The Invisible People

         I will always remember what it’s like to be invisible. 

         In 1985 we began serving a year as volunteers at The Campbell Farm, a 40-acre apple farm and retreat center in Central Washington.  The property had been left to the Presbyterian Church with the intent that it be used for educational purposes.  It became a self-sustaining, working farm and a place where people could learn about agriculture and land stewardship.  Early guest speakers included the poet and writer Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson (a soil scientist focusing on the recovery of the prairie ecosystem), and theologians who were laying the foundation of the eco-spirituality movement.

A clergy couple who had become friends of ours in seminary were Directors and invited us to join them. Our duties included working in the small kitchen during mealtimes, helping with housekeeping, assisting in the fall harvest and winter pruning, irrigating the alfalfa field, and tending the livestock.  In exchange, we lived rent-free in a mobile home and had a $200/month stipend.

         I was just four years out of seminary.  We were young, idealistic, and excited about this new adventure.

         One weekend, we had a group of 15 retreatants and my job was to help serve the meals and do the dishes on Saturday.  Naturally a friendly and inquisitive person, I delight in starting conversations and getting to know people. But I decided I would not speak to any guests about anything other than the meal unless they initiated it.

I set the table, brought the food, cleared the table, and did the dishes — all the time overhearing their conversations.  It was a church group, so I was familiar with many of the issues they were discussing. Several times I wanted to break into the conversation, introduce myself, and begin interacting.  But I resisted the temptation.  In this situation, my “place” was to simply serve them.  Eventually, they finished their conversations and went on to their next activity.  I dried the dishes and pans and put everything away.

         At some point during the meal, I had a vivid experience of being invisible. I was physically present, of course, but it was the sense of not being “seen” socially.  I wasn’t offended – I was doing my job and they were the guests – but it was a curious feeling.

         Maybe the experience was new to me because I was a young, white male.  In our culture, I unconsciously had always assumed I was a “somebody” worthy of other people’s attention.  I’m guessing many people in service jobs, particularly people of color, are accustomed to not being seen.  Any of you who have worked in food service and hospitality probably know the feeling well.

         This experience often comes back to me at restaurants, hotels, and other public places.  Amid all the guests and customers, there are invisible people taking care of everything.  Sometimes they may be thanked as they perform a task, but often they are not.

         The major spiritual traditions affirm that no human being is invisible.

The Jewish Torah reminds the people of Israel that they were once slaves in Egypt with no worth beyond their physical labor –an experience of being invisible.  But having been liberated, they should not make the same mistake: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

Jesus taught “… the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22: 26-27)

         In the early 1960s, Malcolm X made his first pilgrimage as a Muslim to Mecca.  He described how all the pilgrims arrived at the airport dressed according to their culture, but as they headed for the holy site, everyone put on the same two-piece white garment. “You could be a king or a peasant and no one would know,” he wrote.[i] What was true for social status was also true for race. For the first time in his life, he felt like an equal member of the human family.

         When I was at Hospice of Santa Barbara, twice a year we’d welcome a group of City College students completing their Certified Nursing Assistant program.  In my welcome, I’d say that in my years visiting people in nursing homes and health care facilities, it was the CNAs who were doing most of the care of the patients, and many times I had seen how their compassion was affirming each patient’s dignity.

         And I remember going to the dedication of the new wing of Cottage Hospital here in Santa Barbara.  There were four ribbons cut that day. The first was to be expected – Lady Ridley-Tree, the biggest donor.  Another ribbon was cut by a staff doctor who had been born there, and another by the longest-serving volunteer.  But the moment that meant the most to me was when they introduced their longest-serving employee.  She was a woman who had worked in the basement laundry for more than 50 years.  All that time she would have been invisible.  But at this moment, as she stepped forward to cut the ribbon, she was being seen. 


[i] “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley,” 1965

Photo: The Pho Hung Restaraunt, Toronto

Starstruck: The Relationship Between Awe and Caring

When we get away from city lights and look up to behold the fullness of the night sky, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe.  Awe reminds us how “small” we really are, yet, paradoxically, it’s exhilarating.  We feel better having been reminded that there is such an amazing world beyond us.  But I did not know there is a connection between experiences of awe and how we act towards other people.

In a recent column, Cal Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik cites several studies that explore this connection[i]:

One study found this: “When people gaze up at an awesome sight like an eclipse… they become more humble and caring when they look down at their Twitter feed.”

