Thursday, March 18, 2010

Compassion From the Inside Out

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Sometimes it’s better to address your own despair before addressing the despair in the world. By doing this you will change the world from the inside out. Start by asking the question, “Where is love?” Photographer Rick Ruggles has snapped thousands of love hearts that he found in natural settings, whether in a puddle, a cloud or a piece of rusty metal. In our home, we have a beautiful Ruggles poster above our kitchen table with the words “Love is where you find it.” It’s a constant reminder to find love wherever we are. Of course it’s not always easy to find love. One day my seven year old daughter was feeling very hard done by. She was having a mini tantrum and blurted out, “Love is NOT where you find it.” I had to hold back my giggles. This was no laughing matter to her. It was a raw expression of being misunderstood. She had reminded me that just as love hearts can be found in the most basic materials, so love is manifest in the most fundamental of human experiences including despair.

This is what happened when I came face to face with poverty. I was raised in a very stable middle-class family, but my parents encouraged me to mix widely. So in my childhood I was friends with a lot of poor people. I grew up in Sydney, went to an inner urban school, and mixed in some very poor and unstable families. It was not uncommon for me to be in homes where 15 year olds raised younger siblings because one parent was in prison and the other parent worked 3 jobs. Poverty was a reality for me, but it was only when I was 19 that I came close enough to poverty that I saw myself as part of the solution. It was a relationship that turned my world upside down and inside out. It gave me a new sense of what it meant to truly engage poverty rather than just feel bad about it.

My first two church positions were with young people. The first was as a youth worker in a middle-class suburban parish, and the second was as a youth worker on inner city streets in Sydney. So for two years I ran youth groups in the suburbs, and mixed with middle class families. I spent time in their homes, getting to know what appeared to be some very stable middle-class families. Little did I know what lay beneath the surface in some of these homes. Then I moved into street work, and it was not uncommon for me to be walking down the main drag of King's Cross in Sydney and see a line of young kids, hands outstretched, each of them asking for money.

On one particular morning I was walking quickly and except for a slight glance to the left I would not have noticed one particular boy with his hands outstretched. Along this line of 12 and 13 year-old kids, I looked over and saw one of the same kids who had been in my suburban youth group. It had only been three months since I had been in his home talking to his parents and it was only months since we were ten pin bowling and playing chubby bunnies in the youth group. And yet, here was this young kid begging on the street. When our eyes met there was a brief moment of recognition, and I saw on his face all the poverty and sadness in the world. He looked so innocent and lost. I saw every teenage boy that I’d ever met. I saw myself as a teenager. I saw into the future to my own children. I saw every teenage boy in the world.

I saw him from time to time over the next few months and like so many who live that way, he aged several years for every week he lived on the street. He spiraled from broken to desperate within months. When I glanced into his eyes that first time, I learned something very profound about myself and about life. I learned that as long as he was suffering, I was suffering. As long as there's one person in poverty, we’re all in poverty, and that situation is unacceptable. It is a profound spiritual truth that Jesus pointed to when he said that showing compassion to the most desperate was a way of showing compassion to him. Jesus was urging those who followed his path to see their engagement with poverty as a spiritual activity from the inside out.

Compassion begins within. It begins as self awareness and inner acceptance. Sometimes that involves facing up to the difficult parts of who you are. In C. S. Lewis’s retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche, the dying Queen comes to the profound realization that she had to see her own face clearly in the mirror before she could look at her sister Psyche with compassion. She realized that her envy of her sister’s beauty was not the real problem. She had to grow to love her own face first. Then she could see her sister’s face without bitterness. She also no longer needed the gods in the temples to have faces. Where before she needed the gods to have faces to prove to her that love was present, now seeing her own face and seeing her sister’s face was sufficient reminder that love IS where you find it.

Seed of Compassion

A person full of compassion dwells in a world full of compassion. Everyone you meet is a mirror, reflecting your inner world. You are a mirror for everyone you meet, reflecting light and love. Choose compassion today, and be part of the healing of the world.

Say to yourself: I radiate love and light to all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

Just call me Steve Martin, aka Neale Page in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Last Saturday a standard 2 hour direct flight from Newark to Grand Rapids turned into a hilarious 17 hour adventure. I was traveling with my ten year old son, after taking him to see his Aunt in the city. A journey that should have been plane sailing turned into plane flailing, as we ricocheted around the country, improvising as we bounced. The flight was delayed and diverted, first to Cleveland and then to Chicago. At Chicago, I was told that we were all out of options. The next available air tickets were on Tuesday. Rental cars were as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was 10pm on Saturday and the last remaining airline representative washed her hands of us.

