This is a time of great tumult. We are not who we were even one year ago. We are a world in flux; emotionally, virally, economically, politically, sexually, environmentally. What better time to assess, again and yet again who we are both individually and collectively?
I’ve heard it said, especially in reference to the recent political unrests in America, ‘This is not who we are.’ ‘We are better than that.’ ‘We are not that,’ ‘I am not that,’ not the Capitol Hill rioters, not racist, not sexist, not one who marginalizes the indigenous or the poor, not predatory, nor prejudiced. NO, I am not that! We seem more certain about who we are not.
Do you ever wonder what conditions could turn you into someone you really would not imagine being? What conditions could turn us into people we don’t think we could ever be, people like ‘that’? Chances are that unless you live or have lived in a war zone or an extreme situation you may not know it all. Yet the chances are that life has already thrown each and every one of us many chances to step up or turn away. Whether it’s telling the truth when it would be so much easier to not, or staying in a relationship and pretending when it feels just too scary to leave and start again. Whether it’s taking to the streets to make a point for social justice, whether it’s being willing to intervene when you see someone abusing an animal on the streets or a child in the supermarket. Even when it’s a friend or family member who is alcoholic and has managed to negotiate the silence of those around them. When do we step up, and under what conditions and when and why do we turn away?
Would some of us have marched on the Capitol Hill Building, if Trump and his gang had indeed succeeded in overturning the election results in the US of A? I’d like to think yes, although I would also like to think that I (and we) no matter how outraged, would not have been armed or gone with the intention of doing bodily harm to anyone.
We tend to want to think of ourselves as people who will do the right thing, whatever we conceive that to be, (as is exemplified well by the previous sentence), and in fact research shows that babies as young as three months have already a keen sense of ‘fairness’ so it figures that we adults may too. We readily avoid any evidence that shatters our own projected image of being good and being in service to good. That’s why writing a memoir is so ridiculously difficult. The most challenging genre of writing. What are the chances of being scrupulously honest and still being the hero of your own story? Slim? Uncertain? Unlikely.
I would actually not have been at such a protest. The mere thought of participating in a huge rally is enough for me crawl under the bed to hide, or feign sick. While I too like to think that I fall on the right side of wrong and would fight for what I feel is the common good and right action, I have found over the decades, other ways of protesting; with words, with money, with positive action, ways that suit my natural introversion. The only time in my life that I actually did participate in a public rally was for a communist cause, as an 18-year-old student in Dublin, Ireland. You have only to glance at that neck of the woods to see that clearly, our effect was naught.
An intense fired up ‘crowd’, which miraculously or under the right provocation can morph into a ‘mob’ in just one precipitous moment, is for me a very scary prospect and one to be avoided. Undoubtedly, I came by this caution honestly enough, given whom my parents were and what they lived through in the Germany of the late 20’s and early ‘30s. Surely some of that fear passed onto me. They struggled to make their way as immigrants in the new country of South Africa, counting their blessings while secretly mourning their profound losses and closing eyes and hearts to the horrific political system they were now seeped in. Having left one horrid system where they were the victims, they arrived and eventually thrived in another system where they are the top dogs, simply by virtue of being ‘white.’
I remember the hushed conversations with family friends with tattooed numbers inscribed on the inside of their arms, who would mutter to discretely nodding heads, “Thank god, this time it’s not us.”
They seemed to accept in a way that their offspring did not, that someone was going to be ‘it’ and while they were not willing to be the active perpetrators, it was tacitly understood amongst that crowd the ‘their job’ was to survive, rather than flight or confront.
My sister was sixteen and I twelve when we were yanked out of South Africa to Ireland, of all places. The explanation given was political, since at that time anyone could be imprisoned for up to 90 days with no reason or legal representation in the apartheid of South Africa in the early ‘60’s. We left before I ever realized what Apartheid was. We left before I ever began to realize why they had ever needed to escape their native Germany in the first place. I was a political innocent and my parents saw no reason or value to change that. But I did.
I did much watching and listening during my early years, as children invariably do. My parents spoke in German when they wanted to be assured of a private conversation. Naturally both my sister and I learnt very quickly to understand it all, though we never spoke and they never knew that we understood. It was a good set up for us.
I began weaving my own tapestry of political and social understanding. A deep curiosity as to how we humans organize ourselves societally, coupled with reading and discovering the stories of countries, called history, had me leaning far left into a rather natural desire to imagine good and equality for all. As I discovered more about the history of my immediate family and the country that had birthed them, I developed a simmering moral outrage towards ‘the Germans’ for what they had done and for what they had allowed to be done. How could the ordinary German people have allowed that to happen, I would ponder repeatedly. I assured myself that I would have been brave, had I been there, part of the resistance for sure. So, while some little girls might dream to grow up to be film stars, or princesses, I dreamed that I would grow up to be a ‘resistance fighter’, since to be silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit. I am not like those German people, I asserted to myself.
