It’s the anniversary of my birth again. So many times…
I’ve told y’all before that, as much as I try not to, I still have a childish sense of /hope for heightened spiritual sensitivity on certain otherwise arbitrary occasions: birthdays, new years, etc. Whether anything below is meaningful or not is unknown to me, and really unimportant. Here’s what I’ve gathered today, while we desperately try to claw our way out of this season; hit instead with a pretty huge snowstorm at the end/start of the month.
Winter in April Boulevards heart-heavy with Broken little trees
I was close to tears as I drove past all the young trees along Hiawatha that had been broken in half by the wind, the weight of the snow, the endless, if not exceptional, cold. Meanwhile, I’ve barely reacted to the most recent school shooting. Teared up a little as their names were read on the radio, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
I think it’s more a matter of proximity in space than any desensitization to my own species. If the children were nearby, they’d be ripping me apart. Proximity and attention, which I have not granted the 6 people murdered in Nashville. Is it possible to love all our fellow earthlings more or less equally? Is it Right?
Opening the heart to anything creates more space for every thing.
Peter Gabriel is touring. I won’t go, because the venues are large stadiums – not my thing; and because it seems like an “all the hits” tour, and even though I do love some songs on So, etc. My favorite Peter Gabriels are the unnamed albums he crafted after he left Genesis (mostly #3 & #4 – I’m not that alternative). They were an essential part of my late teen years – driving freeways endlessly, towards San Jacinto, listening to San Jacinto; drinking alone in my apartment, blasting No Self Control. His early work (in particular) has such a deep understanding of isolation, craving, and the desperate need for connection and empathy. Through the Wire is a great song for the social media world of today, even if “wire” is dated. Today I rediscovered an all-time favorite, I Have the Touch, as a perfect post-pandemic and Buddhist anthem. Drove around screaming it, in joy and love and pain. Enjoy, friends.
My excuse for my uninspiring job (defensively crafted in case anyone asks) has always been that I work for a company that isn’t doing harm, the work is fine, I like the people, and it minimally infringes on the things I care about more: volunteering, writing, my spiritual growth, my peeps, my life in the world. My theory is that doing plain old work can be as good & ethical as a mission-driven career, and that the nature of the work itself does not determine the Rightness[i] therein (e.g. there are public school teachers who enshrine racist treatment of their students; there are sexist and unethical environmental lawyers). All of this was true for many of my years at Nonprofit, but it has not been true recently. The work is no longer fine: I have been underinvolved in engaging projects, so I find necessary but mindless and soul-sucking data cleanup work to fill my hours. I search for problems to fix. I spend time on my DEI Committee work and documentation of that work, which has been the most important part of my job for the last five years, even though it’s not actually part of my job. I keep being told that I will soon be utilized on various projects which need my considerable expertise, but they keep being pushed back. During a three week, at-home, meditation intensive in April, the downside of spending 1-2 hours every day paying close attention to reality forced me to concede that I have got to leave this job. Not urgently, but eventually. I can no longer pretend that I can hang on until retirement. The work is now doing harm – to me.
And in the last few months it’s been doing harm to others. Our new CEO has demonstrated a firm commitment to toxic masculine leadership. They [CEO referent from this point forward] have led a massive structural transition in the organization with the compassion of Elon Musk, and it no longer feels like a good place to be (though it has, like most tragic events, brought much of the staff closer together, if covertly).
I am committed to being compassionate at work. It is part of my spiritual practice. I do get annoyed when someone sends the same question multiple times or phrases a request in a way that seems demanding or rude, but I recognize my own snobbery and defensiveness and remember my goal of kindness and empathy, and always try to respond with open-mindedness and supportive pleasantries. As far as I know, no one has complained about me in any way for 5 years (prior to that, my directly worded emails were a bit much for some Minnesotans. I checked my communications ego and started adding 😊s and !!!s. It worked! 😉)
The focus of my DE & I work has likewise shifted to the I part lately. As much as I want to push changes in the equity of onboarding and stakeholder analysis and conflict management, since COVID shook up the world I am most concerned about how our employees, in particular, are being treated and included every day. It informs how I run meetings and trainings and facilitate any discussion. I am far more aware of taking the needs not only of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks, but neurodivergent employees, including those who exhibit characteristics as common and ignored as introversion, into account.
