Hyena

Oil on Board        2018       16″ x 20″

I like to think I’m an accepting person who treats people without prejudice. But this painting came about when I caught myself being cynical and judgmental in spite of myself. Even as I admitted that I was being judgmental, a thought-string of excuses trailed close behind, hoping to erase the idea of examining my mean habit too closely. Everybody does it, the excuses said. It’s normal, it’s human nature. I went forward with the painting anyway, because whether everyone does it or not, it was becoming uncomfortable for me.

I started to become aware of how I sometimes pretend it’s fine to be annoyed with others.  Not only did I sometimes feel disgruntled thoughts about people, I often entertained others with explanations about my observations and opinions. I can make an art out of relaying clever stories about people who annoy me, complete with funny imitations and a didactic punch line about the way “good” people should do things. This encourages listeners to add their own story about a similar experience so I can feel validated in my mudslinging. In the South we often use the phrase “bless her heart” (or his) which follows a badmouthing rant, implying that we mean no harm, and we wish the person well. Most people giggle after they say it, knowing that it really means “you can let me off the hook for saying these things, but that person really is a jerk.” I usually follow my badmouthing with a humorous chastisement of myself for being so judgmental, a feeble attempt to excuse my behavior.

I chose the hyena for my painting because they have a reputation for being scavengers, which is what I feel like when I’m picking on someone behind their back or thinking private thoughts at their expense. Also, hyenas seem to laugh, reminding me of how I use humor to get around the unbecoming nature of cynicism and ridicule. Hyena’s nocturnal nature is a trait that brings to mind how silent criticism is like sneaking around in the dark. I sure wouldn’t want many to know some of my snarky thoughts. In all, the cultural stereotype of hyenas being scrappy and nasty made them a fitting symbol. As I worked on the painting, almost everyone who saw it validated my assessment that hyenas do have a disagreeable reputation by saying, “Oh, I hate hyenas.” In an episode of the BBC’s series Planet Earth 2, David Attinborough can be quoted as saying that hyenas are the most vilified animal on earth, quite an affirmation that they are judged harshly.

That said, I think hyenas are captivating and extraordinary. To set the record straight, they are only five percent scavengers. Their social hierarchy is matriarchal, and formed in very large, tight-knit groups. They are more closely related to cats than dogs, and have been compared in intelligence to chimpanzees.  These facts confirm that they are universally hated while being misunderstood, which perfectly certified them for my painting subject. While many images of hyenas do perpetuate the nasty stereotype of hyenas, I tried to make mine look loveable.

On to my story of being critical of others. The situation that acted as a wake-up call to my objectionable habit was a simple incident involving shoes. I was walking around our local botanical gardens and noticed that many of the women visitors wore a particular kind of shoes that I didn’t like. I inwardly scoffed at each woman that wore them, judging that the shoes weren’t flattering, obviously weren’t comfortable as they produced a wobbly gate, and were known to be expensive. According to my assessment the women were tossing away their money, the comfort and health of their legs and (to me) their fashion sense, only because everyone else was wearing those shoes. If I’d been honest about the implications of these value judgments, I was jumping to the conclusion that the women were vain and beholden to the conventions of the masses at their own expense. Take that appraisal another step and you can dip into the conclusion that I saw the women as stupid and less worthy because of this. After all, that’s what a scoff implies.

After several silent scoffs that day I stopped in shock. Dori! What the heck? Who cares what shoes they wear? It’s their choice. They can do whatever they want for whatever reason! It’s not hurting you! These poor unsuspecting women were having a nice day, probably thinking they looked smart in their fashionable outfits and I was the one suffering from their shoes. I looked inside and thought to notice what a scoff feels like. It’s not pleasant for me. It is a feeling of disgust, which feels disgusting for ME.

