The Problem

“What is the problem?”  I hear that. You hear that. We read it in the comment section – an area where problematic people define the problem with other people by becoming a problem. We ask it, late at night when the only clarity the chaos of the world gives us is the assurance it is a mystery.  A million writers chained to a million keyboards fail to come up with the works of Shakespeare but clack out a million blog posts all saying essentially the same thing, and still we are nowhere close to an answer. 

This week, as a group of Neo-Nazis and KKK members marched their hate through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia they encountered a violent opposition, an overwhelmed police force, a group of counter protestors caught in the fray, and a horde of news media.  That created a feeding frenzy for the problem.  But, what IS the problem?

Poor Words

The message relies on the messenger. Depending on your source or lens the problem is:

  • Nazi extremism and xenophobia.
  • Racism.
  • White privilege leading to subdued police interaction.
  • Alt-Right/Alt-Left Violence.
  • “Disaffected young white males” (aka domestic terrorists).
  • An incompetent (at best) or white supremacist (at worse) President who emboldens such chaos.
  • Civil War statues and their necessary removal.
  • “Many sides.”
  • One side.

Full disclosure:  In reflection of this tragedy, I do believe there is only one side. 

So now that I’ve used lots of words, what’s the problem?

The problem is we don’t have or use proper language to deal with the problem.  

So much of the discord and our inability to deal with the problem is the vague, tainted language we use to communicate it.  We hide evil under euphemism. We minimize interference with poetics. We deify and demonize with word choices designed to reinforce our bias rather than explore our reality. We fling words into our cart like a manic Black Friday sale shopper instead of choosing them as carefully as a hippie at Whole Foods.  We talk about things there are no words to describe and in doing so perpetuate illusion. The most glaring example of our failure with language is the use of the terms Alt-Right and Alt-Left.

As a lesbian who has been slathered with the phrase “alternative lifestyle” most of my adult life, I have a natural tendency to wince at this terrible, aggrandizing word choice.  Alt-Right used by media and advocates, makes it easier to talk about a group defined by xenophobic, racist hate speech. Alt-Right is a way of saying “they are just like the right-wing conservatives – only – different. They are just a little more extreme.” Well, no.  Red/Blue, Left/Right, are words chosen to distinguish two sides of our political spectrum and they are woefully inadequate most of the time. However, there are two sides to a coin.  If you flip a coin and it falls on the ground, slips through a grime covered grate and rolls into the sewer – you don’t call it “alt-heads.”  In the same way, Antifa isn’t “just like the left, only different.” They are violent reactionary group claiming good indentations to justify property damage, violence and feeding their visceral need for thrills. Both terms need to be tossed in the sock drawer in favor of more accurate descriptions.

The more clearly we address the problem – even though such words as white privilege, systemic racism, and fictional heritage are uncomfortable – the better chance we have of navigating it.

Action vs. Reaction

Once I was at a spirituality conference and ended up eating lunch with two very different members of the Christian clergy.  One was Pentecostal pastor who was expounding on the idea that he never prepared for sermons.  He just read the scripture before getting in the pulpit and let the Holy Spirit speak with fire and power. He was adamant that preparing and writing a sermon squelched the Spirit’s ability to work.  The other was a Disciples of Christ minister known for her careful examination of the lectionary and well written homilies.  In response to her colleague she said, “When I sit down to write the first draft of my sermon, I find the Holy Spirit can indeed speak to me with fire and power. By the third draft, it’s sober.”

The problem is we want to quickly fix the problem.

We are a culture dedicated to the quick fix, the easy answer, the sudden inspiration without the work of examination – our sad devotion to “eye for an eye” illustrates that – even though Jewish and Christian scholars have been telling us for a century that’s not really what that text means, and it doesn’t fix anything at all.  There is no duct tape, no magic spell (“transformo hateesimo”), no fast reflex that is going to change the systemic and brutal racism infused in this country or our addiction to violence as a viable solution.  I’ve seen and agreed with a lot of people saying “Inaction is not an option.”  However, the truth is - we need considered actions, not just passionate reactions.  

