I’m reviving my blog over the holidays. I spend most of my internet social time on Twitter, but I thought I would go “long form” for a change. Some of the information here may be repeated in older posts, but I’m going to assume I’ll have all new readers for this one (if any!) since I hardly ever post.
I used to work at a dot com in San Francisco back at the turn of the decade, and as a paralegal a few years before that. After being laid off several times and going through some family crises from long distance, I moved home and have worked in retail and sales since then. Following some trials and tribulations, I’ve started to realize that I’m more of a “behind-the-scenes” person and that working in sales just isn’t my forte. I also found it mind-numbingly boring, and have slowly realized that none of the jobs I have had in the last few years presented me with any kind of challenge. This isn’t good for someone who was labeled as “gifted” early in life, and therefore has always been expected to be able to do more. So I applied to graduate school in hopes of bettering myself once again.
I was very pleased to be accepted to grad school for Conflict Resolution at a North Carolina university back in June. I ordered my textbooks early and started reading them. I also ordered biographies of Martin Luther King, Mahatmas Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, and other influential figures. I imagined how great it would be to work for the UN or the Peace Corps, and decided to follow President Obama’s example in his commitment to work for others. My interest in Buddhism was also tied in with these ideals.
It was so easy to be optimistic and hopeful as Obama was sworn in. It really felt as though the sky was the limit with what we could do, the victory was so groundbreaking. Then as the year wore on, the tea party groups emerged, and we all watched as the town hall people threw their fits for the cameras. It became harder to see how things would ever change here in America. I found all of that virulent expression of hatred quite depressing, as I’m sure many others did as well. I also became pessimistic about how we could ever achieve a real lasting peace, and felt intimidated by the arduous task of trying to live up to such sterling examples as King or Gandhi.
So I did what a lot of people might do, and distracted myself from the news. I had been a social networking Luddite since Myspace emerged in the early 2000s. I never got on there because I had heard there was some trouble with viruses being spread in the beginning. I had tried tribe.net for a few months, and that was about it. So when I finally broke down and joined Facebook and Twitter this past summer, it was a welcome distraction from all of this heaviness. It was great reconnecting with people I hadn’t talked to in awhile, and just realizing that everyone was still out there somewhere, even though they seemed so far away. After becoming isolated living out in the country after fifteen years in the city, it was nice to be reminded of that.
On a more personal note, I have been trying to help boost the spirits of my father who was treated for lung cancer in early 2008. He’s in remission, but is still on oxygen due to lung damage. He doesn’t get out much anymore. He has also suffered from bouts of depression and OCD for a number of years, since taking early retirement in the eighties. This tendency he has of rumination and pessimism makes the job of comforting him that much harder. It bothers me to think that I may never see my dad happy again. It’s important that I try to keep myself in the best spirits I can while dealing with this though.
I’m going to give some background about my interest in Buddhism, which I hope will provide some information that will tie together with other themes later on. My mother, who was older than Dad, passed away in 2003. I came back quite often to help while living in California. Eventually it seemed to make more sense just to move back. I stayed out there as long as I could though. As my mom’s health declined, I started to think about spiritual matters more seriously. I was mainly wondering “where do we go when we die?” and so on. Since she was Catholic and my dad was Baptist, she had left it up to me to decide which denomination I would choose. I had read a lot of Buddhism as a teenager, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to start attending services at a local Buddhist center in San Francisco. I also tried out an Anglican church for awhile which was non-traditional as well.
I found that a lot of ideas in Buddhism meshed well with the Christian teachings I had grown up with, and the newer ideas were intriguing, if hard to get my head around. Reincarnation and karma are the two that I’m still trying to better understand. After moving home for a year, I headed back out to California to visit friends. I was still curious to learn more about Buddhism, so I moved into a Buddhist center called Tse Chen Ling (http://www.tsechenling.org) while I was back. I briefly considered whether or not to become a nun.
