Thursday, October 2, 2014

Finding Empathy and Compassion in Story

Moving to a new place has it's ups and downs but one of the things I love about moving is all of the new people we get to meet and all of the life stories we get to start learning.
Shaun and I were wandering around old book stores on our anniversary last weekend. I am a reader.  I love everything about books.  I love the smell. I love the way pages feel.  I love gaining knowledge. But more than anything,  I love knowing stories about people's lives.   I still haven't adjusted to reading books on a device.  I don't think I ever will.  I just love everything about a real live book. Anyway, I digress...
As I looked at the plethora of books on the shelves and began to read titles I had this moment standing right there in that used bookstore.  I am now working at a church. I purpose most every day to stop and hear somebody's story...or at least the part of the story that they want to share.  Lately, we've been having a story with missing links.  We've been sleuthing it out a bit, trying to find the missing pieces. I've been listening a lot to the story.  I've been  looking at it from all different angles.  I've been trying  to hear the heart of the matter more than the details.  You see, I think, when it comes to people, we often hear their bluster and anger, if they're upset, more than their heart...what they're really saying. In several situations lately, I've had to step back, put my personal feelings aside, and try and find the bottom line.  What's the story here?  And here is where, standing in that bookstore, I had this moment. In order to keep my compassion for people and not get cynical...I need to take time to hear their story. I need to take the time to understand their bottom line. ...their motives. I need to understand their "how" and "why".  I may not be able to do a thing about it and I may never agree but at least I will understand. I find, when I understand someone I have a much harder time getting frustrated and upset with them.  It doesn't mean I agree with them or that I can, even, do anything to change anything...but I can at least understand so that, mentally, I don't write them off and so I can have the mental tenacity to keep going with them.  I can still have empathy and compassion.
Here are two examples I can think of off of the top of my head that aren't interpersonal, but more geopolitical.  Awhile back, when we lived in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, we had some students live with us.  One of the students was from China.  He was a Communist. His father loved Mao...worshipped him actually.  Now for me, as an American and a Christian, I came at that from an angle of not understanding. I did not understand how a person could be a Communist instead of fighting them tooth and nail.  I grew up during the Cold War.  Communist were evil really. What they stood for was awful. What they did was awful...the torture and persecution of Christians that is still going on today under Communism is something that troubles me greatly.  Over my life I have spent time praying and given money to help these people. I met Christians who had been tortured and beaten and imprisoned for simply being Christians while I was in Russia in 1994.  I saw the scars on their backs.  I looked in their eyes.  I could never understand how a person could be a Communist. All the books I read growing up, about Communism, were about people being rescued from them.  And here I was with one living in my home.  So, I began to ask him questions...through Google translate.  He began to tell me his family's story.  His father was now a very successful factory owner thanks to Communism.  His extended family was well taken care of now thanks to that success.  No one had to worry.  They were thankful to Mao for bringing the change needed (in their opinion) to their country.  He knew nothing about persecution.  He knew nothing bad about the 1 child policy...if you want more children you pay for more's simple when you have the money...he knew nothing about forced abortions...all he knew was that he had much opportunity and his parents attributed it to Mao and Communism.  I still do not think Communism is good. But I now understand how people live under that system and don't fight it tooth and nail.  I looked a young man in the face and in the eyes and heard his story.
The other story is about a Bedouin chief who's village I went too while in Israel in May.  This man is a grandfather.  He has 5 wives, ranging in age, from 14 years old to his age.  He has 10 children (so far) and 140 grandchildren (so far). My daughter is 11.  She is only 3 years younger than that 14 year old girl married to an old man.  He has grandchildren her age.  I, honestly, thought she was one of his granddaughters...then I heard she was his newest wife! WHAT? Everything in me, as a woman and a mother of daughters, recoils at that.  EVERYTHING.  I have read about and educated myself on child brides.  In our world it is repulsive.  In our world it is unnecessary.  But as I asked many questions (not to the sheik as women don't talk to sheiks...only men...I asked our fixer and our leader) a story emerged that had angles I hadn't thought of. The sheik needed someone who could care for him through his entire life....someone to be healthy and well and  young was needed to be able to do this...this is not a new thing.  Parents arrange marriages, in the Bedouin culture, so that their daughters have a secure future and won't be left destitute...not for love.  This 14 year old (I don't know how old she was when she married him...) would be well provided for.  She had status and standing...and this sheik was wealthy (not by our standards...but by theirs) and well respected.  That is everything in her culture.  Now, as a mother, I can understand that logic.  I want my daughters to be well taken care of and to have every opportunity.  I still don't agree with it...and fortunately I have the luxury to not have too.  But now I understand how they came to that decision.
This is why "story" is so important on all levels of our lives...from interpersonal to geopolitical to belief systems.  We CANNOT solve problem without all the angles.  The best way I've heard it described is that problems are like a belt. In order to find truth and the whole council of God, we need to be able to see the story from each belt loop...and with all that information we will be able to find truth.
When I remember to take the time to hear "story" ...each time my life is enriched and I gain understanding...and compassion and empathy...and I care...and I am calibrated once longer navel gazing.     

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