When It’s Time

Death can be a powerful teacher. Maybe nothing is more powerful. Yet it is awful and terrifying. It can teach us not to waste a moment, and that no moment (if you can feel it) is ever wasted. It can wake us up to the central choice in our life, namely, how much will we allow love to animate our life?

 

My Dad is in hospice care right now. He is in Virginia, I am now in New York. He is 96 years old, no longer conscious, and can die at any moment. He wants to go. Over the last few months, he said I have accepted that I will die. What I worry about is the pain. He had seen his Dad beg to die. He had seen his sister beg to die. He did not want to beg to die. He had too much grace to say it in a hurtful way, but a few days ago, he begged to die, or beg that we would take away the pain. And we tried to take away the pain.

 

For several years, I taught a philosophy class for tenth-twelfth grade students called Questions. We studied the questions that the students and I most wanted to confront. The first unit, and often the most meaningful, was one on death. We talked about it from many directions and perspectives. How did different cultures think about death and dying? What rituals did they have? We looked at how people can face their death and help people who are dying. Teaching that class was helpful to me, too. What was most helpful to students, I think, was learning they had the power to face even their deepest fears and talk about them.

 

Yet, as I sat with my father, I realized there was so much I hadn’t learned. I knew that regret and feeling responsible for all that I hadn’t done or didn’t think of doing was normal, yet as I faced my father’s pain and suffering, I felt it anyway. As my wife, Linda, said it, death was not theoretical any longer.

 

One of my biggest wishes was that I had talked more frequently, so it had sunk in, with people who had gone through being with a person who was dying. Or I had listened more deeply to the one or two teachers I had in my life who were able to speak sincerely, insightfully, about it. How can we help others? How do we arrange for hospice? When the person is no longer conscious, should there always be a loved one with him or her? How much can an unconscious person hear or need us? How can we live with death?

 

I felt awful leaving him. He had called us, on Tuesday morning around 8:15 am, first my brother and then me, to say goodbye. He was in a hospital bed, having trouble breathing, and thought he was about to die. I think that after he spoke with us, he went through his contacts on his phone to call several more people. It took Linda and I about three or four hours to get packed and cancel all our work and appointments, and 8.5 hours to drive there, through snow storms and traffic. And luckily, he was still relatively aware and conscious Tuesday night. He told us to go rest and see him in the morning. Wednesday morning, he was occasionally conscious and with us, but in more pain. His condition dropped off rapidly after that. When we left on Saturday, he was unconscious. The father that I knew was mostly gone. My brother and cousins and the hospice caregiver was with him as we left. The nurses said he might continue like that for several days, maybe a few weeks. Yet, I felt awful leaving.

 

My course taught me some important lessons about dying. I knew to prepare on my own so I didn’t burden my Dad with with my tears and with my inability to let go. I tried to let go so he could let go. We had been very close over the last few years so there were no problems between us that we had to resolve.

 

I did not lie to him about his condition. I did not say to him anything that I didn’t, truly, feel. He said ”I know that if I felt there was an afterlife, I would be more comforted, but I don’t.” I did not talk about an afterlife. I did not talk about Karma. I just agreed with him, and added, “I guess we just don’t really know.”

 

What I mostly did, when I was with him, was sit with him. I told him I loved him, frequently. Sometimes, I meditated with him. Sometimes, even though he was unconscious, he would get agitated. He would move his feet, or try to get up, or start a sort of moaning. In those moments, I would hold his hand or massage his shoulders.

 

The caregiver was wonderful. She would sometimes hold and massage his feet and help him move, in bed. They’d do this sort of chant. She’d ask him, What are you doing, Mr David? His name is David. He would then say his name, and she’d repeat it back to him. That would go on until he quieted.

 

Other times, I’d silently wish him to be at peace, to feel loved, and be able to let go. I pictured him being surrounded, embraced by a warm, white light. I pictured him going into that light. Sometimes, it seemed to help. He would calm down, stop walking in the bed. But other times, even after he stopped sleepwalking, his breathing would remain agitated. He did not go off into the light or the good night. He did not, or his life did not, go by his or my timetable. Some other force was at work.

