Tag Archives: compassion

Philosopher Of Kindness

I went today to my local mental health facility for a shot in my psyche. It’s like a shot in the arm, but there’s no vaccine for melancholy—the best you can hope for is a (self-esteem) booster.

A client stood at the check-in desk in front of me. He wore brown pants with black shoes and a gray jacket. He kept his knit hat on inside the building. Nothing about his appearance begged attention. I figured he’d gone about his life with little fanfare, a common man with simple tastes. The sun shined on him like everyone else. He’d get wet in the rain like any poor soul, but the weather didn’t concern him.

My initial impressions changed within seconds. He’d been to the center many times, it was clear. Staff members greeted him left and right. Another client walked by and smiled hello. He entertained the front desk ladies with a story about his dog. It must have been funny, but I didn’t hear the joke. I was more interested in his parting remarks, his signature goodbye.

“Thank you, Judy,” he said. “I will pray for you and your family. I love you, Judy.”

A minute later, to a therapist in a cast, navigating a knee scooter:

“I’m glad the surgery went well, Mary. I will pray for you and your family. I love you, Mary.”

He thanked a nurse. “I’ll pray for you and your family, Terrie. I love you, Terrie.”

Nobody batted an eye. Nothing felt inappropriate. At least here he felt safe, dealing with his struggles—whatever his condition or official diagnosis—on his own terms.

He’s praying for everyone and everyone’s family. He thanks you and he loves you. He’s refreshingly odd and disarmingly friendly—a poet of the everyday, a philosopher of kindness. Someone thinking of others beyond their awareness of him.

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Exclusive Company

Recently I wrote about Catherine Malabou’s research into brain plasticity and the devastating effects of traumatic experiences on a victim’s sense of self. Now we turn to Malabou’s 2008 book What Should We Do with Our Brain? and the relationship between the neuroscientific concept of flexible brain structures and the emphasis placed today on flexibility in the workplace.

Scientists in the first half of the twentieth century assumed the human brain functions in a top-down manner. Specific areas in the brain work on specific tasks and pass information to other parts of the brain, which operates like a central command center.

After World War Two, armed with more advanced research tools, scientists began viewing the brain as flexible. It turns out there isn’t a direct, top-down route for information-processing. Now it appears the brain “functions according to different, extremely complex, interpenetrating levels of regulation” (Malabou 43).

According to Malabou, Big Business employed this concept as justification for its corporate structure. Rather than taking direct orders from the Manager, employees today work in teams on projects spread across different departments. Workers must be self-starters, trained for a variety of tasks, and fluent in multiple interdepartmental “languages.” Malabou calls the collection of these skills employability:

“Employability” is synonymous with flexibility. We recall that flexibility, a management watchword since the seventies, means above all the possibility of instantly adapting productive apparatus and labor to the evolution of demand. It thus becomes, in a single stroke, a necessary quality of both managers and employees. (46)

But not everyone measures up: “In effect, anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear” (46).

Depressed people, for example, maintain rigid thought patterns. Many don’t fit neatly into the box they’re supposed to think out of. When they don’t live up to the demands of workplace flexibility, the depressed get excluded. And when they’re shut out or made to feel incompetent, they withdraw further. The chronically depressed fail to make a life for themselves, and they fail to make a living: “Thus a depressive is a sick person who cannot stand this conception of a ‘careerist’ whose very existence is conceived as a business or a series of projects” (49).

Those on the outside of the flexibility model are dangerous. They must be contained at once: “How could we not think that depressive or disaffiliated individuals represent threats of turbulence, of breaks in transmission in the fluidity of the network?” (51).

I’ve know for many years that a career in corporate America is not for me. Does this make me dangerous? Searching for meaning beyond the confines of a cubicle won’t be easy, but I’ll get by. Wealth isn’t measured solely in dollars and cents.

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A Radical Metamorphosis Of Identity

In her groundbreaking 2012 book The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Catherine Malabou assumes different roles. She’s part psychoanalyst, part neurobiologist, part philosopher.

Malabou writes extensively about the plastic nature of the human brain. By “plastic” Malabou means the brain’s capacity to develop itself as we use it—as we create ourselves and live out our individual histories. Genes set the tone but humans are not genetically predetermined; plasticity ensures that we can actively change how our brains work, which in turn affects who we are, and how we see ourselves.

This is all well and good, but in The New Wounded Malabou alerts us to the brain’s capacity for destructive plasticity. Here the threat of the accident appears.

The accident is a material event. It emerges out of nowhere. Its effects are devastating. An obvious example is a blow to the head that causes brain lesions, but a host of tragic events can activate destructive plasticity.

Malabou cites “the globalized form of trauma,” such as those occurring “in the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, sexual abuse, and all types of oppression or slavery” (213). These events are often understood in the context of posttraumatic stress disorder, but Malabou goes beyond PTSD.

What happens after the accident is frightening in itself. The brains of the new wounded undergo dramatic changes—to the point where many victims become someone else entirely. They are no longer themselves; a shattered, post-accident self takes hold.

