Friday, January 20, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like The Donald?

There’s this fleshy old Russian guy who uses the sauna at my gym.  I’ve never seen him work out, only sit in the sauna, where he reigns supreme.  In addition to squirting the sauna rocks from across the little room (anyone else be damned), when someone attempts to enter he yells CLOSE DOOR! CLOSE DOOR! which makes me feel I’m at the Gulag and then he starts at the top of his body and swipes sweat out and down and all over the rest of us as he pontificates loudly about the beauty of his stark Russian childhood.
This is really not the sauna experience you want.
The man seems to have no regard for sharing this planet – or certainly that little box of heat – with other humans.  Happily meeting his own needs loudly, let’s call him “Al,” is safe and content in his own world.  The sauna becomes like a psych lab, as I look around at the few other victims squeezed into this situation, just trying to relax damn it, but getting sprayed by the sweat of a fairly belligerent old dude.  We look at each other, eyes saying what the… maybe share a little smile.  It must be fun to be a narcissist.
By definition, a narcissist doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anyone but him/herself.  They’re always right about everything and nothing topples them from the throne they’ve constructed for their fabulous selves.  They say therapy can hardly ever help a narcissist because there’s just no way around the brilliant armor they’ve donned. Can you imagine swaggering through every day, deeply believing you’re correct about everything and trying to be fashionably humble about your grandiosity?  That’s a narcissist’s job – to be great and mighty, and the peons be damned.  I’m always about ten minutes from my next mistake, so I’d make a lousy narcissist.
Politics and religion attract narcissists like flies to horse poop.  The pulpit loves a grandiose guy who can bring the ruckus, and look – today we install a Narcissist in Chief.  Both forums – the church and The White House – yield what looks like power, so a self-centered megalomaniac can cut a wide swathe of pain across the landscape of the damaged and downtrodden.  The scariest and most ruinous of these blindly fantastical folks are no doubt the religious people who can wear the cloak of God (!) as we crawl into the pew or the Zendo for relief.
It’s kind of fun, in a mean way, when you have labeled someone as a “narcissist,” as long as you are not drawn into their spidery web of delusion.  When a narcissistic religious person I knew sermonized about “speaking truth to power” I raised my hand and said, “But what if the power is self-consumed and narcissistic and will never hear you or take responsibility?”  The others in the room smirked, knowing exactly what I was doing.  Our religious icon shook her head and feigned sadness at how awful it is to be such a person.  The joke was on her, of course.  Not a wildly productive way to spend my time but when you are hurt by a narcissist (or anyone), you just want to hurt back.
If a narcissist is defined as a person with a grandiose self-image, always right and righteous and lacking empathy my guess is they don’t give or receive a whole lot of love.  When you think about that, it’s so sad.  They are missing out on all the best things in life.  Though they appear glorious and untouchable they actually rank pretty low on the scale of human evolution.  Is it surprising they are so often drawn to politics and organized religion where someone is bound to provide the worship their egos so desperately seek?
Okay, so on to the man who is bulletproof, the guy who got elected president by the sheer sharp force of his tsunami-like ego, an inability to admit fault, wrongdoing, or bad judgment, ever.  He will not change and he will never learn humility. We will watch astonished as he fails at something – all leaders do – and then blame others and move on.  CLOSE DOOR!  Yes, we can protest, scream, rant on Facebook, tear out our hair, rend our clothes in epic biblical suffering but he will not hear and he has surrounded himself with like-minded egotists.  We are stuck in the sauna with Al.
How do you solve a problem like The Donald?
The Dalai Lama says that if you take any problem, hold it up to the light and change your perspective, it will be solvable. Period.  How can we hold up The Donald to the light, turn him around a bit in our heads (and hearts) and change perspective to relieve our suffering? First, know that he suffers. He’s not doing all that well as a human, maybe wasting this incarnation. The power he yields is illusory and a pile of ashes compared to the power of truly compassionate people or the power you have right inside your bright and viable brain and heart.  You can waste that power being smarmy on social media, making fun of him and the gang in the White House.  That’s an option and lots of lazy progressive people appear to be going down that path.  Or you can actually change the way you see this conundrum, stop being inflammatory on Facebook and assess your life for the ways in which you can act.
Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese monk credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to the West was a man of very few words, but these three may help:  Shine one corner.  Perhaps you can’t take down the President but you can find a place in your own life where there is suffering or dullness and pain and make it shine.  Clean it up.  Pick a cause in your community, a teenager who needs help or a family that can’t make rent and just do something.  Don’t waste your precious life sharing incendiary cartoons of Trump with Putin’s fist up his ass.  People are suffering.  Find one corner, and make it shine.
I won’t allow myself to watch any media that has to do with Trump.  For the next four years I won’t watch TV when he speaks or videos or newscasts that give him a voice.  I am hoping that somehow he will actually help the demographic who elected him but I will be watching vigilantly for policies, acts, or events that cause harm.  Like most people in love with themselves, DT talks an awful lot.  I won’t listen, but I’ll figure out what’s going on and watch out for people in my world who might get hurt. 
When Al’s in the sauna, I won’t be.  In the interest of staying healthy, I’m just not going to expose myself to rank toxicity at the gym or in politics.  Who knows why there are people who walk this earth blind and disconnected like Al and Donald Trump and religious charlatans?  How do you solve a problem like The Donald?  You love your neighbor, be good to those who hate or hurt you, give your time and money and presence to places of darkness.  Maybe keep your head down and the TV off.  The election of a narcissist has shaken us out of our fat happy slumber and thank goodness for that.  We are awake now, so let’s not squander the opportunity to be brave and big-hearted. If everyone could shine one corner, think how bright the world would become – Donald or no Donald.  