We assessed our options for the 200 mile hike to Grand Rapids Airport where our car lay in wait. A cabbie quoted us $400. I filed the information in my mind as a last resort. Instead we climbed on a bus that was bound for Michigan City, about 60 miles from O’Hare. We claimed the last remaining seats and soon discovered they were like the last kids chosen for a soccer team. They sucked. The seat in front was in permanent recline, which was awesome for the guy sitting in it, but meant we were nursing him in our lap. We slept in his intimate embrace for an hour or so, before being woken with the announcement that we were in Michigan City.

I’m sure that Michigan City, Indiana is a lovely place. However at midnight it held little attraction so we decided to push on. We found a group of Notre Dame footballers in a huddle, plotting their return to campus in South Bend, Indiana. We agreed to split a cab to South Bend. Split a cab seems an apt description for a car that was groaning under the weight of a driver who resembled John Candy in more ways than one, the two of us and 3 linebackers. My son was submerged somewhere in the line of scrimmage, buried under his own luggage. We laughed and laughed about this surreal scene as we crept along the 40 mile trip to Notre Dame. The driver was so excited to have some football heroes held captive in his car that he clean forgot to notice the fuel gauge plummeting along with the cab’s suspension. We sputtered into a gas station just in the nick of time. Oh and by the way, at a certain point on this drive the time jumped from 1am to 3am, a combination of daylight savings and Eastern Standard Time changes.

At 3am, we received a darkened tour of one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, as assorted college kids staggered around the grounds. The cabbie asked where he could drop us, explaining that he couldn’t drive across Michigan state lines without risking going to jail. I decided not to ask any more about that matter. He dropped us at a sleepy South Bend Airport. We joined a handful of vagabonds and security staff, none of whom had any clues about travel to Grand Rapids. The greyhound bus was not due until late in the day and the rental cars would not be available until 8am. We could wait three hours to pay $120 to drive ourselves the remaining two hours, or we could pay $200 for a cab to drive us. Tiredness won the day. We took the cab, snored liked babies in the back seat, and arrived at Grand Rapids Airport at 8am, 17 hours after we had left New York City. As I paid the Airport parking ticket, I realized that we had spent over $300 to crawl from Chicago to Grand Rapids. $400 for a direct cab ride didn’t look so absurd any more.

Apart from being exhausted, the adventure was enormous fun. I had awesome company, and we laughed about every twist and turn. It reminded me of the value in holding loosely to plans and expectations.

Steve Martin once said, “Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.” It’s all about perspective. The road trip was funny because we had expected plane sailing. Chaos surprised us at every turn, and we had a choice; become frustrated or see it as an adventure. We chose to see the whole thing as a comedy of errors that we could laugh about for years to come.

We were reminded that the journey is full of surprises, and it’s all part of the process. A car gets you to the airport. A plane gets you to the city. A bus gets you to the cab that gets you back to the car that gets you to the destination. Each is an important step of an ever evolving journey. Life is wonderfully connected and there are few rules about right or wrong ways to travel.

One of the most famous scenes from Planes, Trains and Automobiles has John Candy driving on the wrong side of the highway. An approaching car screams to them. Steven Martin says, “He says we’re going the wrong way.” John Candy says, “Oh, he’s drunk. How would he know where we’re going?”

Arriving home was nice, but on the way we had some important bonding to do. People have made various suggestions about how we could have managed the trip differently. I think we did just fine. Who could say if we had gone the wrong way or not? What I know for sure is that I would walk over hot coals just to spend time with that kid. He teaches me so much about being alive to the adventure of being alive. If it takes stormy weather to create quality time with the people I love, I will do it again next week.

Seed of Serendipity

You have to smile when your best laid plans are rerouted by new developments. You are looking for one thing, find something else, and then realize that what you’ve found is what you needed in the first place. Eureka. Who would have thought it? Don’t let your plans get in the way of the life that is unfolding.

Say to yourself: My life is a fortunate accident. I celebrate each and every surprising moment.

Seed of Flexibility

Do your best in each moment. Change or stay the same. Either way, life will continue to move forward. If you need to miss a step, just pick up with the next beat. Get in tune with your past, but don’t be held captive to the past. Plan your future, but don’t be held prisoner by your plans.

Say to yourself: I am flexible. I flow with the movement of life.