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 

With Passion

With Passion

I recently attended a Masonic Philosophical Society discussion about compassion – what was it, what is it, and how did it get from there to here. In the course of the discussion, many people discussed kindness and manners but little discussion about compassion took place.

The word comes from the roots of ‘with’ and ‘passion.’ The modern, Webster’s version of the word means, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” As language evolves, and many of the things that philosophers study are dusty with age and wear, it was important to see where the word began. From its Latin beginnings through Old French, the word actually meant “suffer with.” From the 14th Century C.E. backward, the word is associated with suffering. To look at meanings, suffering and sympathy/concern are two wholly different experiences. What is interesting is the the word “suffer” also comes from the Old French, in about the same time period as compassion, and the word originally meant “the be under the burden of something, to ensure, to hold up.” The word sympathy shows up much later in vocabulary, around 1570, and is of two Greek roots – “together” (sym) and feeling (pathos).

compassionrockIn his book, “Sympathy: A History,” author Eric Schliesser puts the confusion between sympathy and compassion to rest. He breaks down, right in the introduction, the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Sympathy and empathy, which are often confused for one another, are different breeds. Empathy, a word from the 12th century C.E., was created, the author states, to describe the German concept of Einfuhlung, or the state of entering into someone else’s feelings. That is, in empathy, the person is actually “in” the emotions of others, whereas with sympathy, the person experiencing it is recreating what their imagination can create, from the building blocks of society, family, and learned experience. The person in sympathy is not actually feeling the same emotions as the person conveying the experience.

So, the question bears asking: are compassion and empathy related? How can one suffer without actually feeling the suffering?

The Chopra Center has an interesting distinction for the word compassion. They state:

“When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.”

In other words, you need to have both empathy and sympathy to be able to motivate yourself to compassion. Compassion is also action; it is the desire to relieve the suffering of the other person with real and meaningful work.

pairThe interesting difference between kindness and compassion is in the suffering. It is kind to hold the door open for people. It is compassionate to bring someone into your home and away from the cold. Kindness involves a gentle mindset and may be necessary for compassion; however, compassion demands more. It demands action that is substantial enough to relieve true suffering, a true burden. It’s not taking the burden off someone’s shoulders, or living the pain with the person. That achieves nothing. It is not only lifting the burden with someone but working on ways to bring the cause of the suffering to an end. The compassionate person has distance from the emotional weight and can therefore see more clearly what may be accomplished. In conjunction with the other, that clear-headed person can provide a guide through the suffering.

Compassion requires a higher thought, a higher attention to the greater good. It also seems to require an integrated person – someone who can truly see the person in all their different forms and deliver what is required. Compassion isn’t kindness.

Kindness is a quality of being gentle and generous. Empathy is the ability to actually feel the suffering of another, while sympathy is the ability to imagine that suffering. Compassion takes all of those facets and creates an action plan. We might equate kindness with the physical, empathy with the emotional, sympathy with the mental, and compassion with the spirit, if we were breaking this down in the sense of human experience. The highest emotion, in this human drama, then, is compassion. It requires the most energy, delivering the most gain. In other words, sometimes the kindest, and toughest act of compassion may appear to be harsh of difficult for the person to achieve. Saying “no” to the alcoholic is compassionate, as is saying “no” to the person who always wants the answer. Telling the intelligent person that their poor work is the result of laziness is kindness, empathy, and sympathy rolled up into a greater purpose – it is compassion. Enablement is not compassion: it is destruction.aroundcompassion

Freemasonry teaches you how to act but not how to think or feel. Freemasons are regularly taught to be kind and compassionate, yet subdue strong emotions in favor of thoughtful discourse.

Freemasonry also teaches you to act instead of standing on the sidelines and watching and simply thinking about a thing. Freemasonry provides opportunities for its adherents to be able to speak openly and view themselves authentically. Everyone requires a second set of eyes and experiences to become better, and it is in the bonds of fraternal love that compassion can be delivered. It requires different thought than the general society. It expects the Mason to not only learn to be compassionate but also to be able to receive that compassion. It becomes a true bond of fraternity, when honesty is the cement that not only binds us but supports us.

Are Freemasons perfect? Not by a long shot. It is in the compassion found in fraternal bonds that Masons can become better human beings and thereby better members and examples in the larger society.