Many years later I found myself drawn deeply into a most marvelous tribe of fellow spiritual seekers of Eastern meditative teachings and a teacher. What started as the most open idealistic community, embracing the notion of a more evolved humanity, a ‘new man’, and a society which was the very antithesis of an authoritarian model, but which nonetheless morphed over several intense years into exactly that. While embedded in that system, it was so easy to justify my continued presence and compliance.
Instead of being the ‘resistance fighter’ of my younger years, I said nothing to oppose this increasingly autocratic system, nor did I attempt to leave. I was merely scared. I had no money of my own, I had given it all away to the community which I believed would be my forever home. I had no place to go. I had pitched my tent to a life which was increasingly untenable and proved to be unsustainable. My son, by default, was similarly pitched to the same tent being too young to have his own say about his future or present circumstances. He came along for the ride and actually had a fair degree of fun, counting that time in his life as a ‘good’ one.
Re-entering the ‘real’ world as a 37-year-old with an 11-year-old son, when the community eventually disbanded, was a daunting prospect. I tried to draw on the courage my parents may have mustered as young immigrants. They had a moral fortitude which may have fueled their forward movement, as well as an abundance of daring youth genes. I was shackled by the loss of a dream and the understanding that I had lived in a manner that was complicit in undermining that very dream.
It’s always the burning building that we run into (at least in our imagination) to save the child which remains the yardstick of courage and then, there is the look we find in our own eyes when we return home with our clothes and hair unsinged. When I looked in the mirror, I realized that I was not the heroine of my own moral memoir.
When the much-acclaimed Tibetan spiritual teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said that spiritual practice is nothing more than waking up from self-delusion, I resonated, even as I was still smarting from the shock of the alarm clock. But I was also freed.
What to do with this newly found self-regard even if it is less than flattering when we realize we are not whom we thought we were, whom we thought we ‘should’ be, or maybe wanted to be? I found myself somewhat compelled to find out more about who I actually was, and was not. In that situation I discovered that I was not devoid of grit. I was after all my mother’s daughter. I applied myself with the fervor of the recently bereft, with the relentless pursuit of a bloodhound to create livelihood and security for my son in this brave and foreign, post-communal life in the US of A. In other words, to survive as my parents had before me.
In time ‘knowing’ became my greatest ally. It engendered deeper understanding towards myself, even deeper kindness. Maybe I could befriend the part that was scared, or understand her more, or maybe even respect her wish to protect me. I could talk with her, bargain, manage her, cajole her or maybe even work with her. At the very least I could calm her. Kindness towards myself might engender kindness to others and so the automatic cycle of defensive/ rejection/ retaliation is broken, or at least weakened.
After a career of psychological ‘understanding’ on both ends of the therapist’s couch, I stand at this moment in time, in rich soil which is growing another push for racial, sexual and educational equality. I am painfully aware how privilege shapes our lives and our stories both about ourselves and about others, as well as our values. And while judgment is part of the oxygen we all breathe, I also know that we are comprised of what we love, what we value and what we disdain, all tangled up inside of ourselves. Given different life circumstances and opportunities, I too might be the one running into that burning building, or even the one lighting the fire, the one attempting to put it out or even the one who may show some kindness to the one who walked away.
As firmly as we think ourselves to be a certain way, I strongly suspect most of us are capable of acts of great glory and in certain circumstances great cruelty as well. Do we even know the circumstances that might evoke our cruelty, or turning away? That is the complexity of who we appear to be as a species, capable of a huge range, individually and collectively. Is this a comfort or a shame? Is this a humble knowing and maybe a reason to keep the door of our judgments slightly ajar? After all, it is wisely said that we should choose our enemies carefully since we are apt to become them in time and it is also wisely said that the real hero is one who makes a friend of his enemy (internal and external).
Walking through the days and years of a lifetime with the acknowledgement that so many essential aspects of self may not be fully known or may not yet have been stress tested, is to walk life with the lighter step, stripped of some of the armor of certainty. What is becoming more certain however, is the very strong possibility that we will get many chances in the coming times to test our metal, our swords, and our hearts capacity to stay open in the face of hardship, suffering and the challenge of living in ‘interesting times’.
Meanwhile armed with all manner of masks, here in the Pacific Northwest, we are moving headlong into the unabashed glory of another Springtime miracle.
With love to you all,
…..I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning for the marvelous as well as the murderous…..
-Seamus Heaney, 1995 Nobel Acceptance Speech.
If murderous is what we are then what of Schindler
who dared his life, risked his children every day
to save a thousand more.
If marvelous is what we are what of the Hutu men
who bolted the church doors, lit the fire, heard the
screams, danced till the embers cooled.
If cowardly is what we are, then what of the time
you lay naked with a snake, to overcome the terror
of being so afraid.
What of my friend the doctor who left his cozy home
donned a hazmat suit, and walked headlong into an
Ebola unit, if fearful is what we are.
If cruel is what we are then what of Mandela
who buried the blood soaked hatchet, left
his tormentors un-avenged.
If kind is what we are then what of the way
I spoke so roughly to the women on the path
who had done me no harm.
And what of Bruni
who knew the risks of seeing round when
flat was earth’s designated shape.
If arrogant is what we are, then what
of our not knowing
what any of us are
truly capable of?