Minimizing is Not a Bra, Redux!

     Prelude: Just slightly over a year ago, on June 27, 2021, my Dad was admitted to the hospital with what would prove to be his final illness. The six months that followed passed in a haze of surgeries, doctors, care homes, visits, pet care, errands, and stress, all culminating in his death in December. At the time this post originally appeared, on June 30, 2021, I had no idea of just how awful things were about to become! I only knew that Dad’s illness followed a host of other personal crises: the death of my favorite cat; the unexplained, nearly-fatal illness of another beloved pet; Covid quarantine with my toddler granddaughter while both her parents suffered the virus; being cruelly excluded from family gatherings because the vaccine wasn’t yet available to me. So I wrote this post under a swirling cloud of angst.
     Now, recalling it just a year later, my feelings haven’t changed.
     No, Jack. No. It absolutely is NOT all just small stuff.

Kindness never minimizes another’s need.

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

You might also enjoy “Feeling Our Feelings”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from October 14, 2020.

Rude Words!

Our words have power.  Guard well what we say.

When I was a child, we were constantly instructed in the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Now, to be quite honest, absolutely no one followed this sage advice (or, if they did, they were considered to be an unbearable prig!)  We all said, and thought, plenty of not-nice things, and not a few really malicious, cruel and vicious things.  But we were careful about whom we said them to, usually saving our nastiest remarks for a limited circle of like-thinking friends.  It was rare that any of these companions would admonish someone for cruel statements, and even then, the criticism was pallid:  “That’s not nice!”, usually followed by a giggle or occasionally the comment, “But true!”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a bad bit of life advice, that learning to keep spiteful or mean observations either in the privacy of one’s own mind or at least among a narrow group of people.  Mannerly behavior, however hypocritical, ruled; courtesy was valued, and those who failed to keep even a modicum of a civil tongue in their heads were reviled as malicious and disgusting, and widely avoided. One did not want the taint of their bad behavior to rub off on one’s own reputation, any more than one wanted to become a target of their vicious contempt.

Not so now, when every bit of mind garbage is spewed out to the entire populace, into every corner of the world, via a keyboard or voice-to-text, accumulating Likes from equally vile-minded strangers.  The nastier one can be, it seems, the more judgmental, rude, cruel, or despicable, the better.  Abhorrent speech is no longer scorned as evidence of a small-minded person, or of someone with a size 12 ego and a size 2 soul.  Maliciousness is encouraged as funny or entertaining. Compassion, civility, empathy, kindness, courtesy, caring…those have become the calling cards of the truly old-fashioned—traits that are despised, rather than emulated.

As a society, it appears, we have sunk to the lowest common denominator, urged on by the sick cohesion of social media and even by vulgar and vicious national leaders. And that saddens me.  It breaks my heart.

Yet it was not that long ago (and in a possibly mythic era) that the concept of chivalry was touted.  Ballads were sung about such exemplary behavior; legends were written and repeated.  And for all the flaws inherent within the chivalric code (and there were many), there was still something to be said for many of those ideals: To live with loyalty and honor.  To protect the weak and defenseless.  To fight for the welfare of all.  To speak the truth at all times.  To avoid meanness and deceit.  To respect and honor women.  Chivalry, though, was merely a European concept.  Other cultures worldwide taught similar values to their young: Courage. Respect for and appreciation of the wisdom of one’s elders.  Courtesy. Honor. Compassion. Charity. Deportment.   And while it is true that not one culture, anywhere, at any time in the history of human civilization, can claim that all its members lived their lives in coherence with those teachings, the important factor is that such concepts were imparted.  The very teaching of these ideals inculcated conscience in the students.  It gave them a map, a pathway to life establishing consideration for others as a foundation.

Perhaps, then, that is the main factor missing in today’s society.  The trappings of courtesy, of manners; the slightly hypocritical keeping of impertinent thoughts to oneself, that were once a stable groundwork for behavior that demonstrated consideration for the feelings and needs of others—those concepts are no longer taught.  Rarely do individuals learn a foundation for kindness, or establish personal integrity.

Words, some say, are in and of themselves a form of energy.  To speak a word aloud; to type it into a forum; to write it, as I write these essays–to disseminate any word, in any way, is to give an energetic life to that word.  When we speak, write, type, or promulgate vile and cruel and vicious, or untrue, unkind or uncivil words, we contribute to the jangling dissonance of negativity, the misunderstanding and malice that seem to hover constantly over current social interaction.

