Wednesday, February 16, 2011
We're all heroes and jerks
"Compassion brings us back to dealing with the world as the only way. We have to work with people. We have to work with our fathers, our mothers, our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, and our friends. We have to do that because the people with whom we are associated in our lives provide the only situations that drive us to the spiritual search. Without those people, we would not be able to look into such possibilities at all. They provide irritations, negativities, and demands. They provide us with everything.
"So, after all, our spiritual journey is not such a romantic thing at all. It is connected with our ordinary, sometimes irritating, everyday life."--Chogyam Trunga, from Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness
I surprised myself the other day when I was walking home from volunteering. I was in a perfectly good mood, which is usually the case after I see Linda, the older, disabled woman I visit once a week. Though on paper we don't have a lot in common--she doesn't like reading, watching movies, or cooking, for example, and I am not a fan of John Denver or Pillow Pets--we still find plenty to talk about and there's hardly a moment of silence when we get together.
Going to see Linda makes me feel good--I come away knowing that I brought her some companionship (and snacks!) and she got me out of my own head, which is usually a bad place to linger.
And let's face it--there's also that little glow of the do-gooder that we all experience when we volunteer or commit some random act of kindness. They say there are no unselfish acts, that in some way everything we do has some self-serving dimension. But who wants to acknowledge that when we're busy congratulating ourselves?
So this kind, caring, and compassionate woman (me, after volunteering) is crossing the street a few blocks from my house when a car drives across the pedestrian lane without stopping to let me cross, even though I'm in the middle of the road! In response, I stick my middle finger way up in the air and scowl at the driver through their driver's side window. I surprise myself with this jolt of anger over such a minor infraction. But in my head I'm thinking, does that person have so much disrespect for me that they risk running me over just to avoid the inconvenience of stopping? What's wrong with people today?
About five minutes later, I'm feeling shame mixed with fading anger. I know I overreacted, and the image I have of myself is not pretty.
The same thing happens when I'm home and my downstairs neighbors--Boston University students--have their stereo blasting dance music. Here I am trying to watch a sensitive, low-budget documentary about coffee production in Columbia or some place, and these jerks are making my floor shake like there's a Jersey Shore nightclub below me. I start to seethe and clench my teeth, wondering how they can be so completely witless and still be in college. Various neighbors (not just us) have asked them to turn it down (usually on a Sunday night at midnight) and yet it happens again the next night and the next. They are so disrespectful! Don't they know that I prefer 70's soul and disco?
It's easy to find fault with the world around you--and especially with the people around you. It's hard to consider their point of view. Maybe the person in the car who didn't stop for me was distracted with thoughts about work or his girlfriend. And the college guys--how many times in your early twenties did YOU blast music in your apartment without thought to your older neighbors who might have preferred classical over the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack?
I live right outside the city, in an apartment building that's close to another apartment building. The guy on the roof chipping ice and dumping it in the alley is not intentionally trying to flood our basement--he's probably not conscious of that possibility. He's just trying to stop the flooding in his own apartment. Even when people are intentionally rude or thoughtless doesn't mean they're incapable of also being a nice person.
Yesterday, I got a box of artisan chocolates in the mail from one of my authors, along with a card thanking me for helping to promote her essay collection. It absolutely made my day, this small act of kindness. I hadn't known she felt that way about my work. I started thinking about how I encounter people doing kind things almost as often as people doing rotten things. It does balance out in the end.
And that kind, caring, compassionate woman trying to cross the street? She's no saint. When Linda indirectly asked me to take her to a podiatry appointment early Monday morning I hesitated and made excuses--even told her to reschedule the appointment so someone else could take her. Not that I wasn't aware that it would be the right thing to do. I wanted to sleep in.