Making bad assumptions

 Sad Bird

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“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions…. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)

Writing a dissertation is a long, difficult, demoralizing slog. You are basically writing a book no one cares about and no one will read. And when you hand a chapter in to your “editor” (advisor), he will forget you did so, need to be reminded, and send it back with soul-destroying criticism such as “it doesn’t fit into your larger project and it’s sloppy.”

This happened to me a couple weeks ago. And my brain broke. Writing that chapter took all that I had. I was proud of it and excited I’d finally produced something. I’d warned my advisor that it was a very rough draft.

I felt that he was telling me I was wasting his time and he no longer cared about the project. I wanted to quit right then and there. In fact, in that moment I thought I had no choice – I assumed that was the underlying message in his email. I have often felt like I should quit, but this was the first time I felt my advisor was not behind me anymore.

I tend to worry a lot about what other people think about me – even though I pretend I don’t. But knowing I had my advisor’s support was an important mental construct for me in this process of doing the diss. Even if no one else cared, at least he did.

As I said, my brain broke. I felt it break. There was a shudder, and then everything stopped moving and fell into a jumbled heap somewhere down past the cerebellum, where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord. It got really quiet inside my head. There was simply nothing in there anymore, except the one thought that this was it, I couldn’t bear any more.

And for a few days, I couldn’t. But slowly the pieces of my mind reassembled, because the human body and spirit are resilient. I reread my advisor’s email. I wrote him an email apologizing for sending him a “sloppy” chapter and explained that for me it was an important step forward just to get something down on paper. I asked him to clarify what he meant by his other comments.

Over the course of the next week we sent a few emails back and forth while I tried to understand his criticisms. And today, finally, I got it. And I see that it was not my ideas he was criticizing, it was their presentation. I can fix the problem.

I see now that the assumptions I made – that he no longer cared and that my project was a failure – were completely false. He patiently answered all my questions until his thoughts were clarified for me. And the only way my diss will be a failure is if I quit.

The experience made me realize how many assumptions I make in my daily life based on incomplete evidence and my own mixed-up perspective of the world. It’s like that picture above. The bird isn’t sad, of course. In every other shot I took of him he has his head up, looking around, interested in the world. And I just as easily could have titled it “Bird Looking Down.” But I’m a writer, after all, and I deal in imagination. It’s just that sometimes it gets the better of me.

Are all emotions, even compassion, essentially selfish?

So an update on my quest to make Happy Photo the actual theme of my blog, since (almost) every post I’ve been doing lately is a Happy Photo post. Nope, can’t do it. Or not officially, as a title of my blog or anything. There is a photo studio with that name already. However, I still intend to begin most of my posts with a photo and quote, as I have been doing. The posts will no longer be labelled Happy Photo. But their purpose is to feature a single photo I have taken that makes me happy, and to use that photo and accompanying quote as a starting point for some thoughts on a particular topic. (And now that I’ve figured this out, there will be fewer annoying words before the photos : ).

Electric Water

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“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)

Let me begin by saying I highly respect the Dalai Lama. I was once lucky enough to attend a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in which he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He gave a speech, and had a giggle like a small child’s. It was impossible (at least for me) not to feel profoundly impacted by his presence and message.

But I call bullshit on the above quote.

The other day there was an upsetting incident involving my ex bf. I could have responded with anger or kindness. I chose kindness, because I recognized the emotions behind his actions. They are the same that I feel: loss, grief, regret, anger, etc. All the stuff you feel when you end a relationship. The incident was incredibly distressing and even somewhat frightening to me, but mostly I felt sadness for him and myself, and for the loss we have both suffered. I responded in a way that I hoped would alleviate some of the weight of what he was feeling.

I admit I have always felt an excess of compassion for him. Perhaps because he so seems to need it.

I’ll also admit that there have been many, many times in the past when I responded with the opposite of compassion to him, and I feel deep regret for those times. Enacting compassion in relationships is something I have had to work on and learn.

I also admit that in practicing compassion for him, I feel a need for something in return. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe recognition that even though I reacted in a kind way, I still had reason to feel upset myself. Maybe some compassion in return. Heck, maybe I expected the gates of heaven to open and angels to sing in praise of my generosity. Yeah, ugly, I know. But this is the point of this post. Was I really being compassionate, or was I acting kindly in hopes of gaining something for myself?

It should come as no surprise that the incident did not resolve in a way that alleviated my own distress. And I ended up feeling aggrieved.

I started wondering. Are all emotions and pursuant behaviors selfish? Is there such a thing as true compassion? I know I felt genuine compassion for him, but in acting upon that, it seems that I may have screwed it up.

Maybe only people like the Dalai Lama are capable of true compassion, in both thought and deed.

Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I did the best I could. I did act with good intentions, even if I was hoping some of that goodness would come back my way. And maybe that’s human. And at least I can see that and own it.

But I’m sorry, Dalai Lama. Practicing compassion did not make me happy. And it appears that my ex bf did not even recognize what I did as compassion, so I can’t say it really made him happy either.

Or maybe I misunderstand what compassion really is. Maybe it’s not about kindness or feeling sympathy for someone who has harmed you. But if it’s not that, what on earth is it?

Still so much to learn, still so far to go.