looked to see what collateral damage there is to holding onto grudges, judgements, and condemnation, perhaps then refusing forgiveness wouldn’t be as common.  I think refusing forgiveness is the greatest weapon against the spread of the gospel. Think again if you feel immune, because you are not.  All of us have baggage, and if you think that holding on to it has no effect on those around you, you are also mistaken.

The only thing that I am sure of lasting into perpetuity is the love of God, the sacrifice of his Son and the need for God in my life.  That doesn’t mean that love’s affect can’t be blocked or inhibited.  Continual forgiveness of oneself and others is the key that will keep the door to the kingdom open. God gave us the key, the choice to keep it locked or unlocked every day,  as a matter of principle, is on us.