Groups of people descended on Charlottesville ready to “Stand for love” and make a courageous counter-protest to the white supremacists marching around Robert E. Lee.  At first look, counter protest sounds like a great idea and it has been talked about in the most poetic of terms. For every hate-spouting Nazi, we’ll have 3 love bombing activists. That’ll show them. What it did was create an oppositional force that brought a new level to the whole thing.  The problem? The counter-protesters weren’t acting, as much as they were reacting.  They have signs about hate. Let’s have signs with funny sayings about love. They march and yell atrocity. Let’s march and shout inclusion.  So, instead of a group representing oppression and a group countering with undeniable love  - what you had was two groups raising the volume. Action, meet reaction.

Make no mistake. I’m not suggesting it is wrong to stand up against racist, nazi rhetoric. What happened there is solely on the shoulders of the Neo-Nazi organizers, the man who drove his car into the crowd and the politicians who gain power from encouraging that base.  I am suggesting that the stand against it should be a considered independent action, not a “they-say/we-say” reaction.  What would have it looked like if, instead of standing across a police line shouting about love, there was a drive to register minority voters, a “rights fair” where people are taught what their legal and civil rights are and strategies to stand up for them, or a cultural fair at a local park sharing food and music of many places and taking up donations for the those who need food and care? It would have looked more like “standing for love” than just “screaming at hate.”  If you want to claim moral high ground and reverse hate - you need to do more than exactly what they are doing only with an ironic sign and a rainbow button. You need to be different, not just in words, but in method. They have bad ideas. We need to have good acts.

The Myth of Understanding

Western culture places a great deal of value on knowledge and understanding. So much so, more ancient cultures are often horrified by us.  Instead of honoring our dead with sacred space, chants, and a funeral pyre with honored family and friends as the spirit is sent onward, we strip them, cut them open and take out their organs so we can understand how they died. To us, information is essential, the ritual can wait. Our blind spot is our inability to admit that more often than not understanding something doesn’t make it go away.

The problem is we want to understand the problem.

I live in Richmond, Virginia, so I’ve heard, known, and loved people absolutely devoted to the Confederate Flag, Robert E. Lee, and the statues on Monument Avenue (even though my sweet Northern friends call that street “Losers Lane” and refer to the statues as “participation trophies”). In listening, what I hear is a beautiful, courageous, rich heritage of soldiers and ladies, mint julips, and good old rebels like Bo and Luke Duke just bein’ good ol’ boys.  These southern generals were patriots fighting for a way life. It’s the siren song of the old south. Like those generals, what folks today are fighting for when they erupt at public hearings and march around with the Confederate flag is nothing less than their “way of life.”  I get it. I absolutely understand where they are coming from.  None of my understanding will change the fact the way of life they are defending didn't exist and the past they glorify is imaginary. 

Robert E. Lee was a calloused and calculating slave owner known for his cruelty as well as his valor. The idea that slaves were really just loved workers who were “like family” is a stone-cold lie and the laughable notion that the south didn’t fight the civil war to preserve slavery (“It was going out of style anyway, ruining the southern economy,” people say) is a perpetual falsehood. To say the Southern “way of life” is a cherished history without mentioning it was built and sustained on the backs of indentured black people is as ludicrous as saying Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress”  (Hemings  was his slave, repeatedly forced to have sex with Jefferson and bare six children who were also raised as slaves).  However, try to tell these folks they are fighting over an illusion, and you’ll learn really pretty darn fast that understanding something doesn’t always change it.

In the midst of the pain caused in this nation by racism, it would easy to retreat into sociological psychobabble about how a white supremacist became President, or read articles deconstructing white privilege and disaffected communities. It’s interesting to read theological blogs on the nature of evil and the exegetic origins of division.  Those things aren’t bad. But – they aren’t going to change the problem.  Sometimes, they purposely allow you to hide from the problem. Analysis paralysis.

