creating a kinder world

in 28 square feet

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Imagine, if you will, that you are at the center of an invisible circle. Your body, standing, is the center point, and the radius of the circle extends three feet away from you in all directions. Perhaps think of an abnormally large hula hoop on the ground that is six feet in diameter, and you are standing directly in its center. Wherever you are right now, become aware of what you see within that circular space. What do you see within the three feet in front of you? What do you see in the three feet to your right? To your left? If you turn your head or your body, what is in the three feet behind you? Just for a moment, consider that three feet around you in each direction your circle of influence. What happens within that space has the capacity to be influenced by YOU.

Three feet from us. It’s just a mere 36 inches – a yard. The circle covers just a little over 28 square feet. It’s not a big space. On a planet whose surface area covers 197 million square miles, the three feet around us in each direction seems a bit insignificant. We might be tempted to think that whatever happens within that space can’t have much effect on a world that is exponentially larger. However, those three feet around us in every direction aren’t static. Those three feet shift as we do. As we move through our lives, those three feet of influence follow us like our own shadow.

Think back to the past twenty-four hours. During that time, who was in that three-foot space? Colleagues? Family members? Cashiers? People on the bus or train? The couple sitting in the booth behind you? Did you notice those other people? Did you interact with them in some way? And if so, what was the nature of those interactions?

Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and columnist for On Being, recently wrote a piece entitled Your Three Feet of Influence, encouraging all of us to consider that

“the world we can most try to affect is the one immediately around us.”

She mentions how we often speak wistfully of the things we value – things like fairness, generosity, and compassion – yet we speak them as if they are out of reach in the world as it is. We speak of them with a certain “cynical idealism” – that yes, ideally, THIS is what we would like to experience, but we aren’t holding our breath to see examples of it in the world. I mean, really. Have you seen the news lately?

Yet Salzberg challenges us to be open to doing what we can to create this reality – one that is filled with those things that we value: kindness, compassion, generosity, fairness, and so on – even if it is simply within our three feet of influence. Much as Gandhi spoke of “being the change you wish to see in the world,” Salzberg challenges us to create this ideal in our own circle that follows us wherever we go.

In the article, she describes the experience of her son’s friend – running late, already in a bit of a mood, and on a packed subway train during rush hour – I think we all can relate to experiencing similar moments. Salzberg recounts the story as he attempted to practice this idea of his “three feet of influence.” Reading through his thought process in each moment, it was evident that he was being pulled in two different directions. There was the immediate, reptilian response of reactivity that each interaction seemed to elicit – but in being aware enough to want to put this idea of kinder influence into practice, he chose not to act on that instant impulse. Instead, he paused for a brief moment and intentionally chose the kinder, more understanding response. The small shifts that occurred – within him and within those around him – were noticeable. There was more patience. More connection. He was influencing his three feet.

I am reminded of a recent experience I had while riding a train into downtown Chicago with a friend. As we were chatting through the din of the late-morning commute, my friend said to me,

“He’s drawing an ear.”

A bit confused, I looked where her eyes were looking, and as I saw the man in the corner seat with a pencil and drawing pad, she said, “Once in a while, he holds it in such a way that I can see his drawing. He’s drawing the ear of a passenger.”

When I think back to that moment with this idea of our “three-foot circle of influence,” I find it curious and amazing that the artist, unintentionally and unaware, was affecting his own three-foot circle. (Granted, my friend and I were a bit more than three feet away – as was the passenger whose ear was being drawn, but still.) Though I don’t think the subject of his drawing was ever consciously aware that his ear was being sketched, his humanity and his mere existence were indirectly being affirmed by the artist. Directly within the artist’s  three feet of influence, however, there was a young man with a thin face and lean, long body. Probably in his twenties, he, too, was intently watching the man’s process. This went on for several stops. And then? 

They spoke.

A connection was made. One circle of influence overlapped another. A question was asked, and the young man admitted that he, too, was an artist. Though we could only hear bits and pieces of this conversation between these two “strangers,” it had to do with process and with the type of pencil the older man was using – and it ended with the older man offering both the pencil and his drawing of the ear as gifts to the younger man. The young man was quietly grateful and descended at the next stop with the drawing and pencil in hand. My friend and I were moved. Inspired. THESE are the stories that need to be told, the stories that need to be heard.

