I’m a writer. It’s what I do. More honestly? It’s what I be. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember: keeping journals, writing stories, even a novel as an elementary kid (okay, so it was pretty short…).
I’m the kind of writer (person?) who has to write it down to figure out what I even think. And to top it all off, I’m a damn scholar. There. I said it: I research everything. And I know how to. (See previous post.) This is a curse, these days, folks. And I’m quoting a much fancier blogger than I am to bolster my case.
Reading Jessica Livingston’s ‘Sound of Silence‘ struck so many resonant chords it was like she was playing my song. A soundtrack to a current dilemma I’m waffling over. Which is…to FaceBook or not to FaceBook.
Back story: I use my FB as a kind of ersatz progressive news outlet. One entire side of my family is evangelical Christian, in the least progressive of definitions. They are anti-choice, homophobic (in my eyes, at least; they would say they’re ‘pro-Christian marriage’), filled with white privilege (which they would say was ‘anti-special treatment’), and extremely pro-Christian (to the extent of being highly suspicious of other religions). We don’t have ANYTHING in common, politically.
But they’re my family, folks. MY. FAMILY. So I keep trying to point them to unbiased news sources (‘they’re liberal rags’ — the Washington Post?? Reuters??). Look up government docs (‘it’s an Obama conspiracy!’). LInk them to actual video of what was said, or what happened. So they can see with their own eyes.
And it has as much impact as rain in Africa. Their beliefs are grounded partially in religious propoganda from the pulpit (think Franklin Graham, or Pat Robertson), and partially in the visible changing of the colour guard of American culture. Gays! Brown people! Muslims! And while my family will say they harbor no ill will towards ‘them,’ they will also find reason after reason why such groups should be watched/ listed/ disenfranchised.
It’s enough to put you off reunions entirely.
I have worked diligently to learn ‘the other side.’ There are excellent articles available on why so much of economically depressed, blue collar white America voted as it didd this election. Against its own interests, progressives would say. But in line with history & the pulpits of evangelical Christianity.
Did I mention I’m also a Buddhist? And a socially engaged Buddhist, at that…I’ve revisited the 14 precepts of socially engaged Buddhism, as defined by my beloved (never met f2f, but always there as a mentor to me) Thich Nhất Hanh. What I’m struggling with is how NOT to be angry w/ such boneheadedness. How NOT to dislike narrowmindedness, even as I realise (with no small sense of the irony!) that my family thinks I’m the boneheaded one.
This is when I wish I had a teacher present to ask a question of. But in the meantime, I guess I’m going to have to learn, as Sharon Salzberg (another beloved mentor) says her own mentor told her, “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem, now you solve yours.”
I just wish it wasn’t so damn HARD! Any suggestions?
When I was a very young woman, I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Really. It was during the 70s, and the Neo-Nazi party was demonstrating (or trying to) in Skokie, IL. There was a huge outcry, because (you probably don’t know this) more than 1/2 of Skokie’s population was Jewish. In addition, a large number of the Jews who did live in Skokie were Holocaust survivors. In other words? A tragically incendiary situation.
I was a journalist for years. And as a radical liberal — if there is such a thing! — I defend freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. They are building blocks to a liberal democracy. So I sent money to a financially strapped ACLU; liberals weren’t happy to see ‘their’ organisation defend Nazis, and there weren’t many donations coming in. My friends were horrified.
But I remembered someone had told me, in a class I had once on ethics in media, that freedom of speech wasn’t about defending the things we agree with. It’s about making sure that even the things we HATE are also given the right to air. Even things that make us crazy angry.
I still believe that.
However, it’s just not that simple anymore. There are, of course, limits to free speech: you can’t yell fire, as we know. And you can’t incite riot. And yet… Surely this political season, we have seen many ‘leaders’ fomenting hate: saying that entire groups of people should be deported, even (possibly) executed, if ‘necessary.’ We have seen jokes made (in verrry poor taste) about guns and various candidates, followed w/ ‘wink/nudge’ that ostensibly excuses the ‘joke.’
