Thursday, November 17, 2016

Finding Some Fucks To Give: A Primer on Empathy

This piece began a while ago when some white folks hit Twitter to complain that the Netflix production of Luke Cage is racist because it doesn't feature enough white people for their liking. Never mind that entertainment has all but ignored people of color, going so far as to utilize white actors to represent characters meant to be people of color (I'm looking at you...Ghost in the Shell/Aloha/Doctor Strange/Gods of Egypt/Argo/etc etc etc). Luke Cage is a story about a black hero rising up out of a black community. Harlem is gentrifying, but it's still a black neighborhood. When I lived in Harlem, I was the only white person I ever saw on my block. Luke Cage accurately represents the Harlem I know.

This critical response, and so much of what is happening right now, highlights the need for us to pay respectful attention to stories that are unlike our own, of which we have no part. If one is open, you can learn from these stories and enjoy the wider perspective that they may afford you. After all, it is impossible to take in everything that this life has to offer. Engaging with other people's experiences gives us the opportunity to understand something outside our personal universe. This is a form of empathy and an expression of humility. I will never know what it's like to live in another body, and to be born in another time and place, but I can take interest in other people's narratives. I can learn.

On the flip side are those who must constantly have everything around them mirror and affirm their existence. Their identity is wrapped up in being the center of the dominant narrative. They are the leads. They are the heroes. Anything presented outside of that storyline feels like a threat. They have been in full possession of the limelight for always, and are unwilling to give even an inch so that someone else's story may be brought forth. They don't care if this dominance means the erasure of other worthy stories from the pages of history. Their personal experience is Universal Truth. Anything outside of this is Unknown Other, and Other is always wrong. Unknown is terrifying, and fear is alchemized into anger.

This anger is sometimes, horrifically, alchemized into violent action. Marginalized groups have always faced threats to their well being, but those threats are reaching a new fever pitch. As was the case before, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are some who continue to insist that everything is fine. They say we live in a post racial society, they site black on black crime rates and statistics about false rape accusations. They shriek that #ALLLIVESMATTER, ask others to "Give him a chance!" and call others sore losers for protesting the rise to power of a dangerous demagogue. Some well meaning folks plead with everyone to "OMG just like love everyone! Like don't hate you guys!!! Keep it positive!!!!!" all the while continuing to ignore the voices of those whom are in real, actual danger...still.

Absolutely nothing is accomplished by hiding your head in the sand and refusing to humble yourself before real life experiences which you don't share or understand. This may overwhelm you. You may suddenly find yourself plagued with guilt and the knowing that at best, you've been a silent witness to oppression, and at worst, you've been an active participant. You may be so overwhelmed that instead of asking how you can help and beginning it, you decide to disengage. You cannot face the enormity of this. It's too hard and too scary. It's a confrontation of your identity as a person who is sooo totally not racist. It means owning up to your own biases, your own subtle sense of superiority, all the parts of yourself of which you are not proud. It means facing your own shame, which is a brutal beast. Instead of employing courage for this difficult transformative work, you choose to deflect. "They're being dramatic. Everything is fine." "I'm an optimist. Let's just see what happens."

Meanwhile, black and brown bodies, lady bodies, trans bodies, Muslim bodies, queer bodies continue to be the target of a swell of harassment and aggression. You don't have to believe in any of this for it to be true. You can pretend that it's liberal media hype, but we know different. The bodies of people I know and love have already bore this brutality, before and after the election. We have tried to let you in on this narrative. You couldn't hear it. Hearing it meant being cracked open, changed, pushed to action, and the discomfort was too great.

We must find some fucks to give one another. We must take interest in stories that are completely unlike our own. We must give them space and time, respect and credence. People everywhere are hurting, desperate for change. There is a sickness among us and it is the distancing of ourselves from those unlike us, as if we were made of different materials, as if we all don't just want to live well. People need to able to earn a living to support their families. People need to be able to practice their faith, or love who they love without fear of violence. Not everyone will look like you, or live the same way as you, but they are still worthy of every liberty and protection on offer. There should be no second class citizens here.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a dream that one day soon we will reach out across party lines for the sake of our shared humanity. I have a dream that we will soften and humble ourselves before an unfamiliar story, let it change us, let it be a call to action for the dignity and well being of another. I have a dream that we will unite over an insistence that each body in this country will have the benefit of clean food and water, healthcare, shelter, a good education, and honest work. I have a dream that we will muster the courage to give some fucks about people we may never meet who may be very different from us.

Unanswered needs are still needed. Unattended suffering gnaws away. Those who are desperate remain desperate until something is done to help them. Name calling and blame placing doesn't feed a hungry belly. It's time to get practical. It's time to ask the people what it is they need to thrive and figure out how to make it possible. There is a way through every block. We can do this.

