Friday, November 09, 2007
Today is the anniversary of my father's death forty-two years ago, and for forty-two years I have struggled to come to an understanding of him and especially, his frequently unsupportive treatment of me. In a post I wrote on this date last year, I tried to explore some memorable aspects of his dramatic personality.
His favoritism of my older brother is legendary in our family, and while much of it was doubtless gender-related, I punished myself further by believing that my brother must be more worthy of our father's love and respect than I. We will never know if he grew up to be a more confident adult because of his early and continuous nurturing, or whether it was simply in his stars.
I think it matters more that we have both survived our lives so far and try to be the best we can than whether one of us had a head start. Any other view is absurd at this point, but it occurs to me that none of us is immune to snobbishness of one kind or another. It's easy to feel condescending toward those who seem not to have suffered as much as we have. It isn't so much a competitive thing, but we tend to believe that people who have had easier lives are incapable of understanding real suffering.
When such unwelcome (and unworthy) thoughts about others invade my consciousness, I remind myself that it's not their fault they haven't suffered. Isn't our main goal a suffering-free world, after all? We don't get to pick and choose who gets that.
We all have our own karma, and there is no worldly explanation for why everything seems to come easily to some people while others never quite manage to have their needs met.
Since truth is where we stand to look at a thing, we can't ever know the suffering in another's heart. A perfect life, seen from afar, is an inaccurate perception at best.
Everyone experiences suffering sooner or later. This provides endless opportunities to practice kindness and compassion, for there would be no other reason for us to witness it.
That said, it probably is harder to come to a place of real compassion from a privileged life than from one of hardship. We have to know how suffering feels before we can recognize it in others. We can't always avoid pain, but we can choose how to respond to it. We can become bitter, envious and stingy with both material things and affection, or we can grow compassion.
Like charity, compassion begins at home. When we are unable to love ourselves, it is impossible to open our hearts and minds to others.
Too many of us have been taught that we must always place others ahead of us, that humility demands we put ourselves down so we will not become immodest or self-important. Perhaps we were trained in these behaviors so our parents could control us more easily. They were the ultimate authority, and we learned early in life that it was easier to go with the program, which does not, however, serve us well as adults.
Perhaps the hardest thing to achieve is a state of balance. Taking care of others while also tending to our own needs. It's a cliche that we cannot give from an empty well, yet we all lead busy lives with many responsibilities and commitments. It's inevitable that someone will be short-changed, and that someone is usually ourselves. It is not possible to maintain such a pace forever, though, and eventually we begin to feel neglected. We turn to others to give us what we need, but they are also overextended and have little to give.
This vicious cycle must be broken because it leads to nothing but wheel spinning and resentment as we begin to measure out what we give to others and what they give us in return, hardly a breeding ground for compassion. Or even worse, we tell people of our sacrifices on their behalf, which completely negates the gift and leaves its recipient feeling terrible and used.
When I was in the Social Work field, some of my colleagues liked to shout their own praises from the rooftops. They seemed to have chosen such work to assuage their own fears that they were not good enough and constantly needed to prove their worth.
Mother Teresa was too busy ministering to her flocks to worry about her efforts being noticed.
Contemplating my father's life and death today, I am struck by the fact that perhaps he taught me my most important lesson: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Rabbi Hillel, born around 65 BCE; many of the teachings attributed to Jesus were in fact borrowed from him.)
Such a complicated business, this compassion, a goal that is never quite achieved. Our work is never done. But is there really a better way to spend our lives than in cultivating it?
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”