Kathleen Brehony is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Awakening at Midlife (Riverhead, 1996), a classic in its field that was the basis of a PBS special. Her new book, Ordinary Grace: An Examination of the Roots of Compassion, Altruism, and Empathy, and the Ordinary Individuals Who Help Others in Extraordinary Ways (Riverhead, 1999) is filled with stories of people who give of themselves asking nothing in return.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Brehony describes the motivation behind these extraordinary acts of compassion, discusses the role of challenge and pain in times of transition, and addresses the need to be both creative and secure.
A clinical psychologist in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Brehony is also the co-author (with Robert Gass) of the recently published book Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound (Broadway, 1999).
DANIEL REDWOOD: To write Ordinary Grace, you sought out people who had gone the extra mile, helping others in situations where no one would have criticized them had they not performed these acts of service. Is there something that these people have in common that sets them apart from the rest of us?
KATHLEEN BREHONY: Great question. Really, that’s the theme of the book, to explore if there is something different. I think they have something that they manifest that the rest of us also have but don’t always manifest. There are a number of characteristics, but one of the major ones is this absolute felt connection to other people. In all the people I’ve talked with, there wasn’t a single one who cited pity. It was pure compassion, a lot of, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The other characteristic that immediately comes to mind is that everyone I spoke with seemed to think that to help somebody else was a blessing to them. It wasn’t something that they did expecting a reward. They didn’t say, “Look how great I am because I got to help.” There was a sense that it felt good to them to give somebody a hand.
REDWOOD: Did they all come from families where this sort of altruism was encouraged and inculcated?
BREHONY: Absolutely not. You’d like to think so, it would make it a little more predictable in some ways. But one of the guys I interviewed, named Tony, was born to a 13-year-old mother in a state mental institution. He was shuttled from foster home to foster home and taken away from his father because his father physically abused him. He was working in the lumberyards and sawmills from the time he was 11 years old. As soon as he was old enough, he went off into the Marines and did two or three tours of duty in Vietnam. This is not somebody you would think would easily come to compassion, and yet he did. He’s this great big guy, from the Virginia Beach area. And he, his wife, and a number of his friends, all motorcyclists, on every non-rainy Sunday afternoon they do something to raise money for a trailer park, kids with muscular dystrophy, adults with multiple sclerosis. He’s known locally as “The Motorcycle Santa.”
REDWOOD: I was especially moved by the two stories you told of people who decided to donate kidneys to individuals who were neither relatives nor close friends. Could you relate a short version of those stories and share with us your own personal response when learning what these folks had done?
BREHONY: I read an article about the power of prayer, I think it was in Time or Newsweek. One of the women in it said that she had prayed for her sister, who needed a kidney. She had an unusual last name, and it said that she was from somewhere in Pennsylvania. So I called information and found her father. Because I wasn’t yet sure that he was related to her, I said I was an old friend of hers from college and asked how I could reach her. When he said he was her father, I explained who I really was and I eventually tracked her down in California. She was in her mid-30s, her kidneys were shutting down, and she was going to die in spite of dialysis. She comes from a large Chinese-American family. She has tons of relatives, it’s a close family. They all were tested to see if anyone could donate, but none was a match, not even her sisters and brothers.
She walked into the bank one day, looking sad because she had just learned this news. The bank teller, a woman named Mary, said, “Boy, you look down in the mouth today. What’s wrong?” And the woman, whose name is Mickey, said, “I just found out I don’t have anybody who can give me a kidney.” And Mary said, “What is your blood type?” Mary told me later that at that exact moment, “I knew that I would match”and that I was going to give her a kidney.” She said, “Something came over me.”
Then I meet up with these two guys in Detroit. One is an Italian guy from New York City, and the other is Larry Wynn, originally from Mississippi. They both work as executives for General Motors, but they were not close friends. They had gone with a number of other co-workers to some baseball games and things like that, but that was about it. Larry told me that on the very day that he discovered that his sister could not donate a kidney (which was only three days after his father had died), he went from Pontiac to Detroit, and for some reason he had a strong feeling that he wanted to see his old co-worker, Sal.
