Saturday, December 25, 2010

Charter for Compassion

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others - even our enemies - is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge
that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~
to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Twenty-five Things about Me

On Facebook, ideas for things to write about pass over the Facebook community in waves. Many of them are like this one, in which you are supposed to answer a set of questions or build a list based on some idea.

Usually the instructions urge you to write as quickly as possible according to the questionable idea that your first impulses are the most authentically you. I reject this idea. I spent twenty-three years in therapy exploring what is authentically me, and during this time I discovered over and over that my first impulses are my defenses, not my core self. Sometimes my first answer to a question represents my truest answer - rarely - but usually it represents the least true, least authentic answer, the rehearsed answer, the practiced answer, the pretense.

Plato wrote that Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living," in criticism of the many people who lack all introspection. Sometimes I think this "answer as quickly as you can" meme is unphilosophical "culture's" crude attempt at revenge, by trying to spread the idea that introspection should not be trusted, that only thoughtless reflex is authentic.

Preferring a mindful way of life, I answered this particular essay slowly and carefully, thoughtfully, paying attention to things that I have strong feelings about, that mean a great deal to me, but that maybe I hadn't yet shared with a lot of people. I wrote it between Thursday, July 1st and Monday, November 22nd this year.

Likewise, preferring communication to mere self-expression I also wrote more than a word or two about each thing, on the theory that the short, generic answers are rarely as interesting as the whole truth in personal context.

So, for what it's worth, here are twenty-five things about me:

1. I almost never have nightmares; even the dreams with death and monsters in them are happy or exciting dreams. I rarely remember my dreams because I don't sleep enough, but when I do about half of them are lucid dreams in which I know I'm dreaming and can fly or change the dreams at will.

2. All day long - while I'm talking to you, while I'm programming, while I'm hiking, while I'm thinking - and even all night as I sleep, one of the seven or so tracks in my brain is playing music nonstop. You can ask me any time what I'm listening to and I can almost always tell you; sometimes I'm listening to two songs at once, and let me tell you, that's weird (when I started writing this on July 1st, my head was playing both Ryan Star's "Brand New Day" and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade; when I revised it in September it was alternating between the second movement of Brahms's Symphony #4 and the second movement of his Piano Concerto #2; as I finish it in November, I hear Wilhelm Kempff playing the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata number 8 in C minor, "Pathétique"). I rarely listen to music out loud any more because in my head I hear it all the time, in perfect detail, the way I imagine Mozart must have heard music. For example, while Scheherazade is playing in my mind, I can hear every single instrument, their pacing, their expression, the pauses, the musician's inhale before playing a note of woodwind to break a momentary silence, everything. Sometimes I think I chose the wrong profession, that I should have been a composer or a musician, but ironically, I never learned how to play an instrument, though I love to sing.

3. That said, although I took a long time to start playing Rock Band after my cats bought it for me for Father's Day a couple years ago, once I started it immediately became my favorite video game. I love being physically immersed in the flow of music.

4. I remember tasting colors even before I could walk. Sometimes I still do.

5. I was born an alcoholic. I grew up surrounded by alcohol and alcoholism; almost every adult member of my family for generations on both sides has struggled with the bottle. I never have, at least not as an adult. The only time I drank was before first grade, when a friend taught me to steal the nearly empty bottles out of the trash behind a tavern across the street so we could drink the last drops out of each one. I haven't touched alcohol since, though I have no problem with people drinking around me. When I smell a fine wine, I remember my childhood, that tavern, those bottles, but I also feel safe knowing I can trust myself not to go down that road again.

6. Likewise, no drugs. I'd rather suffer with a headache than take aspirin. When my fillings were all extracted and replaced in my early twenties, I had the dentist drill on my teeth without any painkiller at all. No drugs, except under extraordinary medical conditions. There are worse things in life than pain.

7. When I was a young boy, maybe as a result of my drinking out of empty bottles, Grandma Ann taught me to avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. She used to teach me little slogans and rhymes, which she would encourage me to say around my other relatives, especially my Grandma Pat. I'm sure it made me seem like a sanctimonious little brat at times, but it also helped keep me safe from peer pressure growing up.

