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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

How to Know What You’re Really Doing: Collusion, Confrontation, or Compassion? Peacemaking or Placating?

Recently I’ve been experiencing a dilemma about how to react in many areas of my life, which tells me I should pay attention.

When someone takes what is not theirs — from a person, a people, or the planet; when someone denies a truth; when one person hurts another person, people, or the planet, what is the right response . . . or lack thereof?

In politics, we become human clumps who are certain of our point of view, and therefore our response: “They’re wrong! They must be stopped!” we scream. “They must acknowledge guilt, make amends, and take the punishment!” We rally others to sign petitions, we forward emails, and post links on Facebook, certain that “good people” everywhere should support our cause.

But “they” is a bunch of “he” and “she” s. And “he” and “she” are a bunch of “I”s. Why is it so unclear how or when to confront when we are dealing with ourselves or, even worse, another “I”?

“She” rails against the Wall Street crooks, but then feels entitled to cheat on her taxes and joke about it to her friends. Should they collude with a laugh, or confront, or judge that the “she” is not open to confrontation, and therefore silence is most compassionate?

I don’t know the answers. I’m just asking.

We elect a leader who is a peacemaker, and then rail at him for not acting like an irate psychopath when an injustice is done.

“He” claims that he values authenticity and honesty, but then he lies and manipulates to win. “She” feels entitled to steal because she has been deprived or she thinks nobody will notice.

Embarrassed to confront because we will look petty, or we will be a pest, or they won’t like us, we stay silent. “They won’t agree,” we tell ourselves, “or maybe I’m wrong. After all, it is just my opinion. Therefore it’s not worth saying anything, and it is better to be a peacemaker in a situation where speaking will, at best, make everybody (including me) uncomfortable, and, at worst, blow everything apart.”

I think, for me, decisions to speak or remain silent become a matter of priorities: What is more important here — being liked or confronting something? Will a greater good be served by speaking? What is at stake — either by saying nothing or by rocking the boat? Can compassion be served by a charged response — shocking someone out of a behavior by humiliating them?

I’ve seen spiritual teachers shake people and humiliate them “for their greater good” or ignore them for the same reason. The newest neuroscience, in fact, proves that a certain amount of shock is critical to making a lasting change. (See Radical Change article.) What if people don’t want to change? Can we accept that? If not, is our impulse to respond really about being an agent for the greater good?

In her extraordinarily simple and moving The Holy Man book series, author Susan Trott tells the story of a regular guy named Joe who becomes known as a holy man. People from far and wide make a pilgrimage to stand on line up a mountain to have an audience with him. They are so hungry “to get something” that when finally they make it to the front of the line and are greeted at the door by a humble servant, they demand the presence of the holy man posthaste. The servant bows, and rushes them through the house and out the back door. “But I have come to see the holy man!” they protest.

“You have seen me,” says the servant.

Most of the people are nice about being fooled. Some are not. But fooling them — maybe even embarrassing them — serves the greatest good. Those who are too embedded in their ire to realize what he’s saying will remain angry, so nothing is changed. But those who hear and are embarrassed may learn from the humiliation to recognize every person as a holy man. And maybe those people will then become wiser clumps of “I”s . . .

Or maybe not. I have no answers. I’m just pondering . . . What do you think?
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