 

We might imagine we have control over our life and our situation. We imagine this control derives from our rationality. And some of it does. We can do so much. Our rational mind is so powerful. But the rational mind, as Jung and Freud, Buddha and Jesus, as well as countless others have said, is like a boat on a vast ocean. We have to let ourselves be more aware of, more intimate with, that ocean. We have to do that in each moment of our lives so that, when death comes, we have more of an ability to live even death as well as we possibly can.

 

Death is a powerful teacher, if we are willing to learn what we can from it. If we are willing to let ourselves look at our possible death, and thus, the individual moments of our lives, with as much honesty as we can, and to live with as much love as we can. I know this. I just have to do it. And I continue to wish, to imagine my Dad, peaceful, loved, and able to let go.

 

**Maybe,  in a future blog, I will write about some resources my students and I found helpful, but I can’t do that now.

Why Teach? Why Do Anything?

“Why become a teacher? Why chose one profession or job over another? Why do anything? I have to admit that after high school, I told myself I would never teach in a public school. I found education valuable, but the school I had attended was too big and restrictive. I wanted to do something with my life that was meaningful, alive, creative, like write novels, plays or poetry or do something adventurous….

I think teaching is … is one of the most meaningful things you can do. After a day of teaching is over, you don’t have to find other ways to make the world a better place—you do it daily….”

 

To read the rest of this blog, please go to the Good Men Project, which just published it today. It is a re-write of one of my earlier posts.

 

Let Love Live

I’m sure you, too, are amazed at scenes like this: You’re watching your child at play, or a puppy running around the yard. Or you’re walking in the woods and see a kit (baby fox) or a butterfly.

 

Or—I am sitting in bed, a magazine on my lap. My wife is next to me, doing a puzzle. In between us, near our feet, are two cats, sleeping. I look at them, at all of us, and feel awe. Ok, the cats are simply sleeping, my wife, puzzling. But there is such trust on that bed. These beings want to be here, with me, with each other. They care. Or we care.

 

One of the cats, Milo, starts twitching, as if dreaming. He wraps his front paws around and over his head, as if to hide. I lean over and touch his back, and the shaking stops. He relaxes, releases his head and turns over, showing me his belly. There is such vulnerability there, delicacy. I give myself to you, and you give it back, enhanced.

 

I am reading an article in the September issue of Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom For Our Time. It is a wonderful conversation between two Buddhist meditators and educators, Sharon Salzberg and Bell Hooks, about “The Power of Real Love.” Sharon talks of growing up and thinking that love is something given by others, but instead, it is an ability, a capacity, maybe even a responsibility we have in ourselves. Bell Hooks talks of love as residing in our actions, not just in our feelings. But in this day, in this political climate, where fear and hate are so frequently in the news—How do we love? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and care when the forces of domination seem to surround us?

 

Actions taken out of love can be the most difficult and painful in our lives—and the most liberating. There is more power in the touch of love than can be conceived and dreamed in fear and hate. Fear can be a message to wake up and observe more closely or to turn away. But it is built on opposition, and is unstable. It lasts only as long as we maintain a threat or an enemy, and a wall. Those outside the wall are rejected; those inside the wall are suspect. Such fear needs our compliance with it in order to succeed.

 

And this is our choice each day. You, me, all of us still have this choice. Will we touch and be touched by what is happening to those who share the earth with us? Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn what is going on, to care and to act? Will we allow love to live in us, or will we cover our heads and hearts with fear?

 

**And thank you to Bell Hooks and Sharon Salzberg (and Lion’s Roar) for the conversation and teachings.

I Can’t Believe It

I look at the new Graham-Cassidy health care bill that was proposed in the Senate and have trouble believing any politician would propose such legislation at all, let alone four times this year. It is a slightly changed version of previous examples of Republican denial of health care legislation that were unsuccessful, except this time, it gives more power to individual states to determine the final shape health care will take.

