“I dunno, Jen, I don’t know what happened. I used to be the guy who helped everyone and now I just can’t. The world’s changed. I just can’t help anymore.”
I could feel Ben’s despair and frustration piercing the long space between us. In his puzzlement and own attempts to reconcile his current self with his past self it’s clear that Ben still wishes he had the capacity to extend his care and compassion to all whom need it. After all, this is a man who once followed a co-worker for 50 miles (by car) in a snowstorm because he was worried she had a migraine and may not make it home safely. This is also a man who’s been caring for one person or another in his family for over 40 years. Some days you’ll catch him folding his brother’s laundry whenever he comes over, driving his sister to doctor’s appointments, or making dinner for his elderly mother who now lives with him. And yet, he struggles like so many feeling overwhelmed by the dark ages we’re now living in.
And if you’re familiar with this feeling and you’ve touched the edges of this despair and frustration with a sense that: “the world has gone crazy”, people are crueler now, more violent, no one cares about each other anymore.. then you aren’t alone. Ben isn’t alone. Even though we’re living in the most “connected” era of all time because of technological advances there’s this pervasive feeling of disconnectedness, isolation and apathy. We are bombarded by tragedy on a moment-to-moment basis living increasingly complex lives with a sense of “community” growing ever more out of reach. And whether or not the world is more violent is up for much debate. We could look to history to guide this debate (gun violence of modern times versus the holy wars, Vikings, etc.). But there’s also a timeless universal force which is also the essence of human nature — LOVE.
Even when we harden our hearts, or throw the world away and tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do about others’ suffering, we can always return home. Because our home is our basic nature of goodness and loving kindness. And much like our heart beat, it is always beating ever so gently waiting for us to take our next breath in.
However, many of us are afraid to go “home”. We may have carefully crafted defense mechanisms, that makes investigating our thoughts and feelings dangerous. This also applies to developing a gentle curiosity about the narratives we have about who we are and our place in the world. It may cause tremendous anxiety to turn inwards and start a meditation or journaling practice. Also, we may not really want to know why we no longer want to be of service to the world at large because we aren’t ready. AND THAT’S OK. We need to meet ourselves exactly where we are with as much gentle curiosity and loving kindness as we’re capable of. This is how we can start caring about the entire world again. Just one act of self-compassion and self-love can create more and more space in a heart that’s battered, scared, overwhelmed, hopeless and shut down.
To that end, if you aren’t familiar, there is a practice called Tonglen, which can be incredibly powerful and seemingly simple to do, that may help in opening your heart again. Pema Chödrön defines it as “a method for connecting with suffering-our own and that which is all around us, everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.” For all of us, the fear of suffering. Joan Halifax has also created some great resources around Tonglen. So check those out if you’re curious.
And the next time you feel like you’re done with people and the world take a deep breath and “open the door” just a little to your own suffering. You may be surprised at how this spaciousness connects you to others.