Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Relativity and Validation

I saw an article the other day in the New York Times about a 57-year-old woman who was laid off 4 years ago and hasn’t been able to get a job since then, and not because she hasn’t been making the effort. I usually avoid the online comments section, but this time they caught my eye. The first comment was from a young man who said (paraphrasing) that no one should feel sorry for her because she made $80,000 and didn’t save her money, nobody was crying for him while he made a salary in the 20K range.

The young man mentioned that he was in his twenties. It doesn’t say where he lives, who he lives with, or what his financial responsibilities are. I imagine they are not the same as a 57-year-old woman. In fact, finances is the one area where it’s very easy to be judgmental of others. Looking down on people who spend money in a capitalist economy that demands you spend money to thrive. Looking down on those who use credit cards and carry debt, when that is the only way to gain enough credit to get a loan. Looking down on people who may make $30,000-$40,000 a year more than you as having “more than enough”, when after taxes, they probably make almost the same amount as you, and may or may not have more deductions for things like health care. And if you own a home, forget it. Even a reasonably inexpensive house that is in good shape can cost you thousands of dollars if your furnace goes, if you need a new roof, or you have plumbing problems. I can tell you that a few years ago I was debt free except for my mortgage, and the first two things on that list set me back $12,000 immediately. If someone has children—well, kids are expensive. I don’t think I even need to go through that list. So what should people like this do? Sell their house in a market where they probably can’t pay off their mortgage? Put their kids up for adoption? Sell their possessions on eBay when no one is buying?

My friend’s father is a minister, and he told the story of a man who prayed to be relieved of his burden. An angel appeared to him, and showed him a rocky field. There were rocks of all sizes, from tiny pebbles to large boulders. These, said the angel, were the burdens of different human beings. He could choose any one he liked. After some looking, the man chose a small pebble. The angel informed him that this was the burden he had just put down.

The moral may be obvious: no matter what your troubles, someone else always has it worse. What’s not always obvious is what my friend’s mother used to say in response to this story: “Stop minimizing my troubles!”

Another friend asked to borrow one of my Amma books recently. Before I gave it to her, I flipped through it, and my eyes fell on the page about charity. She talked about people who would go into the temple and make an offering, and then kick the beggar outside. “They will say ‘his suffering is his karma.’ What do you know about his karma? If it is his karma to suffer, it is your karma to help him.”

This is where Einstein comes in. Seriously. I was reading a recent blog post by Phil Plait rebutting the “geocentric” view of the universe (in the medieval Biblical sense). He starts out by explaining that one CAN have a geocentric view. In one sense, we all do, because to us, the center of the universe is the Earth. But as Einstein’s theory of relativity showed us, the center of the universe is relative—it’s center is the point from which it is being observed. A little like the concept of Axis Mundi in Black Elk’s vision—every one of us is the Center.

The point of this recognition is that you can only see your own experience and circumstances. You can’t always meaningfully compare your circumstances to others. To judge someone else’s life and problems based on your own experience is flawed. Problems are never simple and straightforward, and you probably don’t even see the tip of the iceberg with regard to factors involved.

I no longer do much in the way of public service—aside from part-time teaching, my job is behind the scenes. But I can tell you that the success of someone in a public service position has little to do with how much they know. It has everything to do with how much they listen.

In my days of working the Reference desk full-time, I had a woman come in several times to ask me questions. I did my best to help her, but we were unable to find satisfactory answers to her questions much of the time. One day I was working in a different library in the County, and I saw the woman. She pointed at me an exclaimed, “I want her to help me. She is the best librarian I have ever met.” That surprised me more than anyone, given that I hardly ever got this woman the answers she needed. But she liked me because I really listened to her questions, and didn’t give her a blow-off response. Many people don’t ask questions because they feel stupid. It’s even worse if you make them feel stupid. I’ve noticed that the most belligerent patrons we ever had who did not have problems needing medication were people who seem to have been treated as stupid or worthless in just about every other area of life. These are people clamoring for validation. When you give it to them, their attitude changes completely within minutes.

One of my favorite restaurants always has a line out the door early in the morning for breakfast, in spite of the fact that there are at least three other breakfast places within walking distance of this one. Certainly the food there is good. But people don’t just go for the food. They go because the waitresses there know everyone on a first name basis, remember what kind of coffee you like, how you prefer your eggs, and what kind of toast you usually want. They will also inquire generally about how you’re doing, and will remember what you told them the last time you were there. You get breakfast and a validated existence. It's hard to put a price tag on that.

Of course, there are people at the other end of the spectrum, who thrive on victimhood and attention. If you encounter one of these people, you will probably spot the trend pretty quickly, and distance yourself appropriately. That is not a beast that should be fed. But it should not be assumed that everyone is like this.

You may have terrible problems. They may be worse than anyone else’s that you know. You may meet people with much worse problems than your own. Your problems will not mean as much to someone else. But the bottom line is that everyone is suffering in different ways and varying degrees. When you show respect for someone’s suffering, even if you don’t understand it, you make them suffer a little less.

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