 

15 million people could lose their health care immediately under this bill, 32 million by 2027. This does not include all the people whose insurance rates would go up so much that the quality of their lives would be undermined. The bill would destroy the protections against insurance companies denying coverage for people with preexisting conditions, or raising lifetime caps on payments or raising premiums exponentially. It would cut Medicaid. Almost one-half of births in the US and one-half of the people covered by Medicaid are children, 14% are people with disabilities. It would cut funding for Planned Parenthood and change where federal health care funding goes, taking it from blue states to give to red ones. [I don’t even want to get into how Medicare and other social programs are under the gun in this bill and Republican budget plans.]

 

Why propose legislation that is so blatantly wrong, so blatantly opposed to the best interests of most Americans, and do it again and again? Do they actually think it would be good for the country? Or is it, as many have suggested, a cynical political move, an attempt to deliver a promise to their constituents to repeal anything with President Obama’s name on it? Are they doing it to serve the interests of the super rich who pay for their campaigns and whose interests they primarily serve? Do they think if Medicaid is cut, there will be money to enable tax cuts to the wealthy in the budget?

 

If they are doing it because they think it will serve the interests of their constituents, then I’m really confused. I understand that red state politicians and voters might be happy to take money away from blue states. But other than that, people will be hurt by this bill whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

 

I think they are either hiding the intent of the bill or they believe the government has no role to play in delivering or protecting health care—or the health—of people. They believe that the best way to serve others is to do nothing to help them. They believe only if a person can pay for it do they deserve it. They believe the only responsibility each person has regarding others is to protect one’s own self-interest. The only value of others is what they can get for you or how they can serve you. The people who have power and money deserve that power and money. Thus, politicians only have one role—to protect the interests of the rich.

 

This leaves each of us isolated behind a wall of our own imagining, and the only protection we have is the power of the guns we own or control. This is not the sort of nation I support or think most Americans believe in. We’re better than this. We’re not just creatures isolated from others by the way we think of them. When I look within, I find others at the depths of who I am, not as objects to use but as fellow beings I care about and who care about me.

 

Many Republicans have been lying about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) for years. They have been saying Obamacare takes away choice, isn’t working and is causing unaffordable rate increases, when in fact it is working (although it needs fixing). There have been rate hikes, but those hikes are below the levels that existed before the ACA. For example, according to a Forbes magazine report on statistics by the US Department of Health and Human Services, premium rate hikes from 2010 to 2015 were below those common in earlier years, especially 2004 to 2010. And the increases that have been observed are partly due to efforts by Republican politicians to cause those rate hikes.

 

How have many Republican politicians tried to undermine the ACA? Let’s go back to 2014-15, to Marco Rubio and other Republicans, who attacked what are called “risk corridor” federal payments. The ACA is meant to cover everyone. One fear of proponents of the ACA was that there would be too many sick people on the roles of insurance companies and too little money from premiums, so the ACA was structured to use federal funds to cover the risks (or “risk corridors”) undertaken by insurance companies. Republicans, however, fought against these payments and in 2014 inserted a provision into a spending bill to reduce the risk payments. Because of these attacks by Rubio and company, only 13% of what insurance companies were expecting was paid in 2015. Insurance companies then had to raise rates to make up for this deficit.

 

President Trump further worked to destabilize the ACA by threatening to withhold subsidies to help poorer Americans pay their premiums. Because of this threat, insurance companies talked about possibly raising premiums.

 

The ACA has been met with distortions and/or lies ever since it was first proposed. We could go back to 2009 and Sarah Palin’s false claims that Democrats were trying to create “death panels” in the new health care law (the ACA) to determine if seniors and the disabled were worthy of care. In recent weeks, there have been claims that Democrats rushed through the ACA without hearings and were just as secretive as Republicans have been in the house and Senate. Wrong. Do your own fact checking (with reliable information data bases).

