Your Shoes are My Shoes

Your Shoes are My Shoes

In a recent conversation, a colleague of mine began a tirade of a person who, in their estimation, had no compassion. “How can they hold something that happened a year ago against someone? How can they not see that they caused the problem, and they can let it go?” This was a person who had their own trials and tribulations over the past year, their own “issues” to deal with. The cycle of condemnation continued.

The first words on another friend’s lips was “compassion.” Hmmm, I thought. Compassion is an overused and overrated word in American culture. Let’s be clear, compassion is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” I’m not talking about this type of compassion. Well, I might be. The difficulty is that people confuse compassion with kindness. Pity is a cause for regret or disappointment, or it can be the same as compassion, “concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Kindness is “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” I think that I’m not really discussing kindness, either, even if it is confused with compassion.

No one is above losing sensitivity for our fellow human beings. We all do it. All of us. Sometimes with ourselves; sometimes with others. A dear friend said to me, “aren’t Freemasons supposed to be these ones who are on the path to enlightenment? Why do they act so horrible at times?” Freemasons aren’t perfect. Freemasons know they aren’t perfect and are constantly striving to find what that perfection may mean – but no, they are not “enlightened” by virtue of being a Freemason.

slack2Then… what is it that we need when criticism of ours sits in our mouths, waiting to be released? What builds up rather than tears down? And how do you show this to others? I’m not sure there is a word for it. There are times, though, I wish we all had more of it, whatever “it” is.

Joe South wrote a song called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which Elvis made popular in the early 1970’s. The lyrics are here:

If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour, if we could find a way
To get inside each other’s mind
If you could see you through my eyes
Instead your own ego I believe you’d be
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind

Now your whole world
You see around you
Is just a reflection
And the law of karma
Says you’re gonna reap
Just what you sow, yes you will
So unless
You’ve lived a life of
Total perfection
You’d better be careful
Of every stone
That you should throw, yeah

And yet we spend the day
Throwing stones
At one another
‘Cause I don’t think
Or wear my hair
The same way you do, mmm
Well I may be
Common people
But I’m your brother
And when you strike out
And try to hurt me
It’s a-hurtin’ you, lord have mercy

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

There are people
On reservations
And out in the ghettos
And brother there
But for the grace of God
Go you and I, yeah, yeah
If I only
Had the wings
Of a little angel
Don’t you know I’d fly
To the top of the mountain
And then I’d cry

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Better walk a mile in my shoes

The song is a poignant reminder of how we actually get to compassion. This week I received several emails from people which were edging toward accusations and criticism. These are people who have known me for twenty years or more, and some for less time but not insignificant. These are people who know that I try to be responsive and kind, open to my own mistakes, and busier than a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest, as a work colleague likes to say. I’m not idle. I am forgetful, struggling to not beat myself for not being perfect all the time, sometimes clumsy, and not the best organizer of my to-do list. I struggle balancing a checkbook and sometimes I struggle to get motivated to get on a plane or send an email. Sometimes, I just want to sleep. Sometimes, I get crabby. Downright crabby.

I am human. I am you. And this is you, too.

slack3And as much as we strive for perfection, we need to remember that it is just that: striving – a journey and not the destination right around the corner. Well, I remember that key part most of the time. The times that are the most difficult to keep the “journey” in mind are when people criticize, abuse, condem, accuse, or even just get crabby with us. When this happens, we believe we have failed them, and ultimately, we have failed ourselves. Failure is a sad and hopeless feeling. The mind is a powerful demolition machine. And when we open our hearts to others, we offer it up to that possible shredding.

The journey toward making a better humanity stops every time any of us tear down another.

There is more to walking in one person’s shoes than walking in their shoes. It’s more than learning not to criticize or condemn. It’s more than keeping your mouth shut when something ugly is about to vomit on someone you love. It is truly about letting go of yourself. It’s about reverting into our minds and hearts, before we speak or write, and thinking about everything. Every thing. Thinking about the other person sitting at their desk, writing that email, what their day must be like, what it could be like, why did they write it like that, is it their tone or mine that is in that email, what words did they use… think about putting yourself at the keyboard and writing those same words. How do you feel thinking about them? Why? Do we really think they are attempting to hurt or abuse us? Really? And if we really believe that, why do we believe that?

