Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Yin and the Yang


A few years ago I was doing a Facebook game. It was one of those ‘get to know your friends’ surveys that we all used to send out. I had a group of friends with whom I did these surveys; sometimes there were 10 questions, sometimes there were 50. A lot of people hate them; my friends and I, we happened to love them. So we did them. There was a question about what my dream job would be. My answer was that I have already done most of my dream jobs and that, now, what I really wish was that I could be Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. Dudley was an angel who went around earth helping people. That seemed to me to be a really great job, one that was right up my alley. Maybe that’s why I was such a fan of the tv show Touched By An Angel. I don’t think one has to be a religious person to believe in angels; I think angels can take any form, be it ethereal or plain old real. There are angels among us and I wanted to be one.

I have spent my life trying to help people. I like it. I require nothing in return; I only want to be able to do it – to help people. So that is what I do. I help out, when I can, when I am asked or, even, when I am not; sometimes I get it right and others, I don’t. I’m human. I do the best I can.

Last week I was in the Westerly to pick up some Aloe Vera juice. I stopped, as is my custom, at their wonderful bulk bar to see if there was anything I either needed or wanted. A tall, elegant, well dressed lady with shoulder length strawberry blonde hair said something to me. I had my headphones in but I was only listening to some quiet music by John Barry, so I was aware that she had spoken. I took out the headphones and asked her to repeat herself. She wanted to know if I worked in the store. No but I was happy to help her find what she sought. A woman in her late 60’s she was having, clearly, trouble seeing the labels on the bins. She told me there was this green seed she buys and cannot remember what it is… You’re looking for Pumpkin Seeds; they’re right over here; and we walked round and I helped her fill a bag and label it for the check out clerk. You should work here, said she and I said no, I don’t want to work here. Why? Because I like shopping here – once you do something you like for money, you run the risk that you will stop liking it. Well then, what do you do, she wanted to know. I paused. I didn’t really know what to say. I used to say “I don’t really work” because I am currently without career; but someone in my family asked me to stop saying that because he felt it had a negative feeling about it. Out of respect for his wishes, I complied. The fact of the matter, though, is that I am currently without career. I have failed at every career I have attempted. Tired of failure and tired of trying, I simply stopped trying and focused on what I do best: being a husband and helping people. So, after a moment of thought, I answer her question “What Do you do?” by saying..

“I help people.”

This baffled the elegant lady and she asked for a greater explanation.

“I spend my day helping anyone who asks for help or who appears to need help.”

“How do you support yourself doing that?”

“I don’t.”

She looked at me for a moment and then she said “Oh. I see. You’re an angel.”

“What a lovely thing to say. Thank you.”

I smiled and wished her a good day and went on my way.

I had never thought of it this way but I suppose she had a point. I got my wish. I am my own version of The Bishop’s Wife’s Dudley.

I went home with a smile on my face.

An interesting thing happened to me. A member of my family treated me badly. I know that anyone who knows me or reads what I write knows that when I refer to my family, I am talking about more than my kinfolk. When I talk about my family I am talking about the family I have created. I am devoted to them and they all know that I am there for them, always (with this one exception – I draw the line at welcoming crystal meth addicts into my home; I will take them to a hospital, to a meeting, to their parents but I will not nursemaid crystal meth addicts). This particular member of my family is someone I have loved, deeply, and done for, repeatedly, with joy and without expectancy of return. Recently I did something nice for my family member and he responded in a mean-spirited way that hurt my feelings and confused me. Now… I have learned a lot about myself over the years and one of my greatest lessons is that, when I feel hurt or attacked, it is best for me to roll over and play dead. I have lost a number of important relationships with people I love for fighting back; you see, I don’t like to fight, especially with my loved ones. If, however, I am hurt or feel attacked, I will fight back with everything I’ve got, including unfair weaponry, and I will fight to win; and winning almost always comes at the cost of the relationship. I love this person and I wasn’t willing to fight. So I responded to some snarky text messages with a simple “I apologize” which went unacknowledged for ten days. So I went on with my life. I went to Disneyland and a fairy tale wedding and I took on the next set of challenges from the people who need my help. Then came this email, drudging up this horrible mess involving an idiotic misunderstanding – and it was a pretty lengthy email that hit my in box late at night on a night that I was fighting a cold (and sickness makes me uber cranky and hyper sensitive). I chose to reply with as few words as possible because email fighting is dangerous, so, so dangerous. It lead to a series of lengthy and ugly emails ( in which I pointed out, without success, that email fighting is dangerous and we should get on the phone ) and culminated in an appointment to return all of each others’ belongings and call it a day. It was an upsetting and unnecessary situation. Happily, we both stepped out of the panic room and the final epic email from my friend started with “I’m coming over to say I’m sorry”. I read no further. I picked up the phone and called and the fifteen minutes we spent talking were filled with tears and apologies and explanations and admonishments and a pact to never email fight again. We agreed that if anything like this ever comes up again, we will get on the phone or get in each others’ faces and fight the way loved ones do: in person, the better and faster to kiss and make up. I told him – I don’t fight with my loved ones. He told me – I do. We understand each other better now and we are closer and there is the happy ending and the soul growth.