This commitment to compassion & inclusion, and knowing my days at Nonprofit are numbered, has put me on the CEO’s shit list. When I see Them dismiss employees’ feelings as irrelevant; or take over other people’s meetings to demand that every participant make a verbal comment about an insignificant topic; or accuse Committee members who do not behave, process, or communicate exactly like They do of incompetence, I have felt it is my responsibility to speak truth to organizational power. I am willing to lose my job and other people at the organization can’t afford to do that, because they may not have the financial safety net, minimal familial responsibilities, or other privileges that I do. The times that I have felt compelled to do this (twice in my analysis, but as the CEO may perceive every disagreement as insubordination, maybe 6 times), dozens of staff have reached out to thank me, express their concerns, or share their plans. I won’t say I don’t appreciate that, but that’s not why I did it. Being engrossed simultaneously in my spiritual responsibility to my fellow humans and issues of equity and inclusion for years now, the urge to bring the darkness to light comes naturally. I am as propelled by ego as anyone, unfortunately, but I don’t believe ego compelled my actions in this regard. They were organic, and with the fear of job loss removed, the barrier between desire and action dissolved.
I have zero criticism of any regular staff who haven’t spoken up (though I am disappointed in some of the leadership). Jobs are important. I haven’t heard of many instances of people standing up to Them. One who did, quit. Another was quickly shut down and their competence questioned. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my supervisor told me, a few months ago, that the CEO was questioning what I actually do in the organization. Or when he confessed yesterday that They told him They don’t want me added to any projects. They are actively limiting what I am allowed to do in the organization, apparently in retaliation, since there is no evidence anywhere of me being bad at my job. No one from HR or anyone, including the CEO, has openly responded to, questioned, or formally disciplined me for anything I’ve said or done either – presumably because the objections are ego-driven and indefensible. Instead, the plan is apparently to shut me down or make me miserable or in some way push me to the point where I quit. Because Nonprofit doesn’t want to pay for my unemployment. Or get sued for wrongful termination.
Of course a person without the compassion to care about people’s feelings and relationships and fears, and a person without the humility or self-awareness to apologize or course correct when an error is called to their attention would hold a grudge and use their power to put that grudge into action. It should be no surprise, but it still hurt. Because, let me repeat, I take kindness very seriously, and even though wanting to be liked is a definite weakness of mine, if being liked comes out of an acknowledgement of decency and respect, why should I dismiss it?
So here I am. The new CEO of the company I have worked at for 8 years wants to push me out. It’s weird to know that. It feels so unjust. I was riding an anger rush for an hour or so after I found out (and anger fumes for a few hours more). I don’t love this org, but I like it, and I care about the people in it. And it breaks my heart that in an effort to increase profits at Nonprofit, the board has brought in a person who has built her management philosophy on … I don’t even know enough about this shit to give you another example … how about Gavin Belson from Silicon Valley? … but in an organization where most of the staff makes less than $25/hour. Not to mention the backsliding on goals of universal inclusion. I’m not sure what to do. Part of me wants to hang around indefinitely just to annoy her – to show up and comment on every insensitivity at every open meeting and force her to fire or confront me. Part of me wants to fuck off with all my exclusive knowledge of systems and processes and leave the whole damn place in the lurch. But neither of those is in my nature. I will probably stay for a while, see if my job gets any better, maybe cut my hours, work on my resume, and make a promise to my worthy self that, barring Their departure and other massive changes, I will get out by 2024. I will also, after the next meeting where I ensure that our plans for the future get heard, step away from the DEI Committee entirely. I’ve simultaneously resigned/been forced out of my leadership role on the DEI Committee, which would be fine except that the way it was done felt punitive, and now I know why. Knowing that the DEI Director (a competent and kind woman, but in a role created without consulting or even informing the grassroots DEI Committee) is reporting to Them and their toady, THE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD WHO DON’T LIKE ME 😉, it might inhibit the advancement of good ideas if there is any suspicion they are coming from *this bitch*.
