Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Compassion?: Because of This

      As a Marine and as an attorney, I am no stranger to tragedy and heartbreaking scenarios.  Violence, death, abuse - the list of awful things that I might encounter in any given day is immeasurable.  I am not talking about atrocities in combat.  I am not a combat Marine, or, I haven't been so far.  But I have seen awful things relating not only to the horror of battle, but, more often to the horror of life.  Crime scenes, cases, images, descriptions, testimony, videos, you name it.

       And every single time, I am completely blindsided.

      Before I changed sections, my paralegal was under orders to warn me if I was about to review certain types of cases.

       When I was younger, this stuff didn't bother me as much.  In all honesty, some of the most horrific cases I've ever seen came from those younger years.  Thankfully.  Because I would have a freaking hard time with them now.  But the Marine Corps and motherhood have changed me.  Marine Corps training designed to "desensitize" me to violence did the exact opposite.  Motherhood raised my level of concern for others to an exceptionally high level.

       I'm rambling now. 

      This morning, I was blindsided again. 

       Last night a servicemember who was probably a client of mine (her name has not yet been released so I honestly don't know) was killed by the father of her child.

       I have very few details, and I wouldn't disclose any more even if I did.  But it isn't the details that matter.  It's the fact that it happened at all.  It's the scenario that played out in my head as I was being briefed on this incident this morning.  Two parents fighting over a small child, possibly a baby.  A small child caught in the middle of a poisonous dispute between the two people that make up that little one's whole world.  A mother, fighting to protect her child, fighting because she is worried about her baby and doesn't want to be separated from him.  A fight that ends in a separation of devastating finality.  A small child without a mother, a father who will likely spend most of his life in jail, who that child will never really know and may never forgive.

      And I just want to scream at someone, at anyone, that this is so effing stupid.  This is WRONG.  In a moment of rage, a father orphaned his child.

      If the father had had any willingness to try to understand the mother's feelings, if he had had any idea whatsoever of the fear and anxiety a mother feels when being asked to be separate from her child, their conversation would have gone differently.  If she could, for a moment, take herself out of her own fear and concern and understand that a father's love also runs deep, that it is painful to be a "secondary" part of your own child's life, the conversation would have gone differently.  If both of them would have thought about the sadness and anxiety placed on that child being present while his parents fought, the conversation would have gone differently.  In short, if they would have acted compassionately toward one another, if both of them - or even one of them - would have refused to do to the other what they would not want to have happen to themselves, that baby would still have two loving parents.

      My description of this incident is purely conjecture and extrapolation.  I don't know what really happened.  So this should not be affecting me nearly as much as it is.

      Situations like this, atrocities far worse than this, happen every single day.  That doesn't make it less painful.  That makes it worse.

      If people would just stop thinking about themselves for 10 effing minutes, maybe things would change.  If we could focus on feeding the hungry instead of killing abortion doctors, maybe things would change.  If we just felt a little more compassion and a little less anger, maybe things would change.

      I can't fix this.  Even in my capacity as an attorney, there is next to nothing I can do.

      But saying that just feels wrong.  There has to be something.  Maybe I can't whisk that baby away and comfort him and give him a peaceful home (even though I want to - I can't get the thought out of my head), but I can do something.  I can end cycles of anger and selfishness in my life.  And the better I am at it, the more it will spread.  While the goal of compassion is never to get something out of it for yourself, you would be amazed by the change it inspires in people when you treat them in a truly compassionate manner.  Especially those who you want to treat with anger.  Especially those who expect you to treat them inconsiderately.  Try it.  For a child who had two parents yesterday and has none today.

      And I can continually TRY to impress, with the utmost gravity, upon my clients the importance of working with the other parent, the estranged spouse, the merchant who's ripping them off and of seeing both sides.

      "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." ~The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Compassion?: It Fits

      I have written on Empathy before.  I feel very strongly that the ability to put one's self in another's shoes, so to speak, is crucial to compassionate human relationships.  Compassionate Life emphasizes and refines that point.

       Compassion is key - for personal enlightenment, for global justice, for right relationships.  It is something we have evolved for.  Compassionate Life discusses at length in its beginning the evolutionary journey that has molded us to be compassionate beings.  The author discusses the war, so to speak that takes place between our different "brains." 