Here’s another: “…people were shown videos of earthbound awe-inspiring sights like a towering tree, a sublime landscape or an erupting volcano. Afterwards they felt less significant themselves and more caring toward others.”

And she cites another that includes spilled pens: “… researchers placed students in front of either the majestic Berkeley Eucalyptus Grove or a tall but boring campus building. A confederate then came by and dropped a bunch of pens on the ground, apparently by accident. The awe-struck students in the grove put more effort into helpfully collecting the dropped pens than did the students by the mundane building.”

Here’s more: “But what about in real life outside the lab and university? In the new study, the researchers cleverly took advantage of a natural experiment—the total solar eclipse of 2017 and the millions of people who tweeted about it. First, they analyzed over eight million tweets and compared people who were in the path of the total eclipse to those who were not. Unsurprisingly, people who experienced the eclipse expressed more awe than those who didn’t, using more words like “amazing” and “transcendent.

But they also used more words expressing social connection, like “care” “love” and “thanks,” and they expressed more humility and tentativeness, saying “maybe” or “perhaps.” They even said “I” less and “we” more than people outside the path. A further analysis showed that how social and humble people were depended on how much awe they expressed.

Isn’t that fascinating? Yet, somehow, it makes sense. 

I regret I have not spent more time at high elevations where the sky is at its most dazzling.  I remember being on a hike a few years ago in the Sierras, and before going into the tent late at night, looking up and being overwhelmed by the sight of the sky.  I long to go back to that spot and simply lie on my back, being absorbed by wonder.  It “humanizes” us – or, perhaps, “spiritualizes us. Or perhaps they are the same thing.

On the terrestrial plane I have felt something surprisingly similar during worship services.  I’ve led and attended many in my life, and some are certainly forgettable.  But some are transformative.  It happens often at a simple memorial service: you hear about some small act of kindnesses the person did, or how a challenge they faced gave someone courage to face their own hardships, or you hear their favorite song sung with care and love.  What’s remembered are moments when the person’s soul seemed to quietly connect with another.  It reminds me of how extraordinary life is. And as I mingle with others at the reception, we’ve been reminded of mortality as well as what endures, and it’s as if I’m seeing each person with more clarity and reverence than I did before the service.

Gopnik comments: These results might help to explain a rather puzzling fact about spiritual experiences in general, whether they are the result of organized religious practice, secular meditation or even psychedelic rituals. On the one hand, these experiences often involve a very personal and private experience of awe, a sense of transcendence. But at the same time, they seem to lead to very real and down-to-earth actions to help other people.

And she concludes: “The mystic’s ecstasy might seem far removed from the homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and marveling at a grove, cathedral or eclipse might seem to have little to do with saying ‘we’ or helping someone pick up their spilled pens. But our minds do link the two. The awesome natural world makes our petty egos seem smaller in comparison and makes our connection to other people loom larger. Gazing at the heavens may help us make a better world on earth.”

Our hard-working ego always wants to be front and center. When that is going on, we see everything, including night skies and other people, as only important insofar as they serve us.  But whenever the ego gets dethroned by something amazing beyond us – beholding the Milky Way, or watching a newborn child sleep, or holding the hand of someone about to take their last breath – the ego’s power dissipates. Out comes our spiritual self, which is always aware of our fundamental connection with nature and others.  Experiencing that connection is one of the greatest gifts we can receive.

Artwork: Cantique des oiseaux comète


[i] Humbled-by-looking-up-at-the-heavens, WSJ, August 28, 2022

Status and Community: A Tale of Two Lives

            Dr. Charity Dean lived in our neighborhood before she became famous, and I was looking forward to hearing her speak this week as part of the annual “Lead Where You Stand” conference at Westmont College. I was familiar with her amazing career and legendary grit but, until Wednesday, had never heard about a personal challenge she faced.

Born and raised in a low-income family in rural Oregon, at age 7 she felt a call to become a physician and tropical disease specialist. After earning her medical degrees, she became a resident at Cottage Hospital here in Santa Barbara.  She was brilliant at analyzing data. But she also received invaluable training from Dr. Stephen Hosea who taught her the importance of looking beyond the data and test results to see each patient as a unique person. He also emphasized the importance of physically touching them before making a diagnosis, encouraging her to trust her “sixth sense” to discover what was going on; “I sense and feel things,” she told us.

She became the Public Health Officer for Santa Barbara County, which had traditionally been a largely bureaucratic position.  But she didn’t stay in her office or wait for patients to be brought to her. Instead, she went out to see them wherever they were — homeless shelters, farm worker sites, parks, anywhere.  She observed them, listened to their stories, always using touch as part of her interactions.  She soon gained a reputation as a fearless and formidable public servant who wasn’t afraid of upsetting other officials in serving the public good.

