the soup and noodles of compassion

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How important is compassion? Or empathy? Can you “compassion” your way through life? Can you just as readily “compassion yourself out of” experiences and connections? Every time I meet a new person, and they ask me what traits are important or attractive in others, or even what drives me, I can only reply, “Compassion”. I think they are expecting a more glib or easy answer, and “compassion” often confounds the listener. It is almost as though they don’t know what it is or how to talk about it. As time goes by, though, I can’t think of another answer. There are other things that are important to me – empathy, learning – but compassion surpasses them all. And to see the looks on people’s faces when I voice this, you’d think I was speaking an alien language.

Strange, then, to see a number of articles pop up in business press emphasizing the importance of compassion and empathy in leaders (and in innovation). All such articles mention the fact that compassion is sorely and quite visibly absent in most corporate leaders and missions (certainly in practice if not in theory). Perhaps I have been ahead of the curve, even if my commitment to compassion, in practice and daily life, still sees me on the outside looking in. After all, the presence of these traits is rare, and these articles I cite only point to the need for compassion at an executive level, not necessarily the need for compassion in every interaction we have, every action we take. I, for example, shift myself into a place inside to find the compassion each time I am tempted to unleash my inner annoyance, frustration, judgment, crankiness, tiredness, boredom. It’s not that those feelings do not exist. They just need to take a backseat, belt themselves in and let humility and thoughtfulness take the wheel.

The intersection of compassion and corporate life, though, is something else. Something interesting, actually. Lately (as in the last few years), I find myself answering questions in job interviews and professional situations in the exact same way I do when I meet people in other, more social situations.

“What do you think the most important attribute in your arsenal is?”

“Compassion.”

I know I am expected in these moments to talk about a skill or experience that makes me suited for whatever role I’m discussing. But I return to, and ramble about, compassion. This always seems somewhat out of place in the moment, but I continue to push it because it is needed. The fact that interviewers or colleagues give me blank, deer-in-the-headlights stares proves to me that 1. compassion needs to be pushed, and 2. (in interview situations) I don’t want to work in that place anyway.

This idea – letting compassion guide and inform your choices – can make life harder. It’s something of a luxury to be able to choose or not choose with this one principle in mind. I consider, for example, that an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, in which power can accumulate unchecked, leads to corruption at the top, and a culture in which ethics are not valued, and trust becomes non-existent. Responsibility has no meaning. While most of what I have read that ties into my thinking focuses on looking at leaders/CEOs who have been blinded by power and the burdens of bottom-line decision-making, I’d argue that deeply corrupt or flawed leadership has trickle-down effects, and thus poisons an entire organization and its culture. (Hence my not wanting to work in environments in which someone looks at me strangely or rolls out the slow, “Okaaaayyyyy…”-style response to my comment. If the HR department or the hiring manager or future colleagues or current colleagues cannot intuitively understand the link between compassion and the good of/functioning of the company and its culture, I don’t necessarily want to be there to fight against that.)

From HBR.org:

“…the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and associate with others. David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

It is not that every leader lacks empathy; in fact, their leadership role and its responsibilities take a toll on the ability to empathize. The decision-making at the scale and pace at which people in power must do so apparently rewires the brain, making the consequences of these decisions more remote and less human. This rewiring does not have to happen and can be reversed, and compassion is the key:

“While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.”

