Posts Tagged ‘compassion

02
May
20

Me and Rosie and the GOM

Grumpy manFort Collins, Colorado – the place where Joan and I moved last November – is a friendly place.

And when I say friendly, I mean VERY friendly.

Actually, I have an introverted friend here who loves almost everything about Fort Collins. The one thing he doesn’t much care for is the uber-friendliness of the place. I overheard him complaining about it once, saying, “You can’t even make a simple purchase at the neighborhood convenience store without somebody asking you how your day is going and what you have planned later on! I mean COME ON! Just ring up my breath mints and let me leave in peace!”

So, it was no surprise to me today when I was out walking the dogs and was cheerfully hailed by every person we passed.

Everyone, that is, except one. The GOM, as I called him. The Grumpy Old Man.

As we passed on the sidewalk, he had his head down, his hood up (the weather was a little on the chilly side), and he was scowling down toward the ground. I know he was aware of my approach because as I moved toward him, I was doing my best to try and keep two rather frisky, 40-pound Wheaten Terriers somewhat in check.

I glanced over in his direction and said, “Hi!” but instead of a wave, a “Hello,” or even momentary eye contact, the guy just trudged past, continuing to stare down at the sidewalk.

“Hmmm,” I muttered to myself. “I wonder what HIS problem is. Why couldn’t he even be bothered to look up for a second and at least wave?”

I felt rebuffed.

I must have actually given voice to my thoughts, because no sooner had I finished that question than Rosie – the female and by far the more intuitive of the two dogs – spoke up.

“Maybe this isn’t about you, Russell,” she said.

“Oh?” I replied, deftly hiding my astonishment at Rosie’s keen insight.

“Did you ever stop to consider that he just might be carrying a really heavy burden right now?” she asked. “I don’t know… maybe someone close to him like his wife just tested positive for COVID-19. Maybe he just heard some bad news about one of his grandchildren. Maybe he is running out of money and doesn’t know how he will provide for himself and his family over the next month.

And then, pausing right there in the middle of the sidewalk so that I would be forced to turn and look her in the eye, she pointedly asked, “Did you ever think of any of those possibilities? Hmmmm?”

Wow. I had to admit that I hadn’t.

I was – just as Rosie had suggested – so busy making the moment all about me and my momentary pique that I hadn’t bothered to consider what might be going on from GOM’s point of view.

Rosie’s abrupt reality check made me stop and realize; every person we encounter – whether waiting in line at the grocery store, driving on the highway, or walking in the park – is smack dab in the middle of a rich and complex story. It might be a story of heartbreak and anguish, a story of longing and estrangement, a story of joy and triumph, or just a story of dry, flavorless tedium.

It is a story made up of intricate details, colorful characters, and unexpected plot twists. And it is likely a story just as interesting as my own.

And here’s the real kicker: Thanks to Rosie’s prompt, I realized that I don’t have to know all the deep details of your story in order to be compassionate toward you. I just need to assume that you’ve got something going on; something that vexes or challenges or delights you.

We can all take great comfort in knowing there is someone who DOES know every teeny, minute detail of our story and still loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Jesus put it this way: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31, NRSV).

Next time we are out on our walk, I’m going to try my best to heed Rosie’s advice.

She is pretty astute for someone who regularly sniffs other dogs’ butts.

02
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 2

One man counseling another(In yesterday’s installment, I recounted one of my most abysmal performances as a pastoral counselor. Troy, a congregant, had come to see me with an incredible mountain of problems including job loss, cancer, his wife’s infidelity, and parenting challenges, all raining down on him at once.

When we left our story, the pastor was wringing his hands in despair, searching and praying for the right word for Troy’s situation…)

Not wanting too many more silent seconds to pass between us, I gave Troy my most sincere, pastoral look, reached out and confidently placed my hand on his left shoulder and said – with an air of authority that was manufactured out of thin air – “Troy… the thing to remember at times like this is just what it says in the Bible: ‘This too shall pass.’”

And then, to add an extra measure of sincerity to the drivel I had just dispensed, I clapped him on the shoulder and nodded.

The reaction I fully expected to receive (and probably should have received) from Troy was something like, “What? Are you seriously kidding me? ‘This too shall pass??’ I could have pulled a random fortune cookie out of a jar and gotten something better than that drivel!”

But, to his everlasting credit, Troy just nodded, thanked me for my time, and stood up to leave.

After that it took me several minutes to compose myself. I was stunned at the level of absolute ineptitude I had displayed in my conversation with Troy. I honestly pondered the possibility of searching for a new line of work… on the spot. Clearly that “call to ministry” I thought I had heard was a wrong number.