Intentional invention on a personal level, then a relational level, then a national level is the only way to resolve the problem.  Do you use accurate language to reflect what is happening and be an avenue for change and hope?  If you’re white, are you able to communicate your understanding of privilege and develop a consciousness about changing the world around you?  Are your responses to racism actions or reactions?  Do they serve to shine a light on you or do they involve open doors for minority voices and collaboration? Are you as willing to sit and think as you are to stand and fight? Do you have a good balance between understanding and standing? 

Best practice:  Start in the center – your heart – and work your way out so that when the challenge comes you are able to stand side-by-side with others. Whatever you do, try as hard as you can – not to be part of the problem.

----- The Bottom Line ----

  1. There is no “right” side of racism, bigotry, or oppression.
  2. You can have the best of intentions and still mess up. Act, don’t react.
  3. If you think you, alone, can handle the problem. You’re the problem. Be in this together.

For More Information

Good  Read:

Everything We Do Matters

Perspectives

It's not About Southern Heritage

By the Book

Stamped from the Beginning

 ~

Racism:

"Racism springs from the lie that certain human beings are less than fully human. It's a self-centred falsehood that corrupts our minds into believing we are right to treat others as we would not want to be treated."

-Alveda King

Shall We Dance?

How awesome is my wife?  Walking in the house with arms full of groceries I said, “I accidentally offended a Christian woman while talking to the flowers at Kroger.” Cathy didn’t look up from the paper she was writing.  She wasn’t surprised about any of the phrases in that sentence. She simply nodded and said, “I’m sure she’ll survive.”  Just another Sunday I went skipping to the store with a song stuck in my head, offended religious people, and had a conversation with some lilies. No chiding. No worries. Nothin’ to see here. That’s an awesome wife.

Shall we Dance?

Of course, it helps that she’s been living in the chatty internal musical that is my life for a long time now. I have always talked out loud to everything around me.  When I park the car I pat the steering wheel and say, “Thank you.”  I talk to food I take out of the oven (“Don’t you look pretty?”), I talk to the dog water bowl (“Why you so empty?”), the television (“That was a great show, thanks.”), clothes going into the dryer (“It’s gonna be warm but you can handle it.”) and coming out (See, you look swell.”).  So, the talking to flowers part wasn’t a shock. The rest? Well, what do you expect when I’m allowed out of the house on a blistering Sunday afternoon in basketball shorts whistling musical theater numbers?  

It all started when I was in the kitchen making lunch with Briscoe the Beagle who was standing by in case things got crazy and food fell on the floor. After sidestepping around her a few times, I started singing “Shall We Dance” from The King and I. The earworm promptly got lodged in my cerebral cortex with the repeat button activated.  By the time I grabbed my keys and danced out the door, the volume was on silent but the song continued on.  Sing it with me:

Shall we dance?
On a bright cloud of music,
Shall we fly?
Shall we dance?
Shall we then say “goodnight” and mean “goodbye?”
Or perchance...
When the last little star has left the sky,
Shall we still be together with our arms around each other,
And shall you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance? Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?

  © 1951, Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers

Impressively, I remembered every word of the song. What did I forget?  That Mechanicsville (the nearest town with stores) is home to roughly 3 kabillion Christian churches which all release their congregants sometime around noon each Sunday.  It was one of the few ninety degree days we’ve had this summer, and I arrived at the store wearing shorts and a T-shirt, whistling softly with a list that included veggies for dinner, treats for beagles, and some fresh cut flowers to go beside the Buddha in our kitchen. 

Kroger was packed with over-dressed, word-weary, cranky people.  One woman pushed my cart out of her way while I was picking out flowers. Another man was angrily muttering and sticking his arm in front of me when I stopped in front of the apples to see if they were on list.  I didn’t complain. I got it. They were hot, they were tired, their “day of rest” was nowhere near peaceful, and there wasn’t enough room for anyone to breathe, think, or be.  No time for manners. No space for patience.  Here was this smiling, bouncing (my secret dancing looks a lot like I’m on an invisible pogo stick), heathen in shorts and sandals in the middle of things. It was all too much.

