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Poly Wants a Crack-Up | 2009 | In the Membrane

04.07.09 5:28 p.m.

I cannot tell and I shall never know how many words of mine might have given birth to cruelty in place of love and kindness and charity.  

-Clarence Darrow


Loving Kindness

I try to keep compassion in my heart. I have no idea what this woman is going through, what door in her life closed to make her what she is today. If she were happy, would she be yelling at the clerk because the register ran out of money the third time she had her children run through the checkout line in front of me to take out $100 each? If she were fulfilled as a person, would the thought of delaying people and being obnoxious visibly delight her, as it does? I am grateful that I have never been in a position to find my joy this way, but I still have to keep calm while I am stuck in this line for another fifteen minutes, just wanting to get home and relax after a long day. If I show anger, she will have gotten her negative reinforcement and she will draw me further into this melodrama she is putting on for her inner moppet's benefit. Leaving the store, her car cuts in front of me unnecessarily, going around traffic and almost causing three accidents to get to the red light five seconds before I can. I note with a certain amusement the shiny new Jesus fish on her bumper, but that isn't enough to drive from my head the sudden revenge fantasies that flicker through.

As I pull back onto the highway, I see a bumper sticker reading "Breathe" and, when I turn on NPR, hear a man talking about Tibetan Buddhist refugees appreciating their new roles sweeping an asylum. When I get home, the "Serenity Now" episode of Seinfeld is on (even though I don't at all like the reruns and shut it off) and I tell the universe it is laying it all on a bit thick, but that I am listening.

Years ago, there was a show called "Starved" about a group of people with eating disorders. At the time, I was living with and engaged to a woman who had battled and would battle this (and to whom I owe most of my ideas about the true meaning of compassion), so we were especially sympathetic and interested. It was a beautiful and honest portrayal, one of the best half hours of TV in 2005, so it was summarily cancelled. In one episode, a resentful, wretched man is being instructed (by a yoga instructor he hopes to bed) to learn empathy by saying "Thank you. I love you." every time someone irritated him. He immediately walks by three people and, three times, says the phrase. (The third time, it was to a darling little girl and he explained that he actually did love her.) This became a lesson I carried with me, something I mentally recite when I am in this sort of situation, trapped behind an aggravating person I cannot begin to know. I think, to ever really know someone, you have to love them a little, so I trust that I would forgive this woman her trespass if I actually knew any part of her story. I thank her for the occasion to exercise my loving-kindness and do my damnedest to mean it this time.

Frequently, we are confronted with people who seemed to be playing out these parts, just egging the world into calling them on it so they can have the pleasure of angry vengeance or an excuse to attract attention by feeling victimized. Our compassion cannot be giving them what they think they want, since it is unreasonable to want to be miserable and hateful. We can never know how much they deserve our sympathy, but we have to unreservedly give it as they are people innately full of the divine who instead choose to behave infernally. That does not make it the slightest bit easier. I do it for myself as much as for them, though they will hopefully never know how they are pitied. It does not do to have my blood pressure rise because someone wishes to spread their bad day around, as if to dilute instead of multiply it. These irritations are a lesson, the grit of life that I can use to make pearls if I can continue to deal with them appropriately.

What is truly right is rarely easy. Ultimately, satisfaction comes from living in an authentic way and that means committing such social suicide as actually telling your friend when you think he is hurting himself. One quickly gets the feeling that the Buddha wasn't alone because he was elevated but because people do not actually care to hear that their comfort (or what they perceive to be comfort) is killing them, or at least slaughtering their chance at true happiness. As compassionate beings, we cannot harm others, not even through our inaction. Even more personally, I don't ever care to hear my friends shout, "Why didn't you tell me if you knew how bad this was? Didn't you care about me?" because I have been in the place to shout it myself and got the answer, "We didn't think you wanted to hear." We want our delusions and will violently defend them when confronted. We want to believe that the job that is slowly choking us is good, because the effort it would take to change is too terrifying to contemplate. We never want to hear how badly we are being treated in a relationship, because we are strong and how dare you suggest we don't know better. It's not as easy as you are making it out to be, you don't know what I've put up with my whole life. Don't I deserve happiness, even if it is happiness at the expense of my soul, happiness that makes me despondent? Just a few more years at this job, a few more years in that relationship, a few more bruises and hospital visits, and things will pick up. If you really cared about me, you would support my decision.

We put up with a lot, are treated worthlessly by people succumbing to their own illusions, because it is familiar. The compassionate person's job is to fine a way to gently shake them awake from a nightmare, one they will insist they were enjoying despite the screams and sobbing. I cannot shake the woman in the grocery store, in any sense, because she will react with righteous indignation and will attack me as the outlet to her anger. But someone knows her. Someone could sit her down and try to explain their concern before she turns on her lovely daughters (and they were, polite and eloquent for early teens playing supporting roles in their mother's passive tantrum). Yes, she is going to lash out at them the first time. And the fifth. And the twentieth. But one of these days, when she is completely sober and alone, she will hear it and she will find that she holds grit where she could have had pearls. She deserves that chance at happiness more than she does the silent consent to her misery, as do we all.

Soon in Xenology: Things. Oh such things, you cannot believe!

last watched: Invader Zim
reading: The Embrace by Aphrodite Jones
listening: Mirah

Poly Wants a Crack-Up | 2009 | In the Membrane

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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