Although I enjoyed the classes and the people I met there, I found that organized religion just wasn’t going to be where I fit in the best. I had a lot of great experiences there though. One of the best memories I have is of the laughter, joking, and light-hearted spirit of the younger Tibetans. It seemed that irreverence was not only tolerated, but encouraged. The lamas, some of whom I met in person and some I watched on videos, were so calm and understated in their presentation. This was quite a difference from the “fire and brimstone” style of preaching that you still see in churches in the South, where the pastor is practically shouting at people. I thought the Buddhist approach was much more authentic. It’s true that you do see some new converts putting on a “centered and blissful” new-age style demeanor, which can easily change when things don’t go their way. However, especially in the case of Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan monk who helped establish several centers there in the 1970s (http://www.fpmt.org), there was a depth of spirit present in him which was palpable.
Back to the present, I found that it was hard to concentrate on my studies, because I really couldn’t honestly say that I believed there was a permanent answer to conflict. After all of the wars that have been fought in the name of God and country, and the petty irritations that plague even the happiest of relationships, is it really possible to eliminate conflict? It seems like this same struggle has gone on in every era, so is there really any hope for a lasting peace and justice for all?
Also, it seems that we conceive of the striving for justice and peace as very somber tasks, worthy of pursuit, but ultimately very serious stuff. After spending most of my childhood amusing my mother in her later years, I naturally try to entertain people. I also absorbed the notion from my Buddhist center experiences that joie de vivre is healthy not silly, and a lighter touch works best. I wondered if I would be willing to spend the rest of my life playing referee to so many overblown situations. Would I be able to take each side seriously enough, would I be able to inject any levity into the mix, to try to help lighten the mood? Or would it turn out to be me trying to manage a lot of awkward, ponderous battles? I don’t really like taking part in personal conflict anyway!
I brought this up in one of my classes this semester. I said that I thought that a sense of humor may help, when helping people mediate or negotiate a problem. The teacher warned that you have to be careful with that, as often you are dealing with people you don’t know very well, and you have to be careful not to offend anyone. Isn’t there a common ground left anymore, a perspective from which we can all see the folly of things, only if just for a minute? Or have identity politics completely taken over the arena? Can we find common ground as humans, or would that be completely contrived?
Due to the heaviness of being in a caregiving situation, I found myself drawn to the wry observations of comedians on Twitter, who often are dealing more with the truth on a daily basis than politicians or religious figures it seems. I starting thinking about the underrated value of humor, and thought how great it would be if I could just get my dad to lighten up a bit. A person has to be willing to look at things from a humorous perspective though, one can’t really insist on it, and so instead I found a lot of solace there myself. I really enjoy the stream of consciousness viewpoint that Twitter provides.
What is it that makes something funny, and why do most of us find humor in certain situations? Is there some way that we as a people can start to look at things from a lighter perspective from the beginning? After years of dealing with depressed people, and suffering from depression sometimes myself, I wonder, how can we start to cultivate a lighter touch?
For others who worry about such things, here’s a few recommendations that I’ve picked up along the way. One thing Lama Yeshe always says is to never give up on yourself. You may have committed the worst wrongs known to man, but there is still hope for you to become enlightened, from the Buddhist point of view. To me, this is a welcome departure from Christian thinking, with its focus on “eternal life” and the idea that one can be eternally damned or saved. Buddhists believe that our “souls” are recycled endlessly through reincarnation. I think that key difference helps prevent people from doing psychologically harmful things to themselves and others, just to “get into Heaven”. Also it is recommended to be gentle with yourself, and learn to love and forgive yourself first, before trying to do the same for others. We have all heard these things before, but have you ever actually tried doing it? It’s not a very common attitude to find in our punitive, judgmental culture, but it seems that this kind of thinking would help us all better weather the economic and cultural storms in our country these days, rather than just seeking to place blame.
Another thing I have had to realize is that Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the rest were people too, and although they have been held up as singular examples of peace and non-violence, we do not have to live up to that exacting standard in order to make a difference. There were many people working with them and around them who are now nameless, but they believed in the same things and contributed to the movement as well. The chance of becoming such a figurehead is rare, and often individuals are thrust into the spotlight, as Martin Luther King was, without any real desire for the role. Many people around King helped create the civil rights movement that he led so eloquently.
