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As autumn rolls in with blustery winds and leaf-strewn lawns, I find myself in a contemplative mood. This season, to me, is evocative of change and even sadness. It was in autumn that my father died. Several of my friends are also facing losses and challenges of a deeply personal kind. How we weather the season depends largely on thorough self-care and unflagging support from those who love us. Prayer, of course, always helps, too.


In the autumn of our days,
may all fall softly.
May heartache land lightly,
astounding us with color:
russet, gold, garnet.
Let us note the blue of the sky,
even as it bulges gray with rain.

May we, like the beasts,
gather what we need
in empathy and acorns,
scattered seed and gentle touch
to last the lean months ahead.
What we cannot glean,
let us amply share.

I have a friend who often talks about her resolution to be “a bigger I,” meaning becoming more inclusive, more caring, more open to other people. Granted, it can be difficult right now to feel that anything about your life is expanding, other than an uneasy, trapped feeling. But think about it: Empathy for those on the front lines — that’s enlarging your “I.” Maintaining social distancing, even when it means you’ll miss out on the last rolls of toilet paper in the store — that’s also enlarging your “I.” Everything you do now in the interest of others, in the interest of stemming the tide of this disease, is growing yourself beyond your former boundaries. And that is a good thing.

Though I cannot take up torches
or spears against my enemy,
though I can do no more than Milton,
(stand, wait), though my reaching out
must be touchless, limbless, still,
I stretch the seams of my soul.
Misery lurks and like a sponge
I sip it and, cell by cell, expand.
No one hears, no one sees,
yet empathy moves the mountain,
breaks capital I’s into a rubble of “us.”
Small though we be,
we will hold off the tide.

Maybe it’s not news to you, but it was to me: Human beings, scientifically speaking, are not designed to be truly happy. It has to do with evolution and the large frontal lobes in our brains — well, I’ll leave the explanation to the experts. Suffice to say, if you keep trying to be happy and can’t quite get there, it’s understandable. We’re not meant to. But why?

I think of happiness as a “whole-cloth” experience — it’s not something that one part of your life or experiences can achieve. Having money won’t do it. A good relationship won’t do it, if you are lacking in other areas. Happiness is holistic. And we really can’t get that totality here on earth; not if we have even a drop of human kindness running through us. And without that kindness, without empathy and fellow-feeling and mercy, personal happiness just doesn’t mean much. Does it?

We pluck at pieces:
this job, that pair of shoes.
It is empty in the face of want,
a bit of bread when a feast is needed.
If you can wrap yourself in happiness
and turn blind eyes to need,
you will find your coat is made of ashes
and will not keep you warm.
We rise together, a family of yeast
or we sink like a fish with a belly full of stones.

credit: today.com

Let’s say you had a meeting and it was crunch time. Looking over the attendees, you realize there’s a baby sitting in one of the chairs in a suit and tie. Now, that’s something you don’t see every day! 

Look at you. You can’t even hold your own head up, man! You’re drooling, babbling on about nothing, and your contribution at the last meeting was nothing but a big pile of poop. Get ahold of yourself! 

You notice the baby’s round belly under his pocket protector and bib.

You’re letting yourself go around the middle, there, pal. You really should do some crunches!

You wouldn’t expect a baby to know how to crunch numbers. Heck, they can’t even crunch granola yet! And surely a baby’s too young to hit the gym.

Different rules apply to people depending on the situation, and we don’t all develop at the same pace. Some may think that, just because they haven’t had an experience, that experience isn’t valid.

People who call others “snowflake” or “overly sensitive” are actually, let me see if I can find the technical term here in my thesaurus.. Oh yes. Insensitive clods!

Mercy. Let me re-phrase that. 

Such people don’t seem to have been born with a compassion compass, that thing inside that says, I may not understand what you’ve been through, but I can see that you’ve been profoundly affected by it.

Then again, if I label them insensitive clods, I’m the one being insensitive. 

Perhaps a better way to frame it is that they’re newborns in terms of the expression of empathy. Their mercy-muscles haven’t formed fully yet. One day they may be in a new situation and it’ll be crunch time for them. Here’s hoping the people in that room will show them some compassion.

I’m convinced that the totality of woes in this world are utterly determined, enacted and exacerbated by human selfishness — the almighty “I.” You know: I am the center of the universe; my needs are most important; everyone who isn’t me is other, and they are the problem. What we entirely forget is that we completely dependent upon one another, not just for day-to-day life, but for the overall progress of humankind. When it comes to saving the planet, saving the future or saving our souls, I is not going to cut it.

We must change our capital “I’s” into lowercase ones. For instance: I explain, sermonize, pontificate, demand; i listen. I order the world for my own benefit; i put the good of others first. I build walls; i build bridges. (You get it.) If we fail, humanity fails. No less than that hangs in the balance.

