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Archive for the ‘Compassion’ Category

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 7: Feeling All the Feels

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I was gifted this package of lavender, lemongrass and marjoram candles to ease my way on my second sad trip of the week.

When I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, I was once again grieving, with the sure knowledge that I would bounce back. And so I have. Though I am finding the restrictions of Covid to be more and more disheartening, I’m basically fine. Still, I like the ideas I was jotting down then, so let’s return to the week of July 20, 2020, back to a time of sadness:

I’ve been pretty happy this summer, but emotions are never linear. Neither happiness nor sadness is a destination to arrive at, and declare the journey over. These emotions and an abundant bouquet of other human feelings are constants throughout our lives, especially during this time of Covid, which is both exacerbated by and is also exacerbating political chaos. That chaos last week, in particular the storm troopers set loose on Black Lives Matter protesters in Oregon, gave me plenty of feelings: fear, horror, anger, dismay, empathy, hope, and inspiration. And, sadness. I believe we may well need to traverse some exceptionally muddied (bloodied, even) waters before arriving safely at a happier collective tomorrow, so I try to hold on to the long view. Ultimately, I hope, all will be well. But, oh, the suffering between here and there! We will need to cling tenaciously to happiness to not drown in the sorrow.

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My brother-in-law, Richard Sassaman

No matter the big picture, we each have lives filled with our own private happinesses and sadnesses. Last week gave me plenty of both, though ultimately sadness won out. My family and I started the week in coastal Maine, saying goodbye to my brother-in-law Richard, who died suddenly a year ago. I’ve done some grieving, but not enough. I don’t think I’ve fully processed the fact that he is gone. The send-off was a sweet family affair on the edges of Acadia Park — simple and loving. There were many smiles. Yet, the act of literally scattering my husband’s brother’s ashes was devastating. It was pretty darn concrete evidence that Richard no longer exists in his familiar bodily form. I shed a few tears during the car ride back to Vermont.

At home, happy news awaited: I was interviewed about my new book for a really cool podcast, “The Leftscape: The Shape of Progressive Conversation” AND learned that Action for Happiness (an awesome grassroots happiness group endorsed by the Dalai Lama) had just published an excerpt from the book! And … I only had a few days at home before packing for my next trip, on another profoundly sad family mission.

I’ve written before about the value in recognizing and accepting our inevitable grief. What I want to suggest at the moment is that it is also important to embrace our happiness. Sometimes I think that is harder for us. When we see so much hurt and injustice all around is, it may feel almost immoral to be personally happy.  You may even think you don’t deserve to be happy.  But we really do need to claim our happiness, for ourselves and others because it is good for us in so many ways. Crucially, it’s important to remember that happiness improves our capacity to minimize the pain and suffering. To build a better world. To love. To laugh. Embracing happiness is a very moral path.

In my book, in sermons, in workshops, in previous blogs, I’ve quoted many an expert on this theme — for example, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, who, with other researchers found that myth that “happier people have more confidence, optimism, self-efficacy, likeability, sociability, and more originality. They are more active. Happier people also have better physical well-being, stronger immune systems, and more energy. And, happier people are more flexible and cope better with challenges and stress.”  

Or former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.  During the Obama Administration, Murthy made happiness part of his public health agenda. He emphasized happiness as one of the main ways humans can prevent disease and live a long, healthy life.  

I greatly appreciate the experts, but I also take comfort from homegrown wisdom. I sometimes reflect back on a conversation one hot summer day years ago with my friend Felicia. We swam across the lake and then sat on a neighbor’s dock, our legs dangling in the water. I told Felicia that I felt like I couldn’t be happy, even though I had plenty of reasons to be, because both my adult children were going through rough times. Felicia set me straight. She told me that my children’s journeys were their own, and I had to seize my happiness when it was available to me. She assured me that I would have plenty of time to feel sad, too.

Such wise advice. I will always be grateful. Indeed, I have had — and will have — plenty of time to feel sad, including the trip I took on July 23rd. I have a sibling who is now on hospice. No need to go into the details, but I needed to make the drive to another state (less Covid free than either Vermont or Maine) to visit with this sibling for what could be the last time. So off I drove, by myself this time. Another weekend, another goodbye to another sibling.

