I’ve seen a rising tide of meanness in this country this year. Not meanness as in the miserly pinching of pennies; this is a pinching of the heart. The limits of some individuals’ compassion are being drawn very narrowly, very close to the bone of “me and mine.” I believe that this meanness derives from three core beliefs: 1) there is only so much; 2) it’s not enough for everyone; and 3) it’s okay to blithely let others go without, if I have enough for me.
As a prevailing point of view in the wealthiest country of the world, where most of us have more than can be imagined by the majority of world citizens, I find this POV incredible, first in its scarcity assumptions. Imagine this: a child who’s grown up as one of six or 10 family members huddled under a few pieces of tin in a Nairobi slum suddenly finds herself in a suburban six-bedroom McMansion in any U.S. city. In this country where some people worry they won’t have “enough,” can you imagine what she thinks and feels in this overwhelmingly generous home occupied by four people?
Geez. Maybe we need to redefine that word, “enough.”
My faith journey in this life has led me to the certainty that there is endless supply, a continuously flowing bounty. This abundance is at the very heart of my definition of the divine, the confluence of the three “Big O” features of god in every faith tradition I know: omnipotent, omnishttp://lcarolscott.com/administrator/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=76cient, and omnipresent. Omnipotent means all powerful, able to do, be, or create anything. Omniscient means all-knowing: One Mind, unifying all knowledge. Omnipresent means existing everywhere, in all things.
I invite you to open your heart and mind to that possibility of an all-knowing, conscious force for creation, that is everywhere and everywhen, and in everything. Regardless of your faith tradition, or lack of one, if you DO believe in anything like that kind of divinity, but aren’t yet convinced that there is always enough, then I suggest that you rethink your understanding of those three Big Os.
Conscious. Creation. Everywhere. Continuously. Forever. How could there ever NOT be “enough?”
See, I believe that the pinched heart is the real problem, here, not any actual scarcity. In Capital-T Truth, Divine Truth, there is always enough for everyone! You could give away everything that you call “mine” and still not be as generous as this consciously-intended and continuous creation. Put succinctly, you cannot out-give god. Go ahead, give it all away; there will still be enough for you. Always. And your definition of enough might need revision.
In my darkest dreams, I cannot even envision a world in which it is okay to let others go without, for any reason at all. Call me a dewy-eyed optimist if you wish, but I believe in a world that works for everyone. And I know that the continuous creation of that world flows effortlessly from the divine source of all, as a clear, singing stream from a mountain spring. You and me...we can let that river of good flow through our hearts, and onward, out into the world...or we can dam it up, in fear, hording our idea of “enough.”
Pinch. Heart closed. Generous flow becomes a tiny, mean trickle.
From this pinched heart comes language like “mine” vs. “yours,” and “us” vs. “them.” The pinched heart is also the originator of statements like, “Private,” “No Trespassing,” “Keep off the Grass,” and “No Soliciting.” It is the font of beliefs that say people in poverty choose this lifestyle, or at least choose not to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and get out of it.
My antidote to this “I’m okay and to hell with the rest of you” brand of meanness is the Childhood Treasure of Independence. Does that surprise you? Seem counter-intuitive? Independence as a Treasure is not about isolation. In fact, Independence is essential for the development of compassion and empathy in our relationships with others.
This is the Treasure of toddlerhood—we develop our core capacities for empathy and compassion sometime around two to three years of age. Before you could fully express your thoughts and feelings in verbal language, you could feel your open heart. Have you seen children, 2½ to 3 years old, starting to take action to create that world that works for everyone? I have, and it’s beautiful!
So why is the compassion Treasure called Independence? Because you can’t know there is someone else toward whom to show empathy, if you’re not sure there is a “you” to show it. Before this developmental window opened in your toddlerhood, in which you might have completed the mining of your Treasure of Independence, you had not clearly known there was a “you,” separate from others.
You see, the actions of labor and delivery, in which you physically separated from your birth mother, didn’t fully separate your identities. For a few months, you thought—in your own early, very simple mental structures—you thought you were still part of a larger being that included you and your primary caretaker(s). You had been a part of a larger physical being for the preceding nine months and you still were, in your experience. Umbilical connection was simply replaced by body-to-body contact. You were—in your mind—still part of who held you.
Later, you came to think of your caregivers as “the ones who come.” But, at first, when you were hungry, thirsty, cold, scared, or otherwise out of equilibrium, you just blindly yelled out your message of discomfort or pain to the world. In those early months, the Ones Who Come were, for you, still a part of you. They were not yet seen as separate entities who arrived from elsewhere to relieve you. They were simply the part of the One Being that relieved your needs, just as you and your needs were part of the One Being you inhabited.