Fast-forward six months. I have not heard from Troy or heard about him. I had maybe seen him at church one time in passing since our meeting. And I may or may not have pretended to drop something on the floor when he passed… just to avoid making eye contact.

And then one night it happened… there was an event at church for parents and their children. I was on duty to greet folks as they came in and help them find their way around. And here came Troy… with his two children in tow.

“OK,” I said to myself. “Nothing to do but to step up, look him in the eye and face the music. It might even be that he has wiped any memory of my face and name from his mind… if I’m lucky.”

So, I bucked up… walked up to Troy… stuck out my hand and said, “Hi there, Troy. It’s been a while since we talked. How are things with you anyway?” I tried not to telegraph the fact that I was positioning myself to deflect a punch from his right hand I was reaching out to shake it.

“Pastor Brown!” he said… in a loud, overly enthusiastic voice. (Drat! He recognized me!) And then he went on, “Hey, do you remember that time last fall when we met in your office? You know, when I was in such a messed-up situation and I came to see you?”

“Yeah… sure,” I said… playing along. “I’ve been wondering how things are going for you now. That sure was a bad time for you, wasn’t it?”

He said, “Boy, it sure was. Hey… do you remember the advice you gave me? When you told me ‘this too shall pass’?”

I was getting ready to defend myself, explaining I had been engaged in a spiritual fast the day we met and was clearly delirious from hunger when he interrupted me, grabbed my hand and pumped it vigorously saying,“Man, I can’t thank you enough. That was EXACTLY what I needed to hear at that moment. It helped me take a step back from the funk I was in and just take a breath.

“And you know what? Things are really getting better. I got a new job, so we changed schools and got my daughter away from those bullies… my wife married her boyfriend and I am getting good treatments for my melanoma.”

“But I just really wanted to thank you for helping me get through that. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

And so, we shook hands, I thanked Troy for his kind words, and we went our separate ways.

At the time I offered it, “This too shall pass,” was a trite, unthinking response that was thoroughly unresponsive to the depth of Troy’s dilemma. I have since checked and found it is also advice that can be found nowhere in the Bible.

What I saw though in that six-month reunion was the power of the Holy Spirit to take the very worst of my efforts and transform it into something powerful and healing.

Right now, “This too shall pass” feels like a trite, almost cruel platitude in the midst of the current pandemic. Sure, it will pass, but who knows when it will pass? Who knows how many lives will be lost in the process? Who knows the long-lasting damage that will be done to our economy by this extended shut-down?

“This too shall pass” is not particularly biblical or earth-shaking as advice goes. But it is true. There WILL be a day in the future when sports resume, when there are stories on the news besides the daily COVID-19 death toll, when kids are back in school, when concerts happen again, and when folks – maybe more than before the pandemic – gather again in church.

No, “This too shall pass” may not be particularly profound.

But somehow my anxious heart – like Troy’s – finds great peace and comfort in knowing it is true.

 

Praise God!

20
Mar
20

Change is Coming

CoronavirusThink back; do you recall events in your life that CHANGED you? I mean, changed you in a profound, lasting, BC/AD kind of way?

I believe I was forever changed that time my dad suffered third-degree burns on his upper thigh.

He had left me at home by myself when he went to bring my mom and new baby brother home from the hospital. I was nine years old at the time.

As he left the house, dad accidentally left a pot full of boiling water and plastic baby bottles on the stove. The water boiled away and the bottles all melted. I didn’t know what the bad smell in the house was and so I went outside to sit on the front porch to get away from it. When dad, mom, and baby brother returned, the house was filled with smoke and the pot was in flames. When he grabbed the pot to run out the back door with it, dad splashed hot, melted plastic on his leg, causing third-degree burns.

I blamed myself for his injury and spent the rest of my youth trying to atone for my mistake. I believe that childhood episode engendered my overblown sense of responsibility for the well being of those around me… a trait I carry to this day.

My mother’s death was another event that wrought a change of the deepest, most elemental kind in my life. Mom died of lymphoma, exactly one month after I graduated from high school. For most of my life, she had been my cheerleader, encourager, friend, buffer, and confidant. After her death, I drifted rather aimlessly through life… rudderless and self-absorbed.  My grief wounds ultimately healed, of course, but the change her death caused in my life was long-lasting and fundamental.