We’ve seen people with, ostensibly, the same political goals make accusations without any basis. Families (once safe from mud-slinging) are fair game, and spouses are attacked w/ impunity. A man’s father has been impugned as an accomplice to murder, a woman’s husband’s affairs alleged to be ‘her own fault.’ Debates have disintegrated into finger shaking and eye-rolling.
And it’s not just ‘them.’ It’s all of us. We’re all angry.
Yesterday, my younger son sent me a link to an article I’m posting here. It talks about ‘in-groups’ & ‘out-groups,’ & how we range ourselves against the ‘out-groups’ of our choosing. It’s not a new (or even overly recent) article: Scott Alexander, the author, posted it back in 2014, almost exactly 2 years ago. But it’s never been more relevant. For the next week or so, I’ll be referring to it more than once. Alexander so neatly articulates the tension these days: liberals are just as apt to forget freedom of speech as someone from the ‘other’ side.
As a Buddhist, I know about ‘attachment.’ Upādāna (it literally means ‘fuel’) is the fire that arises when we cling fiercely to a longing, a wish for things to be different. Maybe it’s a desire for $$, or freedom from pain. In my case? It’s a visceral ache for justice for all: equity (which is NOT the same as equal treatment, per se: equity is levelling the playing field — quite different). I want that kind of ideal fairness to EVERYONE. And so those who work towards that goal are my ‘in-group.’ If you’re not working for equity? You’re in my ‘out-group.’ And I’m almost certainly angry about it.
Equity also means that you can’t be a racist, or a homophobe. You can’t be a misogynist, or indifferent to your own privileges, racial or class or gender derived. I don’t think I’m any of those. But as Scott Alexander notes, I get no ‘virtue points’ for being ‘tolerant’ of differences like race, gender, class, religion. Unfortunately, I also get no virtue points for being tolerant of my out-groups(s), because I’m not. Instead, I’m angry. Almost all the time.
I”m leaving this here for now. Next blog? More on trying to live a Buddhist life of non-clinging while remaining socially engaged, and activist.
In my hometown, many of us — I hope thousands of us — are grieving. We’re grieving for a murdered father of four. For a man returning from a music appreciation class, who had car trouble. Who was shot FOR NO GOOD REASON (although that’s not the story the accused cop is telling, of course), after he was tased.
Did mention he was tased FIRST? Oh: and he was black. That’s the REAL important fact these days…
I’m linking to two other pieces — one the heart-breaking post of a teacher at Mr. Crutcher’s daughter’s school. Please read it. Imagine how to explain that this little girl’s daddy won’t be coming home because a cop killed him. If you can, imagine the faces of the black children to whom the teacher is speaking: sons & daughters of black men. Black boys who will grow up to be big black guys who may look scary. And tell me it’s going to be fine. Because I don’t believe it.
The 2nd piece is one I wrote, for my other blog — a more Buddhist one — at Beliefnet. In it, I spent more time than my breaking heart will allow today exploring what happened. And how it’s part of a tragic historical trajectory. America is not interested in justice, when it comes to black men. It’s more afraid of them than for them.
The Buddhist in me has no idea what to do. I’m writing and writing and writing more, wondering how to help. I’m tackling family who believe that an unarmed man is a threat. I’m railing at a system where black is the wrong colour, at least in any tense situation. I’m caught in a kind of death spiral of anger & pain and more anger, and rage that this keeps happening.
And I don’t have a clue — not a single Buddhist text — to help me figure out. All I can do is breathe in, breathe out. Breathe through the heartbreak and anger. And try, HARD, to remember that the pain I feel is not a drop compared to the tsunami of sorrow Terence Crutcher’s four children feel…
I’d like to think that I can calm myself. I know how ~ breathe in, hold, breathe out. Repeat. But these days it’s so hard. People I know, even like, are filled with fear and loathing. They aim it at my beliefs, at my core values, as we seem fond of saying these days. Leaders of our country ~ MY country ~ spew vitriol at women, at people of colour, at Muslims and others. All in the name of ‘safety.’ Read: fear.
I try to meet people in their good intentions (years of teaching teaches the teacher). I understand that hate emanates from fear. I am taught daily ~ it used to be student by student; now it’s mistake by mistake ~ that no one gets up in the morning wanting to hate, wanting to mess up, wanting to ruin someone else’s day. Or life. The difference between my intentions not to hate, mess up, or ruin someone’s day (or life), and what I see as other people’s intentions, is who we see as ‘someone.’ And what ‘hate’ means to each of us.