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So. Let’s go make us some light.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

DENTURES AND THE PRIMITIVE BRAIN: How a Guy With White Teeth Reminded Me to be Kind

I met a colleague for coffee yesterday.  Mike’s a handsome affable 60-something with salt and pepper hair and a big bright smile.  A smart and friendly salesman, I just assumed he had his teeth capped or professionally buffed – they were brilliantly white – in order to increase sales. You know, that good ole boy smile from the lanky Southerner.

Turns out Mike grew up in destitute poverty, in a “mill town” in North Carolina and he never brushed his teeth.  Nobody did. As a kid he never owned a toothbrush and the cultural ritual was simple:  at 19 you went and had your teeth pulled out, and got dentures.  So there you go.

In a nanosecond when I first met Mike I made a judgement.  Like a Geico commercial for the human race, it’s what we do.  I saw bright white teeth and I assumed vanity and increased sales.  I was profoundly wrong.  Mike told me that kids were expected to drop out of school and work at the mill at 16 and when one of his cousins resisted because he wanted to go to college, some other kids bashed his head in.  There you go, college boy, they said after they cracked his skull, how’s your brain now?  His cousin somehow went on to Harvard.

Everybody has a story and we don’t even bother listening to it before we’re filling in the blanks, reading between the lines, sizing things up and packaging it so we’re safe.  I see fake white teeth and I assume vanity, not abject poverty, because the former fits my mental box space while the latter breaks my heart and it just hurts to think of a kid growing up without a toothbrush in a town where you get your skull crushed if you want to go to college.
Mike never saw an egg till he was six years old.  It was fatback and grits every morning for breakfast.  As I heard his story unfold over hot coffee, safe in this grown up world of laptops and lattes, I thought about my own kids and how lucky I was to be able to raise them in this country where they had good medical care and even a pediatric dentist.  But it’s the same country where Mike grew up, and how many hundreds of thousands of kids have lined up at 19 to have their teeth pulled out? I owe my soul to the company store – Johnny Cash sings about the prison of an industry that owns generations of people. Your Daddy works at the mill (or the factory, or the mine) and as soon as you’re old enough, you head down that same path.  Used to be there were no greenback dollars in these town, only “company dollars” you could use at the store to buy groceries – owned by the company – and pay your rent, to the company.  A prison, with no way out and then the company fails and the suits leave and you and your family are left with nothing.  No exit strategy, no education, no hope in a town that’s been raped of trees or mountains or beauty of any kind.   And Mike sits in front of me, a big happy smile on his face, all that soul history still inside him.
You never know the truth about anybody by just looking at them. I’m pretty invisible – a flat-chested 60-year old – so it’s nice to fly under the judgment radar but of course I too get sized up whenever I meet a new human.  Neuroscientists would tell us it’s part of the brain’s mechanism for ensuring a safe environment but we need to outgrow those primitive mindsets and reprogram our intuitive responses.  It’s too risky at this point, to judge a guy by his white teeth or a woman by her clothing.  It’s also pretty clear that our politicians never bothered much about kids like Mike, because it was that cultural demographic that elected Trump.  So unseen and unheard, people living in the scrapheap of the company towns lined up at their junior high school and voted for a guy who paid attention.
Here’s a great story about judgment from one of my heroes, Mother Teresa.  In her book, The Soul of Money, Lynn Twist recounts meeting the tiny nun in India where she was still tending to the throw-away humans of Calcutta.  On her way there, accompanied by a nephew of Gandhi who was literally stepping over beggars, Twist was horrified by his indifference. Nonplussed – and likely used to wide-eyed American philanthropists making judgments, he patiently schooled Ms. Twist about the fact that begging is an industry in India and mothers will deliberately blind their babies or amputate their limbs to make them more pathetic and profitable.
Can’t judge that book by its cover.
Twist then has a private and highly emotional one-one meeting with Mother Teresa which is interrupted by a loud and lavish Indian couple, fat and bejeweled, obviously very rich.  They manhandle the little nun and demand a photo.  She complies, smiling and they hustle out of the hall, still arguing.  Twist is again blown away.  How could these rich people be so horrible to this saint?  Mother Teresa eventually explains with patience:  do you think that rich people don’t suffer?  America, the tiny mystic tells us, suffers deeply from “poverty of the soul,” perhaps just as emotionally painful as physical poverty.  Mother Teresa – her heart wide open with compassion, didn’t exclude someone from her gracious love because they were rich.  She made no judgements, and simply diligently offered help where it was needed. My inner chatter is much harsher when I’m sizing up the rich.  I need to remember that suffering isn’t connected to a bank account.
Mike has opened my eyes wider.  Still freshly awakened by his particular story, I am less interested in my own fiction about the cashier at Staples, the young girl at the gym, or the gnarled hand that reaches out to me on just about every corner of Boulder.  As Pope Francis said when asked about homosexuals, Who am I to judge?  If Mike hadn’t told me about his harsh beginnings, I would have sashayed through our connection with my assumptions fully intact.  I like that he blew them up and I’m wildly excited about more of that and less of my tired smugness.  When dentures or high heels, saris, head scarves, age or skin color trigger some complacent summary of a life in my head, I’m just not going to believe it.  Here’s what I’ll try instead, because it’s a universal truth:  Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a burden.