8. Speaking of Grandma Pat, she once saved me from drowning. Her alcoholic boyfriend du jour thought he'd teach me to swim by throwing me in the deep end. I remember splashing frantically and inhaling water. Grandma Pat was also an alcoholic, and drunk at the time, and even in the best of times throughout her life she was often self-destructive and had scarily bad judgment, but that day something clicked for her, and she dove in and fished me out. I'd probably have died that day if she hadn't saved me.

9. My dad wouldn't let me eat candy as a child, so I did so every chance I got when he wasn't around. Even in first grade I used to spend my lunch money on candy from the little store near my elementary school. I remember vividly how many different candy flavors there used to be - by second grade I thought myself quite the candy connoisseur - but as I grew older and companies began cutting back on quality to save money, candy all started to taste more and more just like sugar and chemicals. I wouldn't touch candy today, and I'm allergic to most of it anyway, but I still remember those old wonderful flavors fondly.

10. My dad also preferred that I not watch TV, except for nature programs, so at midnight on Friday nights, after he went to sleep, I would creep downstairs to watch horror films on Nightmare Theater with the volume turned almost off. I still love horror films, the way they take me back to my childhood, the way they let us explore and come to understand otherwise taboo subjects; the way the classic horrors help us learn sympathy for the monster, the misunderstood outsider, the tragic loss of control of madness; and the way horror can help us reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of pain, loss, grief, and death. I believe the reason I have no nightmares is that I was able to experience these things in my own life and because what I couldn't directly experience I was able to explore in horror films.

11. Were it not for my Aunt Marilyn, my nephew Alex and my nieces Elizabeth and Wyatt would never have been born, because their father - my brother Rob - and I would never have been born; she introduced my mom and dad to each other.

12. I was born honest. Childhood neighbors and classmates taught me to lie in first and second grade, but my father and my stepmother Jean beat it out of me before adolescence, so I went back to being honest. I'm grateful to them that I was punished so severely for lying. It helped to make me who I am today.

13. I'm intensely curious, like everyone in my family. I find just about everything fascinating and will read voraciously about anything. The less I know about a subject, or the more an opinion disagrees with my own, the more I want to read about it.

14. I like to be criticized, but not insulted. Pseudo-criticism, insult disguised as criticism, really pisses me off because I hate to be reminded how petty and vicious some people are. Real criticism, though, I love, the more deeply insightful the better. If someone can rock the foundations of my worldview with a revelation, I'm delighted and grateful, even if I'm frowny and grumbly at first. It's not easy to do, though, because I'm always looking for new ways to criticize myself, for opportunities to become a better person, so most of my obvious flaws I already know about and am working on. I assume there are vast attics and basements of serious but subtle flaws just waiting to be found.

15. Jerry Gould, my karate sensei from third through ninth grade, is one of the most important influences in my life. He taught me discipline, respect, spirit, character, philosophy, hard work, tradition, standards, the aspiration to become something better, how to teach, how to defend myself, but most of all how to be truly gentle from a position of true strength. I use his teachings in my life every single day, and I think about him and the things he taught me all the time.

16. I remember my Grandma Ann driving me with her in her old VW as she did errands. After dropping some letters at the post office in Edmonds, she saw a small moth fluttering against the inside of the windshield, she grabbed a tissue, reached up, and crushed it, while saying in a sing-song voice "Kill kill kill." As I write this, it's so vivid to me that I'm sitting next to her as she does it, but if you and I talk right now I can't repeat any of the conversation word for word afterward - I only remember the meaning, the conclusions we came to, the sound of your voice, where we were sitting, everything but the words themselves.

