Monday, October 29, 2012

Compassion, Gratitude, and Vulnerability

I have to tell you about two amazing people. One is seven years old, and the other is her mom. They live in New York. And not too long ago the 7-year-old had to stay home for a while because she was sick. Her mom stayed with her, and together they started Lovey Repair. Their “business” was recently featured on a NYTimes blog post. The title of the post is, “A Repaired Lovey, and a Debt Unrepaid.” So what is the business? They sew up old Loveys, or stuffed animals, pillows, etc. that have been a little too well loved and send them back to their owners all better and refreshed.

The catch? Their service is free. Mom tells daughter, “It’s a priceless business, lovey repair.” Wow! How awesome is that? Just a kind gesture to anyone who needs some extra love returned to their lives.

But it seems this may be also difficult for some people to accept. Perhaps most of us even? The author of the post was worried the duo would be inundated with requests, but Mom replied, “It always seems to work itself out.. The not charging thing actually can freak people out — I think there’s a security in the quid pro quo of capitalism that some people need.” The author wrote:

I think I would have been that person: if I had realized I was asking a total stranger for a favor, would I have really asked? It’s difficult enough to ask a friend for a favor. When I realized I couldn’t “repay” little pillow’s rescuers, I didn’t know how to feel. Gratitude, completely without connection, is an unfamiliar emotion, a little uncomfortable, and a little freeing.

Why is it so hard for us to accept favors? Why are we so afraid to allow people into our lives? Why does it matter that the people are friends or strangers?

I firmly believe that every person in the world should be required to live in a country where they do not speak the language as their primary language for a minimum of 3 months. And no, I do not actually think there is any entity in the world that could, or should, enforce this, but it is a dream nonetheless. Why? Part of the reason is so that we better understand one another. But more and more I have come to realize that one of the greatest benefits I gained from living abroad was the ability to be vulnerable, ask for help, and accept a welcoming gesture.

My first week living in France, I had just turned 21 (literally, I turned 21 exactly one week after arriving in the country), and I was going to Marseille from Aix-en-Provence with some new friends who were also in France on an educational exchange. I was a bit late, and of course I could not find the bus stop. I had spent years learning French and two years practicing it fairly intensely in college. I was scared to death to ask someone for directions. But eventually I did. And I found my bus, went to Marseille, and I had a lovely day. Taking that first step to open my mouth, unsure of whether someone else would understand me and unsure whether I would understand the response was one of the hardest things I did while living there. 

We put up barriers to other people for a variety of reasons. I can think of a few, and maybe you can think of plenty more. I think we do it because we are scared they will let us down, we are scared we will look weak, because we think we live in a zero-sum world where if we admit weakness everything is over, or because we are taught to do everything on our own. But with those barriers comes a sense of being stuck. Those barriers prevent us from our full potential. It is part of of many yoga paradoxes that giving ourselves support actually helps us go deeper into asanas.

These barriers we erect, whether a fear of accepting a gift or something else, stop us from connecting with one another, asking for help, and ultimately reaching our fullest and deepest selves. We cannot move beyond these barriers until we let ourselves be vulnerable. Sometimes we do that on purpose by going to a foreign country and looking for a bus, and other times that vulnerability falls in our lap by a 7-year-old girl and her mother repairing a loved and cherished friend without asking for anything in return.

And when we finally let others in, we find a deep sense of gratitude, which, as the blogger wrote, is ultimately freeing. As Pema Chodron said in the quote at the top of the last post, “Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” But our shared humanity is lost when we keep up the barriers. Lovey Repair is an example of compassion in action. Without regard to the recipient’s state in any way, the two of them just offer a little needed love. It is the acceptance of that love that seems to be difficult for people. Why should I accept something that is free? Doesn’t everything come with a cost? If I get something for free, am I going to have to repay it later at a higher cost?

Perhaps the cost here is the vulnerability. In many ways, it is easier to hand over cash than to let go of a little piece of ourselves. That is a huge step for many of us. But it is also a vital step. We are so good at hiding behind emails that get inappropriate and out of control, our own beliefs about why we are right, and all the other ways we block ourselves from connecting to others. But as the blogger noted, allowing that vulnerability in is “refreshing.” It can wake us up to our humanity in ways we simply cannot access elsewhere.

And yes, yoga is another perfect opportunity to find this sense of vulnerability. There are so many practices for opening up our compassion and our shared humanity. Those are posts for another day. But the first step is letting go of our ingrained views about how things should be. Instead, accept a helping hand when it is offered. Sometimes, all we need to do is say thank you. And sometimes that is the most difficult step.

Thank you, Lovey Repair, not only for the repairs, but for bringing a little slice of true compassion and gratitude into the world.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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