“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about kindness and compassion—both how easy it is to forget the importance of these qualities and how quickly we remember them when we’re on the receiving end of harsh words or behavior.
Much of this frustration came to a head over the weekend when I ran into an old friend at a local beer market. We caught up over a quick conversation—only to have one of her short little crones… er cronies… approach, point a finger up into her face, and angrily say, “YOU should NOT be TALKING to her!” (Capitalization used to indicate the shrill inflection characteristic of a convincingly repugnant movie witch.)
Here’s the thing: I had never seen this woman before in my life. And she didn’t know me; she only knew what she had learned from her companions in my absence. But there’s a reason for this behavior: I left their religion. Five years ago.
Now, that may not seem like a good reason to outsiders, but it’s their reason, and these individuals are entitled to behave in whatever manner they see fit, just as bakeries in certain states can refuse to provide wedding cakes to homosexuals. It may not be just or kind, but it’s their right.
But when I saw that unfortunate woman’s furiously plump red cheeks and fleshy finger shoved into this poor woman’s face—and the insinuation that I was a disease-ridden monster to be avoided and abhorred—something in me snapped.
For a long time, I’ve decided not to share certain things about my life publicly, due to fear of speaking ill of my former friends, being labeled by them, or disregarded further by the few beautiful people (out of thousands) who still maintain even sporadic contact with me.
However, partly due to keeping pseudo-religious posts to a minimum, my blogging has come to a standstill. I now know I was doing a disservice to myself and others by writing about only cheerful and superfluous topics—without also sharing that which is honest and real. It was almost as if I was on a pathway leading into a verdant forest, but blocking my way was an enormous rocky crag, and the only way to move forward was to make a long difficult climb over it.
I’m beginning to realize that moving forward in life requires saying the hard things, and having difficult conversations that might hurt people. And, when I look ahead at my life, the risk of not saying them poses more harm than keeping them inside.
While I certainly have no desire to point fingers because that would be unkind (does anyone else see the irony here?), it’s worth acknowledging that the majority of this post is fueled by the brilliant Anne Lamott quote at the outset. So I won’t use names, but I will use examples. In honor of moving forward, it’s time for me to climb over the hard things that stand in my way.
I’m tired of protecting people who engage in shunning and ostracism because they believe they are representing the will of god.
I’m tired of making excuses for people who will go out of their way to greet my friends when I am in their company but simultaneously pretend I do not exist.
I’m tired of protecting people who hide behind religion as permission to administer so-called street justice in the name of their faith.
I’m tired of remaining silent about the people who heartlessly divided up and distributed my personal belongings amongst themselves during a drunken house party before my divorce was final.
I’m tired of defending people who blamed me for the same or similar mistakes they themselves have made throughout their lives.
I’m tired of defending a religious band of glorified frat boys who jeered and yelled at me one night as I walked along one of Boise’s busiest streets after having dinner with friends.
And as of Sunday, as I watched that sad little finger wagging in the face of one of my most favorite old friends, I’m tired of defending people who continue to deprive me of my basic human right to be acknowledged and to take up space on this planet.
Frankly, I’m also tired of making excuses for “nice people” who have not been all that nice to me. Throughout history, so-called “nice people” have committed terrible atrocities in the name of religion.
Ever read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer? It will give you a whole new (and terrifying) perspective about churches that favor personal revelations and messages from god. And lately, if you’ve been watching the news, you’re likely tired of hearing about religions that deprive their children of proper medical treatment in the name of faith—but are defended by certain legislators who deem them “nice people”.
For the record, the intent of this post has nothing to do with religion. It’s not about god, or politics, or even activism. It’s about compassion. It is about the basic tenet of treating humans with compassion and dignity—and if that’s missing from your religion, you have some serious spiritual problems to address.
It’s sad to admit that I’ve learned as much about compassion in the last five years as I did in the decades previously. That may be partly because my former religion preaches that the “meek will inherit the earth”—while smugly acknowledging their own meekness will win them salvation (and simultaneously pointing both figurative and literal fingers in people’s faces).
Most importantly, I’ve learned what meek people (or “nice people”, for the non-zealots) look like. But strangely enough, they are some of the same people I was too busy judging in previous years that I failed to see their contribution to humanity. Here’s what one of them looks like:
Today, a Facebook friend shared the above video of the sweetest old Greek grandmother who accepts refugees in need with open hands and an open heart, when many in the world consider them a burden (or worse).
While I can’t relate 100 percent to the devastating plight of humans on the run for their lives, I do know what it’s like to be treated like a subhuman species by a large group of people which places more value on judgment than on human kindness. And it seems to me that this world would be a lot better off if we all tried to be a bit more like this grandmother.
Yet, some are so worried about protecting their own rights that we justify hurting people (or at least not helping them), simply to make a statement. When did being right come at the expense of others’ wellbeing?
Lately, I’ve been asking myself some big and very tough questions: ‘How do I treat people? How do they feel I’m treating them?’
But maybe more specifically, ‘How do I treat well-arranged and beautiful living sculptures of bone and sinew and flesh, with their very unique backgrounds, life stories, pains, heartbreaks, and daily struggles?’
And that’s when I know: there is always room for more compassion.
Noted Scotsman and author Ian MacLaren once said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes I think humanness is synonymous with weakness; there are days when just living can be a challenge.
But there is a power transfer that occurs during acts of kindness and compassion. Doing or saying nice things hurts no one. In fact, it can change the world. And it definitely can change our relationships.
Occasionally, old friends and family members will ask why I don’t return to my former faith, in a tone that often borders on pleading. Part of me understands the desperation—many of these individuals honestly believe that I’m as good as dead, at least until I am properly disposed of by their supposedly loving “god”.
It’s during these conversations (and especially while writing this) that I think of the words of Maggie Kuhn, a lifelong activist who fought for human rights, and social and economic justice:
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.”
I don’t often share such raw, personal experiences. It’s scary and it’s very, very hard to do, especially in anticipation of the inevitable fallout, hurt feelings, and ridicule. But if “speaking my mind” means endorsing compassion over judgment, kindness over criticism, and love over condemnation, I will gladly bear my slingshot, and accept whatever punishment comes with it.
Ultimately, one major purpose of this blog is finding inspiration—and how can you and I be inspired unless we first climb over what stands in our way? So if sharing this writing with the world means it resonates with someone, then I have all the courage I need. Better yet, if it helps us understand one another, or empowers someone to have a conversation about something that’s been difficult to address, then I’ve done my job as a writer.
And if you need one, I’m happy to let you borrow my slingshot.