Oh, that’s right. We already are.
Like many of you, I presume, I’ve been feeling pretty down about the world – specifically humanity – of late. Not just the invasion of Ukraine, but the ongoing US-backed Saudi slaughter of civilians and starvation of children in Yemen, the abandonment and starvation of Afghans, the anti-truth and anti-LGBTQ legislation passing in state after United state, the infestation of voting restrictions and other steps toward the de-Democratization of our country, the Congressional blocking of nominees because they recognize climate change, and so on.
When I hit a breaking point with these kind of current affairs, I hit an empathy barrier – not for the victims, but for the perpetrators. So? You might ask. Why waste empathy on them? They don’t deserve it and they’re certainly not worth your emotional energy. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction, but Buddhism and other forms of Love offer other perfectly reasonable reactions as well.
If you can love something, you can love anything
I stole this from John Lewis, who said something to this effect in an interview I have yet to place. Simply put, hate creates hate and love generates love. The more you open your heart, the more open your heart is. Loving “bad” people doesn’t make you bad, it exercises your capacity to love. Love and loyalty are not the same, nor are love and admiration. But loving, or let’s step back from that loaded word – generating empathy – for flawed humans is a good thing. Because we are all flawed humans. And we all deserve empathy.
There are no Monsters
Okay, maybe there are; but far, far fewer than we like to assume. Some of the easiest people for me to hate right now were once damaged children – Putin grew up in poverty and Trump in privilege, but they both were (heard tell) deprived of much affection or unconditional love and their desperate striving for approval, power, and money seem an attempt to compensate for that. That’s not the focus of my argument, but I do think it’s important to remember, as President Bartlett passionately averred, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”
So, muster up some sympathy for the shitty childhood if you like, but there is a path to a deeper understanding. I’ve been engaging in a practice of tracing what I presume to be Putin’s motivations and seeing if I can find those in myself. And – surprise! I easily can.
- greed – whether it’s hiding the last piece of chocolate or giving the guy at the stoplight a dollar instead of $5 (or nothing at all)
- nostalgia – Putin’s is for the Soviet Union; mine is for the best year or two of college, my reign at the theatre bookstore, or the best years in Minneapolis, where I could always find a friend at my local bar
- heroism – if you think I don’t care about being the “good guy” you don’t know me well
- revenge – rarely practiced it, kinda horrified by it, but have definitely thought about it
- power – not obvious for me since I’m not career ambitious, but I absolutely want to be the one people defer to when I care enough to have a strong opinion
- lying – yup; not as a habit, but sure
- covering up bad things I’ve done – when I can, and when my conscience hasn’t stopped me. I once scraped up a car when I was driving buzzed in college. Never told anyone.
- silencing people who talk shit about me – I’m sure I’ve talked shit about people who didn’t like me in an attempt to render them untrustworthy
- taking my bad mood out on others – all the fucking time
It’s the actions Putin takes, the things Trump says that horrify us, but they all come from some combination of the above motivations and others. Just as everything we do is motivated by something
Recognizing the self in the other isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. It’s both the foundation and the goal of my spiritual life. Which is not just about being kind or forgiving or certainly “good,” it’s about recognizing our Oneness, that we are all different expressions and perceptions of the same consciousness, or, if you haven’t studied Buddhism or taken large amounts of psychedelics, it may be easier to see it as different parts of the same body. I love this metaphor, originally (?) from Santideva – if your foot is impaled by a sharp object, your hand pulls it out. Your hand doesn’t ponder whether the foot pain has anything immediate impact on the hand; your foot doesn’t have to ask for help or explain its plight; your hand doesn’t expect recognition or payback; and your mind doesn’t have to oversee and assess the situation. Nothing could be more natural than moving to relieve your own pain. That is where I want to get, with everyone. With everything.
One of the reasons I love this metaphor is that you can extend it to almost any situation. Sometimes you can’t alleviate the pain and you just have to live with it. Sometimes you choose not to do the work to alleviate it and it pulls at your conscience like a bad deed. And sometimes that foot is so far gone, you have to cut it off. You don’t hate the foot, you can’t even really blame the foot. The foot is a product of the body and the world it interacts with. But just because you feel bad about the foot doesn’t mean you’re going to let it infect the rest of the body. We can practice compassion for the Putins and Trumps while still passionately working to stop them. But when we call them monsters, pretend we don’t understand them at all, exclude them from the pettiness, cruelties, and failures that are our shared human bullies, we fail to recognize these things in ourselves and fail to appropriately address them when they rise up and likewise try to motivate us.
Understanding our own pain and suffering, and how that plays out in our thoughts, connects us to the suffering of the world, and may prevent us from acting on it.
The problem with dissatisfaction and suffering isn’t that they’re painful but that we misunderstand their nature and purpose. What makes suffering painful is that we identify it as “mine.” In fact […], it’s the common human suffering […] loss and pain connect me to others, and to life. Experiencing suffering like this, suffering ends. It transforms into love.from The World Could Be Otherwise, Norman Fischer
Okay, maybe (you say). But still, I’m not going to be like Putin. I’m never going to steal billions of dollars or kill an enemy or bomb a country. But those things are different from what most of us occasionally do by an order of magnitude only. Drawing a line on empathy is no less arbitrary than drawing a line between countries. If my empathy stops where someone’s political beliefs, or racial awareness, or capacity for kindness differ from mine, I’m just as narrowminded and closed-hearted as those whose empathy stops with my political beliefs, or race, or capacity for kindness towards them.
Yes, it’s kind of like saying you can’t fight love with hate, and maybe you don’t like that expression. How about, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Better yet, let’s examine the full context:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choicesAudrey Lorde, from The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House
Sure, Ms. Lorde was talking about the kind of terror and loathing that we “good people” know is “bad.” But it seems to me that her attention is not focused on the kind of hatred we practice, it’s centered on the practice, the terror and loathing itself. The separation, the hierarchies, the isolation and denigration: those are the master’s tools. Those are what we touch, what we reach down into. We can always and easily find a reason to hate someone, someones. If not the abused, then the abuser. But those roles are continually changing. The choice to empathize or reject are what remain.
The most loving people in the world have often worked the hardest against hatred and violence, and come out the other side without being destroyed by the work, or causing harm to others in the process. For me, that is worthy striving for.