Friday, November 04, 2011

Got compassion?

Every single day I thank myself for not being my 20 year old self.

20 is arbitrary. It could be 16, 18, 25, 43, 76...whatever.

My younger self was very black and white/right and wrong - with lightning fast judgement. She had an opinion and felt that everyone was entitled to it, it being so right and all. Righteous indignation would proceed my younger self into a room. What this younger self saw, was - she was SURE - how it appeared.

Need I cite the old cliche? Do I have to say, "Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now?" (so, I guess that means yes).

Apparently I am a creature of extremes. Fast forward to my current self, who now has trouble forming a firm opinion about anything.

I started to think more deeply about this after reading this blog post, She Could Be On Of Them.

The idea is to explore how blogging has made you more empathetic, perhaps more compassionate and tolerant. I'm not sure whether writing has done that for me.

But, I do know what HAS.

Believe it or not, I think it is my fickle interests. A flighty leap from one project to the next. I'll explain (eventually and with many, many wordy-words).

In the last several years I've become a mom, my youngest 13 and my oldest racing toward 16. It isn't the raising of children that has brought about my ability to mimic Switzerland. It is meeting OTHER people with children, especially children who exist on the fringe of societal 'norms'. I've learned not to judge the parent pushing the obviously-too-big-to-need-a-stroller child through the mall, because that child might look like a 10 year old, but have the mental capacity of an infant. Or lack the ability to walk altogether. The 15 year old melting down because they can't have a candy bar at the checkout lane? Do you know FOR SURE they are what they appear? Can you say without doubt that he/she isn't autistic or dealing with some other cognitive issue? Can you?

In reality, why am I even questioning it? What's it to me? My 20 year old self would surly start in with the contemptuous staring and eye rolling. Because, of course, it is so much easier to leap toward worst case scenario than it is to think there might be more to the story.

It isn't just parenting that has lead to my ever increasing ability to straddle the fence.

I went back to school. I sat in a classroom with emerging adults, young people who possessed the body of an adult but lacked a larger world view. I listened to them talk definitively about life and love and how they had it all figured out. More cliche. I also learned that they were infinitely smarter than I originally gave them credit for. They felt passionately about their 'causes' or 'government' or ....whatever. They were inspired and on fire. How glorious it is to watch, because society has painted them as 'entitled' and 'spoiled' and 'lazy'. In my experience they were anything but. Oh, and another thing - when you pass that group of teenagers/young adults engaged in a conversation where 'fuck' is used every other word, don't be so quick to ghettoize them. In my own experience of being bombarded by that word on the college campus, I found it completely absent when they spoke to me OR to a teacher or other older adult. Their peer language is their own, it's how they communicate and...well...words are just that, words. Language evolves and the rules we make are arbitrary and specific to the time in which we live. I've found that how a person communicates has little to do with the intelligence swirling around in their brain.

Then there was the volunteering. Oh yes, THAT will serve you up a piece of humble pie that will make you choke. After 40 hours of training over several weeks I was set free to field calls on the rape crisis line for my county. Talking to people about their experience is very humbling. The training taught you to invest your belief in the victim, regardless. It didn't matter if you felt they were lying, or exaggerating. The reality is that you don't know. And really, does it matter? But talking isn't nearly as humbling as holding a 19 year old woman's hand while she is examined for evidence, this being her very first exam...ever. She was so angry and then also terrified at what her girlfriend would think, how she would react and if she'd still love her. The blame that I heard hurled at her through the cell phone as she spoke to her mother. The look in the girlfriends eyes and the lack of expression on her face when she came to pick up the victim. I can tell you for certain, it wasn't directed at the rapist. Ask yourself this; when you hear of a woman getting raped, what is the first thing that crosses your mind? Do you wonder where she was and why she was there? What was she wearing? Was she drunk? What could she have done differently to prevent it? And if you have, then I pass no judgement, because you've been conditioned to believe that it is our responsibility to ensure we are not raped. We are taught to interrogate the victim to find out if she provoked it in some way. {Please keep in mind that when I say 'she' it is because the majority of cases involve women, but men are victims as well.} As an advocate for a short 6 months I learned to stop needing to agree with a situation in order to be sympathetic to it. It doesn't matter if I think someone is being over dramatic. It doesn't matter if I feel their anger or worry is justified - it's their emotion, not mine.

