Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sharing other people's sufferings isn't about having no boundaries -- It's about knowing how to help each other to own our own power without overstepping our bounds

A friend pointed out that research has found differences in the brains of more progressive and more conservative people, particularly in the area of the brain that processes fear. (Think “fear of change,” a hallmark of conservativism.) While such information is interesting, I don’t see how it can make a difference in helping us understand or accept each other more--nor is there a way to prove if the people’s brains were like that all along or if they became shaped that way by their thinking.

Even if scientists could prove which is the case, what does it matter? Would I just give up on a conservative southern relative, for example, because she has the brain of a conservative so there’s no point in trying to help her see things differently regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion or the presence of non-Christians in her family? Of course not.

On the other hand, if my relative isn’t open to considering the validity of my beliefs, I can’t force her to be receptive and ready if she’s not. Such people don’t typically ask us to change their minds, nor do they ask us for our advice.

In mainstream American culture, we’ve always been told we must impart our wisdom and enlighten others, whether they ask us to or not. In the book Earth Medicine, author Jamie Sams makes the point that Native American custom regarding advice-giving is very different: In Native tradition, one does not give advice unless one is asked (pg. 155).

If someone dumps their problems on us, that doesn’t obligate us to give them advice or solve their problems. If we have something that can help them, and we feel guided to ask them if they’d like to hear it, go ahead and share. More often than not, though, our rescue-reflex to give advice just causes us problems and overburdens us with expectations or obligations we’re not qualified to fulfill with people we barely know or whose beliefs or needs we don’t understand.

In such cases, trying to impart our wisdom or our enlightenment can backfire, and make such people more resistant to our ideas, because our timing and our audience considerations are not right. We won't have success changing people's minds by imposing new beliefs or ideas on them that they are not ready for.

What I’ve learned from holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon is that it is more compassionate and helpful to listen, and not feed into the other person’s victim-energy and self-disempowering chatter. If we really want to be a friend, we’d do better to turn the responsibility of solving their problem back on them rather than try to rescue them by having the right answer to a question they need to ask themselves.

To use one of Cindy’s examples, we can say, “I hear your dilemma. Have you thought about how you can change that?” Far from being insensitive, this approach cues the other person that the problem is theirs to manage, which means they have the power to do just that—manage it, without having to transfer it temporarily to someone else so they can take a break from carrying it around for a while.

In Nichiren Buddhism, we have a teaching about compassion and helping others that says “regard the suffering of others as your own.” This is easy to misinterpret, however, especially by those of us who have struggled with boundary issues about what’s our karma to manage and what’s other people’s karma to manage, as well as by people who say “My sufferings are enough for me, thank you, I don’t need to be dealing with other people's problems!”

What I’m learning (from Cindy and Buddhism) is that we help others not by managing their feelings for them, giving them unsolicited advice, or trying to rescue them; instead, we share and overcome our sufferings together by really listening to each other, by reminding each other of our own power to resolve our own challenges, by referring each other to books or teachers who are qualified to help if someone has needs we don’t understand and shouldn’t guess our way through trying to help with, and by sharing what has worked for us if it seems the person is like-minded enough to be receptive to our method.

Then, we can support others on their journeys without the heroic and exhausting idea that we have to start and manage their journeys for them.


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Image: "Highland Creek Bridge in Northville" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Oil pastel

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