In the summer of 2019, her training and “sixth sense” told her COVID was coming.  She began a relentless struggle to alert and prepare others.  By April 2020, she was Co-chair of the California COVID-19 testing task force in Sacramento and serving on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She was featured on ABC News and 60 Minutes and is a central figure in Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

It was fascinating to hear an account of her professional ascent.  But I was impressed in another way when she talked about a personal issue.

Apparently, alcohol had been problematic for her. She did not drink daily, but when she did, she had a hard time stopping. She went to Oregon to visit her mother and asked about the family history.  She was told alcoholism had been pervasive, which she hadn’t know.  She returned home and decided she needed to go to an AA meeting.

When she walked in, she was surprised to see someone who knew her — one of her homeless patients.

“Hello, Dr. Dean,” he said. 

She became a regular.  A year later she received a pin marking her first “birthday” of sobriety.  As she came forward to receive it, the man who followed her was receiving his ten-year pin – another former homeless patient who was living with HIV and had become a friend and supporter.

            As a physician, she said it was humbling to go to that first meeting.  But she discovered everyone in the group had something to teach her about life.

            This brought to mind a story from my time at Hospice of Santa Barbara.

            HSB is a rare form of hospice – one which does not provide direct medical services, but instead offers psychological, social, and spiritual help to anyone facing a life-threatening illness or grieving the death of a loved one.  Thanks to a $40 million bequest we received and community support, we were able to have a staff of 30 skilled and compassionate professionals. Part of HSB’s charter is that all our services are free, with no reliance on government or insurance funding.  When I was there (2008-2013), we were serving hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds.

            One staff member told me the following story.

A wealthy woman had come for grief counseling. When the first session was completed, she took out her checkbook and asked how much the fee was.  The therapist told her HSB did not accept payment; if she wished she could make a donation when her therapy was completed. She was flustered and uncomfortable at the thought of not being able to pay for the services.  But she kept coming to her appointments.

            Our staff knew that, for many people, being in a group of others who had suffered a similar loss can be helpful.  Our therapist told this client that she had gotten to a point where being part of such a group would be a good next step.  The woman was very resistant — she didn’t think she’d have much in common with a group of ordinary people.

But she agreed to try it. Soon she became a dedicated member.

            When she completed her time with us, she told the therapist that she had never realized how much she had in common with other people.  Sharing this difficult journey with others, she said, was one of the best experiences of her life.

            We seem wired to create and maintain identities for ourselves that can make us think some people are “better’ than others. But in my experience, beneath the facades, we are all human beings trying to find our way in life. On that journey, humility, friendship, and community are priceless gifts.

The Strange Case of Parking Lot Pete

He longed for something exciting to do in retirement. He needed a new challenge, a bold adventure, maybe even a new identity. 

         One Saturday he was looking for a parking spot at Costco.  It was busy. Cruising by each row and scanning for the best spot available, watching as other people took spaces he thought could have been his…he was frustrated.

         He finally had to settle for a spot far from the entrance.  He sat in his car, fuming.

         Then the vision came to him.

         The more he thought about it, the more he liked it.

         He decided he didn’t need anything at Costco after all and went home.  

         In the days that followed, he made preparations. If he was to do this well, he’d have to master every detail. 

         Over the next few weeks, the elements fell into place.

         The car for instance.  He needed one well-suited to the task.

         He thought about something bold and brawny, maybe a Hummer or an old “muscle car” like a GTO.  But those would attract too much attention.

         He thought about something small and agile, a vehicle that could slip into choice spots with stealth and ease. He looked at Mini-Coopers.  But they, too, would attract attention.

         He realized what he needed was something humble, common, and bland.  On Craigslist, he found a tan, 2007 Honda Accord.  People would never notice it.  Perfect.

         What should he wear?  Black leather jacket, dark shades, Oakland and Raider baseball cap?  Tempting, but no…again, you don’t want people to notice you. He found what he needed after visiting thrift shops: an old white golf shirt, a pair of Levi’s, a light blue baseball cap with no logo, plain white sneakers.  He’d be invisible.

         He did find something empowering for his rear-view mirror — a shark’s tooth on a leather thong; he’d always wanted one in high school, and now was the time to claim it.

         He’d need sustenance. He got a case of Red Bull and a generous supply of beef jerky, which he kept in the trunk.