In honor of my Life Themes, I made myself take a moment after the anger subsided to ask what this series of events was teaching me. Even though I grew up with activist parents, one of whom was repeatedly beaten and thrown in jail for their activities; even though I refer to John Lewis as a personal hero and have undying admiration for anyone who sacrifices their wellbeing for the greater good, there is some weird little thing inside me that seems to think I will be appreciated for doing the right thing, who believes justice will prevail, and who somehow, bizarrely, thinks that the world in which I move carries more or less the same make of moral compass as I. I can’t defend this position intellectually or historically, but perhaps because I sometimes view the world from a place that is beyond human frailty, that higher, irrefutable, eternal truth may get blurred into the realities of our fucked up world. If I am generous to myself, I can put myself somewhere in the ranks not of Gandhi & MLK (topical reference!), but of those who point out that maybe we should make the effort to caption this meeting for folks with hearing loss, or say, hey, Bob, do you realize that you just repeated what Ngozi said without acknowledging her? or suggest that we provide a range of times for Parent-Teacher conferences, so that parents can attend regardless of their work schedules. I see you, friends. You may be punished directly or indirectly or not at all or praised for your actions, but they matter. Moments of deliberate kindness and inclusion matter. I hope you know that.
[i] In the Buddhist sense of Right Livelihood; much more on this in an upcoming post.
I pulled the Bible off the shelf a few months ago, with the goal of finding all the awesome Jesus stuff that led Neem Karolyi Baba to weep when asked about him, the stuff the Buddhists and Hindus and, yep, even some Christians, talk about that actually speaks to me. I haven’t entirely given up yet, but Jesus, that book’s a slog. “It’s just so poorly written,” says B. Maybe that’s why the Catholics went the authoritative interpretation route: if they let too many people try to read the Bible themselves, they’d bore them out of the religion. I haven’t entirely sworn off it yet, but for now I will let wiser, more patient interpreters call my attention to worthwhile passages. It’s not like I don’t have enough to read.
For example, I’m halfway through a collection of Dr. King’s writings. In the piece Love in Action, he begins with Luke 23:34.
Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
The Reverend is most impressed with the Then. That after he was condemned, tortured, mocked, and left to die, he begged for God’s forgiveness when he could have asked for revenge, for obliteration; for anything, really. I mean, it’s his dad, and he’s dying, for Christ’s sake.
But Jesus doesn’t do that, because he’s not like his dad. There are so many times in the Bible when that God took the low road, when he destroyed his own people for disobeying him, or others for inflicting harm upon his chosen ones.
If I look at the Bible as a work of literature (focusing on the content, not the godawful style), a noteworthy difference between Father and Son is the difference between Judgment and Empathy.
And I thought, if there were a distinct entity that were the God of the Bible, and Jesus was his son, that father had a fuck of a lot to learn from his kid. And why? What was the ultimate difference between God and Jesus? Jesus was human. God may have loved his people, in a way. He may have pitied them, and occasionally others. But he had no empathy, because he had no idea how hard it was to be human.
Jesus lived as a man. I find it so odd that some Christians honor the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, because it’s his humanity that makes him exceptional. I assume most Gods could endure torture and opprobrium and temptation pretty easily if they really wanted to, because they’re Gods. Certainly there are Greek & Roman & Hindu and other gods who exhibit human frailties, but the Biblical Judeo-Christian God, omniscient and omnipotent, doesn’t have those problems. So how could it have real compassion, real understanding, for its people? How could it forgive them, when it had no idea what they were going through?
