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Proximity Matters

Hello and welcome to this rare and precious Friday, September 11, 2020!

It seems only appropriate to write this in remembrance of 9-11: the day we all watched in horror as the iconic Twin Towers fell from the Manhattan skyline. I’m guessing that most of us remember where we were and what we were doing.

Our perspective of this event was influenced by our proximity to ground zero. Though our pain was significant, those of us who watched this ill-fated day unfold on the television will never know what it was really like to choke on the toxic ash while fleeing for your life. Those who read about it, will never truly understand what it was like to sift through twisted metal, shattered glass, and collapsed concrete in hopes of finding surviving victims. With my head down, eyes closed, and palms together at my heart, today’s Mindfulness Support is dedicated to us on this fateful day. 9-11-2001

There is a saying which suggests that, “some people suffer too much, and some people suffer too little.” Though I fully agree with this wisdom, I in no way wish suffering upon anyone. There is already too much suffering in the world. We don’t need to add to it.

I recently had a humbling experience where I was reminded of the importance of proximity to suffering, and privilege. I grew up in Colorado and have been in close vicinity to large wildfires. Though I believed I had, it turns out that I had not yet experienced the disorienting surrealism of waking up with burning eyes to impenetrable columns of smoke and ash. The forest fire smoke that I previously experienced, it turns out, was not much more than a nuisance. So, a couple weeks ago when my Colorado friends and family were calling out for prayers, my mind went to, “It’s just a little smoke.” This seems insensitive—it is, that’s why I’m telling you. Even though I “know” otherwise, my previous experience told my mind that I had been through it, and it wasn’t so bad. Nevertheless, despite the cognitive dissonance, deep within my heart, I hurt along with those in Colorado who were fearing for their safety and security. My problem was: I wasn’t in close enough proximity to the source of their suffering to really know what it was they were experiencing. I know better meow!

If, like me, you are living within the fiery pit of the Willamette Valley, or some other burning valley or hillside, then you too know what I’m talking about here. In twenty-four hours, our lives went from a state of COVID ‘normalcy’ to a perplexing chaotic state of confusion and dread.

As I read more and more stories about people losing their homes, whole towns engulfed in flames, the loss of life, my mind tends toward disbelief. Being fearfully prudent in getting my “Go Bag” ready, I walk through the house stunned and bewildered as I look for what could be the last time on all my personal possessions. What do I take? What do I leave? What’s important?

So, as I reflect on this, I must ask myself why wasn’t I even more caring and compassionate with the calls from my family and friends in Colorado (and every other state being transformed by fire)? My answer: Privilege.

Privilege is not a silver-spooned life where there’s little struggling. Privilege is about how the conditions and circumstances of our life constrain us from experiencing the challenges of others. Because I have never witnessed hauntingly dark orange skies at 10 AM, choked on ash-filled winds, and eerily packed a “Level 3 Go Bag,” though I did my best and prayed with love in my heart, I couldn’t truly understand the depths of the pleas for compassion. Though I know that I can’t truly understand what it is like to actually have to flee your home, possibly for the last time, I have a much better understanding and am even more willing help where and when I can.

We will be more empathetic and compassionate when we can relate to others’ suffering, when we have gone through similar experiences ourselves. We have sayings like “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” We can’t truly appreciate their suffering unless we too have actually experienced it.

Because of our privilege, there are some things that many of us will never experience. If you are not female, you’ll never experience the degrading effects of misogyny. If you are not a person of color, you will never experience the demoralizing prejudice of racism. If you are not Jewish, you will never experience anti-Semitism. If you haven’t experienced the injustice of poverty, you can’t truly understand the privilege of wealth. If you weren’t at the foot of the Twin Towers on this day 19 years ago, you didn’t experience 9-11 in the same way as one who was there. If you have never had to leave behind in a rush everything that is important, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to do so.

The closer we are to suffering, the more we can develop a deeper sense of empathy. In developing a deeper sense of empathy, we become more active in ending or reducing the suffering – more compassionate. When we are close to the pain, we see more clearly that their suffering is our suffering. Proximity Matters.

We tend to steer away from suffering. So that we can better understand the stress, worries and concerns of another, this is an invitation to move towards their pain.

I love you and there is not anything that you can do about it.

Humbled,

Dan

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