It’s not hate if your minister tells you it’s okay. After all, s/he would know, right? So if the church says that my gay niece and my many dear gay friends are hell-bent sinners, it’s not ‘hate’ to taunt them, goad them, drive them to suicide. Is it? Because after all, this representative of God urged that we punish these ‘wicked,’ right?
So people who are ‘different’ from us ~ by skin colour, religion, dress, sexual preference, whatever ~ aren’t really ‘someone.’ Instead, they are wicked, or terrorists, or somehow ‘other.’ Not the wonderful, lovely people I know. My niece Mary, my friend Soha, my friends Ben & Dewayne…these people I love dearly, they aren’t ‘someone’ to many many Americans. Soha makes people uncomfortable with her hijab; dining out w/ Dewayne or Ben (tall, elegant black guys) is rife w/ studied inattention from waitstaff and other customers. Mary’s wonderful partner, whom I love like another niece? She is a bad person, too.
This makes it so hard for me to breathe. I mean that literally: I catch myself w/ breath held, sometimes, and have to breathe out, then in. Yet I’ve been working for a very long time ~ years & years ~ to balance the dragon warrior in me (speaker for the voiceless) and the novice seeker. I know so very little about how things work, about why we are the ways we are… I’m both the speaker and the infant, the child who has just hatched.
My son had asthma as a child. Still does, but as a baby, it almost killed him. Coupled with severe croup, he was turning blue from lack of oxygen on late night. I held him in my arms as my mother drove at lightening speeds to our hospital. She made the 6-mile trip in right at 7+ minutes — through the dark streets glistening with rain, as I crooned to the baby I held carefully.
At the hospital, there were miracle drugs they could administer. Drugs that cleared my son’s lungs, and let the bright air fill him with life. I lay beside his crib that night, listening to his breathing, and thought of what a miracle it is, just to breathe.
These days, I feel as tight and starved for light and air as that infant, struggling for each breath. I’m once again driving down dark streets, it seems ~ looking for a way to breathe. And I know there is no magic medicine to ‘cure’ this ugliness, this lack of breathing space. In fact, I’m the only one who can get me through this. I understand that this is my own tight place through which I must somehow pass. Somehow, I have to figure out how to see beyond the hatred and the fear that tears me up to the human hearts beneath that darkness. I don’t believe that any of us is innately dark, even those of us roiled with violence and spilling ugliness and hatred. No child is born with hate in heart. And somewhere, there is love — there must be love, within these dark dark hearts.
So I’m trying to breathe again. Catching myself as I slouch at my desk, sitting straighter. Remembering to throw my shoulders back, remembering that the imperial dragons once were humans (hence their five toes…:)). So the anger of my inner dragon can be turned to light, as fire lights darkness. I just have to figure out how.
For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing word after word after word.
~ Roger Rosenblatt, Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing
Today, as I took my beloved in for his weekly lab work, I watched a young man intimidate his girlfriend. He pretended to be playing — perhaps he thought he was ‘playing.’ But his girlfriend obviously didn’t. And neither did I, nor the other young man watching with me. Bully pushed his girlfriend out of the way of the car door, after she gave up on him opening it. Perhaps he realised I was watching, or perhaps he just wanted to mess w/ her (I vote the latter). He shoved her further away, as she tried to open the door herself, then stood in her path as she tried to get around him. Over & over he laughed at her, pretended to playfully smack her, and generally intimidated her. He was a big guy; she was a pretty small woman. And did I mention there was an infant seat in the car?
I wanted to smack him. I at least wanted to let him know that he was seen, that there was someone watching, and that this behaviour wasn’t acceptable. And here’s where I failed: I only glared at him, because I’m white & he was not. Please note: I live in one of the most segregated towns in the US. We’re the town of the 1921 race riots, one of the America’s worst massacres of African Americans. We’re the city w/horrific health gaps between brown & white citizens. It’s here that we recently saw police refuse to become involved when a Lebanese man implored them to do something about his racist neighbour. Who minutes later shot the (browner) man to death.
