Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Conscripting outrage

Maybe it's the warm weather -- summery temperatures turn a person's thoughts to protest. This week brought an abundance of social action on causes that I feel are important. Action brings requests for time, energy, and money. Being unable to give that can bring feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, I was told in my formative years.

But how big a part of the solution do you have to be? And what does being "part of the solution" look like? Do you have to be on the front lines? Do you have to sign another Internet petition, attend another rally, make another donation?

Bodhisattvas vow to lead all others to nirvana before going there themselves. But you can't lead people somewhere if you don't have an inkling of where you're going. First you have to work with your own mind and your own life. Then you can be of the most benefit to others.

This doesn't mean that only those who have fully accessed the enlightened aspects of their being can do social action. Not at all. It's important for us to question what we see, to challenge injustice, to work for change.

But it's also important for us to see our biases and filters. Seeing them doesn't have to stop you from acting; it may make action more skillful. I'd re-posted something on Facebook to "raise awareness," and a friend pointed out that awareness always has a story. I think that's true. When people say they want to raise awareness of something -- a disease, a political situation -- it's generally because they think something needs to be done about it. In meditation, awareness works with mindfulness of the present moment to see what is needed. But people who are "raising awareness" of an issue often are attached to a particular view of how that issue should be seen.

Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist, wrote an excellent essay in the New York Times, "In Uganda, Kony is Not the Only Problem." He noted that his country has a long history of violence and imperialism, and simply getting rid of Joseph Kony, who was kidnapping young men and forcing them to be soldiers, won't solve the country's deep-seated problems.

He writes:
Campaigns like “Kony 2012” aspire to frame the debate about these criminals and inspire action to stop them. Instead, they simply conscript our outrage to advance a specific political agenda — in this case, increased military action.

African leaders, after all, are adept at pursuing their own agendas by using the resources that foreign players inject and the narratives that they prefer — whether the post-9/11 war on terror or the anti-Kony crusade. And these campaigns succeed by abducting our anger and holding it hostage. Often they replace the fanaticism of evil men with our own arrogance, and, worse, ignorance. Moreover, they blind us by focusing on the agents of evil and not their principals.

In Buddhist terms, you have to address the root causes, not just the visible problems. It's the same for ourselves and for our culture.

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet, writer, and blogger living in Beijing, wrote about the conflict between Tibetans and Chinese that has led Tibetan monks and nuns to set themselves on fire in protest and three men to undertake a hunger strike outside the United Nations. She notes the deep views each culture holds that have contributed to the problems.

There’s a Tibetan saying: “Hope ruins Tibetans; suspicion ruins Han Chinese.” I’m not sure when this saying came into being or what its background is. I only know that this expression falls off the lips of many Tibetans, who use it meaningfully, mockingly, or helplessly.

For the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China’s population, there is a similar expression engraved in their history books: “Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart.”

Originally, these words were not frightening. Over the years, though, the sentiments they express have created an atmosphere of raw violence. Minorities stand in the way of the grand unity of China’s different peoples; they must be Sinicized or extinguished. The ethnic minorities who live in China, the Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and others, understand that this view of ethnic minorities is actually quite widespread, that it is the mainstream, that they receive little empathy from the majority.

For me, this is a contemplation that opens the door for some empathy. Is that really so different from how we look at things: Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart. Does that include people who don't support our cause, or don't support it in the way or to the extent that we feel is required?

But the truth is -- THE truth, as I see it -- is that we are all of the same heart. Demonizing anyone only closes off the possibilities for compassion and reduces the likelihood of finding a resolution that people can live with. Acknowledging the essential humanity of all beings leaves open doors for conversation. That doesn't mean accepting what is unacceptable. It means not freezing people or groups into certain positions that make movement impossible.

That starts with yourself. It means not locking yourself into a mindset of inadequacy because you can't remake the world the way you want it or guilt because you can't do everything.

The most important thing you can do is to be gentle with yourself and others, to treat them with the dignity they deserve. If you are acting from the heart that is shared with all beings, from that deep still place, I believe you are part of the solution.

Buddhist psychologist John Welwood, writing after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, says terrorism stems from the same place as individual unhappiness -- wounds that hurt our hearts so badly that we seal ourselves off. To protect ourselves from being hurt further, we lose touch with empathy, compassion, kindness -- anything that makes us vulnerable. That's true for societies that hold onto grievances, he says.

My initial response to the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the war fever they unleashed was anger and indignation. Yet I soon saw my reaction was part of the same problem that troubled me in the world at large. .... Despite my fervent wish for a world at peace, as long as I regarded terrorists and warmongers as some kind of adversary to harbor a grievance against, I too was putting on the mantle of war. Seeing how my investment in grievance was the very same thing that drives all the hatred and violence in the world catapulted me int a process of soul searching and inner discovery. (Welwood, "Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships)

(top photo by the Associated Press, marchers protesting the lack of an arrest in the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager who was shot by a civilian patrolling a gated neighborhood.)

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