How are you hurting? How can I help?

All bodies rise, together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Ahh Eww That Lives In You

Over the summer I went out to see some live music. The performer was talented, even a bit over qualified for the small venue in which he played. He had solid showmanship, quipping between songs and telling little stories. Many of his stories centered around women that had done him wrong. While I, too, am guilty of using romance as fodder for writing, I also know this talented performer and his romantic life over a period of years. One night a girlfriend of his did too many drugs and I had to babysit her while she told me her numerous stories about him. Wrong doing is often a two way street. I see you, broseph.

A long time ago my mama taught me something valuable about personal responsibility: If you have similar problems with a variety of people, YOU are the common denominator in every situation. It's not them, darling. It's you.

One particularly heady autumn evening years ago, my friend Rebecca and I met a handsome stranger on the streets of San Francisco. I was immediately attracted to him, and would only later realize that he's a very charming, yes, very handsome, yes, very alcoholic man. They all are. If I had a "type" it would be emotionally stunted and addicted. During one of my stints in therapy, I cried about how incredibly pitiful I feel not being able to trust myself. Even after the depth of heart work I've done, I continue to experience this uncanny ability to find the most beautiful, broken man in the room. Just as recently as a month ago, amidst a big crowd, I zeroed in on a tall drink of architect who is predictably, yes, an alcoholic. The difference this time is that I recognized the red flags and didn't pursue the impulse. Progress!

This is a worthwhile consideration when one desires to change their experience of life. If you are fed up with the way things are, you have to be honest about what part you've played in making them so. There may be factors outside your control, but as the saying goes, we pray for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We cannot change the circumstances of our birth, or what happened to us in the past, but we get to decide how we are affected by that going forward. Will we continue to let our wounding color how we see ourselves and the world around us? Or will we do the difficult, courageous work of reshaping our sense of self?

This can be quite the undertaking because the wounds we unearth in the excavation are the source of so much pain, shame, anger, sadness, fear. These are not easy feelings to sit with. Whether we compassionately confront them or not, they continue to live in our bodies; they are fugitives being harbored in between muscle fibers and folds of grey matter. They can continue to influence our behavior from the darkness or not. It's up to us.

You can be an emotionally unavailable man, confused by and fearful of the natural need in others for healthy attachment. When this need arises in a romantic partner, you can slur her as needy or, if you withhold love long enough, crazy. You can ache with loneliness, because despite not understanding *how* to nurture others, you retain the need for nurture. You're only human.

You can spin through a series of unfulfilling, disheartening relationships which serve to reinforce how unworthy you are of love. You can pursue the same archetype of person over and over, unwilling to admit that this is but the tip of the ice burg. Deep beneath the surface lies the origin story of your pain. But who would you be without it? Deconstructing this fundamental piece of your identity is mind melting. You can grasp onto your pain like a piece of broken glass; it will make you bleed but you won't have to suffer the tiny death of change.

You can resign yourself to any manner of cyclical unhappiness, not getting what you need because you secretly can't believe that happiness is *for* you. Because that's what this boils down to, isn't it? Whether we cannot give good love, or have trouble receiving it, it's a question of worthiness. We will be drawn to what is familiar, to what reinforces our version of reality, even if that is hurtful to ourselves or others.

The big jewel in meditation is the cultivation of curiosity and compassion for our more challenging feelings. It took me a long time to get this component. I became adept at acknowledging and naming feelings, even digging to their roots, but I couldn't love them. I could not make them welcome. They remained fugitives in my body which I tried to evict with anger and frustration. There is a lot of wisdom and information attached to our feelings. Anger, fear, sadness and shame all have much to teach us about how we're hurt and how we have to heal. They can strengthen and empower us by helping us learn how to move forward. Conversely, they can drain us if we continue to funnel energy their way in our resistance. What you resist, persists. The way forward will always be softness and surrender.

This begins by recognizing patterns, and understanding that no matter what other elements are present, we're the consistent variable in every situation we enter. If every woman you date is crazy or every man you date is an addict, consider that these are all unique individuals. They may have things in common, but the one and only thing they *all* definitely have in common is you. Let that sink in for a moment.

We are the Captains of our own joy...or not. Without understanding and taking responsibility for what lurks around your heart, you may find that some aspects of life consistently disappoint. Watch for patterns. When charged, powerful feelings arise, don't push away. Make them welcome. Honor their presence by asking what it is they have to teach. They may feel like poison, the instinctual response being to purge them. However, with courage and patience, we slowly dissolve them and find that at the heart of the poison is the antidote for it. This is productive suffering.

Your pain can poison you, or it can heal you and set you free. Love it up so it can love you back.