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A Flock of Sparrows for Majel: Would You be so Tender, My love

A Flock of Sparrows for Majel

(About a 2 minute read)

In my gloomier evenings, my love,
Or even in my darker nights,

The nights when my sun threatens
To implode into a neutron star
From which so little of me can escape
To be with you — even in my darker nights,

Continue reading “A Flock of Sparrows for Majel: Would You be so Tender, My love”

Abuse, Business, Children, Cultural Traits, Culture, Equality, Equality of Opportunity, Family, Feminism, Ideologies, Income, Kindness, Management, Oppression, People, Political Ideologies, Political Issues, Poverty, Professionals, Quality of Life, Society, Talents and Skills, Work

I Didn’t Learn the Truth Until I was Twenty-Two

During all the years between my birth and leaving home to attend university, I witnessed my mother crying once, and once only.  To my shame, it happened after I made a cruel remark accusing her of being responsible for our family’s poverty.

I was 17 by then and, since I’d never seen her cry before, I had up until that moment naively assumed there was nothing in this world — no misfortune, no tragedy, no evil  — that could move her to tears.  When the tears came I was at a loss of what to do, so I did nothing.  Instead, I sat in my chair shocked into disbelieving silence while she sat in her chair simultaneously crying and apologizing to me for having lost control of her emotions.  Apologizing just as if she was committing some outrageous, inexcusable offense.

Looking back, I think the event should have taught me volumes about how great and deep was my mother’s sense of responsibility for our poverty.  But instead of fully reflecting on the event, I went into denial of its significance.  That is, I didn’t deny it had happened.  But I denied it was important or meaningful.

That was my way of handling the terrifying thought that some aspects of life could overwhelm her.  I was not at 17 fully conscious of the fact that my mother was the source of my strength, but conscious of it or not, I still deeply needed to believe there was nothing in life she couldn’t handle, and that by implication, there was nothing in life that I myself couldn’t handle just as well.

Consequently, she and I never again brought up between us the subject of our family’s poverty, and so I did not discover from her the proper causes of it.

One of those causes was that she was the sole breadwinner for our family of four.  My father had died relatively young, leaving mom with the burden of fending alone for me and my two brothers.  My older brother was only four at the time, so of course she had the added burden of very young children to raise.

Women back then had few job opportunities.  In 1960, only 38% of women worked outside their homes, and most of them were limited to working as teachers, nurses, waitresses, clerks, or secretaries.  Exceedingly few were in management.  Yet, my mother became one of the exceptions.

After my father died, she moved us from the city where we were living to the small town that she herself had grown up in.  Her move was a strategic decision:  She needed the support of her friends and family who still lived there.

Her decision paid off.

When a job as the CEO of small housing and apartment corporation headquartered in the town opened up, some of her family and friends went to work successfully lobbying the board of directors to hire mom.  That’s how things are so often done in a small town.  Your friends and/or family go to bat for you by talking with people they know who are in a position to hire you — or even talking with people who know people who are in a position to hire you.

The company had been operating in the red, but mom succeeded in turning the company around, and putting it in the black, where she kept it for the rest of her long, forty year career.

By the time I graduated from university, the company was being written up in industry magazines as a model business, and mom had become modestly well known within those circles not only for her competence in running the company, but also for her willingness to mentor other executives at non-competing companies around the nation.

Yet it was not until near the end of her career that she was paid much more than was necessary for our family’s survival.  In 1960, the average family income in America was $6,691.57.  Mom, who is a very private person even in many ways to her own family, has not told me how much she herself earned in 1960, but I have ample reasons to believe it was less  than the average for an American family, let alone less than the average for the family of a business executive.

One pound of round steak cost $1.06 at the time, much more expensive than hamburger or chicken.   Because of the expense, I didn’t know what round steak — or any other steak — tasted like until I was 11 years old, when I became the first of my brothers to eat a steak.  One day my best friend happened to mention that his mom was preparing T-bones for his supper that night, so I naturally asked him if T-bones were any good, because I didn’t know.  His mother overheard us and kindly decided to invite me to supper.

