“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.” Miller Williams, poet
My husband, John, is downstairs. He’s laughing. Trying to help a guy, a friend, with his new phone (by the way, that’s not going to happen. John has no idea how to work his own phone). Most people who know John’s friend would say he’s hard to like. Why?
For one reason John’s friend is what I would call “disagreeable.” If I say something is white, he’ll insist that it’s black. If I say it looks like a nice day, he’ll point out the clouds, the chill, the wind.
Probably many people would characterize the guy as a gruff, surly curmudgeon, a misanthrope. Some say they would like him a bit better if he’d comb his hair, clean up his yard, and stop spouting off his strongly held views on almost anything.
John sees all that, but he loves the guy. Why? John’s gaze goes deeper…into the guy’s heart. He sees him more fully.
John sees the good in the guy. John admires the guy’s willingness to stand up for the underdog, his courage to protect the defenseless people who have been shunned by society. The guy’s shackish home is open to the struggling stranger ...at least for a night or two until they can find a place to go.
John chatted this morning in bed about the people he had met, his friends, who touched his heart. People from outside the mainstream for various reasons. Several have died in the last couple of years.
John laid out how each of his friends could have incredible books written about them, movies made about their stories…
Linda, the smiling, free spirit, imprisoned drug addict who desperately loved her son, her grandchildren, animals, and the outdoors. She worked repeatedly to recover. At the last Linda had lost part of her leg, was in a wheelchair. She begged at local supermarkets. The proceeds she used to pay her bills and buy food. She wheeled herself a mile or so, carrying a cake to donate to the church. The rest she gave to others.
There was his friend Jose who ran from drug violence and gangs in Sinaloa. Jose bugged a lot of people. Jose lived in a van packed with what appeared to be mostly junk. He stank of alcohol early in the day. He yelled about the poor pay and sketchy conditions for farm workers.
Jose wrote letters. Many, many letters to people in congress, to the president, to Putin, to people at the United Nations. Jose tried to tell people how to do things better to protect the environment.
John smiled as he pointed out Jose picking up bags of litter on the highway. John listened, scratched his head, and encouraged Jose’s ideas for a community garden. John and Jose smiled, hugged, and sometimes even danced a little jig when they connected.
Saturday was Justin’s service. Justin was a young guy with a three-year-old son. He died in a car crash. Justin’s service recalled his difficult life. Born into a dysfunctional family. Raised by two older brothers. Kicked out of the house at fifteen. He suffered from severe depression. Some said he got angry at times. Sometimes he could not drag himself out of bed.
Despite all that, Justin was bright and funny. He enjoyed indie movies. He loved working for AmeriCorps especially when it had anything to do with helping the homeless. He was sometimes homeless himself.
John kept reminding me of other stories until I stopped him. Yes, those stories were all compelling. But I wondered most about him, about John. How had he loved these people? I knew he had the background (as do I) of working with our mentor, Frank Rogers, but something else was going on. How was John able to accept and appreciate folks in ways that slipped by many of us.
John thought for a while. “I guess it’s that I accept our common humanity. We are all people. We all want to have a good life. I see them as doing the best they can with what they’ve got.”
It reminded me of words I had heard from spiritual leaders trying to help us really see each other and care for each other. They prod us, provide us with techniques, to see each other fully as human beings.
To slap us out of our tendency to judge, to see only the bad, to demonize, to dehumanize, to ostracize, to ignore, and to discard others; we are encouraged to say things to ourselves such as, “Like me, this person desires to be happy. Like me this person has experienced joy and suffering. Like me this person has longed for friendship and acceptance. Like me this person wishes to be safe and healthy.”
Maybe that sounds silly to need to devise ways of reminding ourselves of our common humanity. Sure we know on some level that we are all human beings. It is hard to realize how very easy it is to nullify that self-evident truth.
It takes nothing more than putting people on two different sides to de-humanize the way they see each other and to de-humanize the way they treat each other. We are told this by psychologists including Dr. Phil Zimbardo. Zimbardo was the one who conducted the infamous prison experiments with students at Stanford.
Stanford students who were given the jobs of “guards” easily psychologically ripped apart their fellow students, the ones given the role of prisoners, within a couple of days. The experiment had to be stopped early because of the brutality.
Shaken by the prison experiment, Zimbardo later started the Heroic Imagination organization. Included among the organization’s “stick your neck out” heroic projects are not only ways to keep from dehumanizing others, but also ways to keep ourselves from being dehumanized, pushed aside. The techniques include sharing with others stories of our children, times we have experienced joy, for example.
This is what a man, Izak Gasi, told me he did when imprisoned by Serbians during the Croatian War. Izak tried every way he could to show the Serbs that he was, like them, a human being. The Serbs had become so crazed by old ethnic hate that they could not see straight.
Novelist, Sue Monk Kidd tells of seeing men making fun of her fourteen-year-old daughter. The daughter was working afternoons in a drugstore. She was stocking the bottom shelves. The men were laughing saying something like “that’s what I like to see a woman on her knees.” Sue was outraged. “That’s my daughter you are talking about!”
The bottom line is that it is very easy, common even, to see people a little different (a different gender, a different ethnicity, a different socio-economic class, different politics for example) as less than human. The results can be devastating not only to them, but to our entire society and world.
If we want to turn that around, we can learn from people like Phil Zimbardo https://www.heroicimagination.org/, Izak Gasi https://www.ifiberone.com/columbia_basin/bosnian-war-remembered-in-wenatchee-authors-book/article_a9f93042-8615-11e8-8de2-7f3dd7429ff4.html, and Sue Monk Kidd https://suemonkkidd.com/books/the-dance-of-the-dissident-daughter/.
And I can learn from a regular guy, my husband, John Darling. I can remember that we are all people. We all have stories. The curmudgeons, the Lindas, the Joses, the Justins. We all want to have a good life.
John said he also learned from his mother especially when he cared for her in her old age. She often said, “I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.”
John and I say that a lot to each other. “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” And I’m guessing we can rightly say that for most of us.
This morning I asked John to remind me once again just why he works so hard – even takes pleasure, at this whole project of seeing people in their full humanity. Maybe I could do better if I had a smidgen more of his zeal.
“Well, it’s all about world peace, you know. If I can be kind to another, keep him from going home and kicking the dog, then that may keep the dog from biting the postman, the postman from going postal…ripples kinda thing.”
I buy it. The world peace thing. And even though I can't rightly see or even imagine what's way down there where the spirit meets the bone in others, I can still give the curmudgeon a little smile and politely way goodbye.
How might we journey together to the good life by seeing the full humanity in each other?