I can bring to mind several other intersections along my journey that had similar effects; our family’s cross-country move the summer before my senior year of high school… my marriage… the birth of each of my children… my divorce… my spiritual rebirth… my first U2 concert. (JK!)

In each case, as I think back on those personal milestones, I can clearly describe pre-event Russell and post-event Russell. Sometimes it was a change for the better; sometimes it was a change for the opposite of better. In every case though, these events jolted and dazed me… knocking me off of my feet and leaving me grasping for a handrail.

This event we are all experiencing right now – the COVID-19 outbreak – is exactly one of those kinds of haymakers. Except in our case, it is a haymaker that has landed on the chin of the entire world at the same time.

Collectively we are still right in the middle of the landing of the punch. The opponent’s fist is in mid-swing… still connected to our jaw. It’s like one of those artfully choreographed fight scenes shot in super SLO-MO.

Soon we will spin around… hit the mat… see stars… and then shake our head and wonder what the hell just hit us. Sadly, we are a LOOOOOONG way from getting back on our feet and putting up our dukes, ready for the next foe.

Not even the wisest soothsayers can tell us how long this time will last or how bad it will get before it is over. But it doesn’t take a King Solomon to know that ALL of us will somehow be different on the other side.

What kind of change will it bring? Will we be kinder to each other? Will we have a better understanding of community and interdependence? Will we show a deeper appreciation for the world and people around us, remembering how concerned about each other we were?

Maybe. Hopefully.

Or will we quickly revert to our standard, “Every person for themselves, look out for #1” approach, becoming even more self-centered and callous than we were before?

Gee, I sure hope not.

Even though I roundly reject the idea that God sent the COVID-19 virus to teach us to love one another, I passionately embrace the idea that we can emerge from this pandemic as new, transformed people… with a new awareness of the intricate interconnection of our lives.

Every day I pledge to surround each of you with love and prayers for your wholeness, health, safety, and security. I am also asking God to open my eyes to ways I can directly serve my neighbors in need.

I am already feeling just how precious you each are and how much I need each one of you in my life.

Together – with God’s help – we can make it through this.

06
Feb
20

Chew on it

light-bulb-changing“Is this mine to do?”

Sometimes this is an easy question to answer… other times it is surprisingly difficult.

In my experience, it is also a question that most folks do not ask nearly often enough.

I was across town last week, attending a volunteer training session. During one of the morning breaks, I went in to use the restroom. As I entered, the lighting inside the restroom seemed unnaturally dim. It did not take long to see why… one of the two light fixtures was burned out.

After washing my hands, I went to the front desk and reported the issue to the receptionist. “Thanks for letting me know,” she said. “I’ll tell maintenance people about it.”

Later that day – after lunch and during the afternoon break – I once again visited the men’s room. I should note that this was at least four hours after my morning visit.

Once again, the restroom had the same romantic, candlelit ambiance I had experienced during my morning visit. Yes, it would have been the perfect lighting had my wife and I chosen to dine there. But it was not so great for taking care of the actual business at hand.

What to do?

Should I report the problem again? Should I just take matters into my own hands and fix the light myself? I am actually a pretty handy guy and probably could have had it fixed in a jiffy. Or should I just go about my business and trust that the matter would eventually be handled?

In that case, the decision was easy. Fixing the light was NOT mine to do.

In other situations, I find it much more difficult to know what is mine to do and what isn’t.

I have to confess… most of the time I err on the side of over-doing. I have been known to be grossly over-solicitous in my effort to be helpful.

Just ask Joan. It is one thing to bring your spouse a cup of tea in the morning. It is quite another thing to put her half-empty cup and saucer into the dishwasher before she has finished drinking it.

As I have discovered more than once, there is a big difference between helping and doting… or between being compassionate and being unctuous.

I have learned (the hard way) that sometimes the truly compassionate act is to allow the other person to find their own way out of the pickle they are in. If you have ever been a parent you know exactly what I am talking about.

Then there are those other times… the times when I find myself squarely on the other end of the helpfulness spectrum. Those are the times I have been the “Hey! That’s not my job!” guy…

… even when it is.

Jesus regularly spoke in parables and then walked away without elaborating much on their meaning. “Those who have ears to hear, let them listen,” he said on more than one occasion. And yet somehow, the sight of ¾ of his audience standing there scratching their heads did not cause him to alter his approach at all.

“Jesus did not chew people’s food for them,” pastor/author Barbara Brown Taylor once graphically remarked. What she meant – I believe – was that Jesus recognized the value in allowing people to puzzle out meanings for themselves. He likely believed that when folks did some of their own heavy lifting of interpretation, they were far more likely to “own” the results.

