Elizabeth highlighted this op-ed on her Facebook page on Sunday and, as it is fairly short, I urge you to go read it before you continue reading this post.  It makes me sad that the author is so spot-on as he calls out the responses of so many of his readers.  I agree with him that there is a lack of compassion in general in this country (and maybe in others – I don’t honestly know because I’m only here), but more specifically online. I think that it is much easier to assert our opinions in sound bite form with respect to challenging issues when they are stereotypical or beside the point.  I can cite several examples of nasty comments I’ve seen upon reading a news article or blog post that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serve only to attack either the writer or one of the main people in the story for superficial, usually physical, attributes or knee-jerk reactions to one minor point of the story.

We are all so conditioned to have an opinion and share it that we rarely stop to consider nuances and details of a story that may have eluded us. We are conditioned to talk instead of listen, and make up our minds but not change them.  Compassion requires a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least acknowledge that their shoes are different from yours in a fundamental way. Compassion requires curiosity about the circumstances of another person’s life and it implores us to suspend (or altogether eliminate) judgment. In order to be compassionate, we have to take the time to build a bridge from the parts of us that are most human to the parts of others that are most human and that takes courage.

I struggle most with compassion when I am trying the hardest to keep fear at bay. When I see a parent grieving for their child, my mind races to find all of the reasons why that could never happen to me and often, that manifests itself as judgment. If that mom/dad hadn’t made the choice to ______________, this wouldn’t have happened. The more I convince myself that someone else is Wrong and my decisions are Right, the easier it is to feel safe, to believe that whatever horrible thing this person is suffering won’t visit itself on me and my loved ones.  Finding my way to compassion means that I have to step off of that righteous path and into the soft muck on the side of the trail, facing my fears and acknowledging that I am just as human as anyone else and I can’t know the details of someone else’s story. It requires me to open up and let fear and sadness move through me, to take up the mantle of shared humanity and responsibility and bear the weight of another person’s struggle along with them. It asks me to sit firmly in the knowledge that we are not ‘other,’ we are not separate, we all deserve love and acceptance and when we give it freely to one another we are stronger and happier for it.

It takes time and energy to be compassionate, much more time than is required to dash off a pithy, snarky remark about someone’s weight or tattoos or sexual proclivities. We have to be willing to consider, to listen, to really pay attention, and many of us don’t want to do that. We also have to be willing to forego the opportunity to see our own opinions in print or hear our own voices. One draw of the internet is that it allows us to all have our say. Our words can reach audiences we could never have dreamed of before and we don’t have to write an entire op-ed or letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper. But if “our say” is a twitter-length rant on how inferior someone else is or how they deserved whatever they got, it showcases our inability to understand the deeper connections and the vital points of any story.  Last week in our region an elementary teacher was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. The photograph of the teacher that ran on the news outlet’s Facebook page was of a mixed-race woman with facial hair. I cringed as I saw it, knowing what most of the comments would be like. Sure enough, there were hundreds of people questioning her gender, saying that of course she was a “child molester” given her physical appearance, and suggesting hateful things ought to happen to her, not because of her crime, but “because she needs to shave.” There were a few token comments from people outraged that the conversation was about her appearance instead of her crime, and a couple explaining the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which causes some women to grow facial hair, but the vast majority were hateful, even violent comments based solely on the photograph the media ran.

I asked Lola what compassion means to her and if she thought it was something that can be taught. She wasn’t very articulate about her definition of it, but she did say that she doesn’t think you can teach compassion. She said, “I think it’s individual for everyone. They need to come to it on their own and they can’t do it all the time. But you can put people in situations where they might think about it more – like volunteering at a homeless shelter or something – and then they might come to it faster on their own.”

I hope she’s right, or maybe I don’t. I’d like to think that compassion is something we can teach, but even if we can only plant the seeds and hope it spreads, that’s at least something I’m willing to put a lot of time and effort into, at least in my own household.

On Wednesday, Bubba and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage. Twenty. And, no, I’m not old enough to have been married that long, and neither is he, but we somehow managed to jump the space-time continuum and make it so, anyway.

The past year has been one of the best years of my marriage, for certain, and as much as it pains me to say so, I think it’s because it has been one of the most challenging years of my parenting life. Not despite,     because.

