Sunday, January 25, 2015

"how many roads…"

"how many years
can some people exist
before they're allowed
to be free…"

I remember the first time I heard Peter, Paul, and Mary's hauntingly beautiful recording Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind. I was already a strange child. A quiet girl who would rather listen to grownups talk than play with her peers. I sought out stories of loss and abandonment. I would cry at the sound of bagpipes. To see a parent spanking his/her child made me nauseous. Hearing a song about tired doves made my heart ache.

It still does.

For many years I thought there was something terribly broken in me. Why would anyone who was whole want to sit with strangers in a hospital waiting room or seek out the most marginalized members of society? I tried everything to be a happy girl. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to fit in -- truly I did.

But something always gave me away. The book secreted under my sweater when my sister and I were sent out to play kickball with the other neighborhood children. The awkwardness at slumber parties. Being the only student in our current events class who wept over the latest news about the Viet Nam War.  These things did not endear me to my peers.  It was often interpreted as dramatic, selfish, or over-sensitive.

I couldn't blame the people for running in the other direction when I started weeping "for no reason."  I resisted me. I didn't want to be around me most of the time.  And I certainly didn't want to be me. Being me meant being teased as a bookworm, a cry baby, a mole who liked to spend her time in the dark. If that's who I was -- and it was -- I didn't want be me.

Until one day, I did. It was a rainy day in early Spring. One of those days filled with melancholy and memory. I was sitting in a small cafe watching a studious boy at the far end of a large nearby table. He was trying to disappear into himself or behind the covers of the book he'd been reading, so that a group of gregarious, loud teens who'd just come through the door wouldn't notice him. It wasn't hard to see that this boy was familiar with being teased and bullied. I could almost feel his feelings.

But as I sat there watching from my safe distance, a girl from another table stood up and walked over to the table where he was sitting. She asked if she could join him. Without looking up, he nodded and she sat down.

After ordering their drinks, the other group of teens looked around the cafe for some place to sit. When they saw the boy hunched over his books, it was clear they were ready to roust him from the table where he was sitting with the lovely girl.

But she looked up at them, and without saying a word, made it clear that they should rethink that plan. And they did. In a moment she had diffused the situation. Then she set about engaging the young man at the table with her in conversation. It was a small thing. But it was powerful.

Something in me woke up. I knew her heart -- and I knew his. In that moment I understood why I had spent my childhood feeling shy, marginalized, awkward, and insecure. And I also knew why I had spent my entire life feeling heartache whenever I saw, heard of, or experienced violence, teasing, poverty, or sorrow.

The first gave me compassion. The second gave me courage. It was clear to me that I'd been prepared for my life's purpose. I wasn't broken, I was destined to be brave. I wasn't shy, I was quietly alert and observant. I wasn't awkward, I was empathic. I wasn't overly sensitive, I was understanding.  I wasn't paralyzed by self-loathing, I was empowered to act.

Instead of feeling insecure about myself, I felt secure in my purpose. I could make a difference in the lives of others. I could be like that young girl. In fact, I realized that in my heart, I had always been like that young girl. Her example simply served to demonstrate to me that empathy is only as good as it empowers our compassion, humanity, and courage.

We all have things we are aware of. Injustices and secret sorrows that we see played out in the harsh light of society as we go about our days. It might be a child on the playground who seems particularly self-isolating and sad. A waitress who is uncharacteristically distracted. A stranger who is weeping on a park bench. A young mom who is clearly worried about paying for the groceries in her arms at the checkout line.

But we are not helpless in these situations, we are acutely aware. We are conscious of a need for compassion, and we already have the heart to do something that will make a difference. In each of these moments we have the right to be still, to listen for guidance, and to act with courage, humility, and grace. Sometimes that action may be a silent prayer of blessing. At other times it may take the form of a kind word, a warm introduction at a cafe table, or the willingness to listen quietly. You will know.

Whatever your life has prepared your heart to see and imagine yourself doing -- do. You just might find that you like yourself better for it.

In her book about the law of Love, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy makes this remarkable statement of encouragement:

"God gives the lesser idea of Himself
for a link to the greater, and in return,
the higher always protects lower.

"The rich in spirit help the poor
in one grand brotherhood, all having
the same Principle, or Father;
and blessed is that man who seeth
his brother’s need and supplieth it,
seeking his own in another’s good.

"Love giveth to the least spiritual idea
might, immortality, and goodness,
which shine through all as the blossom
shines through the bud."

What a promise. Even when we feel like we are the least equipped, the least likely to be heroic or make a difference in a difficult situation -- we aren't. We have might -- both the power and the potential -- to see our brother's need and supply it. This is how we find our own goodness - in helping another.

Dylan's lyrics come alive for me in connection with this inspired promise -- and our capacity to help other:

"how many times
can a man turn his head
and pretend that he just
doesn't see…"

Perhaps it's time to stop turning our heads away from what is difficult. Often these situations that are so difficult to see, are so painful because they call up feelings in us that we don't understand, or feel all too familiar. But maybe those feelings are really the resurrection of empathy and compassion. And when we honor these feelings, we discover that our hearts have been prepared to actually see when another person needs our help. And by acting with courage and kindness we redeem those old experiences and learn to love ourselves more.

Just something to think about --

offered with Love,


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