Our circles of influence may not be physically bigThey may only cover a thin sliver of the earth’s entire surface, yet the impact we can have upon that sliver need not be overlooked. In Salzberg’s story, the young man – as well as those in his circle – experienced a visceral, positive effect after he chose a different, kinder response from what his initial reaction would have been. His attention and his intention created a shift. An artist, seemingly unaware of his own circle of influence, created another shift for three to four others nearby.

What if, one by one, we decided to take full responsibility of our 28 square feet? What if we began to commit ourselves whenever possible, to do what we can to create the kinder, compassionate world right where we are? Will we remember and succeed every time? No, we’re human – not perfect. Yet what if, at least some of the time, more of us begin to bring just a little of that intention into our 28 square feet? How much area could we cover?

shari miller

 

yearning to understand

seeking the soft

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Soft or hard. Black or white. Right or wrong.

It seems that, as humans, we desire things to be one thing or another. We want to believe that absolute clarity and absolute certainty exist. We want to believe that people are either one thing or another, that answers are either right or they are wrong, and that people remain the same indefinitely. We seem to think that there is great security in believing in this dualistic static type of a world where there are two clearly separated categories: Good or Bad. Always. End of story.

But life presents us with a much different reality – that there is much gray in this world. Things shift, people change, and that which we had thought to be solid may eventually crumble, and we are left wondering what to make of it. We see things from our own perspectives, we judge ideas and people based on our own interpretations, and we can all read a simple sentence such as:

“I never said he did that.”

and understand it in at least six different ways depending on where we put our emphasis. Try it. Say each one of these sentences out loud, emphasizing the word in bold, and then tell me that each sentence wouldn’t be heard and understood differently.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

See what I mean?

We each come to every moment of our lives with a different level of consciousness and a different grasp of our own self-awareness. We move through this world with our own ideas and beliefs about how the world works. Our background experiences and the culture in which we live have influenced how we see the world, how we see others, and how we see ourselves. There are over seven billion (7,000,000,000) people on this earth. Seven billion life experiences. Seven billion ways that the world has been experienced. Seven billion interpretations.

And then we wonder why we struggle to agree on things.

Take a look at this image:

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Now take a look at this one:

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They look different, right? Are they two different images of two different leaves taken at two different times? Or are they two different images of the same leaf? They look completely different – one leaf is deep dark red while the other is light brown, and the background is different. Yet they ARE the same leaf. The leaf didn’t move. I did. One photograph was taken about 30 seconds before the other. The subject didn’t change – I did. How it appeared shifted based on where I placed myself and how I chose to see it.

There are an infinite number of other ways I could have photographed this leaf – from above, from the side, from the other side, from an angle, from underneath the deck. Each would give a completely different perspective, a completely different view of the same thing.

It reminds me of the tale of the blind people who were being told what an elephant was by feeling it. However, one felt only the trunk, another only the tail, another only a leg, yet another felt a tusk, another its back side. They were told, “This is an elephant.” Afterward, when asked to describe what an elephant is, their descriptions could not have been more different. Was one person’s description of the elephant more accurate or inaccurate than another’s? No, they were each describing the same exact subject, and to each of them, the description they gave was their reality. Was each experience different, and did they come to different conclusions? Absolutely. But they did not have the full story.

We do this with people all the time. How often do we see one version of them, one experience of them, and think we know who they are and how they are? How often have we been on the receiving end of the same? How often have others had one experience of us, and then they judge us entirely based on that one thing? Many times, we’re left thinking, “But wait…wait…there’s more to this story than what you’re seeing!”

Exactly.

There’s more to EVERY story than what we see.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the idea that people, in general, are doing the best they know how to do. Period. I’ve been working on living into that idea, and I’ll admit that this last year is testing me. How can this be? How does one even begin to reconcile this naïve notion with all the violence and hate that seems to be so prevalent in our world? How could we even consider the notion that someone’s “best” involves yelling “Get out of my country!” before shooting two people, killing one. How can someone’s “best” be a premeditated idea of pounding at least 40 four-inch nails into tree roots and logs leaving a 1/2 inch to an inch of the point exposed at an angle with an intention to impale runners and walkers on a trail in the woods of North Carolina? How can someone’s “best” be seen in the bomb threats & cemetery vandalism that is happening within the Jewish community?