The final component is my very short adventure into the world of tutoring. I, again, went through hours of training, this time to a tutor in my library's adult literacy program. I forget the actual numbers, but I believe in my county alone there are over 200,000 adults that cannot read past an 8th grade level. Many of them well below that. Wait! Before your mind wanders to the number of immigrants, understand that it isn't just language learners. The people I met, the kind souls who were willing to come speak to my group, were all native speakers - meaning born and raised in the good old U. S. of A. Language learners are indeed part of this group, but they are often literate in their own language. Not so with American adult learners. Can you imagine, being in your 40's or 50's or older and finally finding the courage to admit you need help and then actually reaching out for it. Well...try to imagine it and you'll find it very hard, because you can already read. It isn't easy to fine empathy for someone who is learning something that is so ingrained in you. Our LIVES are reading - not just for pleasure, but for the sake of our own health. You read the dosage info on pill bottles. You read how to mix cleaning chemicals to avoid asphyxiation. You read contracts to make sure you are not signing your life away or your savings. Adults lacking literacy skills are adept at hiding their inability to read. The people that entered the library reading program were finally at the point where they'd had enough of menial jobs, or being passed over for promotions or avoiding opportunities that would show how little they could read (if at all). I learned that whatever lead to that point is really incidental. They've been judged enough by everyone else and will continue to be judged, so how does it benefit me by adding to their pain? It doesn't make a difference to me that the reason the 30 year old man who thought it was much cooler to skip English class than sit and read is sitting in front me now, anxious to do something more with his life. Yes, he SHOULD have applied himself more. And, yes if he wasn't "such a slacker" (as I've heard people say), he wouldn't have to be doing this now. Does any of this matter? It doesn't to me. While I may silently think to myself, "Why did you make your life so hard?", it does nothing to curb my empathy for where this person is right now. The old saying, "You made your bed, now you have to lay in it", well...while I believe in taking responsibility for ones actions, I also believe that not all mistakes should lead to life long punishment. Oh, don't get me wrong, sometimes those I-told-you-so moments feel good, especially when it comes to my teenagers. But, when someone has opened themselves up and finally admitted, in whatever way, that they need help - well, my current self can't imagine not feeling that emotion in every part of my heart.

My 20 year old self would think differently about much of what I've said. My 20 year old self has also made a lot of mistakes that her current self is finally starting to forgive.

Everything I have done in the last 10 years of my life has been to try and become a better person as I see it. I don't think being completely neutral about everything is wise, I do realize that picking as side is *sometimes* the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, as we start coming into an election year and the more all of 'the parties' start spouting their own superiority, the more I find myself not only straddling the fence but building a moat around it - my goodness there is a whole lot of, "I'm right and your wrong" floating around out there. I don't understand it. I think it's just me. I think I can't pick a party, or stand on one side of the fence because I'm too busy trying to understand what each side is saying - and, to my horror, I sometimes agree with them...ALL of them. My head is a very crowded place to dwell and I admire people who can emphatically pick a position and stick with it- but then, what makes them so right? Ack...see??

Me, I'm going to stay here in my neutral space, put on my rose colored glasses and remain stubbornly optimistic. There is compassion everywhere, I see it daily. But sometimes we need to extend it just beyond our comfort zone, to people we don't - on the surface - feel deserve it. It's hard, trust me. Daily I try 100% and daily I fail 50%. I keep trying.



  1. That's all we can do, right? Just show up and try. I knew everything when I was in my early twenties. Everything. And while I miss being so sure of everything, I wouldn't go back. I'm less angry, now, I think. And I'm better able to see the light in the world, too.
    Great post, as always, Melissa :)

  2. Oooh...this hits so close to home. 20-year-old me was just so black and white in my judgements. 50-year-old me is much more gray, and not just in my roots. Great post, good to get to know you!

  3. This is a great post! I volunteered at both a rape crisis center, and a literacy program as well. Great experiences, and I think it's good to continue to be in touch with the world to keep our own worlds in perspective.
    I'm here from Blogher and a comment you left in my blog! Thanks, and great to "meet" you :)