      There is the "old" or "reptilian brain," our basest core, the brainstem, devoted strictly to survival - obtaining food, fleeing from threats, and propogating the species.  It in from this brain that the "fight or flight" respose is programmed.  Mindsight discusses this same concept.  It is the "old brain" that takes over when we "loose our minds."  When we find ourselves controlled by anger or fear and reacting without - or apparently without - thought.

      The old brain is at war with the "new brain," our thinking, reasoning, neocortex.  The neocortex gives us rationality, language, creativity, and control.  It is our "higher functioning."  This is also the area that gets "hijacked" when we are overcome with rage, lust, fear, etc.

       The most disturbing point Karen Armstrong makes on this topic in Compassionate Life is about the consequences when we direct the abilities of the new brain to the service of the old brain.  When we apply our advanced intellect to pursuits driven by anger, fear, or lust.  It is from this "co-opting" of the new brain by the old that the most horrifying attrocities known to mankind have happened.

       And, on a smaller scale, human beings are often known to use the behaviours of the old brain as an excuse.  I don't know how many times I have heard the claim made that men are "genetically hard wired" against monogamy.  There are dozens of arguements that run along similar lines used to justify or excuse all sorts of unsavory behaviour.  And it's all freaking BS.  With the neocortex comes the ablility to override the old brain.  Just because I was genetically predisposed to start breeding at 16 years old in no way meant I had to or would.

       The story of the two brains reminds me of an old parable (which just happened to be related during the story for all ages at our church this Sunday): 

An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life...

"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

"One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.

"The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

"This same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
"Which wolf will win?"

The old chief simply replied,
"The one you feed."

      And THIS is where learning true compassion is key.  Nurturing that wolf, so to speak.  Armstrong points out in Compassionate Life that compassion is like any other innate human ability in it's potential for growth.  Just as one can enhance the abilities of their body through excersize, their intelligence through study, and even their language through poetry, so too can practice and effort be used to expand and hone human capacity for compassion.

       So we have these two warring brains - these two opposing motivational centers.  Are we then always doomed to internal conflict and struggle?  Must we spend our whole lives beating back the cries of the old brain with the new?  And if the new brain is focused on rationality and intelligence, how is it that compassion, and with it love, is the answer?

        The answer to that, as posited by Armstrong, lies in a third, more recently discovered "brain" - residing in the limbic system.  Please refer to the book (or any recent neuropsychology text) for more detail, but the simplified answer, what I took away from it, is this:


      The origins of compassion, altruism, and love lie within the evolution of motherhood in warm blooded creatures.  The practice of rearing young, of sticking around to ensure their survival, carried with it evolutionary benefits.  The genes of animals who were taken care of in infancy were passed on more effectively than those that weren't.  Care for the young became an ingrained trait.  At the same time, among some mammals, particularly those on the lineage of Homo sapiens, began to develop bigger brains.  Bigger brains also equated to better survival.  Bigger brains had more successful genes.  As brains grew, so did skulls, and consequently infants were born earlier and earlier in thier development.  Today, human infants are born so early that their first 3 months of life is usually referred to as "the fourth trimester" since they remain virtually fetal at that stage.

       Infants being born more and more helpless combined with the predisposition to care for young gave birth, essentially, to maternal love.  It has been posited by many scientists that the love between a mother and her offspring is the original form of love from which all others have developped.

       There is nothing more basely selfless than the mother of an infant who is willing to put every one of her own needs to the side in order to attend to probably the most demanding creature she has ever encountered.  Ignoring - and sometimes not even feeling - her own pangs of hunger and exhaustion, mothers are become wholly devoted to sustaining a life other than their own.  This is the origin of selflessness.  This is the origin of compassion.  This is the key to the struggle between the wolves of the old and new brains.

       Of course, here I am talking about archetypes.  There are mothers out there who are far from selfless (trust me, I know this all too well).  And just because motherhood is the biological origin of love does not mean that it is the only true love or that women are in some way more capable of love then men.  That is not AT ALL what I'm saying.  Remember, we're still talking about brain systems here, and men have limibic systems, too.  It just happens that the example of motherhood rings very very true to me.

