Unflinching kindness

milkweed

Once, at a conference, I noticed a man striding toward me, his face alight  (Marc Ian Barasch tells the story in Field Notes on the Compassionate Life).  He seemed really happy to see me, but I didn’t have a clue who he was.  When he got closer, he pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, peered at my face, looked down at my nametag, took a step back.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, embarrassed.  “You looked just like a friend I haven’t seen for years.  You even have the same first name… so when someone pointed you out…”
He trailed off; the effusive warmth seeped away.  I told him it was fine.

In the nineteenth century, a great Jewish mystic, the Rabbi of Berditchev, was known throughout Europe as the Master of the Good Eye.  It was said that he could see nothing of people’s sins, only their virtues.  He’d roust the local drunk from his stupor on High Holy Day, seat him at the head of the table, and respectfully ask for his wisdom.  He’d noodge a man who’d publicly flouted the Sabbath by praising him as the only one in the village who wasn’t a hypocrite.  He extended his caring to all, whether powerful or impoverished, scholarly or simple, righteous or reprobate.

The Talmud calls for everyone to be weighed “on the scales of merit”, or zechut, from zach (purity), “to intentionally focus on what is most pure in each person–to see their highest and holiest potential.”
Marc continues his story about the mistaken identity, writing that the man’s Good Eye had enveloped me in a gaze of anticipatory delight that made me feel golden.  We wound up having lunch. He told me about his research.  He talked about the happiness and sorrows of raising a young daughter with multiple sclerosis (for everyone is fighting a great battle).  We still stay in touch.”

Sadly, it is easy to see only what we want to see.

This is an old story. But I needed the reminder this week. And to heed the advice I give to so many, “Be gentle with yourself.” In testing times, we lose track that love is about who you are, and not about what you are.
So let us take off our glasses, and hope for more cases of mistaken identity.  For that matter, it might be unmistaken.
When we do, the light spills.

Without the Good Eye, we live a life based upon fear, susceptible to news stories laced with suspicion, panic, intolerance, prejudgment and small-mindedness. Our reality becomes one of scarcity and deficiency. As if to extol the benefits of pure paranoia a well-known businessman bragged, not long ago, “People you think are your friends in business will take your money, your wife, your pets… Life’s a vicious place.  No different than a jungle.”
Really? Okay, if you wish. We all do have stories to tell.
But I choose to believe and live differently.

Here’s the deal: I didn’t tell the Good Eye story as a kind of motivational tool.  As if there is an obligation to “be kind.”  I tell it as an affirmation and a reminder–mostly to myself–that within each of us there is a light.  And that this light–of hope or dignity or passion or justice or beauty or wonder or grace–still shines, regardless of the dirt that covers it.  Yes, there are times we forget. However, there are also times when a simple act of kindness, or gift of compassion, rekindles the light in our own spirit. This gift we give to another, becomes a gift we gratefully receive… and both–the giver and the receiver–are liberated.

I spent time this past week in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s not the end of the road, but you can certainly see it from there. Time with my Father, and how getting old isn’t always fun.
And a day with a group involved in health care, with people who care for the aging, both in-home and in-facility. I talked with them about how we create a space for dignity.

Speaking about creating space for dignity, I like Marc’s comment, “I’ve met people who swim in the piranha-infested corporate waters for whom the Good Eye has not only been good karma, but good business.”
What happens when we lose sight of that (you know, the ability to see what is most pure in each person–to see their highest and holiest potential)?
And here’s the question for each of us — How does it happen that we lose sight of that even in our selves?
When our perception is fueled by fear and deficiency, we approach life and relationships and faith as if we have no ‘stickum’ for worth or value or holiest potential.  As a result, it’s easy to have our identity tied to a label or perception… and not easy to be set free.
And we construct a world where some are in, and some are out. The problem is that we all know what it feels like to be on the outside. Or to feel invisible.

This week I read Fredrik Backman’s novel, Britt-Marie Was Here, about a woman who is learning what life is like when you are no longer invisible, having spent your whole life compensating.
And John Lewis’, Across That Bridge, a memoir that feels like going to church. Let’s call it a homily on compassion, as an antidote to the noisy chatter and defensive posturing of our time. But most of all, a reminder that we all have the capacity for hope.
Why? Because we are on this journey together. We leave no one behind.

This is not about Pollyanna.  Or being nice, for the sake of being nice.  To be honest, my skepticism tells me it’s some kind of emotional sleight of hand. As in, “you’ve got to be kidding me!” And yet… If you’ve heard me speak, you know that my hero is Mr. Rogers. Sometimes, when I need some kind of reminder, or ballast for my emotional boat, I watch Mr. Rogers. I am always moved by the clip of his acceptance speech for a Lifetime achievement Emmy award.  This is what he said, to an audience that lives in a cynical and skeptical world, “So many people have helped me to come here to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away and some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Don’t worry, I’ll watch the time.” (Wherever you are reading this, take 10 seconds and take Mr. Rogers’ invitation. You’ll be glad you did.)
Every time, I think of my Grandmother. And I think of my Grandmother’s swing.

Call it the Good Eye.  Or compassion.  Whatever you call it, when you experience it (as Marc described in his story), you realize that something real and profound is taking place. What would happen (I wonder) if I approached every person and situation with unflinching kindness?
I’m not saying that it is easy. Heaven’s no.
Lucy talking to Linus: It’s very strange… It happens just by looking at you.
Linus: What happens?
Lucy: I can feel a criticism coming on.
And Lord knows I’ve met people with–how do I say this kindly–no silver lining.  (Or as a matron in the south would declare, “Bless their heart!”)
But even there… kindness wins…

Today, I stopped in on Birthday party for Pat, a SM reader who turned (well, I’m not supposed to say). It was a surprise party. I told the group gathered that they should look around the room, and realize how lucky they are. That we need one another to stay sane. That we are not invisible. I guess you never know when the Good Eye will envelop you.
At home, the tête-à-tête narcissus are beginning their butter yellow display, making our grey skies bearable.

Quotes for your week…
In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the human spirit. Albert Schweitzer

Whenever catching sight of others, look on them with an open, loving heart. Patrul Rinpoche


POEMS AND PRAYERS

Welcome Morning
There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.
Anne Sexton (The Awful Rowing Toward God)

Dear God,
We give thanks for places of simplicity and peace;
Let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of refuge and beauty;
Let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of nature’s truth and freedom
Of joy, inspiration and renewal,
Places where all creatures may find acceptance and belonging
Let us search for these places;
In the world, in ourselves and in others.
Let us restore them.
Let us strengthen and protect them and let us create them.
May we mend this outer world according to the truth of our inner life
And may our souls be shaped and nourished by nature’s eternal wisdom.
Amen.
Michael Leunig


 

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