 

This is the time in the blog post when I am supposed to wrap it all up with a neat little application illustration… carefully instructing you on how to take this nugget of wisdom and apply it to your own life.

Instead, I think I’ll just end it here and let you chew this one over on your own.

21
Oct
19

Go Do Love

Reading the paperYesterday at church I heard an inspiring sermon.

The pastor challenged me (well, all of us actually) to make an intentional practice of acknowledging the many-layered, complex, rich, and vibrant nature of every person we meet.

She told us that one way of doing that, for example, might be by making eye contact with the McDonald’s counter person as they hand you your Egg McMuffin and senior coffee… thanking them and genuinely caring about what kind of day they are having.

I don’t remember if she said this, or if I just made my own translation of her message, but the goal I set myself to accomplish was to go and, “Do Love.”

So that was my Monday project; to do love… to friends, to my spouse, to my neighbors and siblings, yes. But also to complete strangers and maybe even– get this! – to people who DON’T LOVE ME!

But before setting out on that kind of grand quest, I needed to fortify myself with a little coffee. DANG! That’s right! The people I order my Guatemalan Fair Trade coffee from haven’t shipped me my refill order yet! I KNOW I placed the order in plenty of time to ensure I didn’t run out.

What is wrong with them anyway? Is it too much to ask that an order be fulfilled in a somewhat timely way? “Lunkheads,” I mutter, under my breath.

Oh, well. I can always pop down the street and grossly overpay for some kind of Starbucks foofoo blend.

So… before heading out on my “love doing” mission, let me give the front page of the newspaper a quick glance. Who knows… I might find a story about something that will dramatically re-shape my day.

OH MY GOSH! Would you look at that! Another senseless homicide on the east side yesterday! A local school board member is arrested on a child pornography charge! And look at this, on page A2: lies, underhanded dealings, and character assassination coming out of our nation’s capital! (Have they no shame? Someone just needs to grab each one of those clowns and sit them in a corner by themselves for the next 30 days! They are a disgrace to the office!)

And don’t even get me started on the news of the horror show of the international scene; war and atrocity in this country, massive corruption here, natural catastrophes brought on by manmade climate change (while the deniers keep denying), and crushing preventable poverty in other places.

It makes me feel so sad and helpless. It all just makes my BLOOD BOIL!

And unfortunately, the sports page offers me little relief from all the front-page mayhem. There I find a scathing article about the inept coaching job at my alma mater in their loss on Saturday. I find I agree with the reporter’s every word, but it only succeeds in working me into a little more of an emotional lather.

OK… I just need to put down the paper, grab my car keys and head out the door. Just like Jake and Elwood, I am on a “Mission from God” today. I’ve got some LOVE to do. I’d better go do it before I forget how.

I calmly, serenely and lovingly pull out on to the busy, four-lane road, and wouldn’t you know it; some MORON in a blue Ford F-150 pickup truck decides his time is way more important than mine and zips into the lane in front of me. Simultaneously my left foot hits the brake and my right hand hits the horn… as unprintable words escape my lips, just for added emphasis.

I make a right at the next corner, another right, and then a third right at the corner after that. I end up back in my own driveway, defeated before I have even started.

“I just can’t,” I sigh, turning off my engine. “Not today.”

I mean, how does God expect me to go out and love all these people who are SO UNLOVABLE? So messed up! So stubbornly self-centered and IMPOSSIBLE!! Why should I waste my time and energy on people like that when it probably won’t make a darned bit of difference??

And before the words are even out of my mouth I hear, “Well, he loved YOU, didn’t he?”

 “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”(1 John 4:19-20, NRSV).

 

**GULP**

24
Sep
19

The real emergency

Me in the ERSettling in, I was struck by how quiet and calm it all was.

For a room whose first name is EMERGENCY, I had visions of wailing sirens, screaming people, racing doctors, and slippery pools of blood on the floor, visions, no doubt fueled by TV and movies.

Instead, I saw a slightly built Hispanic couple huddled together on a couch, the man tenderly holding the woman’s arm. Over here to their left was an older woman sitting quietly in a wheelchair, searching without success for something in her purse. A young man – whose name I found out later when they paged him was Nathaniel – sat with a worried expression on his face, all alone.

People came in the automatic, sliding glass doors and calmly approached the reception desk. They explained the reason for their visit, filled out a brief form, and took the next available seat… preparing to wait for however long it took.

