Recently, I was struck by my lack of empathy with a colleague, not to mention my total lack of compassion and non-violent speech in a recent discussion in which we were at odds on a particular matter of great import to me. He tried to cajole me by saying he valued my “gifts” which just made me angrier. I felt patronized, threatened.
And now, I find, that I wake from dreams where I am writing a letter of apology.
Not for my opinion because it is an educated and hard won opinion and I struggle with living as I “believe”. No, not that, but I feel I do need to apologize for my unkindness, my lack of compassion and empathy. He has the right to his opinion and he will have to live with it – as wrong as I “know” it to be.
This incident got me thinking (again) of why humans have this huge need to be “right” over the need and goodness of being kind. Why do we do what we know that we do not want done to us. Why is the Golden Rule so difficult a path to follow?
A while back, I misspoke, who knows why, and I called someone who I love more than words can say, “pedestrian”. I was agreeing with a previous comment about that person lacking “passion” in any particular thing including reading which, by the way, he does incessantly and has since a wee boy.
I have been punished exceedingly for this slip of the tongue. And have berated my old, too full brain for not finding the exact right word. And I have struggled to find just exactly what that word might be, or more to the point, what that word might have been.
Perhaps that is the word.
Average isn’t quite right, though it just might fit. Conventional? Everyday? Teen? Teen might work because often teens give off an air of disinterest in anything to the adults in their lives; adults, who are just as “average” and “boring” as the word “pedestrian” might imply.
But ordinary can raise the hackles too.
Polls often show that most people believe they are “above average” See a LiveScience poll featured on CBS news in February 2013 with the comment,
“The phenomenon, known as illusory superiority, is so stubbornly persistent that psychologists would be surprised if it didn’t show up in their studies, said David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell who has studied the effect for decades.”
Yes, no one likes to be called “ordinary” or “average” or “mundane” or (to my chagrin) “pedestrian”.
Kristin Neff comments on this as a danger to our perceived self worth and credits it with our need for “self esteem” which means that we are “above average” and hence have more worth than someone else. Her work centres around self-compassion. In this video she says, “It’s not okay to be average. It’s considered an insult to be average.” So, we have to puff ourselves up to have self-esteem. And there’s the rub. We have to be “over someone” who may be average. And mostly we are just average. Somewhere in the middle. Not outstanding.
Average, according to the Oxford online dictionary, means
A number expressing the central or typical value in a set of data, in particular, the mode, median, or (most commonly) the mean, which is calculated by dividing the sum of the values in the set by their number.
An amount, standard, level, or rate regarded as usual or ordinary.
Usual or ordinary. Average is usual or ordinary. And that pretty much sums up much of life. And many or most of us. Most of the time.
I have knit for a long time, I am a pretty good knitter; many say I am very good. But on a spectrum of knitters, I am average, not outstanding. I am average at most of what I do. Sometimes, I am well below average. Sometimes I am between the middle and the top of the heap. But I am still just average. That is not going to ever convince me to stop knitting.
So, I ask, “Why is that a negative or pejorative thing?”
Simply put, according to Neff’s theory, because it attacks our self-worth. And it attacks our self-worth because our self-worth is shaky, rooted in being better than. It’s patriarchal and hierarchical. Something which has negative consequences for most of us.
Historically. it might be seen as the basis for what we call in modern theological terms, “Empire”. Star Wars fans might understand better than most that empire is dangerous. Empire is dangerous because it is an autocracy. Autocracy is dangerous because (again I turn to Oxford online) it is:
“A system of government by one person with absolute power.”
One person, historically, usually a man, with absolute power. You may have heard, “Power corrupts. Absolute power, corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton) So we fear this. And when we fear, our reptilian brain kicks in. When our reptilian brain kicks in, we stop thinking and we act. Usually we act in less than brilliant ways. More often, we react. And again, we react badly, more often than not.
If only one person has all the “beans” the rest of us go hungry.
It seems to me then that mindfulness and self-compassion is needed.
I need to cut myself some slack. I need to forgive myself. I need to understand that although I am average in most things, I have worth. Each of us has worth.
When I practice self-compassion, I am able to be more mindful. I am able to be more compassionate. I am able to empathize.
If only there were a way to take back my words.
Hmmmm, seems there is.
Apologize. A good first step.
Now to get down to writing that letter.
Maybe more than one.