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, was recently profiled in a Wharton article that focused largely on Nadella’s view that avoiding hubris, valuing learning and embodying empathy lead to success and innovation. Apart from the obvious nods to leadership-style change, i.e. Microsoft’s attempt to shift from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”, which is in itself a huge step toward understanding: you acknowledge that you don’t and can’t know everything but that you are always and voraciously willing to keep learning, Nadella credits empathy as a significant underpinning to real innovation:

“This is a quality one doesn’t typically see on a list of top CEO character traits. But in Nadella’s view, empathy is, among other things, a key source of business innovation. He said that although many regard it as a “soft skill,” not especially relevant to the “hard work of business,” it is a wellspring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”

I can get behind this with relative enthusiasm (I only have so much of it), but I was curious in reading about Nadella’s perspective as to how and why people can only seem to come to a place where they are willing to introduce and admit empathy (and compassion) into all aspects of their lives only after they have experienced their own personal adversity? And even then, do you only empathize with those certain things you can relate to? Moz former CEO Rand Fishkin, who recently departed Moz, posted a farewell-to-Moz, hello-to-SparkToro (his new company) letter, in which he cites empathy as one of the most important/best skills he developed – yes, developed – because, he writes, it does not come naturally.

Can empathy only be felt when you have experienced similar things (while, as the HBR article posits, compassion is more about the intent to contribute to the well-being of others, regardless of your ability to relate to or feel the feelings of others)? Perhaps this depends on how you define and interpret “compassion”, which I think folds thoughtfulness, patience, empathy and this ineffable ‘intent’ into one big fluffy ball. I don’t know that I buy it, and in some way, find it disappointing, if true, that people are only capable of empathy by learning to be empathetic through their own experiences.

Still, any and all empathy, no matter how and when it arrives, is better than none.

 

Image (c) 2018 Naomi/Paddy Litvak

elasticity of compassion and dread

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I have spent a night filled with a growing, and somewhat inexplicable, dread. Now that darkness lasts longer at night, the sense of rare loneliness can creep in and make itself truly felt. This dissipates as the sun rises.

I have once more reached an impasse with someone in my life who has flowed into and out of the ‘rapids’ (i.e., daily life) for years. He has never been quite ‘peripheral’ but his role has changed. He is an addict, a compulsive liar, self-destructive and mentally ill. But all along, it has been hard not to care about him and feel tremendous compassion. Despite not being ‘with’ him in a relationship for a very long time, I still felt compelled by this compassion to be supportive, to help in any way I could. But there’s certainly a large emotional manipulation component that comes into play when he’s ‘off the wagon’ (as well as transparent deception; he isn’t good at it). I have done everything I have had in my power to give him support of all kinds and all the tools and coping mechanisms he could possibly need (that I could provide). But this is all one can do, really. At some point, as I told someone in describing this situation, compassion – despite its slack and elasticity – can be stretched to the point that it snaps. A point where self-preservation must take over. Watching someone self-harm, slowly kill himself, is just too painful.

With this as the backdrop, the night was accompanied by the rare feelings of missing people from long, long ago. Watching the Twin Peaks reboot earlier, and having a long conversation with someone from my life whom I met during the original Twin Peaks era, I remembered now-dead friendships that had meant so much – and some dormant friendships that, while they exist in that “say-hi-once-annually” way that Facebook affords, once pulsated with a kind of intensity that is almost impossible to feel in middle age. The viscous quality of this nostalgia left me feeling quite alone and quite cold, unable to shake the sticky links of the past.

But, as obsessed with moving forward as I always am, I have posed the question (to myself, and more rhetorically to others) as to whether this could be a pivotal moment. How nice would it be if we were actually able to recognize pivotal moments when they arrive? Do you ever look back and realize, “Ah, that was a pivotal moment” and lament that you did not notice, and made the wrong choice? Or even realize that you somehow made the right choice, even if you did not realize the significance of the moment as it happened? I have in recent days realized that while the surface of life and self has remained the same, everything underneath is a completely different organism from a year ago. And with these changes, perhaps it is time to make a clean break, closing the door on some of the things and people that/who linger from the past.

“While past and present continue to haunt/my future is nonchalant…”

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

invisible disembodiment

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“…am not at all the sort of person who attracts attention, I am an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

I have returned to the land where cutting grass takes hours unless you have a machine (or person) to do it for you. Almost a pity to see the grass disappear, clipped in the prime of its wild life, robbing various animals, birds and insects of their hiding places.

