Saturday, October 29, 2011

Learning Compassion

Immediately, when I read or hear the word, "compassion," I think of the two aspects of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to achieve nirvana, wisdom and compassion.  A Bodhisattva is a follower of the Buddha, one who wishes to throw off the shackles of attachment to worldly goods and thoughts, to help others, to achieve moksha, or freedom from the cycles of life and become one with the universe.  These two attributes are most difficult to learn, and even more difficult to put into practice. 

One personal goal I hoped to achieve by leaving my professional track in the information sciences was that of compassion.  I wanted it, and not like a new bicycle or bag of apples.  I wanted it like one wants a good pair of jeans or a cashmere sweater, something to last a lifetime and something that gets forgotten about but used all the time.  I sincerely desired to become a more compassionate person, as opposed to the cerebral, clinical, critical cynic that I am.  It was paramount at that time to make a foolish financial decision by leaving my student loan debts, contacts, career and home behind in favor of a period of personal growth and diminished physical goods.  The rationale was that I could always work, but I could not always be so unemcumbered to embark on such an adventure.  And I don't regret it.  I'm just wondering what happened to the zeal I had for wanting to soften up and get to my underbelly, to live in the bottom of the pot of human need and emerge with a new sense of humanity.

Lately, I have been reminded of my cruel humor and that I delight in others' failure.  While this may sound terrible, it is true.  I just can't wait to point out what someone has done wrong, and find it hard to hold my tongue.  I just want to give everyone advice, as if my thinking and knowledge are the right ones.  What about those lessons I learned in rural South Africa, about the importance of family, and looking out for one another as fellow humans, giving attention to a child because maybe nobody else does?  What about all that listening, and time spent observing and helping, rather than being the first to criticize?  There were entire days that would pass in SA where I wouldn't speak more than a greeting, and I sure did an awful lot of helping.

One theory is that, because the pendulum swung so drastically from "free, selfish American" to "poor, stranger, volunteer" it's now swinging back to the selfish American side again.  Instead of softly and gracefully transitioning back to this cushy, wasteful lifestyle, I whirled like a dervish into it, thrashing about, trying to find my way amid a cespool of wasteful gluttony, gasping and grasping at whatever I could find that seemed normal. 

Another is that, by choosing to live with my family, with whom I had not addressed several deep and large issues from the past, I compounded my difficulty of readjusting to American life, and have been failing miserably at achieving my goals because I just couldn't hack it.  I really only have those two theories, so if you have a better one, please send it my way.

By becoming a mother, I automatically have more compassion for babies and children, as this is a biological necessity for survival, I think. I must be sensitive to the needs of my child or he will not prosper, and that just makes sense from a scientific perspective.  Crying means something is wrong, whether it be company, diaper change, hunger, or sleep.  Movement indicates development, so once he starts moving a lot I must be more careful where he lays, such as, not from a high ledge or near anything sharp or precariously balanced.  Ok, that makes sense.  But I'm trying to make sense of this set of values that is cruelty/compassion, and that is not as clearly sensible.

In one of my classes in "library school," I enjoyed learning about information seeking behavior and sense-making.  All queries, informal or formal, are a person's way of making sense about the world.  As we study the different ways people can come at a problem, we can understand a lot more about them and about the discipline of information management (new term for library science) as a whole.  One big surprise to me was that most people, especially professors with doctorate degrees, will first ask a colleague when they need a question answered. That's right, they want to talk to a human being, not an encyclopedia, or a peer-reviewed journal, a buddy.  Medical doctors are the same way.  So now, physicians bring laptops or notebooks into the exam room and record their info into your digital chart, but you know what?  Even though they have access to the internet, to look up medical information in journals or or whatever, they don't do it.  They go next door to consult with their colleague or they rely on their memory to give you the information you need.  The South Africans I lived with placed their trust entirely in those with authority for their information seeking.  Need help with a tea, go ask the sangoma (traditional healer).  Want someone to help you fix the water, go ask the kgosi (chief).  Need help with your homework, go talk to the legkoa (white person).  It was pretty simple, you ask the person who knows.  You don't go to the internet and "google it," or ask around until you get the best deal. 

