Exceptional Courage

Have you ever experienced the feeling of finally having things getting into a groove, and your train is just beginning to chug along more or less merrily, only to have it unexpectedly meet an obstacle you thought you had already put behind and you almost get derailed? Briefly disoriented, miffed, sad and disappointed, you nevertheless decide that darn it, this train is staying on track no matter what!

I had such an experience this morning. Quite unexpectedly, like an arrow from the dark, it hit me. And for the first time in more than a week I felt another sharp wring on the heart that had been starting to get some rest. But it’s ok…the wonderful thing about being committed to taking up your cross is that the struggle builds strength even while you are unaware. And when a sudden threat of derailment comes, as much as it still hurts, you find to your surprise that recovery time has become much shorter. Furthermore, you know it’s genuine (i.e. you allow the pain to penetrate before detaching) because after the hurt dissipates, there is no bitterness or resentment. And you are able to see that pain for what it is…that the fault does not lie with yourself for being oversensitive, but that neither was the ‘archer’ to be blamed because ‘they know not what they do’. In fact if we think deeply enough, even enemies who intend to hurt us ‘know not what they do’…for if they really did, they wouldn’t do it.

In a long conversation with a friend a few nights ago, we talked about a kind of person (and there are many people like this) we both knew in our lives that hurt a lot of people around them without ever perhaps being truly aware of it. These are the people whose ‘self-love’ over-rules all else. If you have the misfortune of having someone like this in your family or as a close friend, you will understand the pain of trying to understand or forgive them. Their actions often seem inconsistent, and you never feel secure around them. Yet if asked, they would profess that they do love you, or insist they did. And they make that declaration with such defensiveness and they seem to feel so genuinely wronged when you attempt to show them that they have not been loving you, that you are left helpless, frustrated and confused.

Frustration is too mild a word in trying to communicate with such a person. Anger, grief, bemusement, confusion, even wanting to laugh outright at the absurdity of it all… it is very painful if you have been hurt by a broken relationship with such a person. Attempting to understand ‘why?’ the person acts the way he/she does…that alone could well drive you into the asylum because it makes no sense…but you desperately need to find a reason because the only other apparent reason is that the fault lies with you…that all that is wrong with the relationship lies with you. And you have no peace until you try and find the ‘truth’.

For better or worse, I’ve had more experience in such a relationship than I would like to admit. But I have learned a lot, and I have come very far since those times when I felt only hatred and that forgiveness was out of the question. It wasn’t easy, because the person has not changed much at all, and continues to inflict pain and confusion now and then. But I have not hated the person in a very long time. Learning to forgive someone who does not even acknowledge that he/she has hurt you is a huge learning curve. But I’ve found that when you can do that, no matter how little, the person that benefits most is yourself. Because then, even if the person keeps on hurting you, you have a kind of peace, and you know…hating somebody (or denying that they have hurt you) takes a lot out of you. So being able to forgive unconditionally (i.e.. not because the other person deserves it or asks for it, even when he/she rejects it) really is a great thing one can do for oneself!

As for learning to understand this kind of person…I too, have found a kind of answer. And ever since I discovered that ‘principle’, I am no longer surprised or confused by what such a person does. The principle they operate by is to ‘love self above all others’. I use ‘love’ here loosely though, because I do not believe such self-love is genuine self-love. It is a narcissistic kind of love that prompts one to make all judgments and decisions based on one directive: “I want to/ I feel like it/ it conveniences me” Such a person can be very confusing to be with because…they may be very sweet to you, do a lot of things for you, make you feel cherished and loved…and then at another time (may be days or months or years difference) treat you like you’re worth less than trash. At one time they may seem to act according to one guiding principle…then suddenly flip 180 deg. Attempting to find an overarching principle that explains all that is useless…but when you understand that their guiding principle is “as I like it”, a lot of things make sense.