       When I gave birth, something in me changed.  Something I still don't quite understand.  It's a change I'm sure millions of women undergo in their lifetimes.  One day, I will do a whole post about it, because this synopsis will not do it justice.  When I gave birth, I was already a mother.  I had been caring for Punky for years, she was (and is) my daughter.  But she was never a helpless infant in my arms.  I met her when she was 18 months old, but even then was not too close to her since MacGvyer and I were not all that serious.  I did not become a mother to her until she was 4.  She was far from helpless.  While I underwent much transformation in that first year of caring for her (indeed, in every year of being a wife and mother - I am ever evolving), it did not compare to the shift in me after I gave birth.

       I have always been a caring and sympathetic person.  I am the first to assume that when a person acts out, it is because they are in a negative place and may need help (some exceptions to this - like cruelty to animals - clearly apply).  But after I had Flintstone I began to feel pain for others in an unbelievably acute way.  I found myself unable to listen to the news or even remember some cases from my past without a sharp sense of mourning.  To that degree, I had become obsessive, which is not a good change.  But, as we will see farther into this journey on the 12 steps, appropriately developped compassion can even help with that.

      Most of the change, however, was good.  I felt awakened to a sort of spiritual truth about humanity.  And that truth was this (or something like it):  Putting your own needs aside for the benefit of others is a doorway to inner peace.

      Of course, there a caveats.  Of course, there's more to it.  That will come in time.  But the lesson is there, and it comes from the limbic system.

      And it tells us that the struggle inside us is not a struggle between two equally powerful wolves.  There is a third, intrinsically wiser, mother wolf ready to aid the compassionate wolf, the new brain.  We just have to learn to feed them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Compassion?: The Journey Begins

      Several months ago, I found myself palgued by negative thoughts and pointless drama.  A couple people from MacGyver and my pasts had popped into our lives for no apparent reason other than to spread discontent and drama.  I started hearing gossip that involved me from military personnel I barely knew.  It wasn't anything too particularly vitriolic or slanderous, but that made it all the more annoying.  Though this may seem like a contradiction (given this blog), I am a very private person and I can't stand people talking about me (or my loved ones) behind my back.

      I don't know if there actually was more gossip going on, or if I had simply been made more aware of it by certain new acquaintences, but I quickly became increasingly more frustrated with the situation until finally my frustration built up into anger.  One day, I found myself railing angrily inside my head, "Why the eff can't people who have no business in our live - be they from the past or just not really close to us - just mind thier own mother-effing business?"  "How can a person who has done X and Y, who is so blatantly selfish and immoral presume to say anything about me?"

      And I stopped.  And I was a little shocked.  And a little disturbed.  These are NOT the type of thoughts I think.  I do not think that I am better than anyone else.  When people strike out pointlessly against me, I ignore them and allow their own vitriole and hatred to consume them.  I don't get sucked into other people's petty, childish games.  And I do not tear people down just for the sake of it.  I may disapprove of people's actions, and I may even say so (or blog so, as the case may be), but I DO NOT individually attack people and tear them down.  I, in short, don't think thoughts like I caught myself thinking.

      I felt like I was being pulled down by the negative, petty people in our lives (and there were a few of them - it was almost like there was one in every single arena of our lives - like they were planted there to test me - not that I'm megalomaniacal enough to believe that ;-)), and I did not like it.  So at Samhain, I cast these things away.  I promised myself I would not get dragged down anymore.  I would avoid these negative forces at all costs.  I cut a bunch of people out of my social networks.  I avoided a couple people at events.  I felt immensly better.

      Sure, there have been a couple of slip-ups.  Gossip I tried to avoid reached me anyway a couple times, and though I fought it, there were twinges of annoyance and frustration.  But not much.  It didn't result in anything more than a little kvetching on my part.

       But soon, I started to feel like maybe just ignoring this negativity wasn't the whole answer.  Suddenly, I started to feel like I was getting a very clear message from the Universe that it was time for me to do a whole lot more than ignoring things.  It was time to overcome my annoyance, frustration, preoccupation, and anger - and the insecurities that coincide with them.  There are many more details on this "message" from the Universe here.

      The key to that message from the Universe was the book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong.  After reading the book just once, I was completely won over.  This was the answer I was looking for.  This was the beginning of my journey.  Starting in January, I would spend approximately one month on each of the 12 steps, which I believe will be a solid foundation for a journey I expect to last many years - probably a lifetime.