The more simplistic Christian evangelists who’ve testified to me over the decades love to pull out John 3:16 as if it will make me fall out in tears and praise: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. I never understood why this was such a big deal. Again, God doesn’t connect with other humans the way we do, doesn’t feel pain the way we do, doesn’t suffer the way we do, so watching his son die doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it would be for us, especially since God knows he’s not really gone, and is quickly reunited with him. Maybe the big change here is that he now loves the world, and not just the Jews? That eternal life is now open to all, not just those who lucked out through culture or heritage? I guess that’s nice, though “believes in him” is sooooo ill-defined that it could mean almost anything, and does.
It seems to me that the exceptional part of God giving his son to humanity is that God now has to learn from his son’s experience and play by his rules going forward, or even step aside to let the youth assume power. Jesus is so different from the God of the Old Testament that it’s sometimes hard to believe they’re related. And they’re really not: less than the relationship between an absent biological father and the son raised in an entirely different family and culture. Jesus’ culture is largely material, his dad’s is strictly spiritual. So it’s not that the Biblical God changed his mind about how people should act & treat each other & how he would treat them in return and decided to plant a kid on Earth to impart his new message. It’s that living in his adopted family, the family of humans, Jesus gained a completely different understanding of the world, which led him to the philosophy of universal love and forgiveness and interdependence and generosity. Living as a person and with people guided Jesus to a kind of wisdom that the immortal God could never achieve on its own. Christians believe that this newfound grace then became the spiritual law, which would mean that Jesus either changed his father’s perspective, or his dad stepped down and ceded power. Either way, the Biblical God then recognizes the limits of his knowledge or power or both, and must have operated with some level of humility.
It’s not dissimilar to Buddha’s story. While Siddhartha Gautama was not the son of a God, he was a prince, and with his rich and powerful father blocking his exposure to any suffering, the future Buddha lives much like a god. Once he is exposed to death, illness, and aging, his curiosity leads him to escape his confinement of comfort. Only then, living among regular people, experiencing their suffering and their attempts to cope with it, does he come to his understanding of how to live in the world.
Of course, one thing that Gautama’s and Jesus’ humanity implies is that we, fellow humans, could be as good as them. This is a hell of a weight for the true acolyte to carry, even if it is occasionally fortifying. I prefer viewing it from the flip side, knowing that without the hell that being human can be, those dudes would never have cultivated the wisdom they did. They knew how hard it was not to cling to the beautiful and terrible things of this world, which was how they could offer parables and paths to help us out of that attachment. It helps me better understand why we meditators use the body, the breath, sounds, all the things offered only to to the creatures of this earth, as a way to connect with the eternal, the infinite, the entities not of this earth. This fucked up, breathtakingly gorgeous, heartrending, boring, overwhelming life is not a pit stop on the way to enlightenment, it is the only vehicle that will get us there.
I used to be good at being depressed. I knew what to expect from myself and others knew what to expect from me. I was that girl. It was almost a joke, although I was miserable and did feel truly alone, worthless, and angry.
I don’t know how to do it anymore. Monthly, when my hormonal changes peak, I just try to get through the day or days, knowing it’s temporary, knowing I haven’t fallen into a pit, but just tripped on a gopher hole. Allowing myself a little more distraction or a little more morbid indulgence than usual: dark fiction, climate reports, BoJack Horseman.
This week has been different, because it’s just not ending. I wake up in literal and figurative darkness – not despair, just not really looking forward to anything. That’s really rare for me, and it is a bit scary. I really think that’s the worst part of depression. No matter how bad things are, either because of brain chemistry or actual horrific life situations or both, the worst part is never the thing or feeling itself, it’s the fear that you will always feel like this. Like Kimmy Schmidt said, “you can do anything for 10 seconds.” Just keep restarting at 1 and you might be able to trick yourself that it hasn’t been so bad for so long. And since our slow-to-adapt brains are wired for patterns, we can tell ourselves that since it hasn’t gone on forever, it won’t last forever.
