Category Archives: The Compassion Project

Ideas about opening the heart.

How turning the other cheek is a way of fighting back

I consider myself something of a pacifist. I abhor violence, don’t see the appeal of potentially bloody sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, and wish we would spend more energy on promoting collaboration rather than celebrating competition, which always involves a loser as well as a winner, and which to date has played such a central role in shaping our society.

Does one person have to lose for another person to win? What does winning really mean and is there a way that we can re-define it? Can we agree that true winning means that all parties involved benefit? Is that even an achievable goal? Is it realistic to suggest that as a society we should move away from a win/lose binary system that is so deeply entrenched in our psyches?

Christianity and I parted ways long ago, but I still sometimes ponder what Jesus meant exactly when he said: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”. Seems to me this is an invitation to be stepped on. And as someone who has struggled to stand up for myself, this is all too close to a call to passivity and apathy – which in my mind facilitated the spread of ideological viruses like nazism and racist apartheid policies. The result of turning the other cheek is that people DO step all over you, given half a chance. And they end up defining the world we live in, while we become ineffective, largely powerless pawns.

So, how to live a virtuous life without bending our will to every person who challenges us? I think it takes a change in attitude, and a move away from the individualist approach that much of Western society has embraced. It means seeing each moment, each interaction as an opportunity to build something together, to work together, to collaborate. And to recognize the humanity in the other person. It means seeing ourselves as connected.

Often I think people act in inconsiderate ways, not because they are necessarily malicious or out to get us. But because many of us are motivated by selfish impulses – if not always then at least at times. We don’t necessarily take that extra moment to consider the impact of our words and actions on those who walk alongside us. We must actively combat this within ourselves if we are serious about promoting peace and respect.

Of course, there are limits. We are each responsible for our own actions. I cannot reasonably be expected to help every needy person who crosses my path. And not every needy person has the right to expect that of me. The approach I’m proposing demands that we give up our sense of entitlement, our sense that the world owes us a living and that everyone else is responsible for making us feel good or bad. We must each take claim to our own lives and set in motion the actions and attitudes that best serve us – without infringing on the rights of others to live a life of dignity and respect.

In terms of fighting back, what does this mean? For me, it means that when I’m confronted with ignorance or a lack of charity from others, I will not resort to knee-jerk reactions of rage and vengefulness. That path has the potential to lead me astray too easily. And it benefits no one in the long term. Instead, I will “turn the other cheek”, not by giving into the hate or cynicism I’m confronted with, or by being reduced to silence, but by not fighting back with similar hate or cynicism. I will continue to speak my truth, with kindness, and love, and I will continue to be open to other points of view.

I will not see myself in adversity to others. Instead, I see us as co-conspirators in the construction of the world. The world needs more kindness. Standing up for that is my way of fighting back.


Love is just the beginning

I used to complain to anyone who would listen that love simply isn’t enough. I loved my family, for example, but that didn’t stop me from hurting them, even though it wasn’t on purpose. I’m sure deep down, too, my family loved me. But that didn’t stop them from pushing me aside when my clinical depression was too much to bear, and my gender transition became a point of shame. And when romance entered my life? Again, love could only sustain it for so long, before the spikes of life punctured an already fragile union. Love isn’t enough, I despaired. So why try?

I think I’m starting to see things differently though. I think the problem with thinking that love should be enough to right all wrongs is that love isn’t an endpoint. It’s not a goal that, once you achieve it, you get to cross it off your list and forget about. Instead, it’s a direction, a point of departure, a tool that develops as you use it over and over again. It’s a guiding light.

The love that couldn’t keep my biological family communicating with me didn’t dry up. The communicating dried up. I still love my sisters, my late father, and yes, even the mother who I’m not sure ever loved me back. Loving those who hurt you, doesn’t mean you have to keep letting them hurt you. It means that you need to re-direct that love in a constructive direction. Killing love is a form of self-harm. Better to keep that love alive and thriving. Better to find a new home for it.

I’m re-directing it in the work that I’ve chosen to do, working with street-entrenched and homeless young people. People who, like me, couldn’t find what they needed in the families they were born into. And now they struggle to build a life for themselves, and the forks in the roads are stark and sometimes dangerous. I may not be able to reach them all, but maybe I can reach one of them. That would be something.

I re-direct the love each time I volunteer at a suicide hotline too. I hear my own story reflected back to me in the calls that come in. I hear different stories but similar pain. I hear suffering and grief and trauma, and I offer them the one thing I have — empathy. Love.  It’s not everything. It’s not a cure. But it’s the beginning of one. And it’s amazing how much it can mean to people.

We all have to start somewhere. Love is where I choose to start. It’s where life is. I want to live.