 

The Republicans, from day one, excluded Democrats from playing a role in crafting any of their 2017 health care bills. They debated behind closed doors and held no hearings. They tried to rush through their bills before the CBO could analyze the legislation or voters organize (although they didn’t succeed in this effort), or sometimes even allow Senators to fully read the bill. They initiated a “reconciliation” process in the Senate that limits debate to 20 hours, limits Democrats from adding any substantive amendments. And instead of the normal procedure, where such major legislation would require 60 votes to pass, they would only need a simple majority to pass their bill.

 

In contrast, the ACA was debated in three House committees and two in the Senate. It was subject to hours of bipartisan debate that allowed for amendments. The contents of the bill were provided to members of both parties throughout the debate process. It took nine months to pass and, don’t forget, it was based on a model developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and pushed by Romney to become policy in Massachusetts. (And if you want another example of Republican distortions of the latest bill, listen to Jimmy Kimmel’s piece on You Tube about his interactions with Senator Cassidy.)

 

The ACA is not perfect and not the best imaginable legislation. It is complex and cumbersome. But millions of people are insured now that wouldn’t have been otherwise. There are now federal protections for individuals with preexisting conditions, for comprehensive coverage, etc, that weren’t there before. And it is clear that Republican politicians have been working to demonize Obamacare or drive up the premiums so more people will lose or dislike their insurance and thus support Republican efforts to repeal it.

 

If you are concerned about health care, about economic freedom or equity, concerned about the wellbeing of family members, neighbors, your business and the future of this country, please speak up. Call your Senators, and especially call Republican Senators and tell them what you think of their bill, write letters, protest in any way you can. Try to wake up their better nature. The health and wellbeing of a majority of Americans is on the line.

 

*Update: Senator John McCain announced today (Friday, 9/22), that he will oppose the bill. One more Republican is needed to stop the legislation (for now).

Some phone numbers to call:

Capito, West Virginia: 202 224 6472

Collins, Maine: 202 224 2523

McCain, Arizona: 202 224 2235. Thank him for coming out against the bill.

Murkowsky, Alaska: 202 224 6665

Natural and Human Disasters

I had planned to post a more relaxing, reflective blog, but the latest reports from Florida stopped me. The suffering I see on the news is so powerful that I can almost know what it is like for my own home and life to be threatened. I feel my heart beating more quickly, thoughts race, and the world seems darker, like the storm clouds are racing towards me, not Florida.

 

This is made worse by hearing about the fires on the West coast and memories of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. It is made worse by the political and social disasters, of the hate riot in Charlottesville, and the human disaster, the prejudices, shortsightedness, lack of empathy and caring expressed by the President’s response to Charlottesville, his actions to end DACA, and his first trip to Texas after Harvey. It can feel like the earth itself has lost its center, weeping one minute, angry the next. And yet here, right now, in central New York, it is cool and beautiful.

 

These physical hurricanes make the greed and shortsightedness crystal clear. Before Harvey, the Washington Post and other reputable news organizations reported that the President proposed cutting funding for FEMA, for long term preparedness for disasters; for HUD, which helps rebuild homes, parks, and hospitals; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which does crucial research and applies that research to help coastal residents prepare for disasters. In the middle of August, he signed an executive order which, along with other things, rolled back standards set by President Obama requiring that federal infrastructure projects take climate change into account. During the election, he claimed, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that global warming was a myth perpetuated by China. Despite denying later on that he said this, he still nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

 

And all along, the number and severity of weather disasters have been increasing. According to NOAA, the number of weather-related disasters which caused a billion dollars or more in damage have increased from 5.5 per year, starting in 1980; then for the last 5 years of this study, 2012-2016, the average was 10.6. This year might exceed that. Yet, despite his denials and his proposed cuts to government services, he says to the people of Houston that he cares about their well-being. His supporters, like Rush Limbaugh, even say that the press is hyping, exaggerating the dangers of Irma “to advance [a] climate agenda” and create panic in order to sell products. And then he leaves Florida.

