Thursday, 6 June 2013

Embracing Happiness, Part IV: Compassion and connection

This is the fourth post in a 7-part series that I'm calling Embracing Happiness. It's meant to document some things that I've learned over the past year and a half that have completely changed my life and led me to where I am now, to being a happier and more complete person than I have ever been before. Each piece will speak to a major skill or lesson I've learned and how that's contributed, directly and indirectly, to greater beauty and joy in my life. If you missed them, here are part one, part two and part three.

By now, you may have noticed that all of the posts in this series are connected in some way. It's not a coincidence; I have made it a habit in my  life to see connections wherever I can. That includes with people, and it's part of how I've become more happy and been able to establish healthier relationships with others.

There are some ideas in this post that are (apparently) controversial. I found this out a little while ago when I had a similar conversation with someone I know, and we spent quite some time going back and forth about whether or not focusing on the differences between us undermines personal connection and compassion. I maintained that it did; the other person did not. But the truth is that no matter how you look at it, connecting with people is at the core of healthy relationships.

So why do I make a post with compassion and connection thrown together? It is, in my mind, impossible to completely separate the two. If you can't connect with someone, it is nearly impossible to actually empathize with that person and exercise compassion. Maybe try to think back to the last person about whom you thought, "Wow, what a horrible person." How much could you personally relate to that person? Did they seem very similar to you, or very different? I wager (though cannot guarantee) that you felt pretty disconnected from that person. If you didn't, your thought about them might have been something closer to, "Wow, that person seems to be having a really rough day. I hope everything is all right." Would that not be closer to what you'd think in a similar situation about someone you truly love, like a close friend or family member?

There is a lovely quote from C.S. Lewis, whom I've quoted before on this blog, but who really hit the nail on the head, I think. He said, "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" The more moments like this we have, where we see ourselves in others even in the smallest ways, the more we're able to truly connect with that person. I remember the moment when one of my closest friends and I actually entered the realm of intimacy. I was a student in one of his Spanish classes and he asked us to get up in front of the class and explain what our hobbies were. When I mentioned that I liked good films, he asked me what kind. I felt a little self-conscious at the time, standing in front of a class of my peers, because I was really into things like fantasy and musicals, and other things that teenagers (I was about 18 at the time) usually thought were thoroughly nerdy and uncool. Finally, I said that some of my favourites were The Lord of the Rings trilogy, at which point, in front of the whole class, he shouted, "Yes! They're amazing! You get an A plus!" with a huge smile on his face. Instantly, my insecurities melted away and I didn't care anymore what the class thought about me. He was the first teacher in my life who, in the span of only a few weeks of teaching me, actually connected with me, because he was willing to open up and find things we had in common. Ten years later, we're still really close friends.

Searching for commonalities is not so hard, when you try. And I think this is partly where the controversy enters. If we're looking for all the ways we're the same, doesn't that breed intolerance? Doesn't that devalue the ways in which we're different?

For me, the answer is simple: absolutely not. And for exactly the reason that we're not fundamentally different, in that we all want the same basic things, like to survive (on a very concrete level), to have agency, and to give and receive love. Am I going to deny that some of us have long hair while others have short, and some of us are Christian while others are atheists, and some of us like playing sports while others like playing music? Definitely not. But none of those things make us fundamentally different. At our core, we are doing the same things--looking for love, exercising our own desire to self-actualize, and meeting our basic bodily needs--those things just manifest in different ways, depending on who we are. Do we have different priorities? Not really. Are we hindered from achieving our goals by different things? Sometimes.

I designed this image to illustrate the difference between
same treatment and equality. Branches are essentially
a representation of the formal institutions (laws, etc.)
and informal social factors that control how we behave.
I recently sat down with my friend, Madeleine, who had some really amazing things to say about differences. She told me about her experiences related to ableism (that is, discrimination based on physical ability differences, usually referred to as disabilities). She lives with cerebral palsy and she told me that often, growing up, people said that they felt she got special treatment because of it. "Why does she get to use the elevator when we can't?" and other such questions were posed often, highlighting the differences between Madeleine and the other kids. But really, Madeleine wasn't different. She wanted all the same things: to go to school so she had more opportunities as an adult, to meet lots of kids in the playground so she could connect with people and make friends, and to make sure that she got where she was going without hurting herself. Nobody could deny that these were completely normal and non-different things for Madeleine to want; it's just that to achieve them, she had to adjust her life in ways that other kids didn't. And to live in a world that's often not already adjusted for those needs can be really challenging. When we talk about special treatment, it suggests that there's no obstacle between people and the ways that they want to self-actualize, and that's oftentimes simply not true. And once we realize that, it's a lot easier to be able to connect with those same people and realize that they're not different from you after all; they just need to do things differently if they're going to be able to live and love and succeed.

Appreciating the beauty of variation goes hand in hand with connection. Considering all of us are different in small ways, doesn't that mean that we're actually all the same in essence? We all want the freedom to choose how to live our lives the best way we know how, and we're all doing the best we know how, given the situation we're in right now. When we realize that, we don't have this system where differences are held against each other. We don't have systems of oppression, where people are considered fundamentally different and then, by extension, either superior or inferior, and usually one group then controls the other. We recognize that we're all imperfect and beautiful, rather than suggesting that some of us are more perfect than others because on a surface level, we're not quite the same.

"Gay people already have the same right to marry; they can marry a member of the opposite sex, just like anyone else." This is something that comes up fairly often in the marriage equality debate. It's important not to confuse same treatment with equality. Same treatment typically means you decide beforehand what people are allowed to do, and then let everyone do it. (Not much agency encouraged in this system, is there? Which is sometimes useful--for instance, when you're making laws saying we're not allowed to go around killing each other just because we feel like it.) Equality means that people have the same opportunities to self-actualize. In this case, straight people can choose who they want to marry, but everyone else can't. And it's not that lots of queer-identifying people don't want to get married; it's that there's something in the way of them being able to live and love and be happy (in most cases, legislation and social stigmas). The LGBTQ community doesn't want special treatment; it wants the same rights that straight people have. And socially-speaking, that probably includes not having to justify themselves to other people, just because they're not straight. (While we're at it, check out a couple of amazing slam poets that speak to these issues: Denice Frohman & Andrea Gibson.)

While it sounds like a paradox, we cannot appreciate our differences until we realize we are the same and we can connect with one another. It is through this that we come to be able to feel a connection to the hopes and dreams that others have--even if they manifest in ways that ours don't. Knowing that someone is not fundamentally different from me means that I relate to them and want them to succeed, even if they're different than I am on the surface. It even means that when that person says something disrespectful or hurtful to me, I can wish for them that they feel comfortable and whole enough not to have to do that anymore. Because nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I have every chance of connecting with people today, but instead, I'm going to alienate and hurt all of them for no apparent reason."

In short, connecting with others means that we're in this together.

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