It seems illogical. We (I) don’t want to believe it.

And yet.

We don’t have the whole story.

Author and theologian Parker Palmer once said,

“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

There are a lot of people suffering out there right now.

We have likely heard that people who were abused as children often end up becoming the abuser. We know that mental illness plagues a significant portion of the population. We know that people who live in a state of powerlessness and oppression long enough will resort to extreme measures in an attempt to feel some sort of power again. We know that extended periods of isolation and feelings of not being accepted can make people vulnerable to accept any type of belonging when it is offered – whether it is a certain clique at school, a political party, a neighborhood gang, or even a group of neo-Nazi skinheads.

Paul Rusesabagina was the hotel owner whose life was portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda. He is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In his book, An Ordinary Man, Rusesabagina tells of being criticized after the genocide was over for being too kind to the generals and the other militia who came to his hotel during the height of the killings. During the violence, he continued to serve and be respectful to these men who were ordering and committing horrific acts of brutality. His response to this has stayed with me for years.

He kept seeking the soft.

He kept seeking the soft. In describing this, Rusesabagina referred to the Nazis who were able to work at the concentration camps overseeing the gas chambers during the day – and then could return to their homes at night to play games with their kids or put a record of Bach on the turntable. Rusesabagina tried (sometimes with lesser or more degree of success) to see people – not in clear categories of black and white, good or evil – but in degrees of hard or soft. He believed that neither hard nor soft was ever in complete control of one’s actions.

“Take the colonel: He had come fresh from a world of machetes, road gangs, and random death and yet was able to have a civilized conversation with a hotel manager over a glass of beer and let himself be talked out of committing another murder.” –Paul Rusesabagina

As he served these men who were committing such atrocities, Rusesabagina continued to seek the soft within them, believing that somewhere, someplace, the soft did exist.

I’ll admit. I struggle with this. Particularly in these times where there seems to be so much hate and violence. There are moments, days, and weeks where I do not want to attempt to seek the soft in those who are committing such blatantly hateful acts. Yet, as described in my previous blog post (the gratitude challenge) the seeking of gratitude in the moments that are difficult aren’t about denying the feelings of despair and overwhelm that we may be experiencing. It’s about being open to the possibility that gratitude and despair can be held in the same space, at the same time.

Perhaps it’s the same with seeking the soft. Seeking the soft is not about saying that the hateful behavior should not be condemned. It’s not about telling people who are destroying property or harming others that what they are doing is acceptable and that there will be no consequences. What I think it’s about is attempting to hold the possibility that what we see from one perspective may not be the full story. The horrific violence may only be the tail of the elephant, and we’re missing the rest of the body – the trunk, the tusks, the legs. Behind the unimaginable horrors played out daily in the media may be the stories of people who experienced some unbelievable trauma we can’t even imagine. Behind the controversial and seemingly crazy view that someone holds may be a story that can offer greater understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. This is challenging, seemingly impossible stuff. I think we really want to be able to say someone is pure evil. We want to think that evil is this thing “out there” that doesn’t apply to us at all. That those we deem as “evil” must be less than human, completely different from us, so we can speak of and treat them differently from how we treat people “like us.” Certainly we wouldn’t harbor any of that bad within us, would we?

Would we?

No comment.

If we keep seeking only the hard in others, we’ll find all the evidence in the world to support our viewpoint. But what if we also choose to seek the soft? What if we would choose to pick ourselves up and view the leaf person from another side? How would our own beliefs about others shift if we opened up to the possibility that beyond the hard, there is, perhaps, a glimpse of soft buried deep within, often hidden from view, but there nonetheless? How would we respond if others did the same for us – if others refused to believe that the hard they saw was all there was – and were willing to keep seeking the soft that is buried within us as well?

If it’s true that great shadows only exist because there is also great light, must it also be true that great hardness can exist because there is also great softness? I want to believe this is true.

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shari miller

©2017 shari miller photography (all words & photographs are my own unless otherwise noted)