But when we make a concerted effort to remove hateful speech from our personal lexicons; when we intentionally infuse our words with benevolence and consideration, with gentleness, courtesy and understanding, we go more than halfway toward meeting others with a handclasp acknowledging our shared humanity.

And if we genuinely cannot say, speak, write or type anything good or kind or caring, we can always choose to, yes, say nothing at all.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate the post, “The Speech of Angels”, which you locate by scrolling below to the Archives.  It was published October 4, 2017.  And, as always, please feel free to republish this blog, with attribution.

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

§  In this perhaps the most divisive of years in America since our Civil War, I turn again to this essay, originally posted in 2017, and its theme of tolerance, kindness and courtesy–for what better behavior can we ever display?  §

Several years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good-natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice acceptance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I found myself asking, how could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even atheism) in order to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives dated November 20, 2019.

Feeling Our Feelings

§  Others will always endure life situations, grief, and loss far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine  §

Some years ago, a few days before my birthday, I mentioned to the man I was then dating that each year when my birthday rolled around, I felt a little sad.  Before I could expound on what I meant (that my melancholy was comprised of many factors: regret for goals not achieved during the year; memories of past birthdays that were composed more of pain than of celebration; even the fear of aging without having accomplished anything more in life than “just getting by”), my date responded by forcefully rebuking me.  How could I have the gall to say this to him, he demanded angrily. His life was so much worse, so much difficult, than mine—in fact, than anything I had ever been through.  I had no reason, no right, to feel sad, he declared.

Although today I would mount a spirited rejoinder to his words, at the time, victimized by his constant emotional abuse of me, I was effectively muzzled.  I did not even dare offer in response the unpalatable truth that nothing in the problems he was enduring—and they were many—was the result of a capricious and unjust fate.  He had, by his own poor behavior, drawn every one of his difficulties down upon his own head.

But I kept this and my other thoughts to myself, and went home to cry in solitude.

That decade-old memory came sharply to mind, though, not long ago when an old friend lost both of her beloved pets within a few days of one another.  Heartbroken, she grieved openly for a long while—whereupon an unhelpful acquaintance pointed out to her that others had lost pets, too; in fact, in the middle of pandemic, others were enduring griefs that were far worse than mere pet loss.

Like a chain of disturbing links, that led me to remember another such situation–a family affair described to me by a friend—one a thousand times more awful than the loss of a pet.  The friend’s relative had given birth to a premature baby who survived only a few weeks. The young woman struggled through, but was, as are all who endure such an agonizing event, indelibly marked by it.  Yet, rather than giving her greater compassion toward others who were enduring pain, she instead crowned herself with a halo of martyrdom. When another family member confessed to seeking therapy for emotional challenges, the bereaved mother remarked scathingly, “Well, if I could get through what I did, I’m sure you can put up with a few little problems!”

I never find any of this—this scolding and shaming, the rebuking or minimizing another’s sorrow or difficulty–to be at all a helpful attitude, neither to the suffering individual, nor even to ourselves.  Yes, it is absolutely true that others can and will and do endure life situations, grief, and loss, far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine. But none of that alters the truth of our individual situation, nor demands that we relinquish our own sadness on behalf of their pain.  If we were to always surrender our right to our feelings because some other person endured a worse event, then none of us, ever, would be permitted to feel or acknowledge any negative emotion, from the most minor upset to the most unbearable loss. 

Nor can we personally experience amother person’s response to a problem.  Even if we endure a similar situation, each of us will find that we not only have different reactions—reactions built both on our own past experiences and our personality—but different levels of support or abandonment in our travail, as well.  No two human beings, enduring precisely equivalent incidents, will have a comparable experience.

The truth of the matter is that someone, somewhere, always endures something worse than we do.  Someone is always in more pain: physical, mental, emotional.  Someone has always had a worse childhood, a more abusive spouse or devastating financial ruin, a graver illness, a more terrible addiction—something more wholly dreadful than anything we have known.  Their agony does not, however, deny us our own sorrow, or preclude our need to acknowledge unhappiness.

We are each diamonds, rough diamonds, with personal stress points that, if tapped, will not result in a strong, beautiful and faceted stone, but will instead shatter us into broken bits—mere shards of ourselves.  We need to acknowledge this fact when someone of our acquaintance speaks their sorrow aloud; to permit them to feel their feelings, fully and completely.  It is not necessary that we join them in their emotional low point.  All that is ever needed is to say, gently and with genuine compassion, “I can see that you’re troubled.”  “I really regret that you’re stressed.”  “I’m truly sorry that you are grieving.”  “I care that you feel sad.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, which you can find in the Archives from August 5, 2020.

