2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

I suppose 6 weeks is plenty of time for a little self-assessment, especially as I’ve noticed some … wandering, I guess you could say.

Meditation has been good so far this year – consistent in the mornings, which is always best for me. The quality of the sit varies, naturally. Sometimes I can barely manage two minutes of actual focus. Sometimes it’s more. Sitting before work is crucial to my overall wellbeing and I’ve recognized and therefore been disciplined about that, but it seems wellbeing without wisdom and oversight is not quite enough.

I’ve been an Officer at my employer’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for years, almost since it was initiated. It’s probably time to step off, and I will in 2023, but we’ve always had trouble recruiting officers (few people have enough breathing room in their jobs to take on the commitment, company support for the roles is limited), and it is my favorite part of my work. It is also the place in my life where I have the most direct impact on the education of White people. Our staff is composed of lots of well-meaning White folks, many of whom have limited experience with different cultures and an unintentionally parochial worldview. The trainings we’ve commissioned and led, on everything from White Cultural Supremacy to Islamophobia to Indigenous Approaches to Disability, really seem to have opened people up, and rarely freaked them out enough to get defensive.

Nonetheless, more substantive Committee proposals have made painfully slow progress. We have been asking Leadership for an Inclusion Statement for 3 years, and the only movement in that direction has been from the committee itself. We asked for a policy on responding to Tragic Events (a weak email about George Floyd’s murder came long after he was killed, and only after the DEI committee had already communicated with staff – and been admonished for doing so), and were eventually told that Leadership would only respond to events that directly impacted operations. We have no people of color in leadership, and only two BIPOC supervisors in a 200+ employee nonprofit. There have been some improvements – a greater percentage of BIPOC employees and Board members, some other accommodations for non-European cultures, religions, etc. but the Committee’s frustrations are manifold.

Another Officer reached out to me about our antagonistic relationship with Leadership, with a goal to mitigate that this year. I wholeheartedly agreed. And then I fell into the seductive arms of collective anger.

Leadership had us amend our Black History Month post not because anything in it was inaccurate or offensive or inappropriate – they couldn’t call out a single word or line – but because it made them feel, let me translate: icky. A week later, they “asked” us to host a “space” for staff to talk about the police killing yet another Black man in the Twin Cities, and when we explained that a group of White DEI Officers should not hold space for Black people who most need that space held, they announced that to the organization that we would do it anyway.

Do you feel it? That delicious distemper? That noble nastiness? That righteous rage? They’re clearly wrong, right? And they’re not wronging me. They’re wronging others. Better still, I have a cohort that agrees with me, who will bring their own passion and lift up my own. People with whom I can, if not demonize, at least criticize and somewhat vilify our primary antagonist.

Many of my teachers in last year’s Buddhist training talked about anger. How could they not, since they were promoting mindful social action in a program imagined while Trump was still in office. There was a lot more ambivalence around this fiery emotion than I had anticipated, however. More recognition of its power to motivate and even purge. And I have much more to learn about it, undoubtedly. My relationship with anger is largely one of dismissal.

Unlike many women, apparently, I have never had difficulty expressing anger. For whatever sexism I was raised with (less than many, more than some), anger was not discouraged in my household. I couldn’t get angry at my father – that was not allowed – but I could get angry at the world, at people we disapproved of, at the police, at politicians. I had no problem pulling off theatre performances as an enraged wife, director, prostitute, actor, medical student. (Apparently I have a very scary glare.)

I couldn’t turn it off, though. I was an angry, angry person. My cohort in acting school was, for whatever reason, chock full of angry, angry people. In our group of ~25 students there were a half dozen guys periodically flying off the handle, and me. I chain smoked and drove dangerously fast and drank a half dozen cups of coffee every morning and slept very little and in the rare times I noticed my body, it was like every blood cell was a whirling dervish of rage. All the pain I had been unable to express to the people who had hurt me perpetually simmered under the surface, spitting out steam at my fellow drivers and uncooperative retail employees, through sing/screaming to loud music, and onstage.