Somehow, I made it to my car in one piece.  A nice SUV with one of those PRAY bumper stickers was parked beside me. I opened the trunk, blocking my view from that side and obscuring a sharp-dressed dad, skirt and heels mom, and 2 middle-schoolers who were exiting their vehicle. At that moment, all I was thinking about (besides that song) was whether to put the cut flowers in the front seat with me or keep them in the back with the groceries.  I found a safe looking niche and nestled them in.

     “I know it’s hot in here, and there’s some scary water jugs, but it’s a short ride and I think you’ll do fine,” I said to the flowers. “You aren’t just any flowers. When you get home you will be an offering for the Buddha! You’ll sit right beside him. How awesome is that?” 

     “UGH!” The Christian woman said, loudly. It was my first inclination anyone was nearby. I put down the trunk to discover myself face-to-face with her.  She looked straight at me, her lips curled in disgust as she frowned. She had a cross around her neck. I had a mala dangling from my wrist. I smiled. She gave me a hissing sigh, rolled her eyes, then put her arm on the back of one of her kids and guided them hurriedly away as if the car may explode at any moment, burying her in lotus petals and compassion. 

Shall we then say “goodnight” and mean “goodbye”?

I would love to say I’m so thick-skinned and self-assured that her judgy rejection slid off me like cookies on a non-stick sheet. But it didn’t. I felt the sting.  Even when I started singing loudly on the way home I was covered in the residue of her derision. My good humor remained, but it was tempered with those feelings you get when you've been put on notice that you are outside of the lines.

I started thinking about the “Pray” on her car. Who did she pray for? Her kids, her friends, her marriage, for sure.  World peace, job security, sick relatives, and safe travel? Possibly. Would she pray for me?  Not likely. And if she did – would she pray for me to be happy, healthy and loved? No. If she did, she’d probably pray for me to change, to “see a light,” to become who she thought I should be. As it was, I’m reasonably sure I took up very little space in her consciousness once she voiced her opinion and guided her children away. I was thinking about her, but she had long since left me.  I thought, “Goodnight.”  She meant, from the moment she saw me, “Goodbye.”

In one moment of interaction we got to experience the truth about “tolerance” versus “acceptance.”  I see the “Teach Tolerance” bumper stickers a lot (and their more friendly cousin – Coexist). I hear the pleas and language of tolerance in many places, and it has always been as unsatisfying to me as cotton candy for dinner. Even "coexist" doesn’t provide long-term nourishment. I didn’t know why until I sorted through my feelings about this experience.

Tolerance means she didn’t stab me in the parking lot.  She didn’t call security to have me removed, or stop and force me to confess (she thinks) it is wrong to offer anything to Buddha.  She tolerated my presence for the few moments my circle met hers, non-verbally expressed her opinion, and left. We co-existed in that hot humid space. Not peacefully, not happily, but functionally.  

Or Perchance…

What would acceptance look like? In this briefest of moments, would it look like a smile?  A nod? A murmured “hello” as two strangers found themselves face to face?  At best, it would be a neutral space between us, with nothing but air and acknowledgement of another sentient being at close range. Acceptance would have offered her a chance to save energy. There wouldn't need to be display of displeasure. She wouldn’t have to draw a line between us. She wouldn’t need to scurry away. She could just be. Acceptance doesn't mean you approve. It means you understand the value of the person with you to make their own decisions about life/faith/being.

And then, the mirror turns just long enough to let me know she’s not the only one who could have saved some energy that day.  I am sad she doesn’t understand that flowers for my kitchen Buddha give us such joy and brighten the whole room; that we aren’t engaged in worshiping a false god. We aren’t worshiping anyone.  We are showing our gratitude for teachings that make our life better, and respect for the teacher. It’s not really different than taking an apple to the lady who leads your Sunday School class. And yet, I am aware she is also sad – in a mask of offense/anger – that I don’t recognize or follow her life-honored belief that Jesus is the only way and the only one. 