Strangely, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-teens that we were a seriously poor family.  I always knew we weren’t as well off as many families, but there were still poorer families than ours.  Besides, we never went without a meal, there was a roof over our heads (thanks entirely to my aunt, who bought a house for us to live in), we were clothed, and we had books.  For some reason that I’m sure of, the books upon books in our house assured me that we were doing just fine.

Consequently, I simply assumed up until the age of about 15 or 16 that most of the signs of our poverty were due to my mother’s tastes.  Few toys for Christmas?  That was, to my mind, because mom thought toys were mostly frivolous and unnecessary.  No family vacations?  Another frivolous thing.  No expensive foods?  Mom has no appetite for them.  And so forth.

Sometime in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, I quite bluntly demanded of mom to know how much she earned.  To my surprise — because this wasn’t the sort of thing she was usually willing to reveal — she swore me to never tell anyone outside the family, and then she all but whispered a figure to me.  I can no longer recall what that figure was, but I do still remember that it sounded like a lot of money to me, and that I came away thinking we were solidly middle class.

The only other thing I now recall about that figure was that — back when I still remembered what it was — I was surprised when a professor mentioned in a class the same figure as the poverty threshold for a family of four in perhaps 1970 or thereabouts.  In short, my family had that time been living at the poverty line.  But I didn’t learn the reason for that until I was 22, the year my aunt died.

I came home for the funeral, but couldn’t stay at my mom’s house because the bedrooms were to be used by out of town family members.  One of mom’s best friends, however, had some bedrooms for the three of us nephews, and so we stayed the evening of the funeral at her house.  The next morning, she made breakfast for us.

I have no recollection of what prompted Ann to tell us the story that morning, but she did.  Over pancakes and sausage, she told us how troubled our mother had always been in the years we were growing up.

Now except for a few phrases and sentences, I can no longer recall the exact words Ann spoke that morning.  But I am fairly confident that I still remember the points she made — and sometimes the manner in which she made them. To me, the conversation my brothers and I had with Ann that morning is one of the most significant conversations of my life.   What follows is part recollection and part re-creation.  However, I have left out some things that I suspect might have been said, but which I’m not confident enough were said.

Today, I don’t remember what prompted Ann to start off, but she began something like this: “Were any of you boys ever aware during your childhoods of how constantly worried your mother was about your poverty?” We all said “no”.

“Some evenings your mother and I spoke for hours about it.  You see, it never left her mind that you boys were always one step away from disaster.   She knew all that had to happen was a major illness or an accident befalling any one of you, you or her, and she could be reduced to the poor house, maybe see you all split up.  She had nothing to fall back on, no savings.”  I seem to recall Ann pausing then, and perhaps taking a puff off her cigarette, before going on:  “She was paid jack all the years you were growing up.”

Someone asked why.

“Do you want to know the truth?” Ann responded.  Then, placing an equal weight on each word she spoke, Ann said in an unusually emphatic voice:  “Because. Ike. Bachmann. was. a. bastard.”

I recall the word “bastard” was mildly jolting coming from Ann, who was more than a decade older than mom — and therefore presumably even more conservative than mom in her opinions about the impropriety of swear words — and who was also quite active in the Presbyterian Church.  Bachmann must have been a real bastard for Ann to call him that.

Even now, I can still see her slowly searching each of our faces for comprehension, perhaps trying to see if we could now put two and two together for ourselves.  Her manner gave me the further impression that she was determined we would remember the words she’d just spoken for a very long time, maybe even the rest of our lives.

Still, I was confused.  What did Ike Bachmann have to do with any of this?  In my recollection, mom had not once spoken ill of the former chairman of her board.  In fact, she had seldom spoke of him at all to us, and when she did, she had usually called him, “Ike”, as if he were a familiar friend to her.  He’d died not more than two or three years before my aunt’s death.

My older brother broke the silence.  “What did Bachmann do?”

“What didn’t he do?” Ann replied.  “He treated your mother like a slave, for one thing.  But mostly he was one of those men.  What’s that word you young people use for ‘those men’ nowadays?  Male something…chauvinists!  I’m not one of those feminist women, but they do have a point about men like Bachmann.