Byron Katie, a speaker and teacher, has four questions that she calls the foundation for “The Work.” They are:

  1. Is it True?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it is True?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?

This takes practice, again and again, and even more after that. It’s a journey. I think we begin at the first question above and we’d like to think that we have the answers. We forget there are more steps in our process. Our ego speaks louder than Truth at times. But each time we take that step towards working on finding the truth, something inside of us shifts. It says “it’s okay that you’re not the most important thing in the room. You are still going to be you, you’re still worthwhile. You are still good and okay.” In fact, the more we seek the truth, the more we are able to let go of the baggage and be objective, observant, listening, and of service.

slack1Freemasonry seems to teach the ultimate walking in someone else’s shoes. Every Freemason can be any office within a Lodge, and each has a different function, a different talent to explore, and a different set of challenges. No one does any office perfectly, and each office provides its holder with experiences to challenge and uplift. We might criticize the way someone performs a certain task but there will come a time when we too take up that mantle and are assigned the same task. We learn to forgive someone’s past because we’ve learned that it’s not as easy as we all think. To fail is to learn, and “cutting someone slack” doesn’t mean to ignore the mistakes and challenges. It means paying attention to what happens to another person because, someday, we are on the receiving end. As Joe South says,

If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour, if we could find a way
To get inside each other’s mind
If you could see you through my eyes
Instead your own ego I believe you’d be
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind

An elder Freemason, a while ago, said that we humans are “closed loops.” When I asked what he meant, he said that our communications, our thoughts, have nowhere to go. They spin around inside of us, not able to build up anything tangible, or real. We can’t connect with reality, generally. He said there was only way, he believed, to break the loop really connect to another person and to break out of our negative feedback about our reality. When we clear out the garbage of these destructive natures, we can find the true nature of ourselves, and that is, wait for it…love. Ach! Yes, I used the L word! So, it seems as if this compassion, kindness, truth, questioning – it all comes down to what we ultimately call love. Love for ourself and love for the other, whomever the other is. What we want for ourselves is what we want for others and what we want back for ourselves. It is truly a loop. It has to start somewhere. With everything negative to lose, I choose to start with me.

What is love is another exploration all on its own; however, it seems key to perfecting humanity. It is the next map point on our journey.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. – The Dalai Lama 

Brotherhood

Brotherhood

We are fast approaching the time when we share all those lovely good wishes for a happy holiday season. It seems that in general, people need the cold of winter and the idea of parties to bond together. In some ways, it is a sad affair – why do we wait until the end of the year to celebrate people with shallow displays? People in the U.S. have holidays galore, the UK has its bank holidays, and everywhere people get together in the summer for all kinds of recreation and relaxation. This, though, isn’t the same. We wait for Thanksgiving to ‘give thanks’ to our families and loved ones, then shower them with commercial ideas of a festive Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza. It seems to me there has to be something more, something that we just can’t quite touch with commercialism. It makes me question if we truly value our fellow humans or merely follow the conventions of our day.

I’m not a cynic. Stoic, perhaps, but not a cynic. I know that many people feel this same way, and are not sure what to do with it. We want something more, we feel it, and can’t seem to find it.

You might remember a song in the early ’90’s called “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blonds. There’s a phrase in the song that has always stuck with me:

“I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
For whatever that means.”

For at least 25 years, I’ve been searching, like the author, for “whatever that means.” I think it about it more at the end of the year, in the winter, when we want to bond together more, when we’re a hoping to be a little more full of grace and forgiveness, when everything we hope for is looking for softness and warmth. (This leaves aside the one place where there is no grace or forgiveness: retail parking lots at Christmastime. No, I won’t digress…)  Most of human history is not filled with this alien, modern way of living, in asphalt-covered cities and in high-rises; we are ensconced in concrete structures and shopping malls, where our every-need-provided mentalities take away that sense of brotherhood and even community. No one in American cities truly lives or works together. We exist closer together and yet are farther apart emotionally, and certainly farther apart from nature. We have no idea how to debate, discuss, or theorize because we do not socialize. Facebook is a poor human community, and it certainly is no brotherhood.

Nature relies on a collective to get through the autumn and winter, to live until springtime, when everything is renewed. Birds and insects migrate to warmer climates, communitybanding together to achieve their goal for the good of the “group.” Some animals, mice and squirrels, huddle together in enclaves to stay warm and keep out of harm’s way. Humans sometimes migrate to warmer climates; some humans gather in houses, staying warm and sharing food. We humans have corrupted some of this to follow a prescribed dogma of festivities, duties, and “musts” during a time when we could be more selective, more mindful of our fellow species. Nature has no dogma.