Obviously, this was a recipe for sadness, but even this period of time was interspersed with a variety of positive emotions. Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. Feeling them both at the same time is one of the many paradoxes of the human existence.

Here’s one of the positive experiences that made me happy: I am a huge Shankar Vedantam fan (of course! he’s all about the brain science!) and had loaded lots of Hidden Brain podcasts on my phone. I listened to Hidden Brain after Hidden Brain and learned lots of cool stuff.  Learning cool stuff makes me happy.

Even more — much more — I got to spend quality time with another sister and her husband. I love them both, and savored our time together.

My time with my dying sibling was also precious. Poignant. Difficult. Unforgettable. I’m so glad I made that trip.

Then, I was sad the whole drive home — all 10 hours behind the wheel.  Once again, Shankar Vedantam rescued me. More Hidden Brains gave me the equilibrium I needed to stay safe behind the wheel. On one episode, he discussed a very interesting concept, all new to me: our internal “hot and cold empathy gap.” That is, when we’re feeling a really hot emotion (say, anger or desire), it’s hard to remember the cooler emotion (non-anger, or prudence). But when it comes to happiness and sadness, I think we can remember, and that it is helpful to do so.  When I am very happy, I know that it is a fleeting sensation — and vice versa.

I actively cultivate happiness because I think it is helpful, as well as more enjoyable. But we have all our emotions for a reason. So let’s have them all, within reason.

 

 

 

 

 

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 5: Investigating White Privilege

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Preface: The following essay, which is longer than usual, was also harder than usual to write, more painful, less happy. But I really wanted to write stories about my own growing awareness of white privilege in a way that might help other readers who identify as white investigate your own privileged experiences.  My hope is that we can use our stories to help other white folk better understand the pervasiveness of systemic racism, and to deepen our own commitment to stand up for racial justice as allies. There are so many ways to do this work; you can read a list of 75 options here.  And what does all this have to do with happiness? To me, it’s a no brainer. While my anguish at seeing killing after killing of unarmed black people in this country can hardly compare with the pain felt by people of color, the murders and other evidence of ongoing racism do, in fact, make me unhappy. And why wouldn’t they? We are interconnected and interdependent.  Most of us are empathetic. We are all sentient beings equally deserving of love, compassion — and economic, political, and cultural systems which provide maximum support for our well-being. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Now more than ever, that means love.  “In times like these,” according to Representative Antonio Delgado, love is “justice in action … grounded in the moral observation that we are all one.” In this moment in time, love and compassion mean: Black.Lives.Matter. For everyone to have a greater opportunity for happiness, we need to see it, feel it, and make it so.

Investigating White Privilege:

When my son was 14, he had a sleepover birthday party. I remember the event so fondly. He and his friends were still ever-so-slightly little boys, innocents on the verge of full blown adolescence. There were lot of giggles, burps and farts (and jokes about burps and farts), and pancakes. By his 15th birthday, it was a whole different scene. But that year, at 14, they were still so young. One of the party guests was Ben’s friend Calvin*. Calvin was very tall. I remember looking way up at him when he came to our door. He was still a child, but because he was black, and so tall, I sometimes worried that people meeting him on the streets would be afraid of him. This was long before 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down, so I never actually worried for Calvin’s physical safety. I just felt sad to think that people would be afraid of him. This sweet innocent tall boy.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see white privilege in this story.  I could and did feel bad for someone else’s son, but I never once worried that anyone would be afraid of my own child — much shorter, yes, but more to the point: white.

A couple of decades later, I had the white privilege of being only the slightest, tiniest bit worried as my pregnant daughter more-or-less breezed through both pregnancy and childbirth. She might disagree with the verb “breezed,” but there was never anything to be seriously afraid of.  I didn’t think of it as a white privilege, though, until six years later. That’s when I read an April 2018 article in The New York Times called “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis: The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America.” Oh. My. God. This article is a must read. A healthy pregnancy is a privilege.

Perhaps the phrase “white privilege” is uncomfortable to you. I’ll admit, it took me a while to accept this description of all the many many ways being white in this society makes our lives easier. Since some of the realities of racism were brought to my attention when I was 14 years old, I don’t think I ever doubted the concept of white privilege — though, it’s taken decades to realize even partially how pervasive it is. It’s just that privilege to me felt like something that belonged to the world of very rich people. It should not be a privilege to believe that your son is likely to come home alive, or that your daughter’s pregnancy is likely to be safe. Those should be more or less normal.