And then, of course, the occasional depressive looks for answers. Explanations. I’ve gathered a few: my job is boring me into an existential crisis. The additional job I’ve agreed to take on for the next 9 months is feeling like a terrible idea and gives me anxiety whenever I’m reminded of it. I seem to have finally entered recognizable peri-menopause, much later than my peers, after skirting around the edges for years, which may be the chemical cause of 90% of this current state, or the sugar I’ve been eating more of lately. And then there’s winter: white and greyness everywhere, shocking cold for this early in the season, concern for my homeless friend and discomfort with my own comfort; the isolation of being carless most of the time, of working alone from home everyday. And as supportive as my partner is, he’s the one with chronic mental illness. He’s not accustomed to being the light in the room. He asks if he can help, and I have no idea what to suggest.
I know it will pass, or at least change. I am an acolyte of impermanence. But it’s hard. It’s not as hard for me now to shed the identity by which I usually define myself (able to find the beauty in everyday moments), as it is to see the world so differently. How can the stupid shit that brought me joy yesterday leave me dry today. Why do the tricks that usually perk me up for hours (exercise, human interaction, good music physically enjoyed) now just serve to remove that weight for the duration?
Next week is Thanksgiving. I’m sure it will be lovely and I’ll feel fine. And after that I’ll adjust my diet and either tackle the tasks that make me anxious or give myself permission to let that go for the rest of the year and give myself some grace. As much as I don’t want to be in this place, I don’t want to have this perspective, I don’t want to feel like this, I am grateful. I do forget what it feels like to feel like this. While I’m sympathetic, I can find it hard to relate. How can others not see the beauty of life? the game of life? the joyful ridiculousness of life? the impossible connections we still manage to find among each other? The how doesn’t matter. The why only matters to the extent you can change the why. The isness is all there is when you’ve tripped on that hole, or fallen into it.
What remains? What wisdom can I carry from brightside Z to darkside Z? Just the impermanence and the not-knowing. I’ve done a bit of curling up and indulging in the surrounding darkness – I read Sabrina from start to finish on Tuesday night. But I am trying to stay open and let the cold sunshine in. I don’t know when this will end. I don’t know what will bust me out of it, or if it will just go missing some morning, but I am trying to stay open to the possibility that something might help. I go out. I volunteer. I watch sitcoms. I will do something very scary this morning that might do wonders or might leave me anxious, awkward, and alone. But I’m going to try it. Because something’s gotta give sometime. It always does.
later that day…
The scary thing was Dance Church: an unstructured, come as you are, leave when you want, pay what you can, DJ-accompanied space for people to move on a dance floor. Maybe it was that, maybe the philosopher I watched on YouTube, maybe reading part of Dr. King’s Strength to Love, maybe just the passing of time. Probably a combination of all those plus something unquantifiable. In any case, I’m out of the pit for now. And hopefully a bit more empathetic for it.
The center where I volunteer on Fridays – let’s call it The Gathering Place – held a memorial for one of our community members last week. The Gathering Place serves a hot breakfast & lunch M – F, but more importantly serves as a place for low income, and unhoused, and other folks in the area to hang out, get some coffee or Gatorade, and be in community with each other. Being there has become my favorite part of every week, and I feel more welcome there than pretty much any other place in my life right now. More about that another time.
Today I’d just like to share a bit about this memorial for a man called Frank. I’d only seen him twice – my guardian volunteer tried to introduce me to him but he was pretty drunk & disengaged both times. She told me made great cardboard signs, but the one he attempted when I was there was incomprehensible. She also told me that there was a period of time when he would regularly lie down in the very busy street outside of the center, and the director & other folks would have to stop traffic & get him back on the sidewalk. And that he currently had a place to live, which was “a miracle” given how hard it was for non-sober people to get stable housing.
So that’s all I knew about Frank.
He was hit by a car & died last week. He wasn’t much older than me. And they held a memorial for him.