In that place of seeming one-ness, if you received consistent caregiving that met your needs, then you were offered the chance to mine the Treasure of Trust. You also developed the earliest awareness of your boundaries—realizing the physical boundary of your skin—from this repeated pattern of Need Felt, Need Expressed, and Need Met. In life, that pattern might play out for a newborn as: the physical gnawing sensation of hunger (Need Felt), the expulsion of a loud cry (Need Expressed), and the One Who Comes provides food (Need Met).
If this repeated pattern was your primary experience, and nobody physically punished you or invaded that body, then your awareness of the physical boundary of your skin, separating you from others, in a body that is yours and not theirs, began within your first three months and was pretty solid by six months. But until you were about 2 years old, you hadn’t the vaguest notion that you also have emotions that are yours; thoughts, ideas and beliefs that are yours; and dreams, life passions, and motivations that are yours—yours alone, defining who you are as a unique individual. Until you were well over 5 years of age, you wouldn’t have been completely clear on these later-emerging boundaries of self.
For an awful lot of us, clarifying these boundaries never happened at all. Unfortunately, in many cultures, parenting and teaching involve practices that not only fail to support the mining of Independence, but actually undermine it. Sometimes, we adults bury the raw ores of Independence so deeply under our need to control children, that they can be hard to locate later. And so, those children become adults who can’t muster sufficient empathy and compassion for others because their boundaries of emotion, cognition, and enthusiasm are ill-defined, or truly undefined.
Are you wondering about your boundaries and how healthy they are? In the Sample Exercises on my website, you will find an informal assessment tool to give you some sense of your baseline. If you take the quiz and want to know what your score means, send me a message on my Facebook page.
If you already recognize that your boundaries—those edges where your thoughts, feelings, and wishes end, and others’ begin—are not fully clear to you, then I offer a simple strategy to strengthen their health. I recommend increasing your awareness of, perhaps by counting them, the times that you:
1. Respond with “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” to someone’s invitation to name what you want, or what you think, feel, or believe.These invitations often sound like:
a. Where do you want to go for lunch?
b. Can I eat the last pickle?
c. Which color upholstery do you like best?
d. Where shall we go on vacation?
2. Hear or see a somewhat shocking or dramatic story about someone else and believe it, without further checking. These experiences often appear as:
a. Gossip about someone you work with, a neighbor, or a member of your faith community. Especially applies to gossip that flies in the face of what you know about that person’s character...and you still believe it (often demonstrated by actions such as passing on the story, or changing your behavior toward or expectations of that person).
b. A cleverly sarcastic meme appears on Facebook implying that a politician you don’t trust or like is involved in some juicy form of scandal or misappropriation of power...and you click Share without a fact check.
3. Stay silent or express agreement with the position or interest of another individual or a group you’re in, even though you have a contrary opinion or conflicting interest. (Also known as not rocking the boat, keeping the peace, making life easier, and other euphemisms for conflict avoidance.)
I suggest you just pick one of the three to focus on, at first. Pick the one that made you most uncomfortable, or the one that you’re sure you don’t do at all, but a compassionate and supportive loved one assures you that you do.
There are two easy ways to count how many times you catch yourself engaged in one of these behaviors that reveals wobbly boundaries. The reason to make a count is that whatever you pay attention to enough to count becomes more visible; your awareness of it automatically increases. It’s also true that whatever you count automatically changes in frequency, so you’ll get lots of chances to see the health of your boundaries grow or diminish.
The first counting technique begins with buying a whole box of cardboard match books (I know, not ecologically sound; the next one is better), and putting one book in your pocket. (If you still have that collection of un-used matchbooks from clubs and restaurants you visited in your 20s, feel free to use those.) Each time you catch yourself in any or all of these three “tells” for wobbly boundaries, take out one match and throw it away (in a trash receptacle, please). There are 20 matches in a book, so do the math at the end of the day: 4 matches remaining means 16 “events.” Next day, pocket a new book of matches.
Counting method #2 is to put some large craft beads on a craft pipe-cleaner “bracelet” (which you can carry in your pocket, rather than sport on your wrist). Make the ratio of beads to length of pipe cleaner such that a bead you mark or identify (by color, maybe) as the starting bead is separaed from the end bead by a gap of about an inch. Each count of an event slides one bead across that gap, beginning with that Start bead. Play with the idea, and you’ll figure out how to make it work.
After you count your behavior for a while, to get a baseline, you will be ready to make some changes in these patterns.
So, let’s just start here, okay? Join me in a campaign to triumph over meanness of spirit. Just as the suit of spades trumps every trick in the popular card game of that name, we can trump mean, as a way of life, with the suit of hearts. Healthy boundaries can protect an open heart through which flows the certainty that there is enough for us all. Healthy boundaries let us get out of the way, allowing divine intention to continue its creation of a world that works for everyone.
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