But of course that’s not the reality. In our white supremacy culture, so much of normal life is a privilege not available to all, especially people of color. Recently, when I was writing a sermon on kindness, I was stunned to read a section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me, that illustrated how even receiving kindness from a stranger can be a matter of white privilege. Kindness! I found that devastating. Talk about dehumanizing!

Ultimately I realized it was of zero importance whether not I like the term white privilege. Maybe my rejection of the words was a form of white fragility. I don’t know. What I do know is that is urgently important to get it, to better understand white privilege — my own and others — and then, take whatever steps I can take to help change the system.

As I reflect back, however I named it, sometimes the privilege was immediately visible. When my children were teens, they each brought a friend for a week long family beach vacation. As it happens, both friends were people of color. One night, we went out to dinner at a local seafood restaurant. I can’t remember the specifics of the incident, but both friends were upset at how the staff treated them, presumably based on the colors of their skins. I think we walked out, but I’m not sure. Later that week, though, we definitely walked out of an arcade, after our son’s friend felt unsafe due to racist threats. Lesson learned: in that particular beach town, feeling safe in a restaurant or an arcade might just rest on having white skin.

Just a couple of years ago, I got pulled over for speeding. By this time, not only had I heard the phrase “driving while black” many times, but Sandra Bland’s death was also very fresh in my mind. Throughout the incident, I was well aware of my white privilege. As the officer approached my car, I fully expected to be treated with respect, and I was. I kept wondering, what would I feel right now if I was a black woman? Would I be afraid?

There’s a stop sign on the dirt road in front of my house. For some reason, many people — white people, as far as I can tell — run that stop sign with great regularity. I have often wondered, would these drivers so blithely break the law without the protection of white privilege?

When I take the time to look, at past and present, there are so many other stories where white privilege stands out — like the time I learned taxis didn’t like to stop for black women in Washington, D.C… Or just last Saturday when I decided to check out the lake front property we’ll soon be renting for vacation. It occurred to me that I might not have felt safe walking up the empty driveway if it weren’t for my white skin. Of course, none of this makes me happy. It’s just all so wrong.

One example of white privilege that I’ve thought about over and over was a Gross National Happiness USA project, the Happiness Walk.  That Walk covered 10,000 miles over eight years, on foot, often relying on the kindness of strangers. I participated in that walk myself for about 300 miles, and was the recipient of much generosity from scores of very diverse people. Again, though, I often wondered, how many people would have stopped to help — with offers ranging from buying us bug spray to providing housing for multiple nights — if more of the walkers** had been people of color? And how safe would a black walker have felt in accepting those offers? I cannot know, but I think it’s clear that white privilege was on the Walk with us.

My final example is a biggie: voting. Voting in the 21st century should absolutely not be a white privilege. But. The GOP has been systematically gerrymandering and suppressing the vote in many other ways that land especially hard on people of color, who often vote with the Democratic party. This past winter, I saw the movie “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” several times; one of the groups I am active with sponsored the showings as a fundraiser for Stacey Abrams’ group, Fair Fight. “Suppressed” is a documentary of how Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and others systemically robbed voters of color of their fundamental right to vote in 2018, when Kemp ran for governor against Stacey Abrams. The film is horrifying. I’ll admit, I was shocked at how brazenly Republicans are stealing the right to vote! from people who fought so damned hard to get that right. In this case, there are very specific ways white allies can help fight back. My activist friends and I have not only supported Abrams’ group, Fair Fight but have also volunteered for Reclaim Our Vote and contributed to the Black Voters Matter Fund. Additionally, we have canvassed, texted, and written postcards for candidates of color — some of whom, like Antonio Delgado, have won.

I’ve been passionate about politics since the second grade, so this is an obvious arena for my involvement. That might not be your preferred way to get involved. Fine. Find something else to do. We all need to do more than post “Make it stop!” in response to yet another video capturing a sickening racist incident. Turns out, we — the big collective we, with people of color leading the way — are the ones who must make it stop. History has its eye on us. We are in a unique moment in time, when we just might be able to make a real and lasting difference. Let’s seize the opportunity to make this country a much happier place for everyone. Black lives matter.