K suggested that folks write tributes on pieces of cardboard, since he was famous for his signs. (One offered “Ble$$ings” for donations on left side, and TRUMP STILL SUX on the right.) Many did. Signs like, everything is free in heaven, but you can come back here anytime, and you are so loved and already so missed/ your spirit is with us forever in your Gathering Place community, and my prayer for you is good food for lunch every day in your afterlife. Many people spoke – some of the volunteers who had known Frank for years, some of his friends among the community members at the center, and some of his loved ones from elsewhere who had come to share their grief with others who knew and loved him.
L talked about how Frank helped him when he got out of prison, how much L’s family cared for him, and the ritual he and his brothers had performed for him earlier that week. He also said he’d spent the night crafting a beautiful cardboard sign in tribute, but as he got up to fetch another marker, he’d knocked his coffee all over it. He decided that was appropriate, because Frank’s signs were never too neat.
“Frank spilled the coffee!” someone offered. Laughter.
K talked about how kind Frank was – how he never had a bad word to say about anyone, and “I wish I was like that.”
“No you don’t!” from a neighbor. Laughter.
“It takes all kinds” from another.
The guy who currently runs the center told us that one day Frank was hanging out, drunk, and getting a little belligerent. He was thinking he might need to ask him to leave when Frank said, “I gotta go to detox.” He & K walked Frank the two blocks to the familiar treatment center, and while they were waiting to get checked in, Frank was telling them a story. About breaking into San Quentin. He was slurring his words, so they weren’t sure they heard him right. “Breaking into San Quentin prison?” Yep. He managed to pull it off, but “getting in there’s a lot harder than getting out.”
He then read us a letter from a family member, talking about Frank’s relatives, his youth breaking horses in South Dakota, his many skills, and the people who loved him.
A friend who came with her two young children spoke softly about how Frank was more than a brother to her, that he was kinder than her own family, and how important he was to her kids.
C read a poem about the last time he cut Frank’s hair – cut it all off at Frank’s request, after a period of sobriety when he wanted a new start. He spoke of how we all try to be better, and how often we all fall short, and try again. And he spoke of Frank’s hair falling to the ground and being carried by the wind to line the nests of birds. Tears.
A volunteer painted a cardboard sign, “Spirt of Frank – Living on in kindness and humor and all his many friends,” and said she realized after she finished that she had left an “i” out of Spirit, but Frank often had misspelled words, so she decided to leave it. She remembered how Frank would bring his signs to J and ask if words were spelled correctly, and once J said, “no, but leave it; you’ll get more money that way.” Laughter.
J is possibly the least liked of all the regular participants at the center. He’s narcissistic, rude, and shows signs of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He’s a hoarder who lives in his car, parked in front of the center, and pisses and throws garbage all over the front lawn, then complains about the volunteers who clean it up. He rubs grease on the pole where another member parks his bike. He’s full of conspiracy theories, particularly about how the government and law enforcement conspire against White men (LOL). He’s not threatening, as folks there occasionally are, he’s just, as a sweet, older volunteer there summarized, a jerk. I’ve never seen him say or do anything considerate since I’ve been showing up, and he’s always there. But not only did he, apparently, help Frank out with his signs, he actually raised his hand to speak kindly about him during the service. He had to be a bit of an asshole – saying that Frank just wanted people to care about him and no one did, despite ample evidence from the previous hour of testimony that many people cared for him. Regardless, he recognized Frank as a funny, honest, and admirable person – a loving guy who was kind to others, and that more people should be like him.
I mentioned my shock to the two lovely ladies I volunteer with later in the day. They pointed out the irony of that last statement, which of course was not lost on me, but I had to persist with my own recognition that he had the capacity to be kind, caring, and respectful, which I had thought far beyond his reach. Not that I had any high hopes for J or his future potential, but just that there was something there which I hadn’t seen, something Frank had gently dragged out of him.
Every day at the center teaches me something, opens my heart a titch more.
One of the volunteers suggested we sing a song to close the ceremony. When no one else had a suggestion, he started I’ll Fly Away, a spiritual I only know through Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and which I had just listened to for the first time in years on our road trip last week.