Brotherhood is a relationship between brothers, comrades – those who have a common association. A brotherhood is this created group of people, who may or may not be your family, where common interests are discussed, shared, and respected. The word “brotherhood” has certain characteristics in its reference; it implies a close relationship but not intimate, it implies something that is almost a blood-bond, but greater because its idealized, and it implies intelligent selection rather than genealogy. It reflects common purposes and goals, where brothers are dedicated to each other more than the rest of the world, and more perhaps than to family.

The idea of brotherhood is crystallizing ideals into personal goals that we share with others, with the idea that together we can achieve more than we could apart. It is, perhaps, about the survival of those ideas and ideals, and  that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We don’t expect those in the brotherhood to be perfect; we expect them to continue to work towards the prosperity of the all as best they can, with their own unique talents and skills. The human clans do not survive on only one type of labor, one type of mentality; human groups survive on the skills of the many flowing into the good of the whole. Uniqueness is valued as long as the purpose is shared.

Human beings need friendships (the tribe), community, and brotherhood. Friendships help us transcend loneliness and provide us greater insight into our personal nature. Friends help validate our thoughts and emotions and assist us to perfect our victor-hugo-author-the-human-soul-has-still-greater-need-of-the-ideal-than-of-therelationships with human beings in general. Community helps fulfill our very human need for connection without actually requiring a lot from us. It expects us to show up, be who we are, be present, and participate at the level at which we are able. Community attends to an almost physical, matter-related purpose; brotherhood is where we really shine.

As a community, we are able to meet a concrete need with action, and there’s little overlap into our lives. Brotherhood delves into the reasons we come together, the personal goals and aspirations of the individual, and binds us together in action for that purpose. The ideals of brotherhood, whatever brotherhood they may be, transcend both community and tribe. We need these latter two to take care of physical needs, protect us, perhaps provide us with a shared history with which to bond and form purpose.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I see brotherhood as something more, something chosen. We may not choose our tribe; we may not choose our communities, but we sure as heck choose brotherhood. And it must also choose us. We choose to be in these bonds of commitment, regardless of the diversity of our backgrounds. We choose, when entering a brotherhood, to focus on purpose rather than “who you are.” Brotherhood requires commitment; brotherhood has to be maintained. Constantly. For the rest of your life.  If you choose to stop adhering to the commitments you made, then you fall out of the idealism you value. Brotherhood is a privilege and a consciousness. Done right, brotherhood is extraordinary.

Brotherhood, to be clear, is not friendship, although brothers may be friends. Brotherhood transcends the personal affectations and affections. We may have many friends in our lives but we have few true brothers, few “comrades-in-arms,” if you will.

So, is “brotherhood of man” the entirety of the human race? What does that mean? Maybe it means that we’ve chosen to be part of the human condition, and we need to cloud-team-590x384start looking at each other, all of the people we encounter, as part of our ideal of a better condition in which to live. Taking from nature, we have to work together to survive the ugliness of the world, human-created and natural, in order to build a better place. I also think, though, that brotherhood of man is a consciousness of the human condition. The human brotherhood has chosen us, us, to fulfill the ideal of itself. It’s chosen every human to play their part; it’s up to us to choose to live in a way were our ideals are about the human condition, not simply our personal needs or desires. Being part of the brotherhood of man requires us to be constant in our consciousness. We want the human race to be better, no? Perhaps, that’s part of what Freemasonry also tries to achieve – this “brotherhood of man” that our 4 Non Blonds advocate.

As I write this, the outside world is filled with the gray of an early snowstorm; branches are laden with wet globs of icy powder, and the streets are soaked with the fast-melting flakes. Soon, the true winter will be on us, and we’ll be frantic yet again. Perhaps this year, we can be conscious of our human brothers and bond together, in some small way, that transcends the dogma of the season. Perhaps we can reach inside and chose to finally be part of that “brotherhood of man.”

[Note: I use the term brotherhood not to segregate or be divisive. I use it because in the English language, there is no gender-neutral better term. When I speak of the brotherhood of man, I mean all humans, regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender.] 

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