Truth is – I had the same feelings about her “Pray” bumper sticker as she had about my flowers.  I just waited to get in the car before rolling my eyes.  If acceptance is the lesson, I need to slot myself in the student’s seat, not behind the teacher’s desk. In fact, we all do. Acceptance – recognizing someone’s sovereignty of belief, and dignity of being – frees us from not only the walls built by judgment, but the energy spent on ill will, the time lost to replaying the episode, and the illusion that we are disconnected.  Acceptance allows us to remember we are all in this together.

That’s the difference.  Tolerance is a space you give to others.  Acceptance is a gift you give to yourself which allows you to see the ties between us, no matter how different we are.  Tolerance may spare you from discord but acceptance keeps you from being alone.  

Acceptance is an acquired behavior in our fractured world. Before it becomes a reflex, it will require some exercise, repetition, and reflection.  To be who you are in the world, and letting others be themselves as well, is a treasure way worth the effort.  I’m willing to try. How about you?

With the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen,

Shall we dance?

Shall we dance?

Shall we dance?

For More Information

There are a number of sources about dharma:

Sing Along:

Shall We Dance

Perspectives

Interconnectedness

By the Book

The Leader's Way: Business, Buddhism and Happiness in an Interconnected World by HH Dalai Lama XIV

 ~

Acceptance:

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend."

Melody Beattie

The Street Where Truth Lives

When you see an announcement for a class from a Buddhist teacher with a fee (no matter how large or small) there are always three people you can count on to fill the comment section.

  1. The connectors – People who tag other people to check out the offering. Usually they don’t even bother to write a comment. They just splice the name in the comment section and assume that person knows what to do.
  2. The committers – “I am so there!” “Done!”  “Soooo exciting.”  You get the sense these folks cheer as the train pulls into the station even when it’s on time and running as expected. I love them.
  3. The critic – That person who has been exposed to just enough Buddhism (via temple, book or meditation app) to learn one thing. “I thought dharma was supposed to be given for FREE.”  That person.

There was a time, ancient of days, when that was the conventional wisdom and practice. However, in Eastern culture during that era teachers and the community had a well understood symbiotic relationship.  The community gave the teachers food, coin, land, and support. The teachers gave the community dharma, inspiration, and connection.  Whether it was a monk with a begging bowl accepting offerings, or a community supporting monasteries – it worked.  Western culture (particularly in the post-modern interwebs era) does not have that genetic encoding. For all of its worship of progress, the west has never been very good about financial support for teachers (secular or spiritual).  We toss them an apple on “teacher appreciation day” and give them just enough money for rent, food, and occasional movie night. So Buddhist teachers, like all the rest, have make a living, pay the webhost, dress themselves, and eat some veggies if they are going to teach.  That’s the way of it.

Personally, I’m not as concerned about dharma for dollars as I am that the dharma presented is grounded in felt sense, authenticity, and truth.  The money will take care of itself. If I can’t afford the $250 class ($225 early bird discount) I’m confident the wisdom in it will find me by another way.  Money, time, distance can all keep us from specific experiences, but they can’t keep us from dharma. That will never change.

The Search for Truth

The key is to intentionally walk down the street where truth lives. Dharma doesn’t necessarily mean “truth” – it means teachings, wisdom, an established path, new life inhaling timeless air to exhale timely thoughts.  At the core – when you boil it down, the foundational element is truth. Not “true” in a fiction-vs-non-fiction kind of way, or “true” in a canonized, “written on a scroll older than King Tut” kind of way. Truth – in an “everything in my being feels this to be real” kind of way.   

Last week – for free – I was reading a blog post when a piece of truth so sharp and vibrant rocketed down and struck me in the heart like an ancient warrior’s flaming arrow. Unlike the story of the Buddha, however, it didn’t turn into a lotus flower and fall beautifully at my feet. It pierced me to the core. I’m probably not going to be the same again. Well, hopefully not.

Fear Itself

In an article about two recent tragedies involving renown/beloved teachers in the larger Buddhist community, Susan Piver was teaching about the Teacher-Student relationship – its traditional roots and its place in modern times. See awesome article here.  Stressing the vulnerability and responsibility of both teachers and students (assuming both are capable adults) she gave the following advice.

