Suffering Indifference

Total
humility comes from when you have nothing. When you are without your status,
your stuff, and your pretentions, you are reduced to the real you. Not just
being devoid of your material things. But when you have lost your self-confidence,
your self-esteem, your hope for the future.  I know I protect myself with many trappings, devices,
and artificial comforts. Some of you have been there and know the truth about
this basic suffering. I can only imagine this scenario—which means I know
really nothing about it. Most of us are fortunate to live far from this level
of humility. Far from the bottom or middle of Maslow’s. We take for granted
what we have need and want. As a result,  our ability to be compassionate—literally–with suffering—disappears. We are numb
to what separates us from the real and genuine feelings of others—especially those
in need.

Like
me, I am sure you appreciate the opportunities you have been given and the good
fortune that has smiled on us. We all know that a few fine twists in our
storyline and things would be much different.

It
is a brutal world filled with heartbreaking images and ideas. We have to cloak
ourselves in emotional Teflon so that we can function, right?

Indifference and neglect often do
much more damage than outright dislike.
– J.K. Rowling

So
we become very adept at faking our emotions. We are skilled at pretending to
care. Our compassion banks only can dispense so much otherwise we will be bankrupt.
We have to use our emotional outlays sparingly—reserve it for the people close
to us. Isn’t that right?

Some
people say, "I know what you are going through?" “I can only imagine
how you are feeling?" “I know what you mean.”

Not
sure most people do. We mean well but we are not well meaning. We say
these things in the transaction oriented speed of life. We do not have time to
care. Few of us have the capacity to engage ourselves emotionally in every
tragedy, every hardship, so we get very adroit at feigning sympathy, empathy,
and compassion.

Zen
Buddhist monks in training have a ritual called takahatsu. These young monks must beg for food on the street to
learn their role, to understand who they are, and to learn humility.

So
we build our defenses and protect ourselves. We even get uncomfortable when we
and/or others show their emotions. We find it hard to look at people who are
suffering. We avert our eyes when we see nameless homeless people. As if our
eye contact will hurt us. We know in our hearts, that indifference will hurt us
more.
Blessings

I
was struck by this blog by Optimus Outcast, an anonymous film exec who sat on a
freeway onramp for a day—his takahatsu. Here is an excerpt from his
observations:

Why is it so hard to make eye
contact with someone in less fortunate circumstances? Why is it so scary just
to look? We lock ourselves away in our fortresses with the openings sealed
tight. A you-can-sleep-peacefully-at-night guarantee that the outer edges will
be kept safely at bay. We will never be required to be uncomfortable. Our cars,
our houses, our offices all offer these qualities. But, then if you think
about, so does a coffin.

Maybe the scary part isn’t just
to look. The scary part is to look and then look away.  A reminder that,
in all of our professed capabilities, sometimes we are still helpless to change
things. If we look away, is this our own cardboard sign that reads, “I have
given up.”?

I
am a born sucker. I take some pride that I have not lost all, but I have lost a
lot, of my trust in strangers.  I give
time and money to almost anyone. I have incredible and disastrous stories of my
unsuccessful attempts to help others. I was regaling some colleagues about how
I have been duped by panhandlers.  This resulted in a spirited discussion
with a colleague who said, "There is no doubt what happens when you give a
panhandler money. No doubt." She won't give panhandlers money because she
is convinced that ALL panhandlers are addicts of some type. The money goes
straight to drugs or alcohol.

I
understand this logic. And I know that it is mostly true. But this logic becomes
part of the thickness of our Teflon coating. We begin to make generalizations
about “those people”. But don’t we need as much pathos as we do
logos?
I also believe that we cannot dismiss an entire group because of a
theory, even a “factual theory”.  Because
we are wrong too many times. I have seen and continue to seek out the people
who have beat the odds. They renew my faith in the great potential of all
people. The hundreds of death row inmates who have been exonerated through the
Innocence Project. The countless kids from the ghetto who have succeeded
in school and life. The online teacher I met who typed with her toes because
she has no hands.

But
how much effort should we expend to save the few? Remember the old story about saving
the starfish? It does make a difference to the one. 
StarfishBoy

Sometimes
it is easier for us to give up on each other than a product. How many times has
a product or service not lived up to the hype or advertising? I know. Yet we
still buy. Maybe a bit more warily and carefully. But we buy.

How
much of our humanity dies when we come to these conclusions that ALL of
somebody is not good or able to be helped or have ulterior motives? 

We
lose a little of ourselves every time we think and act this way.

We must have the ability to
understand the suffering of both sides.
 
Thich Nhat Hanh

In
my professional world of philanthropy, we talk about those who need our help. We rarely talk to those we want to help. It's crazy. Our ideas become so
sterilized from reality. So intellectual. So safe from the truth. 

How
do we renew our sense of reality by visiting the suffering we are trying to
address or lessen? How do we truly get into the shoes of our colleagues,
neighbors, brothers and sisters? How do we help our network by allowing
ourselves to suffer with them—to have compassion? To listen, to learn and to
love. To have the vulnerability and humility to know.

I
write this not to preach but to confess. I write this not to inflict guilt but
to remind. I write this to help me suffer with you.

Thanks
for reading. John

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1 thought on “Suffering Indifference”

  1. John,
    Thank you for writing this difficult piece. It’s things like this that keep me reading every week.
    You are so articulate. Sometimes I misread that as “glib.” But no, there is great integrity at your center. Here’s my confession: I’m regularly surprised at how much depth and compassion you have, and how many real human values are at the center of your work. I would have hoped that I would have seen more of it immediately, or at least earlier, but it’s taken me years to get here, and I’ll bet I haven’t uncovered the depths even yet. You can read that to say “I’m sorry.”

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