Once I got beyond that turmoil and saw it for the grating, exhausting force it was, I became vigilant about avoiding that state of being. Weirdly enough, it’s not that hard most of the time. I don’t worry about screaming at the radio when a politician puts their own reelection ahead of the lives of other human beings, or any of the other countless injustices that happen every day. Because I don’t hold onto it. I yell, I let go, I move on. (Meditation can take much of the credit.) I try to redirect any lingering energy towards something positive, or at least neutral. I remember that we are all flawed, fucked up little humans.

But that righteous group anger …. mmmm-mmmmm. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels delicious. When the DEI Officers got together to air our grievances about Leadership, it felt like getting together with a group of close girlfriends to talk about an overlooked artistic triumph. There was camaraderie and passion and pride and joy and frustration and fun. I didn’t feel like I was crawling with subdermal fire ants; I didn’t feel the need to scream to a Hole song. And there was something valuable and perhaps spiritually neutral in it: sharing frustrations, validating perceptions, and discussing & interpreting behavior aren’t inherently negative or destructive. But retrospectively, I saw that we had simplified the matter; that we had concentrated the complicated world of White supremacy down to a single point – the messenger for the organization; that our focus had subtly shifted from doing the right thing to winning. I did not have the courage to address an unearned insult thrown at the absent messenger, because I had been walking that unethical, cruel line in my own speech. Once the conversation was over, I had to take a good look at myself.

Right speech is hard. Our culture subtly and incessantly encourages talking shit. There is community to be found around naming a common enemy, around demonizing the other, around denying their humanity. I’ve been able to recognize it and avoid it on the large topics of the day – I don’t call all anti-vaccers idiots; I don’t call all Trump supporters Nazis; I do my best to look for a reasonable explanation for behavior from the right wing, and when I can’t find it, I look for the source of the behavior in the system, not in the “evil” of specific individuals. I try to practice my favorite cheesy aphorism: Don’t get furious, get curious. Why did I fall off the wagon at work? It’s not the first time. Groupthink has definitely seduced me before, and it’s so much easier to get sucked into it when COVID has left so many of us so lonely. But it is truly icky. It goes against what my Buddhish heart and mind believe, and it simply doesn’t help me be a force of love in the world.

So, 44 days into 2022, I guess the resolution that has forced itself upon me is to practice Right Speech, and hope it wriggles on down into my thoughts and bones. I will doubtless fail again and again, but they say the path, like the precepts, is not a do or die. Just as you haven’t failed if you get caught up in thoughts while sitting, you haven’t failed if your speech lacks empathy once in a while. It’s a practice, it’s about returning to the commitment again and again. Sometimes method acting is just too hard, sometimes you have to work from the outside in.

Celebrity Deaths

Began to compose social media post about David Bowie dying then thought “the world doesn’t need to hear my thoughts on David Bowie dying”

This gets you +224 points on The Good Place

We, the social media generation, often react to the deaths of famous people (who are, in reality, strangers to us) as an order to sit in judgment over their lives. Often this is positive, sometimes it’s not. Either way, it seems arrogant. I have my own bubble, so I tend to agree with the final judgements passed on the formerly living, but regardless, I’m usually, like, “why?” What is the point of this? Is there anyone reading your post who doesn’t already know why you think Donald Rumsfeld or Rush Limbaugh is a bad person? What’s the motivation? To get more angry “likes”? Or dull hearts? I dunno. Even the generic praise seems boring and unhelpful. I can get interested in people’s artistic or spiritual connection to folks they don’t actually know: the Prince album that got them through their coming out period; the Joan Didion book that weirdly made them feel seen, but more often I just skip over these so-called tributes.

This is, of course, prelude to writing my own…

I rarely respond to celebrity deaths in writing – maybe 3 in the last 5 years – but quite a few hit the press in quick succession last week, and at this moment I feel inspired to celebrate the good they brought into the world, or into my particular little life, now that their active contributions have ended. Yay, humans! In that spirit, here is a tiny tribute to these guys:

  • Bob Saget
  • Meatloaf
  • Louie Anderson
  • Thich Nhat Hanh

Bob Saget’s reputation was huge among comedians, a group with which I’ve had perhaps too much interaction. Folks seem to agree that he was a good guy, and who doesn’t want to know that a celebrity is a good guy? Right on, Bob. I know little of his work, but I lovelovelove good standup comedy, and profane standup is typically my favorite standup. I believe pushing people out of their comfort box is not only okay, but important; that addressing issues and ickiness that people don’t want to talk about opens our minds and even our hearts; that finding the humor in the horror is finding light in the darkness and that nothing is “off limits,” if it’s done right. As Wavy Gravy said, “if you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny.” The Comedian as Court Jester has probably never been more important than it is right now. Perhaps never less important, either. When is speaking comic truth to power unimportant? Saget followed in a centuries-old tradition of Jews and others who laugh to keep from crying.

