Virus

You’re scared, because you don’t feel safe. Maybe if you do all the right things, you’ll avoid it. Maybe there’s a way to keep your children safe, your elders protected, your mentally challenged family member from putting himself at risk. Maybe extreme vigilance will keep everyone you love from harm.

You’re angry, because you have to alter plans, take extra precautions, work around rules that you had no part in setting. And still you may not escape it.

You’re exhausted, because the threat seems unending. Maybe you’re not even safe at home.

You’re grieving, because every day more and more people–folks who look like you–suffer and die needlessly.

Coronavirus? No, I’m talking about another public health crisis–a pattern of police using deadly force against Black people.

After George Floyd suffocated to death under a white cop’s knee on his neck, how can we white people continue to look away from the insidious virus that has infected this country from its inception–that of white supremacy? 

The loss of humanity that would enable someone to kneel on another human being’s neck while he gasps for air? I can’t fathom it. It’s sickening. But that doesn’t mean I should look away.

Notice: The people gasping for air because of COVID-19 are disproportionately people of color. They must daily deal with the stress of racism, which takes a very real physiological and psychological toll. Meanwhile access to resources is inordinately skewed in favor of people who look like me. The deck is stacked, and COVID-19 only reveals the disparities more. (Here’s data about coronavirus and the Black community in my county.)

Frans de Waal, a biologist, has said that empathy is an essential part of the survival package of any species, and that includes humans. Will we survive this time in our history? Can we expand our understanding and empathy rapidly, or will we close our personal borders, shut down all gateways to the truth of our interconnectedness?

Yes, we are all in this together, but people who have been shortchanged all along are being hit harder. May our collective experience of facing down COVID-19 unify us, enlarge our empathy for each other, and make us see more clearly how to create a future where all are valued, respected, and offered the same access to resources, healthcare, jobs, education, housing, etc. etc. etc.

Gratitude: I’m grateful for cogent voices calling for change, like How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, local organizer Imhotep Adisa, 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Me and White Supremacy author Layla Saad.

Tip of the Day: Support local Black-led changemaking groups in your community (Kheprw Institute is a standout here).

Resource of the Day: Anti-racism resources for white people.

From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.

No One Unreachable

We are so schooled in separateness. Wired, the scholars say, to see first our differences, though 99 percent of our DNA is the same. What if we begin to see the world differently, not me/us/mine vs. those others—but all of us?

Might this lead to questions like “What is it like to be you?” instead of “Are you like me? Could I love you?” or even “What is wrong with you?” or worse?

The way to reach people, it seems to me, is not to hector and judge and shame—but to listen and share.

It’s a generous and muscular act, listening with respect while opening to the possibility of transformation.

And what if we don’t leave anyone out of the equation, even those who appear to be despicable, beyond redemption? I think of an audiobook we listened to on a road trip a few years back. (I wish I could remember the title and author, or find it online, but I’ve had no luck.) It concerned the mystical kabbalah tradition. I still remember the large-heartedness we encountered in the listening.

The writer said that in this tradition, no one is out of reach: In the deepest darkness, there is always a sliver of light that can be contacted.

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Tree of Life, by Andrea Terzini, via Flickr Commons

Think about that. No matter how evil or cruel their behavior, they contain a spark of light. Staying aware that we all carry this spark—and that it can be fanned into a steady flame, at any moment surprising us—changes how we might deal with those we’d like to demonize.

I once read about a KKK man who took up a phone harassment campaign against a Jewish rabbi who moved to his community in Nebraska. The rabbi and his wife could have contracted into hatred or fear. Instead, they expanded with love into the hateful man’s arena.

“There’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” the rabbi said into the man’s answering machine. The congregation prayed for him.

One night the man’s swastika rings began to burn and itch, and he took them off. Eventually he called the rabbi in tears, saying, “I want to get out of what I’m doing and I don’t know how.” They became friends. The man converted to Judaism, renouncing the Klan and making amends to many of his targets. The couple took him in when he needed care and had nowhere to go.

In the end the people he’d despised became his family.

What do you make of that? That level of love? Could you do as the rabbi did? I’m not sure I could. But I aspire to.

To keep beaming love at each other no matter what—while still honoring our own process and pain: Through that courageous act we might begin to understand, deep in our marrow and in the whirling energy of our molecular movement, the truth of oneness.

From Dismemberment to Oneness

Rebecca Solnit, on how leprosy numbs the extremities so that sufferers don’t realize when they are damaging their own tissues:

“The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of.”

She speaks of a kind of dismemberment, of patients who feel no pain, so they injure themselves, even blind themselves.

She quotes a missionary doctor: “One of the boys said to me, “My hands and feet don’t feel part of me. They are like tools I can use. But they aren’t really me. I can see them, but in my mind they are dead.'”

Reading, it struck me that this statement could also sum up the dominant cultural attitude toward our own earth home. Though we belong to her and she to us, for so long we’ve disowned her, exploiting her riches as just so many dead “resources.”

We’ve been operating under the delusion that we are separate from the biosphere and the myriad life forms that share it—and separate from each other too. The results are catastrophic. If we lack feeling for each other, the soil under our feet, the waters that flow, and the skies above, we won’t consider these worthwhile of care.

"Holding Hands," by Paige Shoemaker, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Holding Hands,” by Paige Shoemaker, via Flickr Creative Commons

But perhaps that’s changing now, bit by bit.

More and more of us are waking up to our empathetic selves. We’re feeling a kinship not just with other humans but with the earth herself. We’re re-membering our entire human family and our deep connection to the planet that holds us.

I think of the empathy displayed by Antoinette Tuff as she disarmed a young mentally ill man bent on violence in her school. In the midst of her fear, this bookkeeper found a way to connect with the young would-be shooter, seeing him as a hurting soul. Her ability to reach him on a human level may have averted a major tragedy.

Meanwhile, this summer a group has been tracing the route of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the Great Plains. The pipeline, as I posted in May, would allow the release of enormous levels of carbon—enough to create irreversible climate change.

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline, by shannonpatrick17, via Flickr Creative Commons

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline, by shannonpatrick17, via Flickr Creative Commons

Taking both a physical and a spiritual journey through the heart of North America, Compassionate Earth Walk aims to nourish the earth, while inviting all humans to return to oneness in the community of life.

From the story on Resilience.org:

“We walk in response to climate change and in gratitude for the earth which has given freely to us for so long. We walk as an act of healing both symbolic and literal, including healing of the walkers, the land, the communities impacted by the pipeline, and the whole human consciousness of separation.”

No more numbness. No more dismemberment. The pain of our suffering planet and fellow earthlings might be difficult to face, but feeling it means we’re awake. It means we can care.