Saturday, July 25, 2009

The compassionate alternative

About a year ago, perhaps a little more, there was an article in The New Yorker about the rising cost of medical insurance. And one thing that struck me mightily -- I may have even written about it at the time -- was that a lot of people who end up suing doctors for their mistakes would probably not have sued if the doctor had just apologized to them.

I find that incredibly sad. We are, as a people, so quick to blame others and justify ourselves that a whole industry has sprung up around that -- because isn't that what lawyers and litigation are about?

But it's one thing to bemoan this state of affairs, and another thing altogether to try and change it. Because change begins at home, right here, in your own relationships with close friends and family, and... well, we all know how hard it can be to be confronted by our dear ones, or, even worse, to have to confront them -- or a boss, or a friend, or a neighbor...

For someone like me, a woman, with strong Presbyterian roots, guilt can be a way of life, so for me apologies come pretty readily. Though I will engage in a certain amount of excuse-making, the apologies are genuine and heartfelt, and I usually carry piles of guilt around afterwards (just ask my children).

But confrontation is harder for me, because it assumes I have a right to feel whatever it is that I'm feeling. I grew up in an environment where anger was definitely NOT okay, so when it's time for me to confront, I'm not always sure I have the right to do that, and things get pretty awkward and blustery as I try to get my feelings out on the table.

Sometimes I want to bring out the big guns, to stand over the offender and shake a finger and say "How could you do this to me?"; to make them feel horribly guilty. Sometimes --I'm ashamed to say -- I even withhold forgiveness for a while after they apologize, because... well, they were the sort of person that did that sort of thing, and did I really want to be friends with them?

Sometimes I just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend it didn't happen. But often that just means the unresolved issue stews and ferments and eventually boils over and everybody gets burned -- and it takes a long time for all parties to recover and heal when that happens.

One particularly troublesome variant on the head-in-the-sand version is to run away without saying anything-- which rarely solves anything; I usually just get to face the same issue again, later on, with someone else. It's not so much that leaving is bad -- sometimes that's the best choice. But to leave without having said anything allows the bad behavior to continue unchecked, and then the next person who comes along after me then gets stuck dealing with it all over again.

Sometimes, for those of us with short fuses, we do a pretty good job of saying what's bugging us, but then all this other old stuff comes boiling up and we get really loud and slam doors and then afterwards we feel horribly guilty and have to apologize and grovel.

And sometimes I'm so busy apologizing for being angry that it begins to look like I'M the guilty party for ever having dared to expect whatever it was that is at issue -- which can let an unscrupulous offender off the hook.

But all these situations, whichever choice I make, tend to take a familiar shape -- a cycle of hurt, then anger, and then guilt, and then back to hurt -- and they acquire a certain momentum as the cycle keeps rolling downhill, usually into the valley of shame. That shape has become so familiar over the years that it's terribly easy to just step into it and let it roll. But this morning I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh's words about compassion, and I was reminded once again that the way to step out of the cycle is to try to understand the other person's point of view.

Yes, it's important to name my truth, whatever it may be; things that are hidden have a way of festering. And if I can do that in a way that doesn't come loaded with lots of old baggage, or throw stones at the other person, I've made a terrific first step. But the second step is important, too: I have to be willing to listen, to HEAR, when the other person explains the rationale for their behavior. Because there are many possible responses I could make, and the right one -- whatever it may be -- should honor both the other person's truth and mine; should be made, not out of bitterness, or retribution, or shame, or pride, but out of compassion for both sides, and out of hope for the possible.

But all that means setting the ego aside -- and we all know how tenacious the ego can be.

It's a challenge, that's for sure. But as I speak with my neighbor, now married almost 45 years, and as I look at the snarly bits and the joys in my own marriage, and as I see the peace on the face of this Amish couple, enjoying their morning coffee on the train, I can feel that hope for the possible. Yes, there are rough spots. But we don't have to run and hide, or come out with guns blazing. I really want to believe that if we choose the compassionate approach it is possible to walk through together and get to the other side.

Thinking about that this morning, as I was meditating, an old song from my Presbyterian childhood came into mind, and sort of hummed along below the surface for the rest of my meditation time:

Lead me, Lord, Lord;
Lead me in thy righteousness:
Make thy way plain before my face.

Perhaps that's the best way to ensure that we make the compassionate choice in difficult times: to step back, and allow ourselves to be led, not by our OWN righteousness -- or self-righteousness -- but by the Divine and universal understanding of what is right for all concerned.


Stacey Grossman said...

Diane, thank you for this, I needed to hear it today (having just pulled my finger back from a big "send" on a cranky, blaming email to several colleagues...I caught myself! Yea! No grovelling email to send just seconds later. Instead, I will use that time to write to you!

I know the cycle well - of hurt, then anger, and then guilt, and then back to hurt - that you describe.

I have come to think and pray about compassion -"suffering with", yes? - as practice. How can I practice this and get better and better at it over time?

My personal practice has had to incorporate both active listening AND finding unemotional ways to state my own reality. Thinking back, my practice has been like a see-saw...jolting hard on both ends of being either too accomodating or too harsh, with the goal being to achieve that lightfooted push-off the ground on the teeter-totter which only happens when the balance is just right.

Blessings! said...

Ah, thank you for that reminder. Finding unemotional ways to state my own reality is always a challenge, and really REALLY necessitates a longer turnaround from anger to expression...

Glad this caught you before you hit send! (been there, done that, OUCH)