Meanwhile, I hide in the overwarm, artificial darkness, thinking about how one can scythe away the debris that clutters life … to tear away the scabs of permissiveness while retaining some kinship with compassion?

I wrote to one of my darlingest people this week, when she caught me at the strangest moment, the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a disembodied nothing state, something like:

“You catch me today in a strange frame of mind. I have been, as you know, for all of this year, relaxing and engaging in individual, cerebral activities (for the most part). I have been reading nonstop, taking walks, sleeping a lot and focusing on health and a kind of mindful emptiness. Since late winter, I have not become too tangled in complicated emotional things, in fact feeling almost completely free of all such entanglements lately. Not in the sense that I feel nothing but just that there is no negative association, or worst of all, dread, questioning or angst connected to any of it.

But at the same time, I also feel almost as though I just don’t belong in this … world. Or on this particular plane of existence. Not that I don’t want to be alive – it’s nothing like that at all. Suddenly I feel disconnected at the same time as being completely connected. I can’t find ‘passion’ or ‘fire’ for anything like anger, impatience, annoyance, elation – but not in a bad way. It’s just that what had felt a bit like laze and malaise has transmogrified into a centered contentedness. Nothing to say this won’t pass, as most things do, but it feels like it has been slowly emerging for months… and here I am feeling perfectly well, content, not in need of anything, not in want of anything, not seeking, not suffering. Just a serene nothingness.”

I wondered later, in rereading these paragraphs if it were a crafty and self-deceiving form of … self-aggrandized importance (i.e., as I wrote to my friend, “sounding as though I am completely up my own ass”) or ascribing traits to myself that I have no right to assign or name. But I could not change that I felt every contradiction in perfect balance (and counterbalance): I felt as though I were seeing everything for the very first time but that I had also seen everything a million times. I wondered if this nothingness would lead me nowhere – or everywhere. Had I been sleepwalking and hibernating all along?

“A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” –Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

I had certainly been living a life in my head, retreating more and more into the lives of books, fictions, histories I have never lived, less and less in contact with or seeing people, as though I were prematurely preparing for a departure. We never know when we will go (literally or figuratively), and while some reach out and expand into the life that surrounds them, I found solace or comfort in retreating into what was left of my life, without remorse or regret. Again, this is not about literal death, but the leaving behind a form or way of life… or a moulting of skin.

I wonder now, as I prepare for a next, but undefined, step, if the starkest change could be the will to exert real effort. The truth is… I don’t try very hard. At anything. I never have. I sometimes feel guilty about this, wondering what I could do – or could have done – had I truly applied myself. But nothing has seemed interesting enough to press myself that deeply into it. I have always felt it to be too much like pressing one’s own flesh through a sieve. One’s own essence and pulp taken away, leaving only the juice – the minimalist nectar of a diminished selfhood. This self I have hidden and selfishly guarded, wanting to be “an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background”. I never wanted or needed to be the best – at anything – I just wanted more. To see more, do more, learn more.

With all of this in mind, I wondered if I had ever felt determination, a no-nonsense tour-de-force of self raging through me, wanting to win or compete, to fire people from my life rather than coddling, enabling and understanding them, to get things done aggressively, as though knocking down physical obstacles in my path, to punch in the face the presumptuous, disobedient and manipulative tricksters, hucksters, fuckers and just plain pathetic shitheads who pop up to block the way? The idea of all of it is violent … and a far cry from the woman I have always been, and the person I have been particularly for the last half year or more: retiring, cerebral, and above all, patient.

Suddenly I realize: There is very little I can do with violence, and there is nothing I can do without patience; patience is valuable, and I will have endless patience, never able to deny compassion, wherever my next incarnation leads.

Stray observations, asking for a tap and the memory trap

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“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn

But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe

Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.

Remember

How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?

Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?

Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls’ education.

While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.

As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)

As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.

I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.

After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.

While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.

Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.

Give! Give! Give! More! More! More!

Kill switch / Hold on hope

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“Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” -Anne Lamott

Feb 2017; Same old lessons, different day:

  • Be the adult: Don’t sit around and wait just to see what happens. Be the adult; be responsible and just hit the kill switch immediately. Do not give someone else the chance to jerk you around with their indecision and inability to find or voice their feelings. This is difficult if you have fallen in love or have more feelings than the other person. Someone jerks you around, runs hot and cold, shuts you out but gives you mixed signals and words, and behaves in an unhinged way; if they hem and haw, make premature declarations and backtrack or ‘aren’t sure’, you have your answer. Instinct and experience have handed you the hard-won answers: use them, heed them.
  • Acknowledge your own real feelings:  Just walk the fuck away when you know logically and through evidence exactly where you stand and where this goes. Be connected enough with your own feelings to know when you’re trying to convince yourself of what does not exist and are faking it to justify satisfying morbid curiosity.
  • Scrap the three Cs & adopt three other Cs: Don’t stick around out of curiosity, courtesy or compassion… or some rancid mix of all three. Look at context and content to see if someone is being a cunt (or whether you need to be one) and go from there. (And ‘cunt’ here is the strictly English way of using it…)
  • Turn around and run from flashing lights and sirens: You see flashing lights and red flags ahead and choose to ignore. In fact, you run right into the fire. DON’T! You hear the alarms and sirens going off and think maybe it’s just your fear. No: don’t wait; don’t give the benefit of the doubt; don’t make excuses on anyone else’s behalf; don’t ‘be noble’. Just run – fast – in the other direction.
  • Turn off the projector: When you have a whole shitload in common with someone, don’t overlook all the things that don’t connect. Don’t project attributes or feelings you possess (and imagine you share) or wish the other person has onto him/her, hoping s/he will embody them just because everything else is shared in common. It doesn’t matter that you were led to believe these things were shared at some point: don’t assume that it is real or will stay that way.
  • Tune the fuck in: “Goddamn, girl, you don’t gotta be psychic to know the truth. That boy don’t love you. At all.”
  • Remember that silence speaks volumes: Silence might not be permanent; it might not signal that someone is pseudo-“ghosting”; however, someone who cares is going to talk to you – whatever is going on – even if s/he is not sure quite what is going on or how s/he feels.
  • Kill the curiosity before it kills you: It’s very tempting to watch the whole movie even when you know it’s not gonna be a happy ending. It’s an extension of acknowledging your own true feelings – sticking around because you’re curious is a waste of time. It’s not good enough – that is, you are not being good to yourself – to tell yourself you weren’t doing anything anyway, so it won’t hurt just to watch all of this unfold. It will hurt. And if you’re not careful it could lead to something worse – ending up in a situation you really don’t want. (You know what I’m talking about here: you cannot even figure out why you want to be wrong because if you were to get what you tried to convince yourself you wanted, you would be miserable.)
  • Keep your eyes (and ears) open: It IS clear what is happening – on every level. But you want to believe it is going to turn out differently no matter what harbingers of doom lurk around every corner. It’s clear. Embrace the truth your eyes show you and ears tell you, not the misleading song of the heart. But don’t be so open that you become a sponge absorbing all the misery and anxiety of someone else while getting/feeling/experiencing nothing in return.
  • Refer back: When in doubt, when bending to someone else’s will or charm or even carelessly letting them dictate all the terms and conditions, the way you relate to each other: refer back to this list. In fact, print it out. Laminate it. Carry it around with you everywhere.
  • Identify triggers and patterns: It’s not anyone’s fault: period. But it is also not anyone else’s fault. You have triggers and patterns. Certain kinds of people appeal to you; learn to recognize the ‘signs’ that you have met one of those types. Recognize and put a halt to your own ‘enabling’ and ‘deflecting’ behaviors (similar to ‘absorbing all the misery and anxiety and getting nothing in return’ listed above). You have to be open to taking it to receive it – all this kind of shit takes two to do.
  • Hold on hope: Okay, so you don’t hold onto hope about a hopeless situation. Face reality and embrace it for the often hopeless dead-end it is. Nothing is ever surprising in that way. But it doesn’t mean you should declare hope dead. There are fragments of it floating around everywhere.