He went to Sal’s office, but Sal was not there. So he went and did whatever other business he was there to do. On the way out, he pushed the up button, even though he was intending to go down and leave the building. He said to me later, “I’m not quite sure why I did that.” But he went back to Sal’s office, and by this time Sal was back from lunch. Sal said the same kind of thing to Larry that Mary had said to Mickey, “You look kind of down today.” And Larry said, “I just learned that my sister doesn’t match and can’t give me a kidney.” And Sal used the exact same language as Mary had. He said, “Something came over me.” And at that moment, he said to Larry, “I’ll give you a kidney.”
REDWOOD: What is this “something” that came over them?
BREHONY: It depends on your point of view in terms of the language you might use to describe it. Larry talked about it as being the Holy Spirit. I think it can be the Self. It can be that place in each of us that is connected and knows it. Most of us can understand, as your question framed, that we would give a kidney to a beloved child, or even a very good friend, or somebody that we loved. All these people have done is expand that outward.
REDWOOD: You are a psychologist who specializes in transitional periods of life, such as midlife and death and dying. What led you to this focus? Do more people seek out therapy at these times?
BREHONY: Very often, yes. I am one of those therapists who doesn’t particularly believe in diagnoses. I think it works in many other areas of medicine and healing, but in the area of psychiatry and psychology I think it doesn’t work. I’m in private practice, and it might be different if I worked in a state hospital, where many people truly have profound psychiatric disorders that I think are probably as biological as they are anything else. But mostly, that’s not who I see. Mostly, I see normal, functional, everyday people who are going through a hard time in life, and maybe don’t have some of the resources they need in order to cope with the problem. The book I just finished, which is as yet untitled — I sent it to my publisher under the title, A Big Old Book about Suffering, by Kathleen Brehony — in a way it’s an exploration of that question, of what we need to deal with the inevitable changes and transitions and struggles in life.
REDWOOD: Aren’t we always in periods of transition?
BREHONY: If we really think about it, sure. We’re transiting as we sit here and speak. But the big ones sometimes jump up and knock the wind out of people in a way they’re unprepared for. One of my chapter titles is “Straw Houses.” I use the metaphor of the three little pigs, and ask, “What kind of house have we built for the inevitable blowing of the wolf?” Some people, many of whom come from dysfunctional families and hard backgrounds, do have houses of straw, though not all, because I’ve met lots of people who you would expect to have very little resilience, and they have plenty. Then there are other people who seem to have had a lot of things that we think go into making a person strong and able to deal with challenges in life, and they’re not as good as somebody who had a hard time.
REDWOOD: Is growth possible without pain?
BREHONY: I’d like to think so, but I’m afraid I’d be wrong. Here’s why. Most people don’t come home on a Friday night and say to their spouse, “You know what I’m going to do this weekend? I’m going to grow.” Very often it is exactly those events that knock the wind out of us that cause us to say, “Okay.” It’s an initiation. I like the alchemical metaphor of having to be broken down sometimes, to fall into the abyss. Then I think we come back differently, and that’s the hero’s journey. We can come back differently if we only allow ourselves to be open to the experience.
REDWOOD: In your own life and those of people you have worked with, do you find that the drives for security and creativity are often in conflict?
BREHONY: Quite often. It’s funny you should ask.
REDWOOD: How does one, and how do you, deal with that?
BREHONY: I think you hold the tension of the opposites. I just wrote a 4000-word letter to my 23-year-old nephew. For Christmas, I wanted to give him a couple of books that would matter to him. He’s a musician. He’s 23, and in love for the first time in his life, with a young woman who has a 14-month-old baby. The family has always been very supportive of Madison pursuing his love of music. He’s very good at it and works hard at it, too. It’s not just, “I want to be a rock and roll star.” He really writes beautiful music and lyrical words with a depth that you wouldn’t expect of a 23-year-old. But his friends — not the family, but his friends, non-artist friends — have said to him, “When are you going to grow up, man? You can’t support a family and take care of this baby if you’re going to be out until three o’clock in the morning playing music, making $100 a week.”