 

Other Republicans say “don’t bring up Global Warming” during a hurricane, don’t politicize the suffering from these natural events. I agree that our first priority should be safety. But after that, understanding why the number of natural disasters are increasing is crucial to preparing for and creating policies to slow down our deteriorating climate. We must take into account how the increased temperature and water vapor over the Caribbean and Gulf, due to Global Warming, are adding fuel to the storms. To ignore global warming is like saying don’t take facts into consideration when you think. It is like the President and his cohorts are saying: Don’t think rationally. Don’t care about others. Don’t consider the implications of our policies.

 

The timing of these hurricanes, after so many other human hurricanes and disasters, makes crystal clear just how lacking in foresight, empathy, and understanding, just how delusional these politicians are. They themselves are a hurricane wind trying to devastate the economic stability and the remnants of political power that remain in the hands of the poor and middle class. As investigative journalist Naomi Klein pointed out, they are using natural, corporate and politician-created forms of disaster to get us to feel fear and accept or ignore policies that we would never accept otherwise. But hurricanes devastate the world for everyone.

 

So, please. We all have to help the people of Florida, Louisiana and Texas in any way we can. But the best way to help them long term, and help us all, is to learn all we can of the science of global warming. Practice compassion and mindfulness to keep our thinking as clear as possible. Call out politicians to stop the policies based on hate, short-term greed, and denial of science. Give the EPA back to scientists who know what they’re doing. Give to environmental organizations and those working to end this disaster of an administration. Vote, Demonstrate. Join with others who are caring people. To recover long term from these physical disasters we will have to put aside differences and work together to end this political disaster.

Charlottesville, Hate and Delusion

I have never posted two blogs in one day, but after yesterday’s violence in Charlottesville, I feel a need to do so. My first was on how to begin the school year.

 

But this blog⏤this blog is from feeling this violence and this administration is too much. Almost every day this Republican administration, this President, commits an outrage that would have brought down other administrations—lies, tweets, Presidential actions, possibly colluding with a foreign government to interfere in the election, taking vacations to his own golf course and paying himself for staying there with taxpayer money, our money, firing the head of the FBI and possibly interfering and trying to stop the FBI and other government investigations, limiting the EPA’s efforts to protect us from pollution and global warming, attempting to sell off (privatize) public schools and the war in Afghanistan, attacking voting rights, attacking the free press and free speech, attacking Muslims, people of color, attacking women and people with disabilities, attacking most every American by trying to force down our throats health care legislation that would undermine or deny health care to millions. The list goes on and on.

 

But Charlottesville—this makes the threat to this nation abundantly clear. At least three people were killed, 35 injured.  White supremacists and people who admire Nazis, march, the biggest such march in decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center called it the “largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades.” Finally, T gets a march of his supporters that is, actually, bigger than any other march, and, hopefully, this will bring him and his administration down.

 

Charlottesville represents the administration’s collusion with hate and delusion. At an address to reporters at his golf resort in N. J., he speaks of “hatred, bigotry and violence” on “many sides.” And he fails to call the actions terrorism. He fails to distinguish between the group that killed people and consciously precipitated violence and the people who demonstrated against such incitements.

 

He called out and condemned car bombs and cars and trucks running down people in France and England. But here in the US he suddenly can’t speak the word ‘terrorism’. It sticks in his throat. Even Speaker of the House, Republican Paul Ryan, condemned the marchers who precipitated the violence, but not Mr. T. And former KKK leader David Duke reminds the President of who put him in office.

