Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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"The ways in which we need to grow are usually those we are the most supremely defended against and are least willing to admit even exist, let alone take an undefended, mindful peek at and then act on to change."--Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
When you're a worrier, life is a lot harder than it needs to be. A worrier gets a bill in the mail from their primary care physician for a large sum of money and instantly thinks, Oh no, I can't afford this! I thought my insurance would cover it! One quick (well maybe not quick) phone call to the insurance company would correct the error, but already the worry has done its damage. The worrier starts to obsess about an unreality: I'm going to have to pay $250 for that benign mole they removed at my request. It could have been melanoma. I might have died!
Or a worrier takes a harmless, or at best, ambiguous situation, and infuses it with doubt. I was in a cab once and the driver, a Haitian immigrant, starting singing in French. I was mindlessly scrolling through the Apps on my SmartPhone just to fill the time, but when he kept singing--his voice becoming stronger and sweeter--I put the phone away. It would have been rude to act like I didn't hear him, and he did have a nice voice. We started chatting and he told me that he was a musician and songwriter, and that what he just sang was an original piece he wrote. Then when I asked him how long he had been in this country, he said he was a refugee from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He went on to describe how his mother died in the quake, and how he tried to save her life and in the process seriously injured himself.
I didn't know what to say--what can you say to a stranger who tells you of such personal tragedy? Then I started thinking, maybe he's making this up for a better tip. Yes, I'm embarrassed to say that that thought popped in my head, and started snowballing until my empathy turned to anger. How dumb does he think I am? And how dare he use a true disaster for his own financial gain!
I threw out a cliche in reply, "Life is suffering," I said. How dismissive. I had a chance to demonstrate some compassion for the guy, but I let it go. How many times have I had the opportunity to show a small act of kindness toward a stranger and then didn't? I worry so much about being made a fool of that I find it hard to be openhearted sometimes.
There was a recent survey that named Boston the Least-Friendly City in America (not to mention the worst-dressed, but have they seen Newbury Street or been to the South End on a sunny Saturday?) Though I live just outside the city, I'm not one of its defenders. I DO think Boston is an unfriendly town. For a moment I was happy to learn that my perspective matched an independently-funded survey's. But instead of bitching about it, I could be part of the change I want to see in my neighborhood.
So I'm trying to think of it this way: we all face uncertain situations everyday. Maybe that person is lying, maybe the bill is accurate, maybe the woman who bumped into you meant to be rude. But when you chronically worry and doubt and spin out worst-case scenarios without knowing all the facts, you're going to experience more unhappy, unsatisfying moments than the average person--and the chances to connect with people with openness and compassion will float away like so many seeds on a dandelion.