“Every street is dark
And folding out mysteriously
Where lies the chance we take to be
Always working
Reaching out for a hand that we
can’t see
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that’s holding me
Invitation to the last dance
Then it’s time to leave
But that’s the price we pay
when we deceive
One another/animal mother
She opens up for free
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that’s
holding me
Look at the talkbox in mute
frustration
At the station
There hides the cowboy
His campfire flickering
on the landscape
That nothing grows on
But time still goes on
And through each life of misery
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that’s holding me”

-Guided by Voices, “Hold On Hope”

Misinterpretation – Falling for it

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Liberation
Louise Glück

My mind is clouded,
I cannot hunt anymore.
I lay my gun over the tracks of the rabbit.

It was as though I became that creature
who could not decide
whether to flee or be still
and so was trapped in the pursuer’s eyes-

And for the first time I knew
those eyes have to be blank
because it is impossible
to kill and question at the same time.

Then the shutter snapped,
the rabbit went free. He flew
through the empty forest

that part of me
that was the victim.
Only victims have a destiny.

And the hunter, who believed
whatever struggles
begs to be torn apart:

that part is paralyzed.”

It’s rare that I misinterpret another’s feelings, reactions and actions. Even when a person says one thing – s/he acts in ways that not only contradict the words but also make the real intent and underlying feeling perfectly clear. S/he may make excuses, offer explanations, justify and even (try to) believe something else. But actions almost always do speak louder than words. And what speaks louder – screams, even – than inaction?

I may not always correctly interpret the source or reason for inaction, but the existence of inaction means that the underlying motivation or impetus must be, in some way, missing. And isn’t that all that matters?

On rare occasions, though, I have been surprised by my misinterpretations. Once, someone asked me to listen carefully as a strangely disconnected, out-of-nowhere story unfolded, and didn’t contextualize why. It felt a bit, as I listened, like a pre-emptive accusation, but it was actually an invitation to understand something – him, in fact – more deeply. It was him cracking the door open, him starting to let me in. I had been suspicious, and I was wrong.

It is in large part because of this slight possibility of misinterpretation that I am still here, asking all the questions and feeling all the feelings. Every action or inaction is not about me – in fact most of them are not. I return to the source and find patience, compassion and love without analyzing anything through the prism of my own self-involvement. (And find the delicate balance that enables self-preservation.)

In a completely different situation, one fraught with years of on/off frustration, there should be no mistaking intent when someone issues you a direct invitation. He literally says, “Come here this week. I will be at the airport waiting.” And yet, everything about it feels false: on one hand, pushing and eager, “Here’s a link to the airline – direct flights daily – just come – now”; on the other hand, how many times have I fallen for that? Black-and-white failures to follow through, leaving me stranded and making excuses later – I should not hold these failures against someone else, but it’s a case of fearing fire once burned. It leads me back to questioning inaction and desire… succumbing to doubt or naively falling for what I want to believe.

And around and around we go.

Photo by Sebastian Davenport-Handley

Judgment day

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I am always analyzing and processing and trying – wanting – to understand. I don’t, for example, understand addiction from the point of view of an addict. I try to understand it scientifically, clinically, neurologically, and of course gather the perspectives of addicts I meet and know. I may never gather all the insight I need or want, but I keep trying to learn.

