At a street fair in Austin, TX my wife and I decided to have a cartoon portrait done by a local caricaturist. It was late. The sun was nearly set, there were no lights and the artist was rushing things. Whether by intent or in the rush of the moment, the woman who I was paying to make us look good made a swoop on the rendering of my jawline that made me appear, shall we say, a little puffy.
Since my super cute wife looked, well, super cute in the caricature she was most pleased with the drawing. I, on the other hand, fixated on the little twist of the hand that made me look more marshmallow man than rugged love machine. Though tasked with hanging the portrait in my office, it has sat in a box in my closet for over a year. Vanity, vanity … all is vanity. An artist captured reality and a defect was exaggerated … I was none too pleased.
In reflecting on this little artistic mishap I have often wondered if I am a mental caricaturist. How many times have I perceived flaws in my fellows and amplified said flaws? I’m afraid I have done it far too often.
Sadly, we live in a world where much of our public discourse and entertainment revolves around exposing and rehashing what we see as imperfections in those who have stepped into the limelight. Bombarded with this hyper focus on the flaws of the famous, I am afraid we carry this level of scrutiny into our personal lives. This focus retards our development as spiritual beings. In this journey called life our interactions with other benefits greatly if we see others as spiritual kin-accepting and loving them as they are, warts and all.
Of course, to love our fellows, as is oft pointed out, requires that we first accept and love ourselves. Are we so obsessed with the flaws in others because we perceive our own deficiencies? I know I am my own worst critic. As an alcoholic, I also know that there is a predisposition to obsess about self. When I start fixating on the flaws in others that is my queue to take a look at how I am feeling about me.
According to the volume Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book, I can’t will away self- centeredness. I have to ask for Divine help. For me, this has to be a daily practice. That pesky, ever critical egoic mind flares up every time I get lax about seeking help keeping it at bay in my meditation and prayer.
Reigning in self-centeredness, however, is on the first step. Once I am ok with me, I then need to place an emphasis on loving others. I need to follow the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule? Yes, that admonition that we do unto others as we’d have done to us. Apparently this little gem has been floating around for centuries. A variant of the Golden Rule can be found in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Baha’i. Whether listening to Confucius or Christ, reading the Torah or the Quran, or simply tuning in to spiritual thought leaders on Oprah’s OWN network, compassion in the form ofthe Golden Rule has been preached for centuries.
Oft quoted, to the point where it is often considered trite, but less often adhered to.
An all-encompassing love for all of humanity might be a lofty goal. But in Twelve Step recovery we are taught to seek spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. So recently I undertook a little experiment: Could I manifest a little kindness every day? Could I make a little progress in loving others?
While pondering this little experiment I came across a passage written by Maya Angelou that suggested a start might be speaking to people instead of walking by them as if they were stones. That struck a chord with me. I’ve always tended towards shyness–a mousey form of self-centeredness–and rarely engage people I casually pass by. Yet I have always appreciated it when a stranger acknowledges me in passing. Hmmm … perhaps I could be that other-focused stranger.
As part of my experiment in kindness I picked a twenty minute period each workday where I walk off my lunch by circling the place of my employment. Many of my co-workers make the same trek around the vast building. Some clockwise, some counterclockwise. I am a clockwise kind of a guy.
For a week, I made a point of making eye contact with the people approaching me and offering a smile and a kind greeting. Though not always reciprocated, nine times out of ten it is. Faces brighten, people smile, our gaits kick up a notch. After consciously focusing on doing this for a week it became habitual. I now notice the few times that I revert back to walking by people as if they were stone. I don’t like that version of me. I have not achieved perfection in this area, but as Hermann Hesse once wrote: “Man is not a finished creation.” I gots me some work to do.
Of course there is much more to work on. Brotherly love is far more than a smile and a greeting. Love is demonstrated through action: Serving, giving, forgiving. More on that in upcoming posts. But not the next one. I am taking a break from spiritual principles and going back to some slices of my bipolar, alcoholic life and my propensity to pee in inappropriate places.