         A personal soundtrack would be important.  The old Accord had a CD player. He burned two songs onto a blank disc: the theme from Jaws, which he would play as each encounter began, and the theme from “Rocky” to celebrate each victory.

         The right car, a good disguise, sustenance, the shark’s tooth, and a personal soundtrack: he was ready.

         His mission was simple: to become an expert at getting the best parking spot in crowded lots.

         He began practicing in large open lots, like one by an old Sears store. He’d go early in the morning and put himself through drills focusing on cruising, sharp turns, and quick stops.

         He then began training at more challenging battlegrounds: Trader Joe’s in the late afternoons. The Funk Zone on Friday evenings.  The County Bowl just before concerts.

         He created a plan. When he entered a lot, he’d circle the permitter, scanning the layout. Then he’d cruise up and down each row. He’d take note of the cars that had found good spots, then imagine what the driver of that car might look like. He became skilled at matching cars and drivers.  Then he’d prepare to strike, sometimes still cruising, sometimes idling at the curb in a loading zone.  When he saw the likely driver emerge from the store, he pushed the “Play” button for Jaws and inconspicuously shadow the person as they walked to their car.  When the person did turn to get into their car, Pete assumed his “strike” position and snuck closer. As soon as the person pulled out, he deftly slid in and claimed his trophy.

         Sometimes other drivers would see the spot opening, but rarely could they beat Pete.  He took a particular joy in seeing their surprise and frustration. But he never gloated.  He had practiced how to look completely innocent as he’d get out of his car and walk leisurely towards the store. He’d always buy something to keep his cover.  When he returned to his Accord and drove away, he pushed the play button for Rocky.

         He’d unwind at night with his favorite videos, alert for any tips he could pick up: Rambo. Terminator 2.  James Bond movies.  And any installment of The Bourne Supremacy.

         Life was exciting.  He felt strong, confident and proud.

         Until that fateful Saturday.

         The holidays were coming — peak season at Costco. 

         He drove out for the busy time in the early afternoon. He cruised back and forth near the entrance, Jaws on low volume, making mental notes of possibilities. He saw a well-dressed lady come out with a few items. He guessed she’d be driving the white Audi that was in a prime spot.  Then he realized he had a competitor.  Just turning into the far end of that row was an old, slow-moving Mercury. But Pete was ready. He was right, the Audi was hers. As the Audi pulled out, Pete slid in. The Mercury driver had not seen Pete at first, but when he saw he’d lost the spot, he abruptly hit the brakes, stunned. The Mercury slowly resumed its quest, turning and heading to the outer limits of the vast lot.  Pete put his finger to his lips, touched the shark’s tooth and smiled.

         He got out of his car to play the role of a genuine shopper.  As he walked toward the entrance, he saw the old Mercury had finally found a spot, far beyond the Tire Department. Pete decided to walk in the direction of the Mercury, curious to see who would be driving such an old car.

         He watched from a distance.  The driver’s door slowly opened.  An older man with a baseball cap got out.  He couldn’t move very well…almost a shuffle  He went to his trunk and opened it. He took out a walker and unfolded it.  He then lifted a steel canister out of the trunk and put it in the walker, then fitted some kind of tube around his neck.  Pete realized it was an oxygen tank.  The man closed the trunk and began the long journey to the store entrance. 

         Pete lingered outside, pretending he was waiting for someone.

         Finally, the old man with the walker came by.  He looked tired.  Pete could see what was on the man’s black hat: “Korea Vet” framed by gold braid. He saw the man fumble for his Costco I.D., approach the entrance and then disappear into the store.

         Pete was feeling disoriented. His training taught him to always go into a store so he would look like a real shopper, but this time he had no interest in doing so.

         He returned to his car. He got in, backed out, and drove. He wasn’t sure where to go. He had no desire to play “Rocky.” He decided to drive to a local beach where he could park and think. 

         He found a spot away from the crowds facing the ocean.  He sat there in silence.  He felt empty.  He thought about what that vet had been through all his life.  And how hard it must be to just get to the store.  And Pete asked himself, “I think I’m some kind of warrior?”

         A month passed.  Pete didn’t go out much.  A new vision was forming, and a new chapter in his life began.

         When he did go to the store, he no longer had to have the best spot. He figured he needed more exercise anyway so would park far from the entrance, leaving more room for others.

         He still enjoyed jerky but stopped drinking Red Bull.

         He took the shark’s tooth off the rear-view mirror and put it in the glove compartment.