 

Mr. T’s more non-violent supporters try to claim the violence in Charlottesville is a fluke. They ask: Why don’t “you” criticize Muslim violence? According to a Politifact report on 2/6/17, Mr. T commented that the US news media reports on terrorist attacks was “dishonest.” It supposedly had “gotten to the point where it’s [terrorist attacks are] not even being reported.” He told us then that there was so much more extremist violence happening and we were not safe. But, of course, the violence committed by Muslims from other nations is and was being constantly reported, maybe even too much so. And as Democracy Now, CNN, and other respected media have reported, if there wasn’t any such violence, Mr. T and his associates would manufacture “fake news” to make us think there was. For example, remember Kellyanne Conway talking about a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never took place. This violence is not a fluke. It has been inflamed by this administration after building for years.

 

According to a New York Times piece, since 9/11 right-wing extremists have averaged 337 attacks per year. The SPLC has documented 1064 incidents of swastikas in schools, racist taunts, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny in the first month after the election alone. Slate is keeping an updated list of such incidents. Yet, the Department of Homeland Security withdrew $400,000 in funding for the group Life After Hate which tackles radical white nationalist violence. The President fails to recognize what law enforcement agencies throughout the nation recognize: “right-wing, anti-government extremism is the leading source of ideological violence in America.” “Americans are almost seven times as likely to be killed by a white extremist than by an Islamic one.

 

The FBI is now investigating the act of terrorism-by-car in Charlottesville. They should also be investigating Mr. T and his cabinet’s possible collusion with hate groups.

 

Democracy and freedom can’t survive in this country when hate sits in the oval office. Democracy is a continual conversation, even debate, often strident, requiring inquiry and engagement of its citizens. Hate is an attempt to end all conversation and inquiry. It allows only one viewpoint. It is a conversation of speakers who speak only one word and who refuse to listen to more than one sound. Well, it’s time for the rest of us, for most of us, to speak with a diversity of voices willing to listen to all sounds, but with one central aim: to unseat this administration and the hate it fosters.

 

*Tonight, Sunday, in DeWitt Park, Ithaca, at 7:00 pm there will be Stand United With Charlottesville rally. Maybe there is a similar rally or demonstration in your town or city you can attend.

Persistence and Gratitude

Thank you to everyone who called or emailed or messaged me or just wished good things for me regarding the operation (or operations) on my hand and wrist. The surgery seems to have gone well. At the literal last minute, the surgeon and I decided to only do two surgeries, not three. He did the carpal tunnel, which is not a big deal—and a proximal row carpectomy, which means taking out three of the eight bones in my wrist. He did not do the cubital tunnel surgery. Instead of general anesthesia, I asked the anesthesiologist to use a nerve block and just enough anesthesia to put me asleep. This led to fewer after-affects from the surgery.

 

The only complication was with pain medication. I am allergic or sensitive to many painkillers. And despite many conversations with the doctor about which painkillers to take home with me (I did the surgery in a surgicare facility, not a hospital, and did not stay overnight), I was given one we hadn’t discussed and soon had to stop taking it. Tylenol and Motrin are all I have taken since.

 

The fun part—aside from a short bout of feeling I never want to do this again— my mind has been fairly clear. Visualizations have been helpful with pain relief and meditation has been a great friend.

 

And I am so grateful for my doctor—and also for my health insurance, without which I probably could never have afforded the surgery. I know I pay a lot for insurance, but it’s comprehensive. If the Republicans have their way, such insurance plans will likely disappear for the middle class.

 

I can’t type well right now and have little tolerance for sitting at my computer, but have still written a few emails and made some phone calls about the denying health care to Americans act being considered by Republicans in the Senate. This bill is just too shameful to resist mentioning. It exposes two Republican agendas: redistributing money from the poor and middle class to the rich (also see President Obama on the issue). And making life so expensive for lower and middle class Americans, and politics so difficult, that we will not be able to persist in fighting against the denial or undermining of our rights and freedoms.