Before I understood this principle, I never believed such a person loved me. Impossible! If the person loved me, a lot of things would be done differently… but you know, after years of observation and reflection, I can believe now that such people do really feel that they ‘love’ others. BUT, they love themselves more. As such, what they think is love isn’t truly love because genuine love gives (or at least attempts to do so) unconditionally. When such people love, they love because of what they can take out of the relationship, not because they truly love. It’s quite sad actually, because I’ve come to realize that such people are stuck and they do not even know they are stuck…not only are they unaware of how much hurt they are inflicting on others, they have no idea how much disservice they are doing themselves.

We are always in danger of becoming such a person ourselves… in fact, one may even argue that we are already, to different degrees, such a person. The opposite of love may not be hate…it may simply be selfishness or laziness. Dare we love? Morrie said that “love is the only rational act“…and he quoted the Auden poem (September 1, 1939) that said “we must either love one another or die“. If living is to become something more than merely surviving, we must love. But it’s a call that not many commit themselves to.

I think that love takes exceptional courage. I have been blessed in that I have witnessed or heard of this kind of ‘everyday’ yet heroic practices of love in my life. Tales I’ve heard told (by many people) about my maternal grandfather whom I never got the chance to meet. Tales of his industriousness and enormous magnamity as well as generosity in his success…of saving the businesses of rivals who had stabbed him in the back (and by saving the business it didn’t mean he bought it, he pumped money in to save their business with no strings attached). Of how he absorbed the losses of his retailers because ‘they need to put food on the table for their children too’. How he paid for the maintenance and education of not just his own household but his younger siblings’ in China…and how he paid for the university tuition and expenses of my mother’s high-school friend who was extremely able but too poor to further her studies.

This of course, was the man who taught my mom about having a heart as big as the ocean…and man, did he live it. He died at 55 years of age from a heart-attack, but he is still very much alive in the memories of those whose lives he had touched…and not least are those enemies who eventually became loyal allies and friends. In fact, he did so many good deeds quietly that many came to light for my grandmother and his family only after he had passed away and people came to pay respects. [Aside: Little surprise then, that when his eldest grandchild gets married next year so many of his family intend to take the time and expense to attend.]

I never met this great man who by all accounts was a tremendous success in the eyes of the world because he, leaving China as a penniless 16 year old, became the pioneer of an entire industry in a foreign land. But when I hear his children, his friends and family speak about him, it is never about that success…but about what he had done for them, or taught them…how they had been loved by him. Another ‘story’ he told my mother (and which my mother told me) was that in this world there are three kinds of people. The first type cannot even take care of themselves and need to rely on others to be taken care of. The second type are independent and able to take care of themselves. The third kind of person not only is able to take care of him/herself but is able to grow like a giant tree and provide shade for others. He had decided he wanted to be the third kind of person. As had my mother…and I suppose, in a way, I have been aspiring to be that third kind of person too.

Even from a very young age, I regretted never having known him (he died two years before my birth). But his legacy lives on in the lives of others who, inspired by him, also love. I like to think that I too am touched by his extraordinary wisdom and love through my mother, who as the eldest child, was also the most influenced by him.

Inspiration doesn’t always have to come from ‘great people’. Just a couple of hours ago, I was heartened and encouraged by the conduct of someone much more ‘ordinary’ than my grandfather. For some time now I have been growing in respect, even admiration, for one of my friends. Seemingly very small things can require extraordinary courage and love (this I know from personal experience as well), and I am humbled and inspired whenever I recognize it. I derive strength for my own journey too, when I think of the courage these people display. Today in particular, I am grateful to my grandfather, my mother, and this dear friend for inspiring me. Interestingly enough, none of them are at my side to hear me express this sentiment. But perhaps, they already know. Because some things do go without saying.

For some reason, I’d been looping Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” while making this blog entry. I’m uploading the song and lyrics as a ‘page’ on my blog. It’s a lovely song. *smile*

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