Let us whittle our serifs into tittles. (No, I’m not being obscene; “tittle” is the name of the dot on the lowercase I; serifs are the decorative little lines on a capital I.) It is the only way to become like Jesus. Yes, I know the consensus is to capitalize all things God-related out of respect, but Jesus was the littlest “i” person in all of history. Everything he did was for us — not just the “us” who lived in Middle East during his time, but all of us, for all generations, including those yet unborn. Jesus saved all of us from eternal death. Let me put it this way: Think of how many people Jesus actually knew. Now think of how many people Jesus has saved. It takes great heart and complete abandonment of ego to give one’s life not just for your friends, but for people on the other side of the planet, centuries apart from your own existence. None of us can even imagine doing that, much less do it.

The world has nearly come to ruin numerous times because of big I’s. It has always been saved by small ones. So, which do you choose? As for me, I’ll just be over here whittling down my serifs.

If you’ve been reading the meme’s that I’ve posted throughout the week, you’ve seen that quite a few of them have to do with patience.  When I first saw these Lenten quotes about patience I was a bit . . . what?  What does patience have to do with Lent?

The more I think about it, the more that I realize that patience is a huge part of Lent.

Lent is all about awaiting the coming dawn.  Waiting, to put it simply, is not my strong suit.  I want it now.  No really.  NOW would be better than later.

But that isn’t always the case.  Waiting and patience give us time for preparation.  Preparation can make the difference between success and a failure.  I know this, but I’m still not very good at waiting.

Lent is also a time of turning into the light.  It is a time for us to remove what stands between us and God’s light.  It is a time of helping us remove what keeps other people from seeing God’s light in us.

Quite often that requires patience.  Patience to take care of what ever it is in us that keeps us from being Christ’s hands on earth.  Patience to listen to what the other person has to say, because until we know what is in their hears and their minds, we very often have no clue what they need.

Patience.  It is a key part of empathy.

Patience.  It is most truly something that I need today.

–SueBE

 

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Looking at some of my old yearbooks, I’m struck by something — the number of times someone has written, “Thank you for listening.” One of my eighth grade friends called me her psychiatrist. Several high school friends note with embarrassment some of the topics they’ve obsessed over, but say they feel better having been heard. I guess that’s what we all want, isn’t it? To be heard? To be thought of as special and worthy and listenable?

Pope Francis, in an interview about The Year of Mercy in the Catholic church, talks about “the apostolate of the ear,” the ministry of listening to others and giving them needed reassurance that they have been heard. This is a ministry that anyone can be a part of; it is not limited to clergy. When we give people space to pour out their feelings — even if we don’t agree with them, even if we think they are wrong — we help them. We might even help others, too, by helping to obviate anger and frustration that might boil over in ways that are destructive to the community.

This practice benefits the listener, too. In opening our ears, we are opening our hearts (even if it’s only a crack), and allowing ourselves to be changed by what we hear. It is the start of compassion, which feeds into the infinitely powerful grace of mercy. Maybe what the world needs now is “love, sweet love,” but what people seem to need most is empathy.

So I’m putting the call out to all of you introverts out there: Join me in the apostolate of the ear. Let’s face it, we don’t much like talking anyway, so why not provide a service that costs us nothing and might save someone’s life? Unheard frustrations, anger and sadness can roil up into a hurricane — they can even lead to war. But once heard, those wounds — like the words that describe them — are exposed to air and can finally heal.

It’s easy to get started. Just open your ears.

diving boardEarly this week, someone asked if I thought American’s had too little empathy. I didn’t have to think very long.  Yes, I think we lack empathy. Of course, I meant other people, not my friend or I.

As so often happens, something happened later in the week that would bring this conversation to mind.

During a swim meet, I was chatting with one of the other moms.  She said something about “just wait ‘til these boys get a taste of the real world.”

I’m not sure how much more reality most teens can take. As I looked down at the deck, I saw the boy whose father was killed 18 months ago in a traffic accident. There were the twins whose mother died of breast cancer and the brothers whose parents are divorcing but can’t afford to live apart so they’ve divided the house.

“High school isn’t easy.” I didn’t want to air other people’s issues but I had to say something.

“Look, they don’t have mortgages or have to work all day,” she said.

“No, but they have shelter in place and school shootings. And bullying and gay bashing. Do you know how many gay teens a year attempt suicide?”

“Anyone who takes that way out is defective.”

Defective.  That was the word that pushed me over the edge. I would like to say I took a deep breath and said a little prayer. But I didn’t.  In my mother’s words, I got on my high horse.

I will never ever agree with what she said, but I do get the irony. She has no empathy with high schoolers and I have no empathy with her.

And I’ve been beating myself up about it for days. But that’s pretty ironic too.

I made a mistake. I’m kind of defective that way. That’s why I need grace. And those boys need grace. And so do all the moms, dads and coaches.  Because we all mess up and, far too often, we completely fail to empathize with each other.

Fortunately, even then we can turn to God. We can pour out our hearts and bemoan our failings.  We can rant and rave and fuss.  And, in the end, in spite of our defects, His Grace will be there for us all. Thank God.

–SueBE

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