The first six years we were married, we worked full-time, Monday through Friday jobs and spent our weekends eating out with friends, going to the movies, taking urban hikes and sleeping late. We spoiled our cats, traveled domestically and internationally and drove his parents crazy as we remained childless.  One day, all of a sudden, I wanted to be a mom. I never had before and, in fact, had been quite vocal about my desire to never raise children. (Turns out Bubba never really believed that bluster, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and didn’t challenge me or tell me how much he wanted kids.)

So one day, I woke up and said to him, in a hushed, rather quavery sort of voice, “I think I want to have a baby.” I couldn’t look him in the eye. I whispered it to him as his head lie nestled into his pillow, so close that if he had turned to look at me, my nose would certainly have lodged itself in his ear. He kept very still and said, “Cool. Me too.”

So here we are fourteen years later with one teenage daughter and another one on the cusp of teenagerhood.  In those years Bubba and I have grown together and apart, shifted the responsibilities of the household and our lives to accommodate each other and our girls as much as possible without blowing completely to pieces, and at times it has felt fragile. We don’t fight, but we have disagreed on some vital issues from time to time and on at least one occasion I insisted we go see a counselor in order to find common ground.  I have never stopped loving him, but there were times when I wasn’t particularly convinced that I could see forward to a time where I would ever be madly in love with him again. Part of that was due to simple fatigue (especially in the early infant and toddler years), other times I felt resentment when I saw his life as dynamic and mine as stagnant, and through certain periods it has been due to an absolute inability to see anything beyond the absolute frenzy of activity filling up day after day after week after month ahead.

But today, two days before we celebrate twenty years of marriage (and nearly twenty-four together), I find myself completely, madly, head-over-heels for this man. And I’m certain it is because of the turmoil and challenges we have faced with our girls in the past year. They are growing up, asserting themselves, doing their level best to find holes in our armor through which to poke sharp objects. They are doing everything they are supposed to be doing at this stage of their lives – testing limits and pushing back and exploiting loopholes and screaming, “INDEPENDENCE OR DEATH!” and it is hard. It hurts your feelings. It makes you question everything you thought you knew. It is ego-bruising, teeth-grinding, upside-down-in-a-hurricane, soul-defeating hard. There are bright spots in all of it, don’t get me wrong, but they mostly feel like opportunities to fill your canteen in anticipation of the next onslaught.  Bubba and I are flying blind here, not ever having found a manual for how to parent two such completely different children making their way through this life full of technology and stimulation and choices and emotion.

But we’re doing it together. And even when he is traveling for work, gone for days on end, he never fails to call or text us to check in. He never minimizes the challenges and he always reminds me that I’m a good mom. He lets me know that he is struggling, too, and he works really hard to stay engaged, asking the details of the last basketball game or pop quiz. He just returned from a week-long trip to Mexico with Eve and the rest of her classmates (14-year old girls, all) as a chaperone – a hot, exhausting, Spanish immersion trip where he was pleased as punch to get to know Eve’s friends. He is my rock, but just as importantly, he lets me know that I am his. On any given day, we might spend half an hour texting each other to talk about every subject from the most mundane to the most painful, it’s all on the table, and it’s all important.  This period of parenting has reminded me that what we have is a partnership built on mutual respect and trust. That Bubba remains vulnerable and honest about his own challenges while simultaneously supporting and affirming my strengths is huge. The fact that he can acknowledge my weaknesses without accusing or demeaning and step in to shore things up where necessary is just as amazing.

I remember thinking that after six years of marriage, I knew Bubba inside and out. I remember thinking that there was nothing that would surprise me about him. And then one day, when Eve was a toddler, he used a washable marker to draw this crazy face on the top of her foot. I had never seen him draw anything before and it was really good. I was surprised. Over the years, I have been surprised again and again as I watch him parent our girls with careful patience, humor, creativity, and so much love that my heart bursts wide open. I know now that twenty years is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to know and love about this man. And I am so lucky to have found him.

According to some, I “rescued” my 14-year old today and I shouldn’t have.  Ironically, one of the first things I saw on my Facebook feed this morning was an essay in Brain, Child that spoke to this exact issue and would probably have placed me squarely in the camp of “helicopter parent.”

I beg to differ.

