Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Contemplating Compassion

Originally posted on September 3, 2013

This morning I awoke with a couple of dream fragments that felt significant enough to get me to reflect on them.
   1. I had to go uptown a mile or so and somehow annoyed  my wife so that she was cross with me. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.
  2. I was looking at a dirt-weed small hillside and a guy who seemed to know more was trying to point out some configuration of plant-fungus patterns that I couldn’t make out, even though I was trying to see.

Contemplating this I intuited that learning compassion requires the recognition that for anyone to know what they “should” know, first they need to know what to look for, be able to discern.

I’m reminded of a cartoon I did about early lessons in histology—microscopic anatomy—how to  look at a slide and see meaningful patterns, not just a jumble of dots—which indeed was what the slide looked like at first.

Seeing what is there means learning what to look for, and it’s a complex skill that is built up in a positive, encouraging atmosphere. It would reflect on a lack of compassion to expect a blind man to see things, or for that matter, one who has not been trained in what to look for. Knowledge  emerges gradually from familiarity with sensed cues, from learning how to see the figure that is not the ground, and that this emerges with practice. It involves many elements, some very subtle: It involves, first of all, believing that there is something “there” that is worth looking for, or learning how to look. Learning to see finer structures or hear greater subtleties also involves staying cool, not being overwhelmed with anxiety about not getting it, not feeling badly that you missed a cue, or worrying that the other person won’t give you the time to learn it.

It reminded me to give attention to my project of illustrating metaphysics and other far-reaching insights: People will need to warm up to the gestalt that there is something worth looking for, that there are patterns, what to look for in the jumble.

The incident with Allee in the dream reminded me that although I’m bright in some ways, in other ways I miss cues that other people half as scholarly pick up easily.  There are different sensitivities.  I’m aware that it’s not just that—I’m sort of half-way on this—but some of those sensitivities I haven’t cultured because they are emotionally loaded. Either there was too much scolding, humiliation, what’s the use, and withdrawal; or I didn’t see the pay-off; or I glimpsed at what I thought was the pay-off and it didn’t seem worth the effort. All these lessons rose up from the dream and reminded me to slow down and remember that I’m introducing lots of new stuff to people that they may well not have the mental and emotional infrastructure to absorb. The dream situations reminded me that even when I tried I couldn’t see what I was supposed to see by a sheer act of will. I vaguely sensed that it would gradually appear: Oh, it’s that! Those little markings are what I should look for.

A third dream fragment mixed with these was that the thick lenses of my glasses had come out and I was trying to replace them. This has indeed happened in the last many years, and on reflection it reinforced the whole recognition of how much I depend on prostheses, glasses; how blind I am—some, but not too much—but that degree of near-sightedness—more than most—was a handicap I didn’t know I had until the world was revealed to me as outlined more sharply than I ever knew. That experience of revelation was a revelation on another level—that folks don’t know what they don’t know. I wasn’t willfully denying my perception; I really couldn’t discern what others could see clearly. This continues to be a lesson for me in compassion.

Why are people so dumb? Why shouldn’t I just be angry with them? It seems as if they’re willfully refusing to see what’s obvious to me? But I’m blind myself: I don’t see that they don’t see. I also was foolish enough to believe them when they said that it was okay when it was not, or (reminded by a Dilbert cartoon sequence), that they understood me when they didn’t. They were lying to me. From their perspective, they weren’t lying, they were trying to signal to me that they weren’t able to follow me, that I was rattling on too long, enough already—from their perspective they were being patient and tactful and trying to give me signals! From my dense perspective, why didn’t they just come out and say it? I don’t pick up on indirect messages. I don’t know how to read them. Or maybe I learned to screen them out because they were so common and life-depleting when I was young.

This leads to the fearful recognition that I got a great big dose of mixed messages for the first four years of my life—and longer—the first seven—maybe the first eighteen and more. My mother found me trying. She loved me in a thousand ways, doing for me, helping me. But she didn’t like me and I sensed it. Like the dirt slope on the hill in the aforementioned dream, I didn’t know how to parse this karmic message. How can a person love you and yet not like you? But it gave me a deep patterning: I learned to expect this from others and still at 76, after 38 years of marriage, find it a bit surprising—delightfully so—that Allee seems to like me.

Getting past the barrier of being “trying” to others has not been easy for me. There are other ways  that I was trying even as I tried not to be. I withdrew when perhaps they would have liked me to be more social; I forgot to express appreciations, thank yous. I didn’t make eye contact. I sometimes talked when I should have listened—but this was unconsciously because what others said seemed really boring and dumb—though I couldn’t admit that to myself.

In addition to the colon problem, there was being very bright. A second strike against me. But both conditions were also prods to thriving. The first drove me into medicine, to wanting to help people, other kids. The second—well, I’m still trying to figure that out, what it means, what I’m supposed to do about it. I think so far the lesson is to own it, accept it, and accept that lots of others, some family, even, can hardly keep up with me. I can indeed help it a little, not a lot, by trying to make clear what I’m saying; not joke about it—one of the foolish ways that only made things worse, though I hoped it would make things better—; keep others oriented.

Indeed, figuring out how to manage that gradient (little slope in front of me in the dream?) continues to puzzle me a bit. The contemplations continue.

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