The doctors, nurses, and assorted hospital helpers ran the demeanor gamut from professionally concerned and solicitous, to utterly bored, to flippant and jokey, depending on the patient. I am sure it helps contain the anxiety of the help-seekers to see their rescuers taking a firm hold of the rudder of the ER, succumbing to neither fear nor frustration in the face of pain and illness.

I had checked into the ER ten minutes earlier, hopeful they would approve my application for patient status. In the fifth inning of my old man softball game earlier that evening, an inadequately stretched out hamstring felled me as I barreled down the first base line. I landed full on my elbow, jamming my upper arm up into my shoulder joint.

It hurt like the dickens, but the diagnosis – after an exam and X-rays – was a “first degree (the mildest variety) shoulder separation.” The recommended treatment plan is a sling and ibuprofen for a week.

So the softball season has come to an early end for me. Not that I actually contributed that much to our team’s success you understand. But it was always a good time on Monday nights to hang with the guys and pretend to have some athletic ability for an hour or two.

But this isn’t really about my shoulder injury and me. I’ll be fine. I have a wonderful wife to help me out and a good constitution to ensure swift healing.

It is really about my fellow ER occupants and their stories. Who are they? Where do they live? What happened that led to them being here tonight? How are they going to respond?

When I commented to one of the nurses that it seemed very busy that night she replied, “Oh you know… it’s a Monday. The weekend is done and it’s after dinner, so now is the time to come into the ER,” which struck me as both surprisingly callous but also a little bit insightful.

Her off-hand comment showed me one of the nagging realities of health care in this country today. People use the emergency room as their doctor. They don’t have health insurance – for whatever reason – and as a result, don’t seek out the routine care of a physician. They wait until something gets really serious and scary and then head to the ER. Emergency room docs are ethically bound to see and treat everyone who walks in, insurance or not.

Questions are asked, tests are done, X-rays are taken, treatments are prescribed, and bills are sent equally to everyone. Some get paid, many don’t. The latest figures show that more than 2/3 of the personal bankruptcies in the U.S. today are due to the crushing load of health care costs.

It caused me to stop and realize; while we were in the same place at the same time last night, most of the others in the emergency room lived in a VERY different healthcare universe than the one Joan and I occupy.

Today, as I pop my ibuprofen and try to type with this sling on my arm, I will be thinking about my friends from the ER. I will wonder how last night turned out for them. I will wonder if they will be back again tonight with a different complaint. I will speculate about how high their healthcare-related debt is.

But then, sadly, I will probably move on with my life and continue not thinking about them, just like I did before.

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”(Matthew 25:40, NRSV).

25
Aug
19

For me?

Puerto Rican tree frogJoan and I (and Joan’s daughter Jessica) are in Puerto Rico for a few days, enjoying our first-ever trip to this island.

What an amazing place! If you have never been, I highly recommend it.

For Jessica, this is a vacation. That’s because Jessica is a working person.

Joan and I, however, are only allowed to call it a “trip” because we are both retired. That means we are legally prohibited from using the word “vacation.”

We are staying in a little seaside spot near Punta Santiago on the east coast of the island. It is far outside the city of San Juan and therefore very peaceful and serene.

The remoteness of our location has allowed us to meet the little tree frog that is known as “the symbol of Puerto Rico,” the coqui. The coqui has a distinctive and piercing call that begins right around sunset and continues until the wee hours of the morning.

Wikipedia tells me that the coqui’s call is made up of two parts… the “co” which is designed to scare away other male frogs, and the “qui” (pron. “key”), which is his come-on to any female frogs in the area.

I am glad I looked this up because when I first heard the call of the coqui, it struck me as the call of the most self-centered little amphibian in the world.

The call I thought I heard him making was, “For me?” repeated over and over and over again.

It made me think about how often I have employed that mating call in my own life.

I had to stop and ask myself if I am only able to appreciate the joy and wonder of life when it is especially designed “for me.”

Am I only able to weep and feel the true depth of sorrow when a tragedy is uniquely “for me”?

I sincerely hope that is not the case. Because if it were, I would truly be a person worth pitying.

When Jesus commanded us to, “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:39), I believe he was commanding us to do away with the notion that there is a distinction between the two.

When I see no distinction between my neighbor’s well being and my own well being, self-care and compassion merge to become the same thing.

Your joy is indeed “for me.” Your sorrow is also, “for me.”

So maybe instead of being annoyed as the little coqui sings me to sleep tonight, I will instead choose to be grateful for his sermon on authentic human compassion.

 

But maybe he could try preaching it a little more quietly though, eh?




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