Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Paris Hilton and the Limits of Compassion

Sunday night was my classics reading group. We've been getting together at my house every month or so for about seven years now. A bookseller, a lawyer, a languages professor, a scientist, and a zoo keeper. The girls call them "daddy's five people."

This time it was Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. It doesn't matter what we read all that much anymore, because whatever it is, we'll spend about fifteen minutes talking about that and then turn to whatever else is on our minds. This sort of disregard for the text, I've come to appreciate, is the mark of a truly great book group.

Anna set the tone. "I'm sixty-two and I don't need to impress anyone: Nietzsche is OVERRATED!"

We all agreed that while the man is a twisted genius, his notion that Euripides killed tragedy, that his nineteenth century world was, at best, a decayed remnant of the Alexandrian Age, and that the best hope for civilization at that point was German culture in general and Wagner in particular, was kind of hard to take seriously. Trevor might have stood up for him, but he had a cold and wasn't there.

Wes and Anitra told me a story once about a Seattle haiku contest in which another friend named Reneene Robertson nearly got herself killed.

"Kurt Cobain," she began, "had two blue eyes." The audience, they said, was in the palm of her hand. She could have said almost anything after that, and they'd have thrown roses.

"One blew left, one blew right."

The room collectively growled. Reneene was off the stage in a flash and looking for the door.

To insult the blessed memory of Euripides, the edgy champion of the outsider, within our group is similarly risky. If Friedrich were to have the misfortune of standing there before us, we'd have gone all maenad on his overwrought German ass and ripped him limb from limb.

Except for Mary. She's a Buddhist.

Which brought us to the subject of Paris Hilton. Stephan was struggling to grasp the meaning of her cultural ascendancy. Her fame, he said, was based entirely on her status as a beautiful rich heiress who hangs out with other beautiful rich famous people. The nothingness of her celebrity was more than he could handle.

Paris Hilton apparently carries a chihuahua around with her, and insecure young women have taken to emulating this. If ever you see a teen-aged girl in six inch heels carrying a chihuahua, he said, you have Hilton to thank.

Mary offered that this was the perfect opportunity for us all to practice wise mind. This is the Buddhist idea that the ego-laden distinctions that separate us are illusory. Even Paris Hilton, she said, was united with us in the oneness of the universe, and our judgments interfered with our ability to grasp the true essence of Paris Hilton.

Stephan and I agreed that we could live with this. The chihuahua thing, so far as we were concerned, relegates her to complete Otherness, no matter what the fucking Buddha says.

Later that night, having calmed down, I found this meditation on wise mind in a book by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun.
Being compassionate is a pretty tall order. All of us are in relationships every day of our lives, but particularly if we are people who want to help others—people with cancer, people with AIDS, abused women or children, abused animals, anyone who's hurting—something we soon notice is the persons we set out to help may trigger unresolved issues in us. Even though we want to help, and maybe we do help for a few days or a month or two, sooner or later someone walks through that door and pushes all our buttons. We find ourselves hating those people or scared of them or feeling like we just can't handle them. This is true always, if we are sincere about wanting to help others. Sooner or later, all our own unresolved issues will come up; we'll be confronted with ourselves.

Roshi Bernard Glassman is a Zen teacher who runs a project for the homeless in Yonkers, New York. Last time I heard him speak, he said something that struck me: he said he doesn't really do this work to help others; he does it because he feels that moving into the areas of society that he had rejected is the same as working with the parts of himself that he had rejected. ...

That, in a nutshell, is how it works. If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we'll find others unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves we'll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we'll have compassion for others. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don't even want to look at. Compassion isn't some kind of self-improvement project or ideal we're trying to live up to.
Pema Chodron,
When Things Fall Apart


Mark said...

"What we hate in ourselves we'll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we'll have compassion for others."

If you are angry at P.Hilton you're anger is misplaced, I think you should be angry at the mob of people who made her a star and continue to attribute value to watching Hiltons life.
such like the people who supported nazi germany, or Pres Bush, if the individual leader(s)have no followers, they would have no power.
I wonder if vocally disliking P.Hilton or Bush and talking about it is just as good as vocal support, as there is "no such thing as bad publicity".

Stephany said...

Compassion for others and self is an endless quest. When one gives up on one's self, it is that dark time that can possibly fuel the compassion toward others. Tapping into where we have been in our lives often is displayed in our actions, especially when discussing caring for others. How one bases their life, can simply be based on "treating others the way we would want to be/or wanted to be treated."[or cared for, etc.]For instance, I had to overcome a hellish memory to be able to support one of my kids who was passionate about volunteering at the Humane Society. As a young child, I loved cats. My single parent mom and brother and I had 6-7, one was mine, hand chosen from a friend's mama cat. Others were strays we fed. They all had names. When the new step Dad came into the picture, he didn't want cats. I sat in the car as a 7 year old with my cats back in the day, sadly people dropped them off at a booth like a library book drop. The haunting screams of the cats chilled my childhood heart. Of course over the years now I've always had cats. This taps into how what we are faced with, how we deal compassionately w our spirits, can manifest in that button pushing area. I refused to take my daughter to work at the Humane Society at first. I had to tap into why. I had forgotten that horrible day I had to leave my cats behind. So I signed up for a HS class, and volunteered in the cat center, holding cats, and somehow came to grip w that memory. As a result, by embracing my pain, and letting it go, I and my daughter have worked countless hours as volunteers there.

Sorry this was long, but there is soemthing to not forgetting who you are, and tapping into your self, the true self, that in the end, can only help others with compassion and love, after we have love and compassion for ourselves.

And Paris Hilton's dog is just for show, like a rich girl's purse. She will figure it out one day.

katia said...

Excellent post and so true.

I'm a buddhist myself and a great fan of Pema Chodron. (We have the same root guru, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche).
I'll come back to this post many times I'm sure, especially when starting my social services work next year.

Mary, in your midst, is a jewel.

Thank you.


Stephany said...

well Paris is on Adderall and has been since age 12, and its hard for her to concentrate according to her interview on CNN. she wants to build a transition house for her prison-mates who are revolving door clients. I hope she does it.She's got the cash and the public's attention to do something really good.

Anonymous said...

The entire haiku is:

Curt Cobain had two blue eyes
One blew left and one blew right
Outta sight

I don't perform this one in public anymore, especially not in Belltown.