 

* Not his real name.

** To be clear, there were only a handful of walkers the entire time. Paula Francis, who is white, walked most of the Walk alone.

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 1: Compassion

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The rooftop deck of the beach house we were going to rent in April 2020.

It was the morning of Thursday, March 12, 2020 when I realized my life was about to be upended. Even though that was less than two weeks ago, I can’t remember what evidence made me grasp that my plans for the next month were all for naught. I just remember suddenly knowing that Covid-19 was a real and present threat. Time to adjust.

I was at my daughter’s Wisconsin apartment at the time. My husband and I had planned to stay another week, watching our granddaughter’s gymnastics practice, visiting the gym ourselves, maybe spending Sunday afternoon at the indoor pool at the Y. Then we would drive back home to Vermont, briefly, before going south. In late March, I was scheduled lead a Unitarian Universalist service in Massachusetts, followed by visits with family in Pennsylvania, and friends in North and South Carolina, with another guest sermon scheduled for the first Sunday in April in Beaufort, SC. Then … aaaahhhh … time for Bob and me to relax for a week in Folly Beach, South Carolina. I planned to do art, read, walk the beach and just generally chill.  I expected red wine and fish tacos would be involved. I had been looking forward to this trip for several months, imagining sunsets from the screened porch and a lot of quality time on the rooftop deck. But that Thursday morning, I knew we had to head home immediately, and stay home. There would be no leisurely drive south.

The realization left me feeling shaky and weepy. Okay, so I had to cancel my trip. Big deal. It wasn’t the fact of canceling — it was the reality behind it that threw me for a loop. I knew we were all in for a collective frightening ride, that the rug had just been pulled out from all of us, with no clear idea of how bad things might get nor how long this crisis might last. Those are still giant unknowns.

One thing was clear: I had to contact the rental agency to get cancel the reservation and get

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The screened porch I daydreamed about spending time on …

our money back. I had only just paid the balance due on Monday the 9th, a mere three days before. I did not have great faith in the rental agency, a national company that had just bought out the company from whom I had originally rented the South Carolina beach house. Two years ago, this same company had bought the Florida rental agency I had used for years — and then immediately jacked up all the rates. I didn’t appreciate that I was stuck with them again. But surely, in this time of crisis, even this company with its late-stage capitalism policies, would refund our payment?

Well, no, no they would not (at least not yet — I’m not through with that battle). I tried several times to make my case to the harried young-sounding woman on the phone, while she quoted back to me the agency line: no trip insurance, no refund — though they would issue me a credit to stay with them at some future time. Agitated to begin with, I felt myself ramping up until, happily — truly, happily — compassion kicked in. I suddenly heard the distress in her voice, which allowed me to step out of my own unhappiness, and be there for her.

I stopped arguing. I said something like, “I imagine you’re having a lot of difficult conversations today.” She paused, and said, “Normally, I am talking with people who are very excited about going on vacation. Now, call after call is filled with big emotions.” This poor woman! Obviously, she wasn’t responsible for the company’s policy but nonetheless had to maintain her poise with one upset caller after another. Not only that, the company is based in the Pacific Northwest, an early hotbed of Covid-19 in the United States. I’m sure she had her own “big emotions.” We talked a bit longer, she promised to do her best for me, and I wished her well.

When I got off the phone, I almost didn’t care about the refund. It’s a chunk of money, and I still want it back — but my primary emotion was compassion for the unknown woman on the other end of call. Compassion is always a valuable commodity in our frail human lives. During the time of Covid-19, I’m sure it will be way more valuable and necessary. Fortunately, the supply is limitless.

And, compassion makes us happy. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” That, perhaps, is the number one guideline for happiness in this moment.

BTW, she called me back, twice. Both times it was late in the day on Sunday the 15th. We were driving back to Vermont (my husband was behind the wheel). The first time, she told me that she was sorry, that the manager wouldn’t budge: no refund. I was grateful for her efforts. The second time, she told me that she had tried one other avenue, but still no success. By then, she sounded so tired. When I asked if she ever got any time off, she told me that she was about to go home and rest “for a few hours.” Yikes. Honestly, at that point, I cared a lot more about her well-being than my refund. I wished her well.

And I still hold her in my heart. I want her to be happy, I want me to be happy, I want you to be happy. May it be so.