The people in two of our School’s weekly classes just started studying Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. It’s a great text filled with practices to help us live the 13 Attributes of Lovingkindness from Judaism. Rabbi Rami starts the book off with his own confession of not being an expert at lovingkindness. Thanks for that, brother, it eases the pressure to do it right. Here’s my confession.
Tuesday afternoon, before I settled into being with our street friends, and before I had a great visit there with Mr. Baltimore, I had an extremely embarrassing moment of awkward conversation with a fairly new street friend named James.
James’ whole countenance looked troubled Tuesday. I asked him how his day had been out of genuine interest, but I wasn’t really prepared spiritually or emotionally to listen deeply. He spoke several phrases expressing his fundamental despair, while his face said it all. Listening to his health problems and his experience of life on the street felt like falling into a dark hole.
Because I wasn’t prepared to listen with my heart, a compulsion to say something started coming up–anything to change the direction of the conversation. I knew better, and I tried very hard not to speak, other than simply saying, “I’m sorry.” But the compulsion got the best of me.
Something in me wanted to relate to him by implying I knew what it was like to suffer. But that was in no way helpful. I mentioned having had a wife who went through a tough breast cancer. He asked what happened, just as a courtesy. I said we thought it was gone. He didn’t know what else to say to something that had nothing to do with him or his situation, so he said, “Congratulations,” with a blank expression on his face.
Being interpreted, his message felt like this: “My life’s horrible, so thanks for telling me yours’ is better.” It was a terribly awkward moment because my anxious desire to say something to make things better was, of course, only making things worse. I said I was sorry again and moved on, embarrassed at having bumbled into his suffering, and feeling completely inadequate as a caregiver.
I mean, come on! I studied counseling, got a PhD in this stuff, spent decades practicing with people as a therapist, went to seminary to be trained as a pastor, and trained as a spiritual director. I have been trying to learn lovingkindness my whole life. And still I can do all the wrong things out of compulsion.
When I shared my failing in the class on lovingkindness, the people were very generous and accepting. No one made fun of me. No one suggested it was time to retire from all caregiving and be locked up in a cage. Instead, in an exquisite moment of actual lovingkindness, Liz said something we all probably know and yet forget when the helping compulsion strikes: “People don’t need us to say anything. We just need to open our hearts to them, remembering they are a child of God. That’s enough.”
Perfect. We all nodded in agreement. That is a powerful and humbling truth. It is exactly what Rabbi Rami wrote about. In his first two attributes we are challenged to practice remembering “I am image of God,” and “You are image of God.” Knowing that truth in our hearts, and exuding it, radiating it from our hearts toward another, is the essence of lovingkindness.
Thanks to the group for forgiving me for my bumbling and awkward moment of compulsion. Thanks be to God for safe spiritual communities where we can both share our failings, and what we deeply know, on the path of lovingkindness. And thanks to You, Source of all compassion, for the humbling call to start over again on the path tomorrow. Amen.