“My advice is don’t scare easily, but do scare appropriately.”

It wasn’t the point of the post. It wasn’t the big take-away. It wasn’t even the topic sentence of the paragraph. It was just splayed out there with all the other words waiting for someone like me to come along just so it could cut them in two. That’s the thing no one tells you about truth. You are free to wander the streets looking for it, but make no mistake – it’s been lying in wait for you.

You see, I’m an extremely happy, grateful person with a good life – but when it comes to fear, I’m wired wrong. A chaotic, sometimes painful, childhood and rough transition into safe spaces left me with a backwards sense of fear.  On one hand, I fear relatively benign things:

  1. Driving in the city (any city).
  2. Being at a social event with strangers I didn’t expect to be there.
  3. Being overwhelmed by too many people (most people).
  4. The black snakes under our shed.

I skip events. I push off invitations. I make Cathy get the tools out of the shed.  None of these fears create overwhelming hardship or loss in my life, but they are there.

On the other hand – I have failed to be afraid of really important things.

  1. Leaving home early without parental support (or relationship) I had a brief period of homelessness where I lived in my car. I regard it was one of the best/worst times of my life.  It was, by all accounts, ill-advised.
  2. Supporting myself, and not doing a great job of it, I went through a few seasons of poverty where meals came from college dorm snack baskets, ketchup packet soup, and my super splurge – 39 cent Hamburger Stand. At my lowest economically, and in great pain, – I once extracted my own tooth. (note: Never do this. Never. Never. Never. 30 years and thousands of dollars later, I am still fixing the fallout).
  3. I drove a car for over a year that could not go into reverse. If I had to park somewhere I couldn’t pull through – I would have to get out and push it backwards. Later I drove a car with a split axle I had repaired by a shady garage. The front wheels both turned but not always at the same time. I only got rid of it when Cathy named it “Death Trap” and refused to ride in it.

I ignore medical symptoms (or try to cure myself), warning labels, expiration dates, and car warning lights. I’ve spend most of my life happily engaging in a “what can happen?” mindset then later listening to a doctor, therapist, or mechanic explain the “30 ways I could have died.”  Fortunately, in the yin yang of life, my wife has a very appropriate sense of fear and the skill to know when it’s time to see a doctor.  She prevents me from too much collective damage these days.   

Learn To Listen, Look to Learn

Each year I pick one topic to study deeply. Two years ago I studied what it means to live with an open heart. I began to share more of myself, my story, my joy with other people and listen to their stories as well.  This year I’ve been studying the “ Six Perfections” (Generosity, Discipline, Patience, Effort, Meditative concentration, Wisdom).  Yet – in all my studies – all my learning – intentional and accidental – I have never known what to do with my messed up sense of fear.

Until now.

I’ve written Susan’s advice on a post-it so I can contemplate it and let it open my heart-mind. I’ll let you know what happens.  How did I obtain this treasure I didn’t realize existed until I saw it shining like a new penny on a very crowded sidewalk?

  1. I was looking for something else, but I was looking.
  2. I was looking in a good place. Yes, yes, yes – wisdom is in the trees and your dog and the sounds of birds and the bottom of tea cups – but at some point – if you need to learn – an actual teacher is the place to go.
  3. I was willing to take what was given. It would have been so easy (and mentally convenient) to brush this off and say, “I’m doing great. I don’t need to think about that fear thing right now.”  Yet, I would have lost a chance to chart the course I’ve been longin
    g to sail most of my life.

Truth really is all around us. Even, and most especially, the street 

where you live.

----- The Bottom Line -----

  1. When you can pay – pay. When you can’t – don’t despair. There is always a way.
  2. Stop searching for the “big rock” of truth. Bridges are best made of small stones.
  3. What Susan said.

 

 

For More Information

There are a number of sources about dharma:

Good  Read:

Fundamental Dharma Teachings

Perspectives

Buddhism and Fear

By the Book

Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

 ~

Fear and Love:

"There is no fear when you choose love. The more you choose love, the more love is in your life. It gets easier and easier."

 ~  Melissa Etheridge