I sang for Frank, wherever he flew, whatever culturally appropriate song accompanied him there. I felt honored beyond description just to be there and listen to this tribute. No one denied he was a drunk, no one judged him for it, and no one gave it any more weight than it deserved – as a part of his human identity. A part he tried and perhaps failed to let go of, but a piece of the funny, kind, creative, generous, beloved man he was.
If you’re on “the path,” as we spiritual nerds call it, you’ve doubtless found yourself connecting more intimately with some teachings than others, and that changes over time & circumstance. I have been glued to this one for a few months now, and it’s been life-changing in that subtle, Buddhish way.
I don’t actually remember who this came from – a contemporary Buddhist text or dharma talk, or Ram Dass or one of his ilk, or all of them. But it fits into all of that stuff. There are lots of ways to phrase it, but I like this:
The lesson you need is always right in front of you.
There are lots of ways to interpret this. You can go with the idea that everything is preordained or meant to be. Despite not believing in free will, I don’t find that helpful. For me, it’s another version of the belief that every moment is an opportunity to awaken. But it’s better. Because awakening seems beyond my control. I can’t reason myself into awakening, so perpetual opportunities just seem like missed opportunities. But the lesson I need being here, right now? And not having to sign up for another intensive retreat to experience real spiritual growth? That I can work with.
Basically, it turns every difficult or shitty thing into an opportunity for practice. How can I Buddha my way through this situation? Now that moments present themselves in this way to me, challenges have become a fun and enlightening game.
My partner’s changed our plans at the last minute? Okay. Am I attached to the previous plan & if so, why? Would getting pissed off at this moment improve anything? Teach anything? Cause suffering? What does my past experience tell me?
Someone wants to discuss a topic on which we are ideologically opposed. How can I open my mind while still being genuine? How can I be simultaneously engaged in the conflict and loving? Can I hear what they are saying without shoving them into a pre-labelled box? What is my goal here and what is theirs? Is mine driven by ego or empathy? Can I find a way to connect & namaste either within or outside the strictures of that conversation?
At the State Fair: why do I feel the need to judge my fellow fairgoers? What is it in me that is reacting to something utterly superficial in them, whether it’s how they look, the clothes they wear, or the slogans they brandish? How can I soften that?
Even moments far pettier: I think we’re supposed to cook something one way. The guy thinks otherwise. Instead of fighting him on it or grasping onto my opinion at all, I admit that I just heard my theory somewhere and have no idea whether it has any validity. We carry on from there.
Put another way, in one of Ram Dass’ lectures he recalls requesting a particular type of microphone for a talk he was giving, and when he arrived they didn’t have it. He started to get pissed off, then recognized, “oh, there’s my yogi, disguised as a microphone.”
Some of you will likely think this isn’t even worth sharing; others may find it revolutionary. I haven’t even told you the best part yet: I do this all without self-criticism. When everything is a lesson, I’m showing up as a student, not a fuckup or an asshole.
I can’t adequately express how much lighter the combination of pausing, sitting in not knowing, and the lesson perspective has made everyday challenges. So much of it is about space, which feels to me like a pause paired with a distancing and a refreshing breath. That Space allows the witness room to step in and observe what’s actually happening outside of the ego; outside of an agenda, personal history, or judgement. The witness doesn’t tell me what to do, it just gives me perspective. All I do with the perspective is bring it into my thoughts and actions and see where it takes me. It infuses a bit of wisdom into the situation, which allows me to make better, more conscious, more loving choices. I cannot recommend it enough.
I heard this frustrating and beautiful story on NPR last week (which is somehow lost in the web). When it comes to issues that actually have more than one reasonable position, NPR will generally try to give voice to opposing sides, so as I listened to this young woman recount the numerous ways (3 jobs while attending school, being hospitalized for exhaustion, etc.) and multiple years she had to struggle in order to keep her college loans low and pay back what she did take out, I assumed she would conclude as so many I’ve heard have, with Why should someone else get a free ride when I had to bust my ass to pay off my loans?
She didn’t. She didn’t want her younger brother or anyone else to suffer like she did.