Meatloaf. Ah, Meatloaf. Lots of folks have referenced his embarrassing show of Trump support several years back, but if you’re getting your political guidance from Meatloaf, I don’t know what to tell ya. Let me instead evoke the sweet, goofy, steroid-enhanced, testicle-free, ex-wrestler he played in Fight Club. Robert Paulsen is the most compassionate and lovable character in the movie, and admirable in a sea of toxicity: a burly man who holds space for other men to cry; a goofy and loyal friend; a person who can fight without anger, hatred, or guile; a character whose death is the warning light that things have gone too far, the trigger for the protagonist to battle back to consciousness and self-awareness. (Oh, and a friend in the music business who worked with him said he was a kind man, if you need that topper.)

Christine Baskets

I liked what I knew of Louie Anderson’s standup, though he wasn’t one of my faves. I heard good things about him personally once I moved to his home state (good guy!). But he really grabbed me in an interview with Terri Gross several years ago. I just fell for him. There was a sweetness, mindfulness, and openness about him that was so gentle and refreshing, and so aligned with how I want to approach the world. It was that, more than anything else, that led me to start watching Baskets. And Baskets is where I fell in love with Louie, as Christine Baskets, who is one of my favorite characters ever. She is subtly hilarious, but broke my heart repeatedly. She’s bold and strong and sensitive and loving and sometimes misguided; her vulnerability and strange generosity is beautiful and devastating. A less compassionate actor could have easily made her a joke; Louie made her an suburban American warrior.

And then there’s Thich Nhat Hanh. (I think I can leave out the character assessment for this one.) I can’t possibly begin to pay tribute to perhaps the most influential Buddhist monk of our time. (I know most would say the Dalai Lama, but in my spiritual world, Thay was more directly inspiring.) If you have a spiritual practice or inclination and don’t know him, check out some interviews or one of his scores of books. Although I am not a religious Buddhist, he’s been a huge influence on me. Not only through the many teachers I’ve learned from who started their journeys with this sweet-voiced little Vietnamese man, but because he lived the practice of and apparently invented the phrase “engaged Buddhism”, which I’ve been actively studying for the past year, and hope to commit to for as long as I’m still on the list of life. He stood up to conservative and monastic Buddhism before it was fashionable and spent much of his life trying to make the teachings understandable and accessible to the Western world, in a way our ilk could understand. He opened a path to liberation from our materialist, consumptive culture, our mindless anger, and our blind selfishness. To Hanh, mindfulness necessarily encompasses not only our own “selves” but our interdependent world, and right action necessarily includes the work to help alleviate suffering wherever one finds it. I know a lot of people have a hard time with death, and this post is, let’s face it, inspired by death, so let me close with this wise man’s words on the topic:

Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation.

The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.

This body is not me. I am not limited by this body.

I am life without boundaries.

I have never been born,

And I have never died.

Idiotic

Idiotic

I work for a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. It has been an enormous educational opportunity for me, in the mind and the heart, especially the last few years as we’ve been putting more internal focus on understanding the history of disability rights and models of “dealing with” people with disabilities. This has had the added benefit of broadening my awareness of ableist language online and in print. (Y’all know I’m a word nerd.) Like every time another layer of scales is removed from my eyes, it’s a positive, but still mixed, blessing. Not mixed: recognizing the irony when a woman criticizing what she perceived as a fat joke on The Onion’s twitter feed called it offensive and “lame.” Taking the moral highground requires a bit more diligence, ma’am!