The Person at the Other Fax Machine

§  The most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  §

I rarely speak of current events in this blog, since doing so would counter the purpose of my motto: May Something Said Here Touch Your Heart, Make You Laugh, or Give You Hope.  Few situations in our current world could achieve even one of those goals!

Yet there are some incidents so dreadful and obvious that it would be almost immoral to evade them. They cry out to be acknowledged, no matter how dissonant and disheartening the subject.  One of these situations is surely the horrific behavior of those who, in the guise of standing up for their rights, threaten or attack others who reproach them for not wearing face masks while in the middle of a worldwide plague, and contrary to the orders of local governments or the requests of private property owners.

I won’t take up the questions of whether masks are protective or not; whether they are a violation of one’s constitutional rights; or even whether they shield the wearer or those with whom one comes into contact.  Those matters can be endlessly debated.  The real question that I’ve uncovered (while watching countless videos of people being attacked or beaten or threatened) is why society has degenerated to such a point that these behaviors are accepted with little more than a shrug or a sigh.

I run through just a few of the incidents, all captured on camera, watching them play horrifically across the movie screen in my mind:

The hapless individual threatened by a livid man in a local Costco:  https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/07/08/i-feel-threatened-who-protects-shoppers-angry-anti-maskers/5389199002/
The elderly disabled veteran brutally punched over and over:  https://www.newsbreak.com/washington/spokane/news/1615195034250/see-it-suspect-caught-on-video-punching-elderly-disabled-veteran-during-mask-dispute-cops-say-perp-knocked-victim-unconscious-broke-his-jaw
And, perhaps worst of all, the middle-aged organ transplant recipient heaved into a bone-shattering crash by a hefty young woman:
https://www.nj.com/bergen/2020/07/woman-with-cane-violently-assaulted-at-nj-staples-after-asking-customer-to-wear-mask-video.html

Of all of them, I think this last incident shocked me the most—not because of the violence, since other videos and reports have displayed far more brutality; even fatalities.  But what I found most disturbing in the attack by Terri Thomas on Margot Kagan wasn’t the fact that a beefy young woman would brutally assault a slip a lady who was not only old enough to be her mother, but who probably weighed in at 95 pounds soaking wet. No, that sort of unconscionable behavior is all too common these days. Nor was I flabbergasted by the inaction of the employees and customers captured in the video (despite later claims that they rushed to the victim’s aid after the close of the surveillance clip).  Their immobility as the victim lay injured on the floor was shocking, but not surprising; compassion and courage–gallantry–are all too lacking in today’s society.

No, to me the most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person (man? woman? I think it is a woman) in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  Watch carefully, and you will see that, as Ms. Thomas storms out of the store, this customer cautiously toes aside the fallen cubicle divider that was overturned in the fracas—pushes it away with a foot, and then calmly returns to her copying or faxing or whatever transaction she had been making before the violent altercation began.

To say that this display of utter indifference chilled me to the center of my soul would be to describe Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell as a cool spring breeze. I watched that entire disturbing video over and over, each time thinking perhaps I had missed something—that there was some mitigating factor, some reasonable excuse, that this person blithely turned aside and continued processing paper.

But there was none.  No mitigating factor, no reason, and certainly no excuse.

The very idea that someone—anyone—would turn their back upon the victim of a horrific assault and coolly continue running off copies, casually ignoring the entire situation, speaks terrifying volumes about the moral state of our populace.

Somewhere, someone has seen that video, and recognized the person at the fax machine.  Someone—some friend or family member, perhaps even a pastor or rabbi, has gazed (in horror? unsurprised?) at the behavior of that individual.  Perhaps they said something; tried to rebuke him or her.  Perhaps (more likely) not.

The rest of us will almost certainly never know who it was standing at the other fax machine that day.  And I doubt that individual will ever read this blog post.  But I say now, and will forever say, that their behavior was an affront to human decency as grave as any assault committed by those who threaten, slap, punch or spit upon their masked counterparts.

I’m sure The Faxing Person would shrug, as unconcerned by my opinion as they were for the victim of the assault. But their display of inhumanity was deplorable. And they should be ashamed. Quite thoroughly ashamed.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Political Civility”, in the Archives from July 3, 2019.  (On the other hand, you might absolutely hate it!)