When we were on our morning walk earlier this week, Eric told me, “come down this way and take a picture.” In the spot where a makeshift memorial had been removed by the park services people, a strange face was hanging from one of the trees, some kind of mask or tree spirit. He’d wanted to take a picture of it earlier in the week, but it had been too cold to stop. He hadn’t told me about it because how would you even explain such a thing.
I don’t know. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know how you’d explain it, and I don’t know who put it there or why. There’s so much I don’t know, about everything.
Not knowing is a characteristic of wisdom and compassion. Instead of stepping in to give advice or offer your opinion, you stay with the quality of uncertainty. I forget this sometimes. I’m so quick to want to fix whatever is wrong that I speed towards knowing and being sure, to action, when maybe it’s better to be patient, to simply be present until I’m sure or until someone asks me for a specific kind of help.
Last week, one of my favorite dog people went through something horrific. She was out hiking with her dogs when one of them disappeared. Afraid he’d gone over the cliff where they were hiking, (he had), they stayed out looking for him as it got dark. They could hear him, but weren’t sure where he was, and it turns out they couldn’t have gotten to him anyway. I was glued to Facebook the next morning as someone flew a drone along the cliff, located him, and then a member of search and rescue rappelled down the cliff and retrieved him. See more about the amazing rescue here, here, here, and here.
The next day, with everyone home and safe, she posted a picture of them out for a walk, with a caption that mentioned something about the trauma of the day before, of the relief and gratitude they were feeling. Someone chose that moment, barely 24 hours after the drama and terror, to criticize her for walking her dogs off-lead. And when someone else stepped in and called her out for being inappropriate, she doubled down and restated the supremacy of the truth of her experience.
This is the opposite of I don’t know. It’s the opposite of compassion. It makes me think of when someone is diagnosed with cancer, and people start sending links to articles about alternative treatments, or talk to them about how eating sugar or sleeping on your back causes cancer, or says something dumb like “you’ll be fine” or “think positive and you’ll beat this!” Or when someone loses a loved one, and people say things like “they are in a better place now” or “it’s God’s will.”
It also reminds me of the people I see outside of the Planned Parenthood, praying and holding signs that say, “Abortion is murder!” People get caught up debating politics or social issues, and in the process they allow their righteousness to override their compassion, their humanity. For starters, the people outside of the clinic with their posters and prayers are too late. The only thing you can accomplish at that moment, in that place, is to announce your rightness, to flaunt your opinion, and to add to the suffering of others. You aren’t helping.
It’s not about your opinion on the issue. It’s about when and where it is appropriate to have the discussion — most certainly not with a woman who’s already made the decision and the appointment, or only 24 hours after someone’s dog has been rescued. Considering what she endured, both of them, it’s really not the time or place to share your opinion. And why do we think what is true for us has to be true for everyone else, a big T truth?
There are various teachings on right speech. One is a set of questions to ask your self in order to determine if you should speak. One teaching (from the poet Rumi) offers this instruction, “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” Another version offers, “1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” Still another describes right speech this way: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, and yet, I do have intentions. In the coming year, may I practice right speech, may I be more compassionate, may I be comfortable not knowing, and may I continue to seek my own truth without needing it to be true for anyone else.