A word called out as having potential to offend folks with disabilities and their friends and associates is “idiot”. If you’re not deep diving into disability or etymology, you probably define this as something like “a person who is not smart” and something idiotic as “unwise”. The fact is, these common definitions of the words idiot and imbecile long precede the so-called medical classifications below. I don’t believe any words should be expunged from the language, certainly not because they were once associated with wrongheaded medical terms. But I do think one should know whereof one speaks, so to that end, here is the bullshit ranking of “defective mental development” from a little over a century ago.

Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years.
Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years.
Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child

Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912

You may also be familiar with the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamous statement in Buck v Bell (1927) that granted the right to ultimately sterilize thousands of people without consent: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

You can understand the painful potential of these words. But at the risk of appearing insensitive, the pain is not my primary issue. The Right Speech element of Buddha’s Eightfold Path encourages you to consider the following questions before you speak (… write, tweet, post):

  • Is it true?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Is it kind?
  • Does it contribute to harmony?
  • Is the timing right?

(Folks mostly refer to the first three. Harmony is a tough one to determine, but as a standup comedy aficionado, I love that timing is included.)

My objection to the way I hear these words being used today (and have used them myself) is less about kindness and more about truth. The too-common and too-casual use of the term Idiot to describe people we don’t agree with is increasingly grating on me. I admit I don’t always fight it, in part because it’s so pervasive and slips so easily into casual conversation, but I do balk when friends refer to anti-vaccers as idiots, for example. Because I think it’s inaccurate. People who believe a certain thing, as illogical as that thing may seem to us, don’t believe it because they have some overall intellectual failing. They believe it because people around them believe it; the sources they go to for information believe it; they don’t trust the people who are trying to convince them otherwise; or sometimes, maybe, because they were never taught critical thinking skills. But none of those circumstances are examples of stupidity: they’re examples of humanity, or bad luck. There is nothing inherently lacking in those people – they came to their beliefs by accidents of location, wealth, association, etc. just like all the rest of us. It’s also illogical that “stupidity” would have led folks to one belief unless “intelligence” likewise led all other folks to the opposite belief. There are widely varying degrees of intellect and comprehension on all sides. If you don’t think there are sheep-like, intellectually lazy Democrats and Progressives, you’re choosing not to see it.

Would any of this matter if it were just namecalling? Maybe, but not enough for me to be writing about it. The misapplication of these and similar words is both irresponsible and false. That is, it fails to recognize our inherent interconnectedness and removes us from responsibility for our fellow humans. If we write off Trump supporters or people who don’t see racism or flat earthers as inherently flawed, we fail to recognize the elements of our society and our humanity that encourage the groupthink or lack of intellectual rigor that we have decided they exemplify. If people don’t know how to recognize an illogical statement, it’s probably because the elements of logic weren’t discussed at home or in school. If they believe what they believe because their social group believes it, that’s no different from everyone else. Humans are evolutionarily designed to conform to their society – that’s what keeps us alive in a collective, thus we feel good when we agree with others and they agree with us. If people fail to easily recognize racism, it is in large part because our country has worked incredibly hard to hide blatantly racist policies and practices for the last 55 years, in particular, so that we will believe that everyone got where they are through intelligence, hard work, and good character, or didn’t get anywhere through some combination of failings in those areas. If some working class White guy with a public high school education born and bred in a rural, White area is told that Black people are discriminated against when he sees a Black President, a Black VP, Black sports stars and actors and business leaders, should we surprised when he laughs it off?

If there is a defining characteristic, a character flaw that should be called out in folks who cling to what many of us see as indefensible ideas, it is a refusal to change, to learn, to allow their assumptions to be questioned, to listen with the brain and the heart instead of the ego. Let’s call them rigidots. It’s free of any connection to disabilities in development, verbalization, or learning, and describes only a temporary state of being, not an inherent lack. And all of us are rigidots at one time or another. I’m a rigidot at least three times a day, perhaps only better than I used to be in that I often recognize it and try to soften when I do. There are antidotes to rigidocy any time folks with different ideas and perspectives can talk to the temporarily rigid like they’re not idiots, to approach them with compassion and curiosity and communal responsibility, instead of writing them off as sub-human or enemies. All terms that separate us, that mark groups of people as Others, reinforce our illusion of separateness and put another brick in the ego wall that keeps us apart.