To look deeper at my problem, I started with asking myself why this so-called trivial issue could get such a rise out of me. It was puzzling that I was so annoyed with the dress of other women when I myself rarely pay that much attention to my own wardrobe. Anyone who knows me will attest I’m no fashionista. My criticism seemed out-of-place and random. The answer hit me when I realized I never judge like that when I’m with friends or group settings with people I trust. Out in the world I was looking at humans without really looking at humans. I was seeing the literal surface of people, but nothing past that. I realized that I was stopping short of seeing past people’s “skin.” Some inner inquiry led me to see (quite quickly to my surprise) that I was afraid to access people for who they are because I’d been hurt so many times. It was easier to distance myself from them before we even met or interacted. I was afraid of them on some level.

A google search about why people judge others revealed an unsurprising list of reasons including projecting our insecurities outward, feeling threatened by others’ unknown qualities, wanting to bond with others by badmouthing, and being jealous. These reasons went along with my experience, but didn’t resonate or clarify the crux of it as much as my simple heart-felt woundedness did. Deeper still, underneath the disquietude of this feeling of fear and separateness, I sensed sadness. How mournful it was to think that I could so quickly isolate myself from people without giving a moment’s chance of connection. I remember times when a smile on the part of a stranger meant the world to me. I thought of the hateful situations that had led to my wariness of others, and I most certainly did not want to continue the cycle of bitterness. My habit of excusing myself from this behavior by classifying the level of harm as inconsequential became unacceptable. I gained a desire to Do Unto Others as I would have them do unto me with more rigorous standards.

My willingness to be honest with myself had already started a desire to show compassion and friendliness toward the person behind the shoes. It also set in motion a move toward compassion for myself—for being scared, for developing such a wall of protection, for having kept myself isolated. I didn’t expect to stop being judgmental immediately. Compassion goes hand in hand with patience, because the layers of armor I use to guard against pain can take time and diligence to dismantle.

To bring myself to a compassionate mindset I reminded myself of the Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponono, which consists of four short phrases designed to heal ourselves from resentment and pain. The phrases are: I am sorry, Please forgive me, I love you, and Thank you. It doesn’t matter to whom the words are directed or that they are said out loud. The phrases, said in order, are mainly meant to heal the person saying them. I’ve found them to be powerful and always eye-opening. These simple words bring me to the heart of the problem rather than letting my intellect try to grasp and articulate every nuance of the issue in an attempting to find a way out of the pain. (There are good writings about how Ho’oponopono is approached that I’ll leave for the reader to investigate.)

As silly as my example seemed, stopping to examine why I judged a bunch of shoes gave me an opportunity to follow the trail to my inner heart. With a little willingness, awareness, and acceptance I was prompted to soften my perspective on the shoes, the women, myself, and on people in general. I gained a genuine desire to peek past the outer surface of people, and I started practicing it right away. I saw smiles instead of clothing. I continued practicing Ho’oponopono, which is transformative every time I utter the phrases. I added butterflies to the background of my hyena painting as well, to soften and surround the poor judged fellow with beauty.

These practices work better when my motive for change is deeper than “this will make me a better person.” With such a do-gooder motivation, I don’t penetrate into sincerity the way I do when they arises from vulnerability and an understanding of my own frailties and humanness. All the good intentions in the world to be loving and compassionate gain no foothold without a grasp on how much I need love and compassion myself. From me! Even when I’m being a sarcastic bad-mouther. Especially when I’m being that. The butterflies in my painting are meant to surround the hyena with tenderness and understanding.

I’ve improved at being compassionate and patient with myself and others, but I quiver when I think of what is required ultimately. True patience is Unending Patience. Compassion, if it’s worth anything, is Unending Compassion. I don’t get off the hook because it’s something trivial, or because everyone does it, or because it’s in my own mind and no one will know. I don’t get to excuse myself from judgment because the other person has way more faults than I do. It’s a very high goal, to be sure, but to follow the road to real forgiveness, Unending Forgiveness, is to truly understand on the deepest level that the real me cannot ever be hurt. Until I live in that place, I will find myself defensive about the offenses of others, real or imagined. Only a Higher Power offers a chance to get close to that Unending Bliss, and the cultivation of my connection with that power is the thing that can lead me to it. That lofty goal is fun to think about, and for now, like Dory the fish in Finding Nemo, I “just keep swimming” on my way to it.