I've been trying to write about Rick Arnold for the last three weeks and haven't been able to. I keep starting the narrative over from the beginning and making the opening lines more and more elaborate. But when it comes down to writing about what it was like to meet Rick, my creative juices stop flowing and I feel like I am at a loss for words. I draw a blank.
At first, I thought maybe it was just because I wasn't listening carefully enough to him, and so I was unable to pull the most relevant moments from the interview. But I've spent more time with Rick than any other veteran that I've interviewed. I've gone back to visit him at the VA Hospital in Long Beach several times and I continue talking to him and listening about his life. So why is it that relating any of one of his remarkable stories is difficult?
Here is the truth.
I talk a lot about empathy and compassion on this blog. I try to push myself beyond my limits when it comes to having compassion for people I don't have much in common with. That's what this run is really about. I've been teaching myself to withhold judgment, to make myself vulnerable, and to connect with other human beings on an authentic level.
However, when I meet Rick, I find myself catching petty and unkind thoughts pass through my awareness. He is obviously crazy, I tell myself. I resent him for being overweight and stuck in a wheelchair. I want to shake him, to admonish him, to scold him, to wake him up. "Why can't you just pull yourself together?" I want to ask. Where do these terrible thoughts come from?
The truth is that I haven't been able to admit to that experience until now, even to myself. Maybe the reason I kept going back again and again to visit Rick was because I felt guilty for thinking such nasty things and I was hoping he would say the one thing that could change my mind.
Since I've had a couple weeks to reflect on it, the reason why I've acted like such a jerk has become abundantly clear to me. Within the first few moments of meeting Rick, I had already made up my mind about him. I cut myself off from having an authentic, sincere interaction with another human being, and for what? Did I somehow think that by being compassionate and empathetic towards him, I would catch whatever it disease that has made his life go so horribly wrong?
Okay. So imagine the most terrifying, evil monster in the whole world. Think big fangs, matted coarse hair, red eyes, talons, the works. Now imagine someone who has all the traits and characteristics that you identify as negative. I would bet a lot of money that you would be more repelled by the nasty person because they embody all that you fear of becoming. I'm talking specifically about those qualities in other human beings that you recognize as latent possibilities or realities in yourself. We separate ourselves from those people who reflect us, and we dehumanize them. We see ourselves as kind and benevolent but then have moments where we are racist, classist, and ignorant. People around us are dumb, lazy, fat, a loser, insane, a drug addict, out of control, a jerk. We tell ourselves that the only reason we are able to recognize these qualities is because we are separate from them, and therefore can point them out in others.
I thought that I had moved beyond such a simple, petty way of thinking, but I guess I was wrong. I don't see the time I spent with Rick as wasted, but I regret that I have yet to give him the gift of my full attention and presence. I want to tell you in detail how I listened to his stories for hours and hours, how we laughed, how we cried. I want to tell you how he encouraged me to steal fruit off of the fruit trees at the VA, and how we ate a fig together, because these are all things that actually happened that look really good. But I don't want to just look good, I want to be good. And in order for that to happen, I have to admit that there are areas of how I relate to the world and others that could use a lot of improvement.
I REALLY hope that I am not the only one who battles with this. I am exposing my own truth only because I hope that someone might read this and be able to awaken within themselves a more merciful way of being with others.
I hope that even seeing the problem in my way of thinking has been enough to shake me out of my fear-induced stupor. I'm not saying that my days of judgmental thoughts are over. I probably have had a dozen in the last hour, towards myself and others. But in regards to Rick, I have torn down the wall between us-- a wall that he probably didn't even notice was there-- because he is so used to people treating him with the exact same careless detachment.
In allowing myself to have compassion for Rick and in opening my heart hand being his friend, I finally see how his life has unfolded, and I am able to understand how he got to where he is today. I realize part of compassion is taking on other people's heartbreak, which may be another reason it took me so long to see him as the extraordinarily kind, caring, brave man that he is. Here is Rick's story.