So I wrote him a 4000-word letter. I told him I wished I were the kind of auntie who wrote with a fountain pen on handmade paper, but it would be all smeared and I don’t think my thoughts would come out as quickly as they can on computer. I told him that I thought what had to happen was holding the tension of the opposites, which is to do both/and, as opposed to either/or. To say yes, my life is going to be creative and this is what I’m here for, this is part of the natural talent, the natural reason for why I exist. To bring that out and share it with the rest of us.
On the other hand, there are the pragmatic realities of rent to pay, food to put on the table, and particularly if you have other people riding in your boat with you, children or other people you’re responsible to. So one of the things we’re going to be doing over Christmas (he also teaches music) is that we’re going to sit down over a nice glass of Merlot, and we’re going to brainstorm all kinds of creative, good marketing ideas to making his teaching business work. And if he has to work part-time at a 7-11, that’s what he’s willing to do in order to make his music happen.
REDWOOD: I was struck when reading your biographical sheet that it contains an unusual combination of pursuits. You’re a clinical psychologist, but you have also been director of marketing and later president of an independent video and film production company. You co-wrote the recently published book Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound with Robert Gass, one of the great spiritual music pioneers of our time. You also seem to have a great love for animals. Is there a common thread here that helps explain how you became the person who you are?
BREHONY: Because I’m a Gemini [laughter]. I have a lot of varied interests. I think we all have certain innate directions that our personality and our type pull us in. Mine is always to not take on too many different things, but to have enough depth in the ones that matter to me. There’s just a lot of things I love. I see this whole existence as a kind of buffet. And now that I think of it, that’s kind of the way I eat at a buffet too – I take a lot of things in order to see what I like. And there is a thread, there’s certainly a thread in all my nonfiction work, and that is always consciousness. Whether it’s about midlife, or goodness, or this new one about growth through pain and suffering. They all follow a theme that says, “What can each of us individually, and all of us collectively, do to help each other to become more conscious, awake, aware, and alive?”
There is a story that I love that I included in Ordinary Grace, about St. Francis and the almond tree. According to the old legend, it’s the middle of winter and the ground is frozen. St. Francis looks out to this almond tree and says, “Speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blooms. Even when I say that now, I start to feel myself become very emotional because it’s such a powerful image of what I think is simply what we’re here to do.
REDWOOD: I’m remembering a few years ago when an intense storm came through here, with strong winds and pounding rain. There’s a tree – crabapple, not almond – just outside the office here. Shortly after the storm, half of the tree went into bloom a second time, something I’ve never seen before. Perhaps these special blossomings often come after a storm.
BREHONY: You know, they do. I don’t watch much TV, but I love documentaries on the Discovery Channel. There’s a series called “Wonders of the Weather,” and if it’s on, I’ll watch it. One was a documentary about the earth after wildfires go through. And while you can still see these burning embers of trees, there are tiny tendrils, green shoots, coming up right next to them. In nature, I think that’s one of the purposes of those kinds of clearing out, to make room for new growth. And I think we often have to do that as human beings, too. We don’t like it, particularly. We don’t have to like suffering or pain, but I think that if we make a commitment to ourselves that we’re going to use it to grow, to become more of who we can be and who we really are deep inside, then I think somehow suffering doesn’t hurt you quite the same way. Not that we don’t grieve; I think we should grieve.
REDWOOD: So that if we handle it right, what doesn’t destroy us does make us stronger.
BREHONY: That’s my first epigram in the new book! In fact, my aunt Theresa, who I adore and who died two years ago, and who the book is dedicated to, told me that so often that one of my clients did a hand calligraphy of it, and attributed it to “Aunt Theresa.” It was only years later that I read that it was from Nietzsche.
REDWOOD: He did have a few powerful things to say in his time.