All of us are susceptible to this terrifying reality. As Malabou describes it:

The destructive event that—whether it is of biological or sociopolitical origin—causes irreversible transformations of the emotional brain, and thus of a radical metamorphosis of identity, emerges as a constant existential possibility that threatens each of us at every moment. (213)

Malabou is no pessimist, however. She aims to develop therapeutic models that venture beyond psychoanalysis or neurobiology, into political and philosophical realms: “Our inquiry revolves around the identification of evil. Defining the characteristics of today’s traumas—characteristics that turn out to be geopolitical—is indeed the prolegomenon [starting point] to any therapeutic enterprise” (213).

In dealing with a new wounded patient’s “deserted, emotionally disaffected, indifferent psyche,” the therapist must “become subject to the other’s suffering, especially when this other is unable to feel anything” (214).

Malabou, in arguing for the power of compassion, speaks not just to therapists but all mankind. She transcends psychoanalysis, neurobiology and even philosophy. For a thinker concerned with material events, Malabou reveals a spiritual calling: she’s interested in building a foundation for the soul.

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Battle Fatigue

In rehab it’s possible that Robin Williams’ doctors treated him as a dual diagnosis patient. A dual diagnosis indicates that a patient suffers from some form of mental illness along with substance abuse. Depression, for example, might lead to alcohol abuse, or abusing alcohol might make depression worse.

I look at it more like a DUEL diagnosis. Every day you wake up staring down your opponent, preparing to fight. It’s like those old-time Westerns, with all the drama and the palpable threat of death.

But in this duel, as you approach your adversary, a wall appears and smacks you in the face. It’s a mirror you’ve been staring down—it’s you you’re after, fighting for your life against your life itself.

Robin Williams knew the feeling. He fought hard to stay on his feet. As I continue my battle with depression, I’m distraught today over the realization that a talented man and caring soul couldn’t stop beating himself up.

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Fear And Cruelty

While I was in the checkout line at my favorite grocery store this morning, a female customer caused a stir. She walked up to the lady behind me and just kept talking. She might have been speaking Chinese or Korean, or maybe it was gibberish. Clearly she was disturbed.

I tried to ignore her. Soon she was off, just as the cashier prepared to call her manager. The lady behind me laughed, as did other customers and employees nearby. “I don’t care what your problem is,” she said to the checker, speaking of the general You, “just get out of my face.”

The troubled lady was really talking to herself, and she certainly wasn’t in anyone’s face. I felt for her. I wondered how the world might appear to her. And I was ashamed I didn’t speak up for her while everyone laughed and stared.

I’ve been around people who generate odd looks from others. I’ve been that person. I was a patient among patients, hidden away on the psych floor.

But I don’t think I needed this experience to understand compassion. People don’t have to know someone directly who suffers from a disease—compassion for others should naturally take hold of them, simply because another person is in pain.

The grocery store kept operating. Customers bought and retailers sold. A few folks felt briefly uncomfortable and shared their immediate thoughts about it. The world goes on, full of misunderstood people—harmless people, really, who threaten our sense of normalcy. Instead of shunning others, I prefer to ask why I should perpetuate the cycle of fear and cruelty.

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Don’t Be Cruel

The other night I had a dream worthy of some Freudian analysis. A figure outside myself but clearly a part of my psyche asked me a question: Why be kind?

Why be kind when the world is full of cruelty? Why be kind when people can be so awful?

I’ve heard from more than a few women, upon expressing their desire not to see me anymore, that I’m a nice guy. I pride myself on treating people well regardless of the situation. We’re all suffering in our own way and the odds are often against us; a little compassion goes a long way.

But mean people take advantage of nice people. Sensitive men are often seen as effeminate, over-civilized mama’s boys. It’s not easy being kind. Sometimes I wish for a harder shell.

A dream full of questions left me with a partial answer. Why be kind? Because when you’re kind to people you’re showing yourself compassion. You’re being kind to you.

But my illness, hell-bent on keeping me down, challenges this axiom. In my darkest moments I abandon myself on the precipice of disaster. Life sucks and I turn the vacuum on full blast. I’m cruel to myself, curse my imperfections, swear off hope for a lifetime of dread.

I forget that I can’t show kindness to others without first caring for me. The world is tough enough. I can’t be strong for you if I’m too busying beating myself up. The question isn’t why be kind but how can we learn to forgive ourselves.

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In Defense Of Sadness

What would the world look like if each of us admitted the truth that deep down we’re all a little sad? Would confessing that at our very core things just aren’t right help us make our lives better?

I’ve been wondering such heavy things (in some form) for a long time now, probably since the third or fourth grade. It amazes me how stuff that happened to me years ago manages to re-surface today, buoyant emotional debris clogging up my thought-streams.

But I often keep hidden my sadness about unfortunate moments I’ve had to endure. Repression provided strong shelter during difficult times, but it prevented me from venturing back outside once the storms had passed.

Today I realize that sadness is an important part of my experience. It allows me to mourn for what and whom I’ve lost. Sadness reminds me I’m human and that everyone I encounter is suffering too.

If anything, when I’m sad I’m more aware of how I don’t want others to hurt. Compassion stems from the realization that none of us is immune from pain and hardship. In helping others acknowledge that life is often tragic and disheartening, I hope that the small circle of people I know can stray from the “I’m doing fine” act and feel less alone.

And in feeling less alone, perhaps we’ll all self-medicate less, and avoid trying to compensate for our sadness in ways that simply increase our pain and make everyone around us miserable.

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