November 4, 2018

Like you, I’ve been struggling with these insane gun-related murders and mass shootings, crazy beyond description “events.”  Last week, the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre was a few blocks from where Beth finished seminary and where we took the kids to church when we lived in Pittsburgh, where we all met Mr. Rogers in person.  Then yesterday, I learned one of my fraternity brothers lost a colleague he knew from medical school at the Tallahassee Florida Yoga studio shooting.  There are so many connections between all of us, and we grieve. 

I have been struggling to find solace in the response that we answer hate with love.  I ask how does that work?  I mean, how do we actually practice that idea? But today I found something that gave me a little help channeling my grief.  

Here is my train of thought:  If we’re honest, we can admit that we don’t understand each other.  If we live in an isolated way, we only attend to ourselves instead of all that is more than ourselves.  Paying attention to each other acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own.  Listening and standing as witnesses creates an open-ness in the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve.  It is the practice of being present and paying attention to each other and the world around us (ALL the intelligences) which is the ACTION that is worthy of being called LOVE.

Love is a practice done without judgement and filled with wonder and appreciation for all that is more than us. I thank Robin Wall Kimmerer, author and wise woman, who in the “Witness to the Rain” chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass talks about a rainy day spent being a witness in an Oregon rainforest.

Kimmerer’s looking and listening rewards her with an Epiphany.  

Raindrops look and sound very different from each other as they fall depending on what they touch on the way down.  Their sound, size, and rate of joining the river depend on location, timing, and experience.  Reading her chapter is enlightening and surprising, because she describes this with such clarity.  Really, who knew? Once those drops coalesce and end up in the river, they become indistinguishable from each other.  We think we know a river as if it were one thing, as if we understood it.  But Kimmerer asserts maybe there is no such thing as a river, there are only raindrops—each with its own story. Let’s use an analogy.  From our perspective, we may look at people and see others as behaving and looking differently than we do, as if separate.  But from a larger perspective, we could say we all share the attribute of being human, and are therefore united in that attribute.  Let’s compare that idea alongside the raindrops in the forest and the river they join.  

Maybe it is really hard for people to see others as being the same as them in that unifying attribute of being human because they haven’t exercised the practice of seeing and listening enough to gain the clarity that connects the dots.  Long ago, I began seeing myself in my patients, my children, my family and friends—and I see them in me.  That realization is what brought empathy to my work as a physician and to all the other roles I have in life as well: husband, son, father, grandfather, sibling, friend, teacher, student, etc...  It helps the process of dismantling the ego, and it guides all my decisions.

If you free yourself of the habit of judging and focusing on the differences, you will find the connection, like those raindrops do when they find each other and become a river. You know, I’ve watched water for hours, obsessively, and children will play in it for a very long time as well because it has something to teach us.  It flows, it joins, it carries, and it follows the law of gravity.  It is a mesmerizing thing to watch water flow; it always knows what to do, but it takes an astonishing variety of ways to do it.  I’m with Kimmerer; watching with awareness brings epiphanies in abundance.

I have spent my whole professional life looking at, listening to, and touching people.  30 years of days full of patients.  When you practice mindfully, there are many things to notice, and many stories to hear.  Can I say patients are like raindrops?  Yes, it seems a perfect comparison. 

Here’s my suggestion:  Practice observation with wonder and without judgment.  Apply it to people. Cultivate the awareness that we don’t really know each other.  We don’t know what the other has experienced, the journey the other has taken through life to get to this place and time.  Realize we have these words-- like person and humanity—and we use them as if we knew what they meant.  But it’s like the example of River…  

We think we know Humanity as if it were one thing, as if we understood it.  But our perspective is limited and therefore flawed, and maybe Humanity is only persons—each with their own story.  Do you see what I am saying?  We do a disservice to each other and the world when we think we know something as a Concept, and act as if we understand it. We don’t know anything without direct experience, and we have to engage with the world by practicing observation with wonder and without judgement in order to get that experience.

Last night, my son Ben and I went to see Kamasi Washington perform a concert at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, IL. We are celebrating our 58th and 34th birthdays this weekend.  Mr. Washington said to all of us in the theater a profound thing before his band played one of his compositions named TRUTH.  “Diversity in our world is not something to be tolerated.  It is something to be celebrated.” His song TRUTH has five different melodies, each presented by a different member of his band, which are woven  together in time as a musical metaphor for why it is TRUE that diversity is to be celebrated.   The result is, of course, a transcendent and beautiful song.  I will never forget the joy I felt as we all together in the Theater experienced JOY in the lesson he gave.  Diversity is to be celebrated.  Stand with me against any person or organization that seeks to obfuscate a lesson that nature has been singing to us every day since the beginning of the world.

We are all part of a river running through time.  We have limited perspectives and we come to this place having travelled different paths.  You don’t know mine and I don’t know yours, but there is common ground.  Let us with humility and respect pay attention to each other’s story, see ourselves in the other, and work together to gain a perspective that will allow us to dissolve boundaries instead of build walls.

We cannot continue on this deadly trajectory of war and violence supported by falsehoods created by greed and sustained by ignorance.  Pay attention, participate, and practice by going into the world and learning about it for yourself.  Kamasi Washington credited his experience of being able to travel around the world and meet people from many places and beliefs.  This gives him perspective that has allowed a better understanding of the Truth.  This is true for me, too.  I wish that for you as well.