BREHONY: Oh, yes. [laughter]
REDWOOD: Do you find that there are differences in how men and women experience midlife?
BREHONY: Yes. While I think that underneath it all it’s really the same thing, sometimes the expression of that transition can be different. With women, there are other very profound physiological things going on that cause people to say, “Oh, this is not about midlife, it’s about menopause.” I personally don’t believe that hormones cause feelings, I think they amplify feelings. That’s something that, as far as we know, men don’t go through in quite the same way.
But in some ways, I think men have it harder at this transition, because in our culture (though it is changing), men don’t have a language for feelings. And for many men, they haven’t known how to express feelings all their lives, and here they’re having powerful feelings and they lack the experience to express those feelings. Again, I don’t want to add to stereotypes, and I’m not saying this applies to all men or all women. But in general, it’s true. In fact, when I first came up with the idea for this book, the first agent I had said I should focus it only toward women, because women buy many more books of this type. Even as a lifelong feminist, I refused. I said, “I think this is about everybody.” I said I would certainly put in different kinds of examples because people of different genders might resonate with different stories. But do you know, I have received more letters from men than women, which shocked me and shocked my publisher. I continue to get emails and letters, and many of them are from men who say, “I’ve never even read a book like this before.”
REDWOOD: What effect are they saying it has upon them?
BREHONY: A lot of people have said it inspired them to make changes. A couple of different guys said, “After I read your book, I thought you’d been following me around for the past few years.” Some have said that they always wanted to do X and Y, and after reading the book they registered to take a class to realize that dream. I even got an email from a guy writing from a pub in Dublin, writing on his laptop. He said, “I grew up in England, and for almost all of my life I never really claimed my Irish roots, because there’s still a lot of prejudice in England. And here I am in Dublin, thinking about my beginnings.”
REDWOOD: What was it in the book that elicited this response?
BREHONY: The idea of being who you’re supposed to be, claiming the sense of self that I think we’re all endowed with. I don’t think we have to go out and look for it. It’s there! It’s a question of uncovering it. So quickly and so easily that essence can get covered up with conformity. Our mother and father, gender role and religion. Society says we’re supposed to be this, and you realize that it may not be authentic for you. But a lot of people are trapped, stuck in how to get out of that.
REDWOOD: Do we need an inspirational example in order to bring out our potential?
BREHONY: I think that’s one of the ways. I think there are lots of ways to get it. Some people, as Paul did on the road to Damascus, have an epiphany. The Buddha found it sitting under the bodhi tree. He was looking, but a lot of people find it whether they’re looking or not, if they’re open to it. I really do believe that the universe gives us every opportunity to know it, to move in the direction of the self and the soul. But we get busy, and we get stressed out, and we live in such a linear-thinking society that many people tend to think that if you can’t see it or touch it or taste it or smell it, then it doesn’t exist. I think that’s very wrong and it keeps people on a track for what oftentimes is a person’s whole life.
REDWOOD: For people who are living in such a linear-focused society, what are some tools they can use to expand their experience and perspective?
BREHONY: I think that a lot of it is taking time. Meditation, prayer, even just silence. You know, how many of us sit in silence? Even here, in your nice quiet office, if I were to sit simply I’d hear noise. That was one of the things that Robert Gass talked about in the Chanting book, that there are very few places in the world to really find that silence. And yet we can. I think the world would have less problems in it if everyone would take ten minutes a day to sit quietly. I really do. I think it could be as simple as that, because I think that’s where the Self appears. Meister Eckhart said, “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”
That’s one way. I think another way to wake up, which is a major theme in Ordinary Grace, is to get out and do something for somebody else. It expands our view of what our own life is. I make that same point in my new, as yet untitled book – that your suffering should be acknowledged, and it should be grieved and felt and experienced in the depth that it is. But even in the midst of it, to go out and give a hand to somebody else changes your point of view.
Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor, physician acupuncturist, and writer who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health and Contemporary Chiropractic. A collection of his writing is available at http://www.DrRedwood.com. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
© 2000 by Daniel Redwood