I feel like, as I move along through life, getting older (hopefully a bit wiser), I am becoming more understanding, more compassionate, more interested in understanding, more caring, loving and accepting. What surprises me, though, is how one of the closest people to me is the exact opposite. He has become so closed, so judgmental – about everything. A total Besserwisser: he knows best (and is, perhaps not ironically, judgmental of all the people he meets who are equally know-it-all types!?). Addiction is just an example of a topic that I examine and think about a lot – and he and I diverge on this subject in a major way, but there are so many other things where the chasm between this close person and me keeps growing wider and deeper.

I’m not sure what to make of it because I don’t really want to feel judged, demeaned, second guessed or guilt-tripped every time I talk to this person. Because of his emotional proximity to me, it is not like I can or even want to write him off. In some ways, we are so close and the only people who can understand each other and our histories. I don’t like the idea of losing the connection but come on.

Photo (c) 2009 Brian Turner

Mental sorbet: Live out, outlive, feel, unfeel

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A short exchange on how strange Danes can be – or at least their language – and I recall a Danish man who thought that to “to live out” and “to outlive” meant the same thing.

And yet, I live out my life in outmoded ways – or with outmoded views – that have outlived their time. If they ever had a time.

My life has made me be the person who favors the scrappy stray mother cat scrounging through garbage in order to feed herself and her kittens rather than be the person who fawns over her adorable little litter. Always the one who looks past the surface, I value her experience and tenacity over the fleeting cuteness of her kittens.

My life has also made me be the person who sees someone who is lonely, something of a misfit, hurting, ostracized, struggling or troubled, and I feel a need to reach out to them, help them – sometimes in misguided ways (particularly when I was young and very shy myself – hard to step outside of my own confines to intervene in someone else’s being). This never necessarily works out well, but I always thought my heart was in the right place. I somehow imagine(d) that what you put into the world is what you get back from it. But this is naive: even if you put out compassion, you are likely to be met with disappointment. You have to learn either to dismiss the urge toward compassion or dismiss the disappointment that often follows.

I see and feel the rarity of my way. I am not a surface-level person (other than the initial cold read people may get from me). The surface always has the power to sway and seduce. Most people don’t look beyond it.

But then, it depends on what they’re looking for. Mismatched intentions can be crushing. Initially of course I think of my own crushed feelings throughout life’s less triumphant moments, but I recognize that it can work both ways. In my supposed compassion, I might, as I did as an adolescent, reach out to someone who had no friends, spent his time hanging out with the school’s science teacher, and try to be friendly, boost his confidence – and in doing so, give him completely the wrong idea. My actual intentions were entirely different from how he received my intentions, and the situation did not end well.

Even when your intentions match up with someone else’s – those intentions can shift, creating unstable ground. It could be that I, like most, hope to be blindsided in amazement at the unconditional and expansive love and understanding that another person can give/show. Because that is how I am (or strive to be). (But this never happens – it is not part of the surface world we live in and, in all honesty, opens up the person who shows this kind of expansive love and/or understanding to some vulnerability.)

But it could just as well be that I, in my insensitive, less than impeccable or admirable moments, wonder if a person is, disposably, just a sorbet, a palate cleanser, making way for some other main course – or perhaps that person is the main course, and I pass on it, claiming not to be hungry?

…I know what is good, and conversely, not good for me, and I know what I need to do. Live out my days and outlive my usefulness. But do I act accordingly?

What form of akrasia is this?

It is only partly true that I act against (or for) my own best interests. I often compare the ‘doing versus thinking’ concept because I am both a thinker and a doer. And most other people seem to be much better, more active thinkers but not great doers. One day, I said to someone who insisted he would take action but frustrated me for years with his all-talk, no-action behavior: “You will have many hurdles to jump to become a doer like me, and I am not even half-motivated. But for you, it’s probably a priorities issue. Some things, some people, are important, and some are not. If you really wanted something, or someone, or wanted to do something, you would do it. The end. Someday maybe you will be a doer, and that will change my mind about you. But today, and for as long as I have known you, you have not been a doer unless it required absolutely zero effort or thought on your part.” In truth, as I could see plainly in that moment: if there is no feeling behind the doing, why should it ever go beyond thinking?