So far, what i have done to feed my query is the following:  sought out books, documentaries and web sources to remind me what is important i.e. sustainable food and living, composting and gardening, living a life of little carbon footprint.  I have been in communication with friends who are compassionate and seek the same kind of higher living and thought.  I have asked trusted family members to help me with my quest, and engaged them in some difficult conversations.  The key, it seems, is awareness.  Now that I am again aware of my quest, and aware of my shortcomings, I can begin to achieve success in my goal.  I don't see this as a terminal quest, but one that will take a lifetime.  Sometimes the task seems daunting, but mostly I see it as an exciting challenge.  The tough part is trying to explain to people how the moral compass fits into life outside the box of religion...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

in da club. parenthood club, that is...


I find it strange, crazy and hilarious that I am in the parenthood club.    For one, I don't even really like kids.  For two, I did not receive a copy of the handbook.  I like my own kid, and kids I get to know on a one-on-one basis, if they are reasonably well-behaved, but large groups of children in general, I have never really enjoyed.  South African village living did go a long way in changing this fact about me, as I had many enjoyable moments with children there, but had many dreaded moments with the thought of being around children all day long, as well.  And I am a Virgo, which means I like to know the rules, regulations and expectations of any given situation before embarking on membership.  Unfortunately, this club has very few rules, and is really hard to understand the purpose unless one has joined.

One thing I've noticed that is different since joining this club is that I make sure to keep up with other people's kids and their goings-on.  I wasn't very good about doing that before, but now, I see how much a priority one's child becomes in one's life.  For example, I've started keeping track of kids birthdays and plan to send cards or greetings each year, if I cannot attend any functions due to proximity barriers.  I remember my birthdays as a child, and they were always a lot of fun even though they did not usually include friends, but cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.  We lived near many family members, which made these family parties easy to facilitate.  Once there was a birthday in the park with a pinyata (tilde, where art thou?), a raggedy ann cake my mom made, a Casa Bonita birthday, the list goes on. Anyway, people really shape the life of a child, and I guess I didn't really "get" that until now.

Another thing that's different is that I find things "cute" where I would have sneered or not batted an eye at said things a few months ago.  Such as, my nephew jumping on the bed and my four-week-old son being bounced up and down to mimic his jumping on the bed, too.  Or a newborn flannel shirt.  Or the small, dark watchful eyes of my son.  You get the idea. 

Another thing that really gets me about this whole "parenthood" role is that there need not be fanfare or hullabaloo surrounding the transition into parenthood, especially after pregnancy.  It's just the most natural thing in the world to take care of the thing that was growing inside you, at least that has been my experience.  My friend Barbara said that very thing to me, giving me small snippets of this sage advice as I was preparing for the birth of my child, and she was certainly right on.  Most answers can be derived from instinct.  Those that require outside help can be quickly and easily found if one has a good network in place, and accurate media.  The first few weeks were rough, attributed to the adjustment of mother and child to aspects of our new lives and the rush of hormones that accompanies delivery.  Now, it's pretty gravy, akin to troubleshooting a computer problem.  That cry means something's wrong...hungry, diaper, lonely?  That cry means he is angry.  Gas?  Too long in one locale?  That cry is kind of a fake one...he just wants some cuddle time.  Kind of like, did you plug in the machine?  Did you try restarting the program? 

I've enjoyed taking tons of newborn pictures, sending out birth announcements, comparing baby's body parts to mom and dad to see who he resembles more, trying to keep socks on his feet, figuring out what he likes to do best so he doesn't cry all the time, and my life has been completely consumed by my child.  Instead of this being an inconvenience, or a bigger deal than I expected, it has just been the way it is supposed to be, the next step of the journey.  I wonder how much of this ease comes from biology, and how much can be attributed to conditioning (aka spending time in the Peace Corps)?