There is no point to experience unless we learn something from it that can potentially be applied to a future situation. If each event merely washes over me without apparent effect, then I might as well not have been alive in it.
Wisdom stems from integrating the experience with the past and drawing patterns and relationships that help us to better handle the future. The “handling” may often require changes in how we think and act and believe.
We hope that this processing is beneficial and indeed it would seem to be so. We are a species who at least on the surface seem to learn from our mistakes, though that may be truer in the microcosm than the macro.
If one is a believer, one tends to see God as helping us in the process. And thus I do. It seems that I was led to read a couple of blog posts specifically this week as I processed the events that I talked about yesterday regarding homeless men. Tim at Caught a Glimpse of Jesus down by the railroad tracks. . . . and Tim at Straight-Friendly, both wrote posts on rather different subjects, but both helped me dig within to discover the lessons of my journey with the street poor. I am as always, deeply indebted to them, to their talents and gifts, in saying just what I needed to hear at the right moment.
That God’s fine hand was involved, I have no doubt, but if that is not to your way of thinking, it matters not, nor does it matter that you agree or disagree with the next observation.
Introspection is a valuable tool. It has and can be accused of being over used certainly. People who engage in it can be called “self-absorbed” and selfish and any number of adjectives which suggest that some people are too busy with themselves and not enough with others. Fair complaint.
Yet, introspection is essential I believe to growth and to becoming wise, since it is only through this device that one can confront oneself head on and see what needs to be fixed or accommodated. It is, I would argue, required if one is to truly know oneself, and thus one’s motives and needs, desires and strengths and weaknesses. It is the only way I know to permanently solve those negative drives that so mess us up.
These moments of looking inward are suffused with God I believe. We begin to search the reasons for our speech, actions and beliefs, and soon we run up against the shadows. God holds us close in those moments, and we feel safe enough to proceed, for we know without asking that God has found us acceptable even in this dark place of the soul.
So as I ruminated about my experiences with giving, I reached some not so nice conclusions. First I realized that too much of the process was about me. I gloried in my “special” offerings, hidden and between God and me. Somehow that was getting translated to me as my being “better,” and farther along the road to saintliness? Pride in a word was at the root of this.
Not the good pride, pride in doing a job well, but pride in BEING better somehow by my selfless actions. I had taken the volunteer endorphin rush and amped it up, causing me to strut a little taller albeit I kept it too myself. I’ve always had an issue with humility. More work for me.
The second issue that really struck me was that I also prided (again that word) myself on my empathy. And I realized that my empathy was of the easy kind. I was empathetic as hell toward folks who were what I wanted them to be, honorable, decent, thrown down through no fault of their own, born into the wrong place or time.
I missed that every human construct of “groups” of people are as broad as the entire panorama of humanity. There are saints and there are sinners. There are those who are where they are through no fault of their own, and those who have had every advantage and made stupid self-indulgent choices that lead them to where they are today. There are selfish and mean people in the mix.
Empathy is most needed toward those who by our standards don’t deserve it. For they too don’t choose to be marching in the wrong direction. Some set of experiences had led them to cope in this way and fairly it may be the only way they know. Empathy is hard and it is hard precisely because it is needed when we deal with those people most unlike ourselves.
Not unlike us in circumstance, and that was my mistake, but sometimes unlike us in how we think and react to the world, how we view it, and our place within it. Like it or not, empathy is not so much feeling at home in the world of the paraplegic who lives down the street, as it is feeling sympathy and understanding toward Osama bin Laden, who once toddled around in diapers and delighted his family with his baby talk.
Don’t get me wrong, empathy is not condoning or making excuses for. It is honoring that everybody does the best they can given their life experiences. Each does what SEEMS right and beneficial to them at every moment. And the seeming can be very different for me and you to understand.
I learned I had a long way to go in the empathy department still. I’m not Mother Theresa quite yet. But I’m working on it. And for that, I am thankful to the homeless men on Blairs Ferry. They taught me a valuable lesson, and I am grateful indeed.