 

But persist we must. For example, according to the CBO analysis, the House Republican bill would lead to 23 million people losing their insurance. This would also be the case with the Senate version. But this includes, if I understand it, only those getting ACA government subsidies. It does not include all those, like seniors, who might lose coverage due to prohibitive increases in premiums. A CBO estimate of the House plan says that an average 64 year old earning $26, 500 would see their out of pocket costs for health care rise from $1700 to $14,600. The Senate plan has (as of this writing) not been analyzed yet. The increase in costs could wipe out savings and spending power for so many people. And remember: Medicaid covers millions, one fifth of Americans—those with disabilities, in nursing homes, the poor; 49% of births in this country are covered by Medicaid.

 

The exposure of Republicans possibly colluding with Russians to interfere in/manipulate the election, interfere in investigations, rip off tax money, etc. might lead us to think Mr. T and his cohorts will be inevitably dethroned, that our legal system will get him, or them. I certainly feel this yearning for dethronement, but nothing is inevitable (except…). How often has the legal system been compromised before by money and power?

 

Opposing the Republican plan to destroy democracy and undermine our rights, freedoms and economic power will take time and persistence, but I think it’s just something that needs to be done, even by those of us with casts on our arms.

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

The Power That Liberates vs The Power That Corrupts

Two articles in the recent Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2017), when read together, provide an extremely relevant, even fascinating insight into the situation in the world today. One is on the psychological effects of power on the powerful. The other is on self-compassion.

 

The first article was called Power Moves: Success Changes How People Think and Act—Often, But Not Always, For the Worse, by Theodor Schaarschmidt. The British politician and historian, Lord John Acton, has often been quoted as saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.” He was mostly speaking of Popes, Roman Emperors, and absolute monarchs.

 

But are the corrupting influences of power real? And if so, are they attributable to the mere fact of having power? Or is it that ruthless people are the ones most likely to search for power to begin with? The article discusses psychologist Susan Fiske’s research—as people gain influence, they change. They act more freely, with less empathy, and a reduced concern for details.

 

The research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, quoted by Schaarschmidt, adds depth to this picture. When we feel powerless, our actions are more inhibited; we are more sensitive to punishment and also the needs of others. As our influence and power increase, we become more sensitive to rewards and less inhibited. The skills needed to obtain power and to lead effectively are the ones most likely to deteriorate once we have power. The powerful tend to overestimate their skills, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes, and ignore outside viewpoints.

 

Further studies show the more power people get, the fewer social norms they tend to follow. They can become “Machiavellian;” they disregard moral or even legal limits and feel free to use others in their pursuit of status and advantage. According to psychologist Kibeom Lee, when Machiavellian traits combine with narcissism and psychopathy, people show less honesty and humility.

 

At first glance, it might seem from this research that empathy is somehow opposed to agency or the ability to act and assume power. Not so. In his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner says it is social intelligence, the power to understand, value and advance the goals of others, that yields true power and it is involved in every relationship and interaction. Without this social intelligence we “tend to act like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes” (parts of the brain critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior). The paradox is that we tend to “rise in power in the world due to what is best about human nature but we fall from power due to what’s worst.”

 

According to Schaarschmidt, the corrupting influence of power is slightly less likely with women, for example, whose path to power is often different than with men. As you might expect from the ubiquitous sexism in our society, women are more likely to be attacked for anything that might appear as dominating a group or asserting power, and rewarded with influence by looking out for others.

 

Self-compassion, according to the article The Self-Compassion Solution: Building On A Buddhist Principle, Psychologists Are Learning How Being Kind to Yourself Can Bolster Resilience, Buffer Against Stress and Improve Relationships, by Marina Krakovsky, means “treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend.” In his research, psychologist Kristen Neff discerned three elements of self-compassion: kindness toward yourself, “paying attention to your suffering in a mindful, nonobsessive way,” and a cognitive component, where you understand that suffering is a normal part of life. Neff found that people who score high in self-compassion are less prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Krakovsky mentions the work by psychologist Juliana Breines, who found that self-compassion also helped people not get caught up in feeling their self-worth is dependent on approval by others. But Breines wondered if this diminished worry about the opinion of others would lead to a loss in motivation, as in schools. She found the opposite to be true. Students with self-compassion tended, for example, to study even more for a quiz than others.

