Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
November 2017 - Volume 17, No. 11
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To Care or Not to Care

How do we know how much to give, and how much to care for others? It seems many, if not most of the world’s spiritual traditions have in common an ethical “golden rule” - do for others as you would have them do for you. This helps keep the question ‘in balance’.

We are each born with a basic “I need” - without which we would likely perish in those early weeks and years. Very soon we are taught by either circumstance or culture (such as parents) to consider the needs of others, if only to enhance the chances that others will in turn consider my own needs. We’ll develop what I sometimes call an ‘empathy organ’[1], the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Furthermore it can become the foundation upon which to enjoy the fellowship and company of people who relish the joy of human caring. Somewhere Albert Einstein noted that the most important question for humanity is whether the universe is friendly or not. Different people have different answers to that question.

Bread is a matter of life and death…

In a mini-scene from one of my favorite Grimm Brothers stories, “The Gnome,” there’s a clip where the youngest of three brothers responds to a knock on the door - where appears a small man, a “gnome”, who begs “Please kind sir, I’m very hungry, would you spare me a crust of bread?”  The youngest brother, as did his older brothers before him, gets the little man a nice crust of bread - whereupon the little man ‘accidentally’ drops it and says, “Oh I’ve dropped it, would you please pick it up for me?” His older brothers, unbeknown to the youngest brother, had obliged; whereupon the little man had severely beaten each of then with his staff, and then in a flash, disappeared.  

The youngest brother instead hesitates at that point, and says, “Bread is a matter of life and death, you need to pick up your own bread” - which the little man does. But at the same moment the youngest brother grabs the little man’s staff, and starts beating him. The little man, trying to protect himself cries, “Stop stop! I’ll tell you where the princesses are.” (Which is a necessary key to the unfolding of the larger narrative.)

Each time I tell this story, I feel an amazement here. Partly because, I’m the type who would have stooped to pick up the bread. And partly because of the wisdom by which the younger brother refuses to comply. And it’s the only wisdom by which the larger story is allowed to proceed. 

Political fodder

Sometimes I hesitate to share this story, because it can slip into get-nowhere political fodder. It can become part of a narrative by which a polar public policy is determined, and party loyalty is canonized. In a sense, it becomes an instrument by which some people in power can divide the world - consciously and unconsciously, toward their own ends. The transcending wisdom within the fairy tale is lost, or at least used for reasons at least beyond the working out of a larger meaning for of lives of people. 

The Dividers

This is akin to my suffering at the hands of many a preacher who insists on dividing the world by which then he or she can then proclaim their own vision of unity (cf being ‘saved’). Preachers and politicians so easily fall prey to the same preset format of the salesman. First you convince the people what they need, then you make a living selling a product designed to fill that need. Semantically it’s the art or ploy of the incomplete sentence. “Are you saved?” From what? “You need this.” Why? “This is an excellent deal.” For what or who’s purpose? “It will make life easier / safer / richer / more fun…” For whom and at what expense? I admire the wisdom of the Amish meta (higher level) question: “What will this do for the community?” Or the Native American meta question: “What will be the effect to the seventh generation of the (all the) People?”

This is why I like the old stories. They don’t divide the world, they don’t give “answers” to the world. They instead take us to the deeper wisdom by which the world and the individual is transformed.  

There’s a piece of Buddhist teaching I enjoy: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”.[2] If you meet someone who has all the answers to life’s questions, kill him before you’re tempted to buy into his or her answer/belief system. At times I’ll superimpose that same wisdom on the Christian story, but then I’ll acknowledge, somewhat tongue in cheek, we’ve already done that (killed the Christ). And in many ways, all the “questions” which New Testament scripture puts in the hands of the old authorities (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc, - whom the preachers love to villianize), are true to those wanting technical “answers.” Just like so many of us. But after the Resurrection, there aren’t “questions”, there aren’t “answers” there’s just narrative - the Story of Jesus - which is the core secret of Christian worship, and the deep secret of the Mass/Eucharist. And there are stories of believers and communities with transformed lives, so much more than answers to questions. 

No, the response of the youngest brother is not a response to divide the world for the sake of his own wisdom, it’s rather a response that opens up a deeper wisdom that (in the story) transcends any politics, religion, ideology, commercial interest or tribal identity. But it does open up the rest of the story. (Even when the youngest brother initially disregards the warning of the gnome about his brothers.)

Caring and Carrying

Sometimes I’ll share with clients a subtle, but to me useful, difference between caring and carrying. Carrying can be like doing for others what it is best they do for themselves - or what they need but simply can’t do for themselves (say in an emergency). It’s a question of discernment as to what is best in a given situation. Caring is the larger picture, our response comes out of a larger framework. Carrying involves a specific choice of action. Caring is a higher level choice - the choice that lives out the Golden Rule - which at it’s depth means a unilateral moral commitment to the well-being of the other without the expectation of anything in return.  

That’s the secret of the younger brother’s response. The secret that opens up the future of the narrative (having to do with lost princesses and so much more).

I love the old stories, and count it a luxury I was raised on them. Yes, they can be used to divide things, and there will always be folks who do that. But they pass on to us a wisdom which opens up so much more. 

Their deeper purpose brings a fullness of life to ourselves, to the others, and ultimately to all people. Caring and empathy interweave toward such wisdom. We come to know the feelings and needs of each other, and a community is born, in which what we give can return to feed us, often many times over. We feed the community, the community feeds us. The self is transcended. The narrative is free to take us forward. We belong and are fed by something greater than ourselves.   

Does this answer the question about caring?  I’m not sure - but it’s where the question has taken me.  And I hope it’s helpful to you as well.

Pay attention


[1] Those with a Narcissist disorder, seem to lack this empathy organ. They can at times learn to mimic and use it, but apparently never truly develop it. That’s why they can be so ‘comfortable’ in the sales professions.

[2] I first encountered this saying from Sheldon B. Kopp, author of the book by the same name:
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage Of Psychotherapy Patients
Published May 1st 1982 by Bantam (first published January 1st 1972).

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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