How do we continue all these days
I was sauntering at Council Grove on the final day of the year. It was cold outside, maybe somewhere between 15° and 20°, and the snow under my shoes was making that glorious squeaking sound with every step. I’d already watched four beavers paddling around and doing beaver-ly things, watched a large flock of geese fly overhead, and moments earlier had trained my binoculars on a young bald eagle perched high on an old snag over the river. I was paused along the trail with my binocs focused on a great blue heron winging away across the field when I heard the sounds of someone approaching. A small little black dog was trotting toward me; he accelerated the last ten feet or so, all wiggly and happy. He was excited and energetic, his face and beard coated with snow, and obviously as thrilled to be out as I was.
His companion came up shortly. He was a man older than me, smaller and somewhat bent and bandy-legged, beard more white than gray, and better dressed for the weather than I was. In one hand he held a smoldering cigarette and in the other a tall can of Cold Smoke, a popular local Scotch ale. He told me his dog, Roscoe, had been trying to catch up since he caught sight of me some distance farther back on the trail because “he loves people.”
I laughed, we chatted a little (mostly about Roscoe), and I said, “I was just thinking how people who say they don’t like winter don’t know what they are missing,” and he said, “It’s absolutely beautiful.” Then he continued on his way, and I waited a few minutes for the duo to get ahead of me. I felt better for the encounter. Cute dogs do that every time, but the brief human interaction was also pleasant. My step was a little lighter.
I arrived back at the parking lot and passed behind the space where the man and Roscoe were getting into their pick-up. The vehicle wasn’t new, but it wasn’t a hooptie either. On the back window was a sticker of an American flag, and beneath that one a sticker that said, “Let’s Go Brandon.”1
My heart sank. Oh, you had to go and ruin it all now didn’t you? I thought about the man. Because no longer was he a friendly person I connected with briefly on the trail; he was instead an ignorant cretin happy to be insulting to others in as juvenile a fashion as one can manage, right? Not someone with a cute dog he seems to care for and treat with kindness, but some kind of “moron” or something.
If I let him be, anyway. And I didn’t want to.
Bumper stickers of this ilk are broadcast stupidity. They are a way to be an anonymous jerk in a way most of us typically wouldn’t be if face-to-face with someone. Same as anonymous posts on the internet. They are divisive and do nothing to help us get along and I don’t care what side of an issue the message is coming from. If you feel compelled to be insulting to other people, attacking their beliefs or calling them names or whatever it might be, it says more about you than it does them. I speak from experience because I have been that person myself. Both sides. I mean, has anyone ever looked at a political-type bumper sticker and had their mind changed? Maybe it’s a way to identify yourself with your people—as I mentioned last week that masks and Iron Maiden t-shirts do—but I’m dubious. I don’t want to find my people in ways that identify me as being a smug asshole too, frankly.
It was this encounter that made me settle on a word for the year (again, mentioned last week) to focus on: Compassion.
Most of us don’t want pity but we do want compassion. We want our sufferings engaged with with kindness. We all have reasons for the way we are, both the best parts of ourselves and the worst, and we don’t want to be judged for them. The people we don’t agree with didn’t just wake up one day and decide they were going to make life miserable for everyone they disagree with, even if they believe themselves that that is what they are doing. Whatever it is that makes them act out is the product of something disconnected in their lives, somewhere during that crucial time when who they are was being formed, or whatever it is they are living with now. That stuff can be tweaked, certainly, but not by treating them aggressively or calling them names. That stuff doesn’t work on me, and I’m nothing special.
One of the greatest crimes of the boarding school era in the continued genocide of Indigenous people is the generational trauma it inflicted on families and communities. For multiple generations it robbed not only children of what it means to be children, but also parents of what it means to be parents. First the parents who lost their children, but then those children who grew up in the schools without being parented and went on to be parents themselves. Along the way the destruction of language and culture exacerbated the problems and created the world we are still struggling with today.
One cannot summarize these problems in a single paragraph as I am trying to do there, but it seems obvious that I can’t demand compassion for what has been done culturally to Indians without giving some back. We live in a toxic society that inflicts grievous emotional and physical harm unilaterally, across lines of race and culture, across everything. It is a brutal system controlled by the wealthy who are largely bent on keeping us divided. It has always been this way and we are all products of it whether we know it or not. Those of us who can must own our own failings and hypocrisies and then think again about pointing fingers at others. Didn’t someone a long time ago allegedly say something like, “Let the person who has never acted like an asshole be the first to be one to someone else….” or whatever? There are many ways we are all being jerks to people around us, whether we think they are “deserving” of it or not. And we should stop doing that.
Covid is rampant because a lot of people don’t trust the government and rich people have manipulated them into believing it is all a conspiracy anyway … so we have anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. Okay.
But there are also plenty of people who used to wear masks but really don’t anymore, got vaccinated, but then chose to go maskless in public places while conveniently forgetting that they could still be spreading the virus, and not just to the unvaccinated.
Those are a couple examples I think about all the time. There are plenty others, plenty of ways I know my thinking is hypocritical and awful, both to others and to myself. Maybe we have been so programmed by all this marketing and dividing that we will never get along, I don’t know. But being a jackass about it means there’s no chance. Treating others with kindness and compassion might provide a slim chance, though, and that’s the attempt I’d rather make. One may have un-crossable lines, and truth must always be spoken to power. But there are many ways to hold one’s convictions without resorting to an attitude that makes one easy to ignore.
So here I am with this word: Compassion. I am going to try and make this year of this only life I’m ever going to have better by trying to be more compassionate. Not in weakness but in strength, because it’s easy to be a jerk. Not just to others either, but to myself too.