“Bachmann was just as old-fashioned as country outhouse.  He was hot-tempered.  It didn’t take a lot to set him off.  And when he got angry, he was raw, nearly unrestrained.  Arrogant, too.  But mostly he was a bastard.  A pure bastard.

“Your mother, you know, had to deal with him until the day he retired, about a year before he died.”

“Would it be alright if I asked now exactly how he was a bastard?” I said, “I mean I don’t doubt he was a major one from what you say, but what exactly did he do?”

“Ike Bachmann.” Ann began. “Well first there was no telling him that your mother could do just as well as a man in her job.  It didn’t matter how well she did, he always went about telling people that if he could replace her with a man, that man would do better.  And I know there were times he came close to replacing her.

“Now and then some man in the town would get interested in having your mother’s job.  Then like as not, he’d start talking to people, telling anyone who’d listen, that it just wasn’t right your mother had her job when there were men out there who needed to support their families.  It happened several times over the years, and that’s how it usually started.  With talk.  Did you boys ever know any of this?”

We shook our heads.

“I know.  Your mother never told you.  She didn’t want you scared, of course, you were just children.

“Anyways, word would sooner or later get back to Bachmann that someone wanted her job.  Or maybe someone would just straight up tell him they wanted your mother’s job.  But it usually started with them politicking about it, trying to gather supporters, and put a little pressure on Bachmann and the rest of her board.  The thing is, Bachmann never once stood up for your mother.

“Some of the other board members now and then did, but not her chairman.  Not even once.  Well, I don’t know about every last time a man came looking for your mother’s job, but the times I do know something about it, Bachmann offered them her job.”

I think at that point, my older brother said, “What?” in disbelief.  My younger brother in anger hammered out the word, “Damn!”  And I’m pretty sure I  stared at Ann with my mouth nearly slack-jawed in shocked silence.

“To my knowledge, only one thing — only one thing — stopped Bachmann from replacing your mother.   And that was Bachmann’s greed.

“You see, he was too greedy to pay even a man more than he paid your mother.  Your mother was fortunate, very fortunate, that none of those men accepted Bachman’s offers.  You’d have been in serious trouble.  All four of you.”

After what seemed like quite awhile, my older brother asked, “Did mom ever talk to you about getting a different job?”

“At least a few times each year!  But what kind of jobs are there for women in this one-tractor town?  There were plenty of reasons your mother couldn’t just quit, and that was one of them.  Maybe another day we’ll have time to talk about them all.”

Ann fell silent for a moment as if making a decision, then, “I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll never tell your mother what I’ve told you today.  She’d be embarrassed to death, you know.”  We responded with our promises.

Regrettably, I never did get a chance to question Ann about all the reasons mom didn’t just get a different job.  But whatever mom’s reasons, I’d lay money they weren’t frivolous or light ones.  Mom was just as rational as she was stoic.  Even now, forty years after the conversation with Ann, I still have yet to meet more than a relative handful of people who are as consistently rational as mom was before dementia set in when she was around 94 or so.

As for Ike Bachmann, his attitude towards women was in most ways commonplace in that town.  That is, some jobs were commonly thought of as “men’s work”; women lacked whatever it took to do them as well as a man; which was one good reason to pay them less; and so forth.

But I think that when Ann called Bachmann a bastard she was not just referring to the attitudes towards women that he shared with so many other people.  I later learned a few more things about Bachmann, and it now seems probable to me that he was misogynistic.  Ann was probably right: Ike Bachmann was a bastard.

Abuse, Alienation, Angst, Anxiety, Authenticity, Compassion, Courage, Depression, Evolution, Fear, Free Spirit, Health, Human Nature, Kindness, Late Night Thoughts, Mental and Emotional Health, Oppression, Quality of Life, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-Integration, Sexuality, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Teacher, Values

Can a Person Who is Alienated from Themselves find Happiness?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

–Oscar Wilde

In Artic Dreams, Barry Lopez somewhere talks about an Inuit word for a wise person.  The word, if I recall, means “someone who through their behavior creates an atmosphere in which wisdom is made tangible.”  When I read Lopez a few years ago, I thought of Paul Mundschenk.  As I recall, I never once heard him claim to possess, say, compassion, good faith in others, or kindness.  Yet, he embodied those virtues, as well as others: He made them visible.