17. When I was a young boy starting out in middle school, my friend Jason Richards (later Jason Nealy), taught me to shoot a gun, a pellet gun. We were in his bedroom in south Seattle on that sunny day. He opened the window, and the sound of birdsong lit up the room. He pointed to the bird that was singing in the bushes in his back yard, showed me how to hold the pellet rifle steady, how to aim, how to squeeze the trigger. Click! The bird fell out of sight. The backyard was silent. I felt a cold wave spread over me, felt a powerful shame. The ringing in my ears seemed so loud. I handed Jason back the rifle, and I never fired a gun again at a living thing. I've never forgotten that happy bird, that silent backyard, or what it feels like to commit an evil act in lighthearted, confident ignorance. This is when I learned that evil does not come from The Devil, or from The Bad Guys. It comes from us.

18. I used to want everyone to be happy. It took me many many years to understand that what makes some people happy is hurting other people. Even for people who aren't angry and cruel, most people are made happy by things that indirectly make other people unhappy, or that otherwise injure the world - and they really don't care. A surprising number of people have no empathy at all, though in their personal lives they may try to simulate it. Either they were born without it, or somehow it withered and died, either way leaving them going through the motions of being human but without a soul. If you try to point it out to them, they just get bored with or angry at you. Most people are perfectly happy making other people unhappy as long as they don't have to notice it or think about it. I also learned early on that many of the things people think will make them happy actually make them unhappy or even sick. When I learned these things, I stopped wanting everyone to be happy. Now I want everyone to be healthier, better, kinder, and wiser. If they were, I think they would be sadder but also more content and more deserving of happiness.

19. When I walk down the sidewalk on a sunny day, I step carefully to avoid stepping on beetles or ants. When I walk down the sidewalk after the rain, sometimes I pick up worms and move them to the grass so they won't get stepped on. I worry about the health of the spider who lives behind the driver's side mirror of my car, and I adjust my driving to be sure she doesn't get blown away.

20. I'm often ill. It gives my life a stop-and-go quality that makes things difficult for me, my coworkers and clients, my friends, and my family. I strive to become heathier and steadier, but intermittently the decision is taken out of my hands. This contributes to my odd views about the nature of human will and whether our choices are free or predetermined. I think the answer is . . . yes, some of each. Many of our qualities and choices are predetermined, and unless we intervene to prevent it we become more and more predetermined, more and more caricatures of ourselves. But, if we strive to master ourselves, to tend the garden of our character, to increase our discipline and self-awareness, and to focus on those things we can influence and change, we can instead over time grow a larger and larger part of our lives in which we can freely choose who we will be and what we will do, clear more and more of our time to awake from our dreams as human sleepwalkers so we can know ourselves enough to do some good in the world. It's too much to expect for us to always be healthy and free and truly conscious, but if we always try to do better when we can, eventually we will do better.

21. I often fail, and I often need breaks to recover, but I keep trying until I succeed. This often frustrates people, some of whom wish I would either always succeed or always fail so they'd know which bucket to sort me in. Sooner or later, I frustrate everyone, but sooner or later I will also delight them.

22. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but so is the road to Heaven. I abound with good intentions, but I figure I'm bound for the soil of the good earth. I hope I can become worthy of such an honor.

23. I'm a goody two-shoes. I want to be good, to do good, to give back, to make things better. Like the track in my brain that's always playing music, another is always looking for ways to do some good in the world, to make things better. I'm not naive or idealistic about it - I'm darn near cynical about it - but I am sincere and persistent about it. Don't believe me? Next time we're in a conversation, listen to me from this perspective and you'll hear it. I can't stop thinking about it, and whenever I'm talking about something I'm always also talking about this. As a child, I never wanted to be the cool bad boy; I always wanted to be a good boy. As an adult, I'm always thinking about how to be a good man and often reflecting on the ways I fall short.

24. I have a dark view of human nature. As a child, I was conspicuously naive, trusting, and hopeful, but I became a student of history and learned how far short we fall. If we want to survive as a species, we're going to have to do much, much better. I also have a bright view of human nature, because I know that when we make up our minds to do the right thing, we have a remarkable capacity to make things better, including ourselves. Here's hoping the better angels of our nature prevail.

25. I'm susceptible to cuteness. I think my wife is adorable, I adore my nieces and nephews, and my cats ply me shamelessly.