So, it turns out, I’m a horrible driver. Recently, I was flashed two middle fingers and greeted with a less than friendly shout-out from a pedestrian. I did not even realize I had done something wrong until I saw the birdie pointed in my direction. My first reaction, of course, was of anger and verbal retaliation; then I felt shamed. But, you know, they were probably right. I’m a fairly easy-going person, but I can’t seem to get the Chicago driving style out of my system now that I live in the land of Minnesota Nice.
I try to take it as a good opportunity to remember how blind I am sometimes to my own faults, my own brokenness. I had no idea I was driving poorly. And how often, throughout the day, do I offend or annoy or cause harm in other ways? How grateful should I be for those who forgive me in each of those moments, usually without a middle finger?
The Myth of Perfection
In our world, we want everyone and everything to be perfect. We airbrush our supermodels and spend fifty grand on our weddings; we make fun of our presidential candidates for one slip of a tongue (after they’ve been followed around for a year straight) and bemoan our spouses and despise all the criminals in jail and the evil governments abroad. Yet, within us, deep down inside the heart of our shared humanity, is the truth that we are all broken…broken and beautiful.
It is within this knowledge that true compassion and enlightenment can arise.
My favorite phrase in the Our Father is the subtle turn of words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This one sentence could be our life’s work. It’s a direct mirror of, “judge not lest ye be judged.” Simple and beautiful. Implicit in both is our imperfection. We are broken, some of us in big, obvious ways; many of us in small, countless ways.
But small ways that can be just as painful.
Yes, a disease like alcoholism can hurt children, destroy families, wreck lives, and kill the body. It’s a painful, obvious form of brokenness. But what about slow, silent destroyers like pride, resentment, and jealousy, which poison every day like a slow, leaking toxin. I see in myself the lurking disease of ingratitude: a consistent failure to recognize the abundance around me while instead focusing on all that is going wrong. Ingratitude, pride, constant-complaining, manufactured-despair (not to be confused with true depression, manufactured-despair is the person who is constantly thriving on drama and pointing out everything that is wrong) can leak into every aspect of our life, destroying it slowly from the inside out. Problems like these, ingrained in our personality, can be much worse, much more insidious, than some of the “big” faults we see in others. Compassion, not judgement, is the cure for both.
The problem is that we often only see the faults in others. We are often completely blind to our own issues. Christ said, “remove the plank from your own eye before you bother with the splinter in others.” The way I see it, it’s going to take my whole life to remove all my own barriers to enlightenment, all my splinters, my angers, addictions, prejudices (and poor driving habits)—so I better just plan on not judging anyone, ever, period.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Instead of judging, we can turn every failure on the part of others, every trespass, into an opportunity to forgive and love. Working in a juvenile detention center, I see what some might consider the most evil kids in our state, the most broken. As their teacher, I skip the judgment (I never ask what they did—the courts can decide that) and offer them what forgiveness I can, forgiveness for their trespasses, forgiveness through compassion, forgiveness by treating them like humans, forgiveness by looking for the beauty within their brokenness. Like the student I had last week who said he had no core values inside him; yet a moment later I caught him sticking up for one of the younger kids in the pod. Every time we confront brokenness, we are given an opportunity to harden or soften. Hardening is what corpses do. Soft and flexible is the way of life.
Of course, what I see when I look closely enough at my students, the world, myself, is the cycle of brokenness. Hurt people, hurt people. A violent ten-year old was once a victim of violence. Folk singer Phil Ochs put it so well in his song, “There But for Fortune:”
Show me a prison, show me a jail,
Show me a prisoner whose face has grown pale
And I’ll show you a young man, with many reasons why,
There but for fortune, go you or I….
Even more evocative is Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful poem “Call Me by My True Names,” which vividly describes our inter-connectedness, our evil and our good, our brokenness and our beauty:
….I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving…
Seeing the cycle of brokenness in us and around us is not a cause for despair, but a call for more compassion.
Nobody but ourselves knows what goes on in our heart of hearts. Saying, “I Forgive,” or, “I’m happy for you,” or, “I wish you all the best,” or, “you are in my prayers,” is much easier than really feeling it. We all know the deeper feeling of jealousy that can arise at a friend’s good fortune even as we say the correct words (“I’m so glad you published your book,” insert plastic smile and thoughts of murder). Even worse, we all know the secret pleasure we sometimes get at other’s pain. Yes, we love to see movie stars get divorced; and secretly, we sometimes like to see our friends have problems (“at least my marriage is better than theirs.”) It’s insidious. It reminds me of the great moment in C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters—an intriguing yet scary read about a demon trying get hold of one man’s soul. When the man is finally converted to religion, the demon rejoices, because he knows it is much easier to bring a man to satan through piousness, pride, and haughty judgement of others, than it is through direct sins.
“May You Be Happy, Free From Pain, and Live in Peace and Harmony”
The good news is you can train yourself to be compassionate. A spiritual practice I’m trying lately is to forcibly insert the Buddhist loving-kindness prayer into my thoughts the minute I notice any kind of judgement, hate, resentment, jealousy rising up in me. It’s a great mantra: ”may you be happy, free from pain, and live in peace and harmony.” This one is my own revised version. I have my kids use it as a bedtime prayer for themselves, our family, and the world. Sometimes we need a little meme, a slogan, to break down the secret trespasses going on inside us and open up our compassion. And like with anything, the more we practice, the better we get. Below is audio meditation-starter using this mantra.
A consistent meditation practice of loving-kindness can be life-changing. It can filter down to your bones and into every interaction you have. One of the more mystical/magical things that has ever happened to me was on a morning bike ride to work after a particularly engaging meditation session using loving-kindness. As I biked to my school through downtown Saint Paul at six in the morning, I noticed that everyone I passed, in their cars and at the crosswalks, turned and smiled at me. It was amazing. Nobody smiles at six a.m. on the way to work. But that day, we were all smiling.
And that’s better than getting the middle finger.
Here’s a simple meditation-starter using Loving Kindness Meditation. Give it a try. It begins with a short description of the meditation. If you want to just get to it, skip ahead to minute 5. Loving Kindness Meditation Starter
Give up and die to making judgments. Your compassion and love will be much more potent.