         He didn’t play the CD anymore.

         He got a part-time job as a driving instructor. He gave special discounts to teenagers, seniors, and vets.

         On days when he knew certain lots in town would be congested, he’d arrive early and act as a self-appointed parking lot attendant.  He found he could use his knowledge and skills to help manage parking rather well. He fearlessly would step in front of aggressive drivers, and motion to someone slower to take a good spot, then walk away.  He began thinking of himself as a parking-lot Jedi.

         When he did go in a store, he would see if any shopper was having a hard time reaching a product on a high shelf. He’d quietly come alongside, ask what they were seeking, reach up and hand it to them.

         As he drove around town, he started noticing church buildings more.  They had just been places with big parking lots before, but now it wasn’t the parking lots he noticed. He was curious about why people would go there and if he could make new friends in such places. 

         He spent off-duty time at the parking lot at the beach. Before, he would go there only to review his strategy for the day.  Now, he sat in his car for long periods, entranced by the ocean and the sunlight shining on the surface.  He watched waves quietly form and patiently break on the shore.  People of all ages and backgrounds walked by, and he felt a bond with each one of them.

         If you are out and about this holiday season, you may find yourself scanning parking lots, wondering if Parking Lot Pete is out there, working his magic.  He may be. But he’s gotten very good at being invisible to the untrained eye.

When Compassion Isn’t Enough

As part of my work at Hospice of Santa Barbara, a group of us attended a week-long retreat at the Metta Institute in Marin County. The theme was “Cultivating Presence” and led by Frank Ostateski, an accomplished teacher of both Zen meditation and hospice care.

            In one of his talks, Frank focused on the traditional greeting in parts of Asia – “Namaste.”  You clasp your hands palm-to-palm in front of your chin and sometimes follow with a slight bow.  It had become well-known in the West through its frequent use as a way to close a yoga class and was often said to symbolize “I bow to the sacred in you.”  Frank had closed his classes with the familiar gesture, and as students we returned the blessing.

At one session, Frank focused on a deeper meaning “Namaste” can have. One hand can represent the virtue of compassion and the other hand wisdom. He went on to describe the importance of the two virtues always being combined. We may feel great compassion for someone and feel the impulse to take an action. However, actions arising from a genuine motive may have unintended consequences. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate the compassionate urge with patient and practical wisdom if we want to make the best choices.

            I thought this was very helpful and began to share this concept when I was doing the initial training session for hospice volunteers.  Many are led into hospice service out of a compassion for those who are dying, but it is critical we always seek to place that emotion in the presence of wisdom from trained staff and veteran volunteers.  I often used the following story as an illustration. 

            Once we had a very caring volunteer assigned to a low-income family where the father had died.  The volunteer had spent time with the young son in the afternoon and when he dropped the boy off back at home, realized the family had very little food. Moved by compassion and wanting to make a difference, he and a friend went to Costco and bought several hundred dollars’ worth of food for the family and dropped it off at the house.  Soon after, one of the family members called our staff member responsible for the case. They noted how appreciative they were but said they did not have sufficient refrigerated storage to keep so much food and were embarrassed it would be going to waste.  If the volunteer had run his idea by our trained staff member, he would have been affirmed for the impulse, but guided into an action that would better fit the situation.  The compassionate value needed to be matched by wisdom.

            I was reminded of the charge Jesus gives his disciples when he sends them out in pairs for the first time: “… so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16).   The serpent was seen a very subtle and clever creature (it was not always identified as evil as it became in later tradition.)  Doves were seen as pure and often symbols for the divine spirit.  Jesus is saying: be open and trusting, but also be smart and strategic.

            I have thought of this many times in my life and career, which I have spent in religious and nonprofit communities.  It was always natural for me to approach any challenging situation with compassion and tact.  Many times, those values led to outcomes I felt good about.  But as time went on and my responsibilities grew, I encountered more complex situations where compassion and “innocence” alone were not enough. I benefited from practical wisdom from others who understood the complexity of organizational challenges and the need to make unpopular decisions that could be perceived as uncaring. When I was able to incorporate that wisdom, outcomes improved.  

            Anyone who has been involved in 12-step programs knows this well.  If someone you care about is struggling with addiction and they beg you for money or help, it is a natural reaction to meet their requests. But that can often make the situation worse.  You need the accumulated wisdom of the support group and the program to make the best choices.

            Caring, empathy, love and compassion are prized virtues.  But the best outcomes arise when they are blended with voices of experience and wisdom. Namaste!