“We live in a time when science is validating what humans have known throughout the ages: that compassion is not a luxury; it is a necessity for our well-being, resilience, and survival.” ~ Joan Halifax.
Full disclosure: I never learned the trick of being able to handle being teased as a child. I may have learned (much later in life) to act as if it didn’t bother me, but it did. I never learned to laugh back at the teaser, instead I would get mad, get upset, complain to my mother, in fact, do all the things that guaranteed I would get teased again another day. You can imagine how proud I was when I realized that one of my kids was an expert deflector. He was the middle of three boys, and he seemed to be the proverbial rubber: everything they threw at him bounced off, and landed right back on them. So annoying!
Perhaps because of my inability to know how to change my response, I became very sympathetic to the underdog. I hated when people set up elaborate tricks on others, it always felt mean for the one tricked, hilarious for those watching. In my most recent years I have found my role as an educator to require a large part of empathy and compassion for the struggles of young people who are trying to improve their lot in life while juggling a tremendous amount of responsibility. Often, they must first overcome self-doubt, low self-esteem, and those messages of negativity that can provide huge stumbling blocks to progress. Some days I can find myself in back-to-back sessions with students (especially seniors), talking them off the ledge, helping them to reframe messages, to see the big picture instead of focusing (obsessing) over a grade, or one bad result. My own life lessons come in handy as I try to pull people back from the edge.
I remember one particular lesson about patience and compassion that I learned from my father. As the minister (parson, preacher) he spent a lot of time visiting the sick, those stuck at home. On one such visit to an older church member, he had glanced at his watch as he listened to her relating some of her troubles. She immediately stopped, told him she had taken up enough of his time, and sent him on his way. That simple gesture of his had made her feel she was not heard. It is hard to sit and just listen when your mind is reminding you of your to-do list. If you are on the phone sitting in front of your computer, how can you not check your emails, or even keep working on a document as you let someone vent? That is a challenge to active listening in a busy life.
We have been forced to take a close look at our society recently, and the ways we express ourselves. We are encouraged not to escalate situations, to try to defuse tension especially when in a confrontation. Yet there are those who seem to be allowed to express rage with impunity, while others are forbidden. I refer of course to the systemic racism which deems one black man jogging as a threat, and a thousand armed white men to be merely expressing their right to protest. I heard a commentator refer to two interesting features of these times: white rage; and black joy. It struck me that the two things may be related.
When your point of view dictates that people belong in certain places, that color of skin should dictate your place in life, then you will do everything in your power (if you are the one on top) to maintain that. The history of racism (both overt and covert) in this country has been dedicated to maintaining that societal structure. And yet, (and here I imagine myself in the head of those who believe in white supremacy – a very scary place to be), black people insist on overcoming all obstacles thrown in their way. When they were enslaved they implemented farming techniques that ensured crops grew healthy and strong. While working for no pay and frequent inhumane treatment, they sung sweet and low in the fields. When learning to read and write was forbidden, they held secret lessons. When given nothing, they made progress and fought for freedom. They turned trinkets into musical instruments that melded African and European sounds to create jazz; the blues; soul music; reggae; gospel songs. When given the unwanted, least nutritious cuts of meat they created soul-food; mouth-watering oxtail and chicken foot; aromatic, tempting, well-seasoned delights that were shared with all.
How annoying! When every step of the way, people of color have found a way to laugh at the tragic; to make a feast out of famine; to turn suffering into a song; to overcome. From a New Orleans funeral to a tenement yard, pain is reborn as pleasure. Black joy. No wonder that bully, that one who thinks that people should know their place and be kept there, can only foam in unrepentant rage at the audacity of that joy. Nothing so annoying as a kid who laughs at adversity, who turns back taunts, who turns trash into treasure. Unfortunately, when that bully is armed with automatic weapons, or with a badge and authority, the results are tragic and final.
I am sure there are those who are unreachable, who do not want to give up their bullying ways. But I am also sure that with sweeping reform of the criminal justice system; with education that informs and helps people to recognize how racism exists in ways both small and large; we can become a country where black joy is celebrated, and white rage is unnecessary. If Martin could have a dream, so can we!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!