What makes this narrator so compassionate? Perhaps it’s because she has a younger brother – a face to put to the potential suffering. Perhaps she’s just a generous person. Perhaps it’s because her parents are immigrants, and she’s grown up with the idea that you make sacrifices to make things better for others.
When I think about it, in my memory (utterly bereft of statistical backing) it seems most of the people I’ve heard complaining about student loan forgiveness are middle-class White men. Assuming (against all reason) that I am correct, why would that be?
I think it might come back to the lie of the American Dream. Those who buy into it have to believe, to a significant degree, that we have a level playing field. That we not only start the race from the same location, but with the same strength, speed, quality of coach, abilities, shoes and feet to wear them, instructions, familial and community support, nutrition, etc. They believe this even as they see that others cannot attend college at all, that some can pay for college painlessly, that some are desirable enough to be paid to attend college.
They say they worked hard to pay off their loans, as if that act of valor stands in a vacuum. As if others are not working just as hard, or twice as hard, for a quarter of their wages. As if the sacrifices they made, the luxuries they denied themselves, weren’t too extravagant for a large portion of the population to even shoot for, let alone deny themselves. As if people haven’t had to struggle through poor public schools, hunger, poverty, and unsafe environments just to walk through the doors of the college, and walked out with a lifetime’s worth of debt. As if the racial wealth gap weren’t a hallmark of American society and as if thousands upon thousands of Black people with degrees weren’t using their relative success to financially assist their systemically underprioritized, underpaid, and overburdened friends and family members rather than pay off their own loans.
I’m not saying I don’t feel it when things like this happen. I had a pang of bitterness just last week, when I found out that my old roof did not sustain enough hail damage to be replaced by my insurance company, when the house half a block away did. Why does she get the free roof? Why do I have to keep waiting that a giant storm hits before the thing starts leaking and the cost has to come out of my own pocket?
Because that’s just the way it goes. And I’m totally fine.
The idea of fairness on this fraught and complex an issue is, frankly, ridiculous. The world is a bizarre place and the number of factors contributing to someone’s financial and academic success are almost unimaginable. Justice may be possible, though we’re certainly far from that, too. Fairness is relative, at best. Besides, contemporary capitalism isn’t about fairness anyway. Maybe the loan forgiveness objectors should try communism.
And, all that aside, why would we ever want others to suffer as we’ve suffered? Do we think it makes things better? Yes, life is suffering, but Buddhism believes it is undesirable and avoidable thing, and we work on ourselves and the world to alleviate it. How do we alleviate it? By letting go. Letting go of our righteousness, our ideas of fairness, and everything else we’re attached to. It helps everyone, spiritually. And easing the burden of college debt helps everyone in practical terms as well. Without the stress of crushing debt, people are healthier and happier, rippling that wellbeing out to their community and easing the burden of the health case system. Without having to put hundreds of dollars toward payments every month, people could be saving or spending money on the products that “keep the economy moving” or buying healthier food or helping their neighbors or traveling to expand their minds and hearts. Without the desperate need to work a job, the best paying job, to pay off loans, people could be doing what they want to do, going into the fields they’ve trained for at what might be a lower starting wage, becoming entrepreneurs, working at nonprofits. People who came from poverty could start buying homes, building generational wealth, investing.
(the same could be said for universal health care, FYI)
Money encourages us to become very narrow in our thinking, because it breaks real, actual, complex costs and benefits into cold numbers. Perhaps your tally now shows -$100,000 dollars in paid loans and you see someone else at +$25,000 from the government. It looks unfair. But who is it unfair to? Everyone benefits from this, and what you have sacrificed does not change. I suppose you could argue that “my tax dollars are paying for their education.” Is that a bad thing? Don’t we want educated neighbors? Do you know what else your tax dollars pay for? The billionaire-expanding, environment-destroying, war-waging, and plain unnecessary crap we pay for? This seems like a far better investment.
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 choices
Audrey Lorde, from The Master’s ToolsWill 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.