Mundschenk was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, and, as you might imagine, I discovered he was inspiring.  But not inspiring in the sense that I wanted to be like him.  Rather, inspiring in the sense he showed me that certain virtues could be honest and authentic. I was a bit too cynical as a young man to see much value in compassion, good faith, kindness, and so forth.  I thought intelligence mattered an order of magnitude more than those things.  Yet, because of Mundschenk, and a small handful of other adults, I could only deny the value of those virtues; not their authenticity.

I can see in hindsight how I naively assumed at the time that we all grow up to be true to ourselves.  Isn’t that normal for a young man or woman to make that assumption, though?  Aren’t most youth slightly shocked each time they discover that yet another adult is, in some way important to them as a youth, a fake?

Perhaps it’s only when we ourselves become an adult that we eventually accept most of us are less than true to ourselves, for by that time, we so often have discovered what we consider are good reasons not to be true to ourselves.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Rather, his notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any fronts or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform.

Often, when I remember Mundschenk, I remember the way he shrugged.  I remember some folks for their smiles, others for their voices, but Mundschenk for his shrug.  It seemed to hint of Nature’s indifference, but without the coldness.  Which, I guess, makes me wonder: Is there anything unusual about someone who is both notably indifferent to himself and notably true to himself?

I was put in mind of Paul Mundschenk this morning because of a  post I wrote for this blog three years ago.  The post was intended to be humorous, but I titled it, “An Advantage of Being Cold and Heartless?“.   Consequently, the post gets two or three hits each day from people looking for advice on how to make themselves cold and heartless.

I can imagine all sorts of reasons someone might want to make themselves cold and heartless.  Perhaps someone they are on intimate terms with — a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a partner — is wounding them.  Or perhaps they are among the social outcasts of their school.  But whatever their reasons, they google search strings like, “How do I make myself cold and heartless?”

Nowadays, I think it is a mistake to try to make yourself tough, cold, heartless, or otherwise insensitive.  But I certainly didn’t think it was a mistake 30 years ago, when I was a young man.

Yet, I see now how my values and priorities in those days were not largely derived from myself, but from others. The weight I placed on intelligence, for instance, was from fear that others might take advantage of me if I was in anyway less intelligent than them.  I valued cleverness more than compassion and kindness because I thought cleverness less vulnerable than compassion and kindness.  And I carried such things to absurd extremes: I can even recall thinking — or rather, vaguely feeling — that rocks were in some sense more valuable than flowers because rocks were less vulnerable than flowers.  The truth never once occurred to me: What we fear owns us.

It seems likely that when someone seeks to make themselves insensitive, they are seeking to protect themselves, rather than seeking to be true to themselves.   If that’s the case, then anyone who tries to make themselves less sensitive than they naturally are runs the risk of alienating themselves from themselves.

Can a person who is significantly alienated from themselves be genuinely happy?  I have no doubt they can experience moments of pleasure or joy, but can they be deeply happy?  It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  Perhaps a little bit like asking whether someone who wants a melon will feel just as happy with a pepper instead.

Abuse, Compassion, Guest Authors, Happiness, Health, Kindness, Meaning, Mental and Emotional Health, Morals, Oppression, Quality of Life, Relationships, S.W. Atwell, Sadness, Values, Violence

Two Kinds of Sad People

Please Note:  This is a post by guest author S. W. Atwell.  The views expressed are entirely her own.  If you yourself would like to post as a guest author on this blog, please contact me by email.

— Paul Sunstone

There are two types of sad people.  One type does not contribute to the happiness of others.  He may be of the withholding sort:  One who believes that any happiness he gives will be subtracted from his own, small store.   He may be the sadistic sort: One who takes whatever is ill in himself and uses it to make others unhappy.  He might even seem ravenous in his desire to impose misery, as though he were consuming something in return for his contribution.  Perhaps he feels as though there is a finite amount of unhappiness in the universe and that he decreases his own large burden of the stuff every time he imposes misery on others.