I rarely add ‘feeling’ to the equation. ‘Doing-thinking-feeling’. But would most people feel motivated to think and then do without that spark of feeling to push them to take action? I take plenty of risks and live freely in the thinking and doing realms. Ultimately, I may not make the riskiest choices from the heart’s standpoint. It makes me think a bit about school days, when teachers would tell certain kids that they really have a lot of potential but no follow-through. I was always the thinking-doing overachiever but had “a lot of potential but no follow-through” when it came to feeling, which is not to say I did not feel: Only that feeling did not, and could not, come first, lest it crush me. Perhaps I have always felt much too deeply.

Even this, I sometimes think, is not entirely true. My life has made me a person who prefers to be alone, who is mostly not interested in personal intimacy while at the same time being overly curious about other people’s personal intimacy. That is, I am less a partner or lover and more a would-be, unqualified, armchair therapist, wanting to know people deeply and intimately, but only from an observant and almost clinical distance (but not entirely dispassionately).

I am still trying to figure out whether – or how – feelings just leave, like a flock of birds migrating away for winter, or whether feelings morph into this “observant-supportive-caretaker” mold that I seem to adopt. I am not afraid of feeling now; I do not suppress it now. But no longer trying to control feeling, I find that feeling is much more unpredictable than I would have imagined. Yes, I knew feelings like love, as an example, were uncontrollable, messy, sticky, and up, down and all over the place, but I did not fully appreciate that they could be as fickle as they are. That, for example, one could be completely in it one day and wake up the next morning feeling absolutely nothing. Is it some unseen barrier that the inner, protective self builds? And if so, how can the lack of all feeling – this indifference – feel as real and as deep as the love once was? Did feelings, however briefly they lived, outlive their expiration?

Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall

Almost Lover – Soon Will Be Making Another Run?

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I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when I shouldn’t – and I keep trying to learn that lesson. But I am human and never do. It is just that I try to see the good in people, be compassionate – and then that gets pushed too far, I guess. But at least usually when I close the door, it’s closed – and I don’t regret it. Or the time or the things I have done with/for those people. But just as I cannot control it, I also know when I cannot continue it.

Fuck You It’s Over” – Glasvegas

I have realized that almost all people are completely out of control and indecisive – and I have to be the decisive one – or as America’s best-ever president (hahaha) Geo W Bush said, “I am the decider“. Haha. And I need to be the adult, the caretaker – not all people are always going to like that, but regardless of their role, at least the issue is fucking decided and it’s back to the drawing board. No wishy washy BS for weeks, months, years that prevent all parties involved from moving forward and taking responsibility for the things in their lives. That is what making decisions – even incremental ones – enables.

Almost Lover” – A Fine Frenzy

Goodbye my almost lover/goodbye my hopeless dream/I’m trying not to think about you/can’t you just let me be?/So long my luckless romance/my back is turned on you/shoulda known you’d bring me heartache/almost lovers always do…

The same actually applies in business. Not that I want to equate the misery of indecision in romantic entanglements with unclear business strategy – but when am I not talking shop? I recently decided to follow an online “basics of marketing” course as kind of a refresher since I work in marketing but was never a marketing student. One of the fundamental points made in creating a strategy is: you can’t do everything, you can’t cater to everyone. Right – this is why we segment and target. But the same principle applies in creating a general business strategy. You can’t really set seven major goals and expect all of them to be met. Choices need to be made and a focus decided. I see this lacking – a lot of talk about strategy and endless meetings about and revisions of strategy but nothing real and tangible that one can bite down on, take a chunk and work toward meaningfully.

At least in a relationship, you can bite down, take a chunk and work toward something if you really want to. But that is a matter of making the choice and focusing too. That’s my conclusion in my old age, sage wisdom and experience – not unlike the great wise, leadership of Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. Hahaha.