Asking my father for forgiveness

Forgiveness Challenge

Forgiveness Challenge

I am currently taking part in the Forgiveness Challenge. The goal of the challenge is to achieve personal freedom through letting go of the anger and resentment that goes with being hurt. Created by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, the challenge is a journey into leaving behind victimhood and embracing the freedom that awaits each of us once we reconcile with those who have hurt us or who we have hurt in the past. Once we have forgiven, we can choose to either renew our relationship with the other, or we can release the hold that relationship still has on us. One of the assignments of the challenge is to admit a wrong we have committed against another. Here is my response to that assignment.

The truth is I still carry a lot of anger and disappointment towards my father. For the hostility he showed me when I acknowledged that I was transgender, for example. And for his poor handling of my struggles with clinical depression as a young person. But if I peel away these feelings, what lies beneath is anger and disappointment towards myself. And shame. Because when it comes right down to it, I let my father down too. And badly.

When I was a teenager, I often looked at my father with resentment and disgust. What I saw was a broken man who had no backbone when his wife threw a barrage of insults his way. I saw a man who wasn’t strong like other men, or aggressive or sporty. He lived a simple life, with few luxuries and only a handful of close friends. He avoided the limelight and was – in my child’s eyes – just an ordinary, flawed man, nothing special. His physical disabilities only augmented the impression I had of him as weak, physically, socially, emotionally. His skin, covered in warts and thin so that his veins crisscrossed his cheeks, repulsed me, as did his gnarly, arthritic hands, and the stench of his sweat when he neglected to shower for a day or two.

I am not proud of how I felt, nor of how I treated him. Sometimes I spoke angrily at him, belittled him for being more mouse than man. I emulated the insults my mother threw his way and felt only resentment that he did not defend himself. He was no hero, not in my eyes. When he showed me his diaries from the days when he was in boarding school I ridiculed the child he once was. The child, whose voice on the page was filled with longing for a mother who showed him little affection, and a father who barely acknowledged his existence. I was terrified by his vulnerability and in terror I derided him.

My father is no longer alive to ask for forgiveness. And even if he was, I don’t know if he would hear what I had to say or understand the shame I feel. But I know that if I am to honour him moving forward I must reach a point where I am able to forgive myself. For his sake, I must forgive myself.

I now realize what a brave man my father was. How much courage it took to share his vulnerabilities with me and with the world. How despite the enormous physical pain he experienced, he accomplished so much with his life. He built a respectable private practice as a psychiatrist and supported a wife and three children. He travelled to Canada with a young family and started a new life far away from the country he was born to. And later he packed up his things and moved us back to the country of his origins, South Africa. That took guts and grit. He even managed to pay off his mortgage before he died. I remember how proud he was when he told me that.

When my father died, almost ten years ago now, I went a little crazy. For a year I grieved deeply, left my job, had nightmares where I was in his hospital room, the ocean beating against the building, the full moon shining down on the inky black waves and through the window of his room. My father lay in his hospital bed, oblivious, tubes emerging from every orifice. Then one night I dreamed my father returned home, with gifts for each of us in the family. He handed me a chocolate bar – something he sometimes did in real life – and then he wrapped his arms around me. I woke up, my body still tingling from his loving hug; I felt deeply comforted. After that the nightmares stopped. But the grieving continued on.

What I remember of him now is his gentle sense of humour, his childlike obsession with Afrikaner folk music, his deep humility. The purity that emanated from his brown eyes. He was by no means perfect. I cannot condone his support of the Apartheid regime, nor his suspicion (sparked by the fact that they wiped out many an Afrikaner family during the Anglo-Boer War) of all things British. And I don’t think I will ever accept his view of homosexuality and his belief that AIDS was God’s way of punishing an unnatural sex act (anal sex). Not to mention his antiquated views on transsexualism.

But despite our philosophical differences, I recognize that my father was deeply human. I recognize myself in him. And I love him now more than I ever was able to when I was younger. I will do my best to honour the kind, gentle man I know my father was. Because that man lives on in me.

Seeking God

God and I have had a troubled relationship for as long as I can remember. It started when I was born, really, in a conservative protestant household that went to Church each Sunday and prayed before dinner each night.

My father was the instigator of religion in my family. He was a deacon and later an elder in the Christian Reformed Church we attended when I was a kid growing up in Prince George, Canada. The minister was a charismatic fellow with a strong dutch accent who loved children. In fact, each Sunday he would put aside a few minutes to call up all the children to the pulpit. We would sit around him like ducklings as he delivered a sermon specially tailored to us.