The other type of sad person is not unkind.  He may feel sad because he has experienced loss.  He certainly feels sad over the misfortunes of others.  In this way, he is invested in the happiness of others.  While he can become happier if his own fortunes mend, he can also become happier when he knows that others are happy.  He has an urge to contribute to the well-being of others.  It is not uncommon for him to discover the depth of this urge when he finds consolation in caring for the needs of others at a time when the reasons for his own deep sadness are beyond his own control.  Whether fortune smiles or frowns upon him, his own happiness multiplies when exposed to happiness, whether that happiness is located inside him or in the hearts of others.

The sadistic or withholding sad person experiences happiness and sadness as elements to be measured in mass or volume.  The sad person with the warm heart understands happiness as an organic phenomenon, with the gametes from one source of happiness meeting and multiplying with the gametes from another source of happiness.  His sadness is a soil that welcomes and grows the seeds of happiness.

© S.W. Atwell (2011)

Altruism, Brotherly Love, Christianity, Compassion, Ethics, Fantasy Based Community, Fundamentalism, Giving, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Kindness, Liars Lies and Lying, Morals, News and Current Events, Obligations to Society, Politicians and Scoundrels, Reality Based Community, Religion, Society, Values, Village Idiots

Is it Moral to Take Advantage of an Idiot?

Is it moral to take advantage of the village idiot?

Suppose on Friday, your local village idiot signed over the deed to his house to you, thinking he was going to be raptured yesterday (Saturday, May 21, 2011), would you now be under any moral obligation to return his house to him?

Should banks forgive the credit card debts your local village idiot racked up in anticipation of his not having to pay them off?

In general, to what extent should politicians, preachers, pundits, corporations, neighbors, or society as a whole be allowed to exploit the world’s village idiots?

Should the world’s village idiots now be allowed to sue Harold Camping for damages to them?

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Jiddu Krishnamurti “On Love”

Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote about love with passionate urgency, with love and grace, and with unflinching integrity and insight.

Even merely reading his words, even now when his words are only frozen in books, you might still feel you are being swept into a current much stronger than you.

A current that possesses the power — if only you could allow it — to thrust you up upon some foreign shore, intensely alive with love, a complete stranger to your petty self.

Perhaps someone else has matched Krishnamurti by now, but I do not know who that would be.

Jiddu Krishnamurti “On Love”.

Abortion, Abuse, Elections, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Health, Health Care, Ideologies, Kindness, News and Current Events, Political Issues, Politics, Quality of Life, Religion, Values

Colorado Constitutional Amendment 62

I just finished marking my mail-in ballot for this election cycle.   As you might recall, I live in Colorado and the ballot once again includes a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban abortions.

This year, the amendment would ban abortions even in cases of rape and incest.  Which instantly made me wonder what kind of person requires a woman to carry her rapist’s spawn to term?

Well, a close reading of the proposed amendment discovers that the kind of person who would require a woman to carry her rapist’s spawn to term is precisely the same kind of person who would deny her an abortion even if one was necessary to save her life, for the amendment would do that too!

But even that is not enough: The proposed amendment turns out to be worse than bad:

The amendment would declare that, for legal purposes, personhood is defined as the “beginning of the biological development of that human being.” Such a sweeping definition of personhood would not only ban all abortions (even in cases of rape, incest and threats to the mother’s life), it would also make certain forms of birth control, stem-cell research and even some fertility treatments illegal. [emphasis mine]

At this point, you might want to believe the amendment is a joke.  But it’s not.  Instead, it appears that two fundamentalist pastors put their heads together and the amendment was birthed of that union.

Golly.  Who would have suspected a couple fundamentalists to be behind a perfect storm of insanity?

Business, Capitalism, Community, Compassion, Competition, Economics, Economy, Extended Family, Family, Giving, Ideologies, Kindness, Obligations to Society, People, Quality of Life, Relationships, Society, Values, Work

A Late Night Thought on Capitalism

My building is an old house converted into three apartments.   Ordinarily, one neighbor lives across the hall from me, and the other lives upstairs.  But my landlord has recently been struggling to keep the other two apartments occupied.

