It bothers me

I have not been feeling well in the last six weeks. Not physically, but emotionally. Finally, it has been crystallizing in my heart what is going on. I live in one of the richest cities in a very rich county, in a very well-to do country. And yet, we all, myself included, lead our lives as if we were dirt-poor and struggling for resources. We live out of a mindset of scarcity, limited resources, and competition for survival. Yet we are the very same people who have the money to be generous, the education to think up new ways to do good, and, well, who in their right mind would ever think there is only so much love and compassion to go around?

I think it all started with a conversation in my office. One of our physicians and I were talking about something I have already forgotten. At the very end of the conversation, she mentioned something out of context. It was along the lines that she really wished our incoming chairman could change the tone of the work environment to make faculty more supportive of each other, and curb the petty in-fighting. My first thought was: yes, I’d love that to happen, too! My team needs a dose of that medicine.  And then I became very sad. Here was this incredibly accomplished, energetic and warm physician. But for some reason, she felt she did not have the strength within herself to be strong in the face of negative people and lead with generosity. Neither was I.  And I am sure both of us were very well aware that change starts within our own realm of influence; that nobody can make anybody else more supportive (or just “nicer”).

Next up was a sermon by Rev. Amy Zucker-Morgenstern. Read it. These words are hard to stomach, our instinct is to immediately find excuses. But we cannot choose our own reality: the reality is that the USA has the highest child-poverty rate of all industrialized nations, and it is rising. Yet we choose to do nothing about it. These are children!  Don’t we have it in our hearts to give to children even though, and especially if, their parents are failing? Since when do children choose their parents social standing? Let’s add another fact: 20,000 people in Santa Clara County are homeless. This is the very county that houses Google, Ebay, Yahoo, Facebook … twenty thousand.

So, I took Amy to heart. I taxed myself and wrote the biggest charity check I have ever filled out, and mailed it to The Children’s Village of Sonoma County the day before Christmas. Of course the thought crept in: shouldn’t I rather save this money for a downpayment toward a house? Real estate is expensive here … How pathetic. I live in a good place, I don’t need a house but there are too many kids who need a home, darn it!

Lastly, being a member of the parallel book club, I have been reading three books. Anam Cara by John O’Donohue speaks to me on a spiritual level about the richness of our inner world. Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach is my daily morning reading. The biography of John Muir by Donald Worster drove home a point I feel now stronger than ever. John Muir did have plenty of skills but few possessions growing up. This allowed him a self-confidence and freedom of living I have taken away from myself by enjoying my stable salary and nice living conditions. So why do I have these persistent dreams of picking up to start a farm in Sebastopol? Well, yes, my hobbies, skills and inclinations would make a good “Landfrau” (farmer’s wife) of me. And yes, working outdoors rather than 14 years of windowless basement dwelling would do me good, especially in balmy Northern California.

But I think I have found what my real goal of this daydream is: I want to be able to live a life of generosity in a mutually supportive environment. So what makes me think this would be easier on a farm in a rural environment rather than where I am now, humans being the same humans everywhere? I think because I grew up among John Muirs. I grew up in a 8000-people village in a blue collar environment. The people around me were mostly craftsmen, skilled traders and small business owners. My ancestors, even my family today consists overwhelmingly of those. And let me tell you, they are onto something when they occasionally rib me about being a fancy-schmanzy no-good academic. They don’t make as much money as I do, but they do have a comfortable life. Yes they are worried about the economy, but on the other hand, being electricians, owning a garbage-removal business, or a dairy store, they know their skills will be needed no matter how society changes. Medical physics? Not so sure about that … They are richer because they are living more generously. They are more successful because they care much less about “getting ahead”.

What do I take away from all of this? I won’t give up my farming/small business dream. If my ancestors could do it and be successful, so can I! This idea just needs more time to ferment inside me; it will come to fruition at the right time, when the opportunity is there, as those things always have in my life. Until then, I need to practice in the life I have. I need to practice being more generous: with money, with my skills, with my heart. I need to practice being supportive of others, even though it is mighty hard being generous to people in my life who are egocentric, stingy and at times hostile toward me. While I am at it, it is time for me to stop seeing these people only in relation to how they behave toward me; let’s take myself out of the picture and start treating them as fellow humans who act out of suffering and pain of which I am ignorant. Let me just stop being so sorry about myself, pining for a better life, and go on a quest to be generous, loving and supportive. Because I can, and because I am. There you have it!

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