I try daily to be an ally. To live an example of active, engaged anti-racism. To interrogate my own privilege(s), my own attitude(s). But I didn’t speak up. And I have no excuse, really. But I do have reasons. In retrospect? Probably not good ones. But here they come, and I would sooo appreciate it if you’d let me know what you think, as well:
- I didn’t want him to think it was a race thing (both he & his tiny girlfriend were black). I didn’t want him to be able to write off my interference as racial ~you just hate black guys. Because it wasn’t. I absolutely WOULD have spoken up to a white guy.
- I didn’t want to make it any worse for the young woman, or her baby. She had enough on her plate — did I mention we were at the infusion therapy lab? And since the baby wasn’t in the carseat, I assumed it was in the lab, being treated. It certainly was in the hospital.
I did turn to the young man beside me (another African American), & said, Sometimes you have to wonder why folks stay together. He nodded, and said Yep. I added, Would you want your sister treated like that?? And he said No. No one’s gonna treat my sister like that. That guy… And he shrugged. I said, He’s a jerk. We exchanged wordless looks of frustration.
So there you have it. I failed. Maybe from cowardice. Although I know I would have buttonholed a white guy treating his child’s mother like that. But I didn’t this young man. And I will always wonder if I failed the frail young woman with him, and her unknown child. She could have been my sister (sans child), 30 years ago. We know about domestic violence, in my family. Thankfully, only one of us has had to live with it, and she no longer does. It kills. Daily. Three American women die each day, at the hands of their ‘beloved.’ If this young woman does, am I complicit through my silence?
What should I have done? Because I agree with Rosenblatt, quoted at the beginning of this post: the human heart is worthy of love. Perhaps, as my own beloved said, this young man was overwhelmed himself. My response? NO. NOT ONE of the men I know, of any colour or background, would treat a woman that way. Period. But still… And perhaps he too was once a victim of abuse — by a parent, a step-parent, a family member. And yet… It is almost impossible (actually? it is impossible) for me to love this bully’s heart.
I remember what a dear friend once said, when I was trying to get my head around the cruelty in the world. Britt, it’s not your job to love the evildoers. It’s your job not to hate them. They turned from go(o)d; go(o)d did not turn from them.
So here’s my question: what would you have done? And how do YOU deal w/ ugliness when it shows up right in front of you?
I’ve hesitated to bring politics to my writing here. It consumes far too much passion in my life, which was one reason I started a blog. But I don’t understand much of what’s happening today, and writing’s what I do when I don’t understand something. I think w/ my fingers. ????
The fire erupted again today, when I read that PoliticsUSA had rated Donald Trump’s newest ad as one lie per every 4 seconds. Other credible sources (Pulitzer winner Politifact, for instance) have lists of his lies, with all kinds of evidence. So why do people continue to believe him?Why would you believe this single person, instead of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news source? Why would you want to? Who is it feeding themselves on this tissue of terror-laden lies?
There’s a poison in the air. People whom I know are good people, basically — good parents, hard workers, kind and mostly level-headed — seem to want to believe bad things. They believe immigrants ~Muslims & Mexicans & other brown people ~ are what’s wrong with this country built by immigrants. This country that once stood as sanctuary to the homeless & dispossessed. And people believe that there’s conspiracy afloat — in the water, among their enemies (who do not, of course, look like any of us…). Trump feeds this fear, fanning it until murder erupts, as it has in my own town.
I don’t understand it. I want a politics of compassion, a party of peace & hope. I once read an article by public intellectual Alan Jacobs, about “the war of every man against every man.” The article looks at why we’re so mean to each other on the Internet, specifically, and then goes to look at the cultural phenomenon as a whole. It was, literally, illuminating for me. It explained why my party of peace & compassion is so unlikely. Something dark within lightened. I recognised a pattern, which means I can unravel it. At least for me.
I’m going to try to remember what Buddhist Susan Moon says — that I drive folks as nuts as so many politicians, pundits, and their bloodthirsty followers drive me :). And that I don’t have to be the person who feeds the fire. I can be the person who lets it go out. I can have my own small party, peaceful & compassionate.