I think he’s been trying to give people a break by renting to folks who are financially insecure.  Such as the couple and their kid who just moved out yesterday.   The lady had a job, the gentleman didn’t, and the family fell short of making the rent.  My landlord must surely have known only one of the adults in that family had a job, but he leased to them anyway.   That may be kind, compassionate and generous, but it is not a formula for keeping rental units occupied.

I’ve known my landlord now for between 12 and 15 years.   Before I rented from him, I worked for him doing odd jobs — mainly house and apartment painting.   He’s a very honest man, a very hardworking man, and, like everyone, he’s got his eccentricities.  One of his eccentricities is that he likes to treat his tenants to some large extent as if they were family.  He’s more comfortable thinking of you as a distant cousin than he is thinking of you as a profit center.

In terms of properties, he’s not a big landlord, nor a tiny one.  He owns about 30 rental units — most of them houses.   I wonder about his tendency to treat his tenants as family.  For the most part, that tendency shows up in his willingness to take a chance on the folks he rents to.  He doesn’t need a perfect credit score nor a perfect rental history.   My guess is he takes about the same chance with folks off the street as he would with a cousin or even sometimes a nephew.

That’s good for people.  And it’s good for the community.  But it’s not good business practice.   In business terms, my landlord’s tendency to treat people as family and take a chance on them results in reduced occupancy, reduced income, and less profit.  If he were in a highly competitive business environment, he might be out of business by now, weeded out by more profitable competitors.

I don’t have enough information to do a real analysis of my landlord’s business.  I don’t, for instance, know how his occupancy rate compares with the average occupancy rate in this market.  Nor do I know what any of his financial margins are. But I really don’t need to know all that stuff to know that my landlord is bucking the system by treating people the way he treats them.  He’s bucking capitalism.  At least, as we know it.

Capitalism is a beneficial system in several respects, but it comes with a huge flaw. It is obsessed with profit.

Now, there is nothing wrong with profit in and of itself. But there is certainly something wrong with an obsession with profit.

Anytime you maximize one and only one value, you create a system that denies other values. And capitalism, by maximizing profits, creates a system that denies other values — in fact, it denies all values that are in any way at odds with maximizing profit.  So, for instance, capitalism becomes the enemy of sane ecological policies in so far as those policies interfere with maximizing profit.  Or, it becomes the enemy of treating people as more than mere sources of income in so far as treating them as more than mere sources of income interferes with maximizing profit.

That’s one of the reasons — a rather small reason, however — that I think capitalism as we know it is a system destined for transition.  I can think of other, more important reasons, capitalism will change.  But at the moment, its obsession with profit has my attention.

If we could look 100 or 200 years into the future (and perhaps not even that far into the future), my guess is we would find a “capitalism” that is remarkably different from what’s practiced today.  Indeed, we will either do something to radically curb and regulate the obsession capitalism has with profit, or we will most likely live in something akin to fascist/feudal societies that have a relatively low standard of living and quality of life for most of their members.  That’s my hunch.  I could be wrong.  But I’m probably accurate enough to be annoying about this one.

Family, Kindness, Late Night Thoughts, Marriage, Quality of Life, Relationships

One of Life’s Lessons

It’s very late at night here, and when it’s late at night, I sometimes like to tell stories. So, please allow me to tell you one….

I have been married and divorced twice. I married my first wife because of her looks — she was stunningly beautiful and could make the whole room go quiet when she entered.

I married my second wife for her brains. She had an astronomical IQ and did complex mathematics in her head without needing to write anything down or use a calculator.

In both cases, I married wrong.

It seems to me now that kindness is far more important to a happy relationship than either brains or beauty. But I was too young to understand that back in the days when I had a tendency to marry people.

Neither of my wives was kind.

Buddhism, Compassion, Emotions, Honesty, Kindness, Quotes, Religion, Spirituality

On Opening Our Hearts and Minds

“The only reason that we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.”