As I grew into a disgruntled teenager, my family having moved back to South Africa where we had come from, I left behind the church. Apartheid was coming to an end, an oppressive regime who was largely supported by the church. In the large NG (Nederduits Gereformeerde) church my family belonged to, I saw only a bunch of hypocrites who cared more about what they wore than what God had to say. In Pretoria, where we lived, church wasn’t just a spiritual community (if you could call it that at all), it was where you went to claim your place as a respectable member of the larger society. But I didn’t feel at home in the society I found myself in. I still yearned for the Canada I had left behind as an 11-year old. My faith withered and died, and I was the first in my family to not get confirmed as a member.

I don’t believe in God any more – not the Christian God I have come to know through those who call themselves Christians. But ‘God’ is a nebulous term – a term that describes different things to different people. To me, if I were to claim any affection for God, it is the God I term the universe, this wonderful, chaotic mass of molecules and atoms of which I cannot help but be part of by my very existence. It is a miraculous space that no one – despite our great intelligence as a species – can fully understand.

In short, God is each one of us. Beautiful, ugly, tall and short, man, woman, intersex, trans, gay, straight, queer, rich, poor, black, white, pink or green. Finding a way of honouring God is recognizing our own inherent value as individuals and as part of a larger entity that we are only a small part of.

In those terms, yes, I believe in God.

But finding a community in which to honour God, to form links with others who also believe in a God of inclusion and love, has proven challenging. I simply cannot stomach attending and being part of a Christian church that condemns those who, like me, fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. And while not all Christians condemn homosexual and gender-variant life decisions, I seek a community that celebrates it; tolerance is not enough.

I found some comfort in a Zen Buddhist community in Victoria, BC during my late twenties. When I met with the vibrant, charismatic Buddhist abbot who led the community, I explained my struggles with gender, how hard it was to have lost the support and love of my birth family, of how I had no use for religions who rejected people like me. He explained that in buddhism there were more than two genders. My ears burned. Really? How is this possible? He talked of how we were all one, that each of us was complete just as we were and that the universe was really just a fancy word for ‘activity’. The universe was in constant motion and we were part of it. From my initiation in Zen Buddhism I learned to meditate, to sit with the discomfort and anxiety that I felt all too often. I learned to be with myself in silence and yet at the same time be part of a larger community, all of us on an empirical journey to self-knowledge. The practice required existing in harmony with myself, listening to my body – something that did not come easily – and recognizing myself in the eyes of others. I was deeply grateful for that initiation and still listen to dharma talks on my way to work, meditating as I wait for traffic lights.

But I did not become a Zen Buddhist. For one, the financial cost of membership was high (although much cheaper than the therapy I pay for). And I moved to a different city, to a new sangha (religious community) with whom I did not feel a similar kinship. I explored other Buddhist groups that specialized in Vipassana, or loving-kindness, practice. But compared to the rigour of Zen practice, it felt watered down for Western tastes. I stopped going and retreated to personal practice.

Part of my resistance to Zen meditation was purely practical. As someone who had suffered depression for more than ten years, I had spent a lot of time alone, in silence, in an informal kind of meditation of my own. What I felt I wanted now was a spiritual tool that could help me reach out and connect with others. That could teach me how to create meaningful connections with others. Heck, that could help me master the art of small talk. I also longed for a practice that did not require me to sit in silence for 45 mins each day (or whatever the time commitment was that I had committed to that week). As a white collar office worker and a writer I sit a lot. And when the availability of free time is limited, spending that free time sitting just didn’t feel that appealing. Of course, walking meditation is also an acceptable practice and one I do practice on my way to work.

But perhaps most importantly for me, I felt that my struggles with dissociation – that is, distancing myself from what was going on around me or having a sort of out of body separation from my own life – made Zen buddhism a bad fit for me. It was just too easy for me to retreat into silence when confronted with difficult situations. Instead of developing my own voice, my ability to speak out my truth and develop the vocabulary needed to do so, I tended to want to close off into myself. The Zen concept of separating from desire turned too easily into entropy.

I haven’t written off Zen Buddhism entirely and still gain much from the short time that I formally practiced it. But I also feel like I do not want to be a Buddhist as a reaction to my rejection of Christianity. I want to be a Buddhist because I feel like it is the most effective path to a moral existence. And I’m not sure it is. Recent allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of Zen Buddhist organizations has shown that no matter which organization you turn to for spiritual guidance, human nature is human nature and not even a religion based on conscious awareness and right living, right action and right speech is beyond the reach of human misconduct.

That is not necessarily a reason to turn away. Organizations can only change if its members stand up for what is true and right. But the urgent, palpable need for a spiritual community is not so urgent for me anymore. Not right now, anyway. As with other things in life, I find my need for a spiritual home waxes and wanes depending on where I am in my life. Things are good right now, which might mean now is exactly the time to looks for that home.

My search for a spiritual home continues.