As a child, I was fully indoctrinated into the world of toughlove. The world of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “learn to succeed on your own.” And, largely, I benefited from those lessons – the teachers who let me puzzle through challenging lessons without giving me answers, my dad refusing to bail me out when I got myself into debt because I didn’t think ahead, other adults in my life who showed me they believed in my abilities by not stepping in to forewarn me of some misstep I was about to take.  But there were times when I would have done much better knowing that I had support, times when I believed that independence was tantamount to connection and that being able to take care of myself was more important than asking for help. It would have served me very well to know how to even gauge my own thresholds, to know how to assess when I was out of my depth and needed a lifeline. Instead, the message I internalized was that I needed to be fully self-sufficient.

One morning a few months ago, I stepped in to the quiet halls of the school my daughters attend.  The students were all in classrooms, the sunlight streaming through the windows and bouncing off the shiny locker doors. The receptionist sat at his computer typing away with the dean of staff hovering behind his shoulder. They both looked up in surprise as I tugged on the front door, needing to be buzzed in.

“Lola left this on the printer this morning,” I waved a sheet of paper in the air in explanation. The dean rolled her eyes and shook her head at me.  She would have preferred that I let Lola twist in the wind, that she learn a difficult lesson about remembering her own homework.  I felt a wave of shame and defensiveness begin to rise up in my belly but I blocked the words before they sputtered out of my mouth. I turned to the receptionist, kindly asked him to hand the paper to Lola at the next break between classes, thanked them both, and left.

Since that day, I have shown up at the school maybe once or twice to drop off basketball shoes or a hastily-prepared lunch for one of my girls. I will defend those decisions unequivocally and here is why.

As an adult, I cannot claim that I never forget anything at home that I ought to have had with me, despite the toughlove lessons I received as a child.  As an adult, I have the ability to return home in my car to get the things I forgot or use my debit card to purchase my lunch on the fly.  My children do not have that option available to them.  On more than one occasion, Bubba has called me from a business trip to plead that I stop by the dry cleaners to pick up his suit because he totally forgot to do it before he left and he will need it as soon as he returns home. Should I refuse him this kindness in an effort to “teach him a lesson?” I think not. And I won’t do that to my children, either.  I refuse to let Lola go hungry at lunch in order to impart some false sense of wisdom.  Instead, I will offer them the same courtesy I hope my loved ones would extend to me in my time of need.

There are obvious exceptions, and if there is a pattern of behavior that I think needs to be dealt with, I will of course address that in a different way, but it makes me crazy to envision a world in which my daughters are taught that they are the only ones responsible for every detail of their lives.  If that were true, we would all live in a house where we only did our own dishes and nobody else’s and we wouldn’t be able to count on each other to remind us of important events when our brains (and calendars) are overloaded.

Some of the examples of enabling the author called out in her essay felt to me as though they were oversimplified in the making of her point.  There is a difference between ‘rescuing’ our children and teaching them life lessons that will serve them well one day.  I long ago stopped doing all of my girls’ laundry for them, but if Eve has hours of homework to do and her basketball uniform needs a 12-hour turnaround, I’ll offer to help out if I have time. I don’t pay the girls’ library fines if their books are overdue, but when I realized that it was getting to be a problem, I offered to help them brainstorm ways to make it easier to find and return books they had checked out.  Instead of letting them believe that there are only two solutions (Mom does it or I do it), I hope I can teach them that we are all in this together and that makes it a better world for everyone.  Yes, they are ultimately responsible for their own stuff and their choices and behaviors, but there are times where you just mess up and other times when you can’t solve the problem all alone.  I know that the only thing stopping Eve from zipping home to get her own running shoes and socks today at lunchtime was the fact that she isn’t old enough to drive. Given that we live five minutes from school, I have absolutely no problem heading down there to drop them off because I think the lesson here is that I’m willing to help her out when I can. I would rather raise my kids to be compassionate team-players than super-responsible, hyper-independent individuals who refuse to help someone find their misplaced keys because “it isn’t my problem.” I would rather raise them to know that it’s okay to be human and ask other people for help occasionally, that getting assistance doesn’t lead to dependence and lethargy and laziness.  Most of my early adult life was spent pushing people away, feigning that I was capable of handling anything that presented itself. While I felt a great deal of pride in my accomplishments, I was also scared of the next thing that might come along that I might NOT be able to deal with and I was pretty damn lonely.  It feels a lot better to know that someone has my back and if my kids learn that I’m there for them when they can’t do for themselves, I will be able to sleep soundly at night, whether or not you label me a “helicopter mom.”

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.