“Then this experience of opening to the world begins to benefit ourselves and others simultaneously. The more we relate with others, the more quickly we discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down. Seeing this is helpful, but it is also painful. Often the only way we know how to react is to use it as ammunition against ourselves. We aren’t kind. We aren’t honest. We aren’t brave, and we might as well give up right now.”

“That’s the beginning of growing up. As long as we don’t want to be honest and kind with ourselves, then we are always going to be infants. When we begin just to try to accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self-importance lightens up considerably. Finally there’s room for genuine inquisitiveness, and we find we have an appetite for what’s out there.”

Pema Chodron

Adolescence, Altruism, Beauty, Compassion, Kindness, Love

I Didn’t Believe in Love

As a teen, I thought I was a hard-nosed realist. I questioned everything. I willingly suffered the emotional pain of giving up cherished ideas when I found them to be wrong. I embraced ideas only after I was convinced by logic and evidence that they were true — and never because I merely hoped they were true. Of course, I was also quite naive.

For instance: I was quite skeptical of whether love had any value. Looking back, I understand how naive I was as a teen. The “love” I disvalued was what today I would not call love — instead I’d call it “infatuation”. Infatuation concerned me because, like many teens before or since, I was quite often infatuated with one person or another. And even as a teen, when I analyzed those infatuations they seemed to me more often curses than feelings to be valued. So I didn’t believe in “love”. At least, I didn’t believe in what I thought was love.

Perhaps oddly enough, I’ve now seen precisely the same cynical mistake made by several of my younger friends. In some things, every generation repeats the mistakes of the generations that came before it. And to confuse infatuation with love is one of those mistakes that often gets repeated.

As a hard-nosed teenage realist, I not only confused infatuation with love and consequently disvalued love, but I also scorned what I thought were soft, illogical descriptions of love unsupported by any convincing weight of evidence.

I guess my confused thinking ran along these lines, “If love (actually, infatuation) is a curse, then how can those “soft” descriptions of love (actually, genuine love) be true?” For example, I might read something like “love is healing”. Of course, I would snort at any such notion. Nothing in my experience of “love” as a teen fit with the notion that love is healing. Therefore, love couldn’t possibly be healing and any person who said that it was must be a sappy idiot.

I also see that cynical mistake echoed by some of my younger friends. It all comes from (1) confusing what today I would call “infatuation” with love, and (2) from having little or no experience of genuine love.

Of course, genuine love is at times tremendously healing. At least that’s been my experience in the years since I was a teenage “realist”. Those sappy idiots who said love is healing knew what they were talking about, after all. So, was there any value in all those misguided reflections on love when I was a teen?

Actually, I think there was great value in those reflections. I did a pretty good job analyzing infatuation. I might have mistakenly called infatuation “love”, and falsely concluded that “love” was overblown, but once I’d corrected that mistake, pretty much everything I’d noticed about infatuation still held true. The hours of reflecting on it were not wasted.

I have also learned a lesson that’s somehow more important to me than knowing a bit about infatuation. I’ve learned how extraordinarily difficult it sometimes is to understand what others are talking about when we have little or no experience of what they are talking about.

That seems particularly true of things like love, beauty, kindness, generosity, altruism, gratitude — all those things one can so easily dismiss as “sappy”. Until we ourselves have given with pure generosity, pure generosity seems to us an unobtainable ideal — at best — and a scam at worst. Until we ourselves have experienced a thing, the experiences of others who have experienced that thing can seem to us mistaken, absurd, ludicrous, delusional, or inconsequential. Communication depends to a great extent on shared experiences.

As a hard nosed teenage realist who questioned “everything”, I would have done better if I’d been even a little bit more hard nosed and realistic. That is, I should have even questioned whether my own experience was definitive. I should have recognized that others might have experienced things I hadn’t. And instead of saying, “love is overblown” and “all those fools who believe in it are sappy idiots”, I would have been more honest and realistic to simply say, “That’s not been my own experience of what I call ‘love'”. For the really hard nosed and realistic approach to life begins with recognizing the limits of our own experience.