It got me thinking, though. And maybe that is the cosmic reason that it happened. So that I would think. And what I am thinking about is this:

“We only hurt the ones we love.”

Who, among us, has not heard or used that saying? It has become a part of our lexicon, so oft used that it is with rare occasion that any of us stop to think about it. We only hurt the ones we love. Stop and think about it. Now answer this simple question? Why? Why would we hurt someone that we love? And why would we hurt that or those person or people, exclusively? What a sad commentary it is on humanity that, not only do we hurt the ones we love, we ONLY hurt the ones we love. Why do you suppose that is? Is it because we tend to believe that, because we love each other, that that person will hang around after being hurt? Do we believe that they will forgive us, just as we forgive our loved ones after they have hurt us? Is it because love is meant to override any feelings of anger or betrayal, that we believe that we have the ability, indeed, the right to commit these crimes against the people we love and who love us? I think it is because we individuals give our loved ones, give each other, the power and the ammunition with which to hurt us. We put our faith and our stock in these people, believing (or perhaps hoping) that this time, that this person, will be the one where we don’t get hurt. We fall in love romantically, spiritually, intellectually, platonically and we are certain that, just because we would never hurt our loved ones, they will never hurt us. We let down our guards, we let people in, we show them our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our Achilles Heel because we know that we and our fallibilities are safe with them. Human nature, though, leads us to seek power; and once someone knows (be it subconsciously or with clarity of mind and purpose) where to strike, humans will strike. Once someone knows how to hurt us, they will do it; and they will do it as often as they can. Anything for power. I am not saying that people act with malice, always – it is often an instinct, a reflex; I am not saying that people intend to hurt us, always – only that people get hurt. We give our loved ones the weaponry and they use it. We expect them to not use it and they expect us to forgive. And then we work that street from the opposite angle and we become the attackers and they, the victims. They hurt us and we forgive; and we hurt them and they forgive – and the circle remains unbroken.

With our loved ones.

It is a different story with strangers. Isn’t it? We are all so conscious of the strangers, of the people we don’t know, intimately or at all, when it comes to not being cruel. Consider the song Easy To Be Hard from the musical HAIR:

How can people be so heartless, How can people be so cruel, Easy to be hard, Easy to be cold. How can people have no feelings, How can they ignore their friends, Easy to be proud, Easy to say no. And especially people, Who care about strangers. Who care about evil, And social injustice, Do you only, Care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend? I need a friend

We donate our time and energy, our money and resources to charities to help the poor, the sick, the hungry, the planet, the animals… and yet we often don’t take the time out to sit with a friend in crisis and tell them “you are not alone; I will not leave you: There is no chance of leaving that person because, so often, we aren’t even there to begin with. Why are the strangers more deserving of our charity, our kindness, our dignity, our respect? Think about Blanche Dubois, the original champion of the benefits to be gained from associations with strangers. This fragile creature is treated to repeated unkindnesses and indignities at the hands of her brother in law, her suitor, even her sister; and yet she is treated with loving gentility by a newspaper boy and by a doctor. What about Buddy and Sook in Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory? They bake two dozen fruitcakes to mail to strangers or to people whose acquaintance with them has been, greatly, brief.

“Who are our cakes for? Friends. Not necessarily neighbour friends… Indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, not at all….” “Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers and merest acquaintances seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.”

We’ve all heard about “the comfort of strangers”. It’s talked about in books and movies and general conversation. In the film Living Out Loud Holly Hunter mentions that it’s funny, the things you can tell a stranger that you can’t tell your friends. There is safety in anonymity. These strangers that we encounter cannot hurt us. We have no investment in a personal relationship with them…so how could they? Think about the play (and subsequent movie) Nuts, in which the main character says

“It hurts less to sell yourself to strangers.”

I suppose we could all attempt to be like that character in Nuts or like my fictional idols like Jason Bourne and James Bond – we could all try to be cold and impenetrable. But then we wouldn’t be humans. It is our instinct to love and to desire love. That is one of our many instincts, as humans. It is probably our strongest instinct. I know it is mine. I’ve tried to be implacable like Bourne and Bond but it isn’t truly me and, eventually, I seep out through the seams of a made up character, one made up to protect me from pain. I’ve been hurt a lot in this life; so much that I don’t really like people anymore and I certainly don’t trust them – especially my loved ones, once they have hurt me. I am saddened by this fact but I am also quite a realist and I recognize my baggage. I don’t trust people who can me – not anymore. I’ve learned that lesson, mentioned above: once people know how to hurt you, they do it all the time. So it’s hard for me to fight with my loved ones and I try not to. If a fight ensues, I try to forgive. Still. Forgetting is not so easy. Trusting again is not so easy. Sadly, and irritatingly, I go back, eventually, to lowering my guard and letting people in. It is my nature. It is my instinct.

I cannot allow my past to stop me from continuing my work as an angel. And without an inherent trust, that work as an angel becomes impossible. Without that work, without that role, I cease to be myself. That is the cycle of my life. Help. Trust. Hurt. Love. Forgive.

There is no happiness without peace; and no peace without forgiveness.

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