Walk No. 362: The Learning Curve
It was a mild day for February in Minnesota yesterday. The sun was out and the birds were already doing their territorial and mating songs. After skimming the news for the day, I needed a walk. My mood was dark, as it usually is after taking in the shootings, the bloviating politicians, the wars and violations of human rights around the globe. As someone prone to depression, I have to fight the sense of desolation.
An alarm often goes off in my brain. Do something! Do something! I have that mentality of trying to fix, mediate, improve, or intervene, which leaves me a paralyzed, impotent ball of anger in the face of overwhelming and constant bad news. I thought about writing letters to Congress, refusing to buy certain products, running for local office, donating money to this cause or that. Bandages for my ego and drops in a bucket.
I walked further and thought about a paragraph by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. I smiled briefly to myself when I realized I was Rumi-nating. Again.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
By Rumi, As translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks
Let the beauty we love be what we do. I have had that phrase in my head for a week. It breaks down easily for me in a personal context. I love nature, I grow things. I love reading, I write. I love music, I play. I love my family, I parent and nurture. But what does it mean for my role in the world, when suffering is ever-present?
I’ve been thinking about output – what we, as individuals, contribute with our thoughts, words and actions. In The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris, he talks about the nature of our thoughts, many of which are negative, and that the real question we have to ask of them is not, are they true? But, are they helpful?
My brain has been in overdrive this week thinking about how Is it helpful? makes a fantastic barometer for so many things.
I was at my daughter’s viola recital this week. Twenty kids went through short lesson pieces, while parents beamed. My daughter was allowed to do an advanced piece, since she had performance experience. But she faltered and stumbled. Her face turned red, but she kept going. Afterwards she shrugged and said, “Well, you have to fail sometimes.” She wasn’t defeated or being falsely humble. She was okay with her own truth. I was proud of her resiliency.
The girl next to her performed and when she sat down, her mother whispered, “You should have done a better bow to the audience.” She said to my daughter afterwards “Well, you certainly had the longest piece.” My brain was yelling HOW ARE THESE THINGS HELPFUL? The new barometer has yet to be tuned to subtlety.
People talk about being honest. They’re just being honest, to be frank, the truth is, not to be offensive, blah, blah, blah. First of all, any of those phrases tip me off that you’re likely going to insult me, lie your ass off or are about to say something incredibly ignorant. Lately, people have been praising Donald Trump as “telling like it is”, as if he were a wise soothsayer and not a narcissistic horseshit peddler.
Sometimes, out of morbid curiosity, I’ll read online comments on news stories and feel terribly discouraged. This week was different. I read some horrid bigoted and sexist comments and thought “that was NOT helpful”. Admittedly, the voice in my head was sarcastic, but it did something. It neutralized the hate. It just didn’t have the same impact on me.
My brain takes me down a gloomy path, in the hopes of arriving at a useful conclusion. If, at any moment, my life can be cut short, how would I have wanted to spend the moments before? Worrying, fearful, angry, booing some hateful blowfish at a political rally? Writing angry responses to the wingnuts online? Or, would I prefer to focus on that which is helpful, that which is beautiful, that which adds value to the world?
I think about what some of these public figures have put out into the world, compared to 20 kids anxiously screeching away on their stringed instruments. I think about Trump’s opportunistic hatred and the kids’ nervous hope. I’d lay odds on those twenty kids with the potential for making beautiful music over a grown man reaping the temporary rewards of bigotry and ignorance.
As I wade through my brain swamp, I run through the what-ifs, the choices that I can make, the actions I can take, and I feel that surge of anger. But always and inevitably, I end up thinking about love and compassion.
There’s no arguing with those whose minds are closed. There’s no amount of hatred that can solve the problem of hatred. There’s no amount of aggression that will cure others of aggression. There’s no war to end all wars.
It’s a harder path to walk, deliberately choosing compassion over all the other options.
My anger arises easily. The desire to strike out, to cut down, to rage against, is so heady, so momentarily fulfilling. But it leaves scars and ashes and the sense that I am a lesser person for it. And I know that is not helpful.
I read the news this morning and sighed. It was time for another walk. A mile sooner than yesterday, I reached the same conclusion – love outranks hate, creating is better than destruction, hope is better than despair. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I’ll figure it out before I reach the end of the driveway.