I find Bayard Rustin to be someone who I can relate to much more, as his personal life was under much scrutiny even as he contributed greatly to the civil rights movement, primarily by bringing Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent civil disobedience back from India. Bayard Rustin was raised as a Quaker, and so pacifism was taught to him as a fundamental belief. He spent time in prison for being a conscientious objector during World War II. He was openly gay at a time when this was hardly the norm. He was arrested in Pasadena in 1953 for “lewd conduct” in what he later claimed was a set-up to tarnish his growing reputation as an activist. His greatest achievement was organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, even though he was relegated to Deputy Director due to fears that his homosexuality would discredit the movement. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin)
While my power was off during the ice storm the other day, I picked up the collected writings of Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses, to see what he might say about the situation I’ve found myself in. Maybe he could remind me why I got involved in trying to change the world. I started out reading through the series of interviews with him in the back of the book.
In 1987, the last year of his life, he gave an interview with Open Hands, an HIV services organization, entitled “Black and Gay in the Civil Rights Movement.” The interviewer asked him various questions about how his homosexuality had affected his treatment in certain circles, and what he thought the future could hold for the gay rights movement. Specifically he was asked, “Are you hopeful for the human race? Do you think prejudice will be overcome? Do you think it’s improved in your lifetime?” He gave an interesting reply about the lesson he had learned from “the Jewish prophets”. He said, “If one really follows the commandments of these prophets, the question of hopeful or non-hopeful may become secondary or unimportant. Because these prophets taught that God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying. And, therefore, I do not expect that we can do anything more than reduce prejudice to an irreducible minimum.” (page 289)
I found this advice from him heartening in a number of ways. First off, his viewpoint seems much more realistic and achievable than the utopia of permanent world peace. As we discussed in class, conflict is not always a bad thing, as long as the sides involved are both given their say and are able to move towards an agreeable solution for both parties.
Also, my Buddhist sensibilities are tickled with the idea of moving beyond hope (and its counterpart fear) as a motivator. With the little I have absorbed from Buddhist thought, I’ve been struck by the idea that clinging to any given state is not the ideal way to have “skillful means”. In other words, acting blissed out all the time is not really any better than running around pissed off at everyone. Neither one is that realistic. Experiencing your emotions, acknowledging them internally, and then acting with reserve and respect for others is the method that I have tried to cultivate personally. Sometimes that means voicing your anger or disagreement as it arises. Being Buddhist doesn’t mean being a doormat.
His idea of the “irreducible minimum” of prejudice being left in society makes sense to me as well, when you look at history and observe how many times intolerance has cropped up again and again. I think that it’s true that even within each of us, there is always going to be a tendency to see things from a certain filter, and we have to actively work to overcome that in ourselves. So why should it be any different in a social setting?
This also gives us room to work, because as we acknowledge the darker places in ourselves, it makes it easier for us to tolerate its presence in others. One thing that bothers me about the outcry against the teabaggers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the like, is that the left is so ready to ridicule them, then get on a moral high horse about it. I agree that most of the things they do are terrifically misguided, but I have come to believe the best way to defeat them is to accept them as misguided, and try to love them anyway.
Remember the scene in the movie Mississippi Burning, before one of the CORE workers Mickey Schwerner is killed, when he faces the angry man in front of him and says, “I understand how you feel”? (The statement was later confirmed by the killer as accurate. http://bit.ly/5aqzq4) This moment is so compelling because it helps us to realize that that kind of commitment and self-discipline transcends death. The kind of radically accepting attitude which he was able to demonstrate at that moment haunted his killers for the longest time, as they at least internally had to admit that they were incapable of that. Maybe we’re not required to live at such an extreme level all of the time, but it seems that making an effort towards that mindset could help one find some level of inner peace, which is where it all starts anyway.
So I don’t feel like I have any answers that haven’t already been brought up before, by other much more skilled and accomplished thinkers, but as I head back into another semester, I thought it would be good for me to organize my thoughts about these things in a blog post. I don’t pretend to possess the self-discipline of Mickey Schwerner or the Dalai Lama, but Bayard Rustin has helped me to remember that “it’s all about the struggle, baby.” Also I wanted to let people know that I haven’t forgotten about the movement just to chase dudes on Twitter! Maybe that roller coaster has just gotten me in shape for pursuing truth and justice again. 🙂