 

And in a study with seniors, researchers led by psychologist Batts Allen found that people with self-compassion had a stronger sense of well-being. They were more mindful of what they were doing and feeling, and thus more capable of acknowledging and accepting what was true. Self-compassion apparently led to a better sense of, and valuing of, who they were.

 

Compassion in general is a readiness to act to reduce suffering. Compassion practices strengthen the insula, which is an area in the cerebral cortex of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, involved in emotional regulation, stimulating energy and focus. Compassion for self and others not only energizes us to act to relieve suffering; it energizes us to act with more awareness. It increases our ability to learn and discern what is going on. Especially when combined with mindfulness, it can help people think more clearly and critically.

 

We have this maladaptive, basically Machiavellian, idea in the U. S. that only by being selfish and ruthless can we achieve any political change; that ruthless behavior can somehow result in a “better” or more equitable world. The research on power shows the opposite to be true. And one of many reasons this idea is maladaptive is because it can undermine the motivation by ethical and empathic people to want to take political action. We have an example now of a leader whose craving for power, rewards, and status has clouded his empathy and understanding and caused political chaos, an increase in racist incidents, an undermining of democratic values, etc., etc.

 

If we want leaders who can think clearly and act with understanding, we need to learn more about the power of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. We need leaders trained in compassion so they can resist the distorting influence of power and more clearly empathize with and prioritize the needs of the great majority they represent, not just the rich few. The power that corrupts is power over others. The power that liberates is power over oneself. A wonderful, short novel based on the life of the Buddha, by Satish Kumar, called The Buddha and the Terrorist, makes clear the differences between these two types of power. The first is power based on opposition and so creates perpetual conflict and distrust. The second is based on understanding self and others, the power to learn and change, and thus creates trust and cooperation. And one way we can begin to advance the power that liberates is by teaching compassionate critical thinking in schools.

 

Come Together, Right Now, Over All of Us

I felt the need to write a quick and short blog in response to all those people of conscience who say “be thankful for our new President, for he is waking us up to the reality of America’s ‘sickness’ of racism, inequity and such.” Or those who blame the DNC or Hillary or Bernie supporters or Jill Stein or the Russians for our new situation.

 

I agree that we need to wake up to what is happening in America and the whole world, and I agree that an analysis is needed of the forces and conditions that created this situation. But anything that interferes with united action has just got to go. Diversity in perspectives is helpful. Antipathy toward your possible supporters and colleagues is not.

 

This situation, like any situation, can help me grow. It is important to learn that I don’t have to turn away when life gets uncomfortable or difficult and that I can turn discomfort into engaged and meaningful, even joyful, action. But remember that to say “don’t be afraid” can make you more afraid. To say “don’t think of an elephant” leads me to think of an elephant. Sickness can be healing, but it can also kill you. Fear may wake me up, but it interferes with clarity of thought and compassion for others, and it is compassion that will most help all of us right now.

 

Compassion is not exactly the same as empathy; it is not just recognizing or feeling what another person feels. It is feeling care, kindness in recognizing, feeling that the people around you feel, think, ache like you do. You feel their life, not necessarily their pain, and so you are willing and ready to act to reduce that pain. You do it naturally, because it is the right thing, the natural thing, to do.

 

So I will never be thankful that another person is in pain, even those who oppose me. In our situation now, it is the most vulnerable that might suffer the most, so how can a compassionate person welcome that? It is the earth itself that might soon cry out in pain, that might no longer be able to sustain human or any complex life, so how can I welcome that?

 

(I don’t care, however, if you partly blame Comey, or Republican efforts to undermine voting rights and destroy democracy. But please, don’t blame anyone who might care for and support you in opposing the hate, greed, and destruction that just might soon get worse. We need to, and I hope will succeed in, turning the recognition of the consequences of hate and denial into the necessity for love and kindness.)