Here in America, we have made life personal. We assume that the basic unit of existence is the individual who is free to make choices based on their self-interest. We are then responsible for the life (our life) that flows out of these choices. If we have the right attitude and are willing to apply enough good old elbow grease, we will end up prosperous and happy. The corollary to this belief is that personal difficulty and/or lack of success, is merely an indicator of insufficient character and effort.
Though there is some truth in this point of view, it ignores our inescapable location within the personal, social and natural environment. We all live and die in a web of mutual causality. We exist within a context of relationships, beliefs and circumstances that are beyond our direct control. Any decision we make, any action we take comes from a host of causes and conditions, some we may be aware of, and many, we are not. There is no such thing as an individual human being.
But we humans like things to be simple and we tend to fall into one of two views: either we are responsible for our lives or we are victims of forces beyond our control. As with most dichotomies, the most useful way forward is some middle way that honors the truth in both sides.
I do believe that each one of us does indeed have some responsibility for our actions and inactions. What is important to you? What will you do about it? These are essential questions that have a huge impact on the quality of our lives and touch the world around us. If you want to make a difference in the world, what can you do, right here in your present circumstances, begin to practice making a difference? If you think people should be more respectful of one another, how do you start acting more respectful? Or courageous? Or compassionate?
When we act in alignment with what we love, even in small ways, we come alive. Though our values are a receding target that we will never ‘reach,’ they are a compass that can guide us. When you’re traveling east, each step east is a fulfillment of your intention.
But it’s not just personal. Each of us is born into particular circumstances. Some of us are born into more stable environments where we feel reasonably safe and get more than enough to eat and get to go to school. Others are born into violent environments where we are neglected and abused – by our caretakers or by the world around us. And everything in between.
And the world around us views us in particular ways based on our skin color, our gender, our speech, our appearance. These social judgments and prejudices we encounter effect our every move and influence the outcome of everything we do. Though they appear to be ‘personal’, they are actually cultural and political forces played out in our personal experience. Some of us have benefitted from forces that have been mostly invisible to us. Other of us have been victimized by attitudes and beliefs that have nothing to do with who we truly are.
While we should be aware of the power of our capacity to chose, we should also remember that we are embedded in a culture that is working itself out through our personal lives. As we exercise our personal power to choose what we give our life to, we also need to continue to see more clearly how power and privilege play out in our lives and in the world around us.
To paraphrase what my friend and colleague James Cordova said last night: “You’re not in control and everything you do matters.”
I am reminded this morning of Stephen Covey’s ‘Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence.’ I first encountered this teaching as an egg-in-the-frying pan drawing in his life-changing book: THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE. It’s a simple concept. The yolk is our circle of influence (or control)—all the things in our life over which we exercise some degree of choice: what we read, what we say, what we buy, where we go, what organizations we give our time to. The yolk is contained within the larger circle of the egg white is our circle of concern: all the things we care about but are beyond our control: the weather, wars and terrorism, the political views of others, what people think of us.
Covey’s simple assertion is that whichever part of the circle we spend time in will grow. If we spend most of our time worrying about things we cannot control, the white grows larger and the yolk smaller. When we spend time focusing on the things that we can actually do something about, the yolk, the area over which we have influence, becomes larger.
We would do well to continue to be concerned about things we have no direct control over (e.g. the disastrous ‘health-care reform’ bill that would eliminate access to health insurance to millions while giving a tax break to the wealthy), but to spend more time focused on what we can do, today and in the weeks to come.
If you are concerned about health-care, what can you actually do today? Maybe take care of your health so you can be available to march in the streets or call your representative in Washington or write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Maybe learn more about local health care for low-income people in your area. Maybe appreciate the fragility of life in all the tender beings you encounter throughout the day.
Whatever it is, I would challenge us all to live today as an expression of what we love rather than what we fear.
Another victory today against blind fear and blame as a judge in Hawaii blocked Trump’s revised order to halt immigration from specific parts of the Muslim world. In the ruling, the judge used public statements by Trump and his administration to ascertain the discriminatory of the ‘intent’ behind the ruling. This is encouraging as we begin to have a way to hold our new President accountable for the power of the words that he says.
I was also heartened by another installment of Charles Blow’s eloquent stand for truth. Though I value the reality of our common and troublesome humanity, I also value the necessity to speak truth and to hold our elected officials accountable for their words or their actions. We must not fool ourselves into believing that Trump’s lies and manipulation of truth is ‘normal’ or acceptable.
But Trump doesn’t speak so much from facts as from feelings. For him, the truth is malleable and a lie is valuable. He creates his own reality rather than living in the reality of others. Deception is just a tool; betrayal is just an inconvenience. (Disciples of a False Prophet, Charles Blow, 4 16 17 NYTimes)
For me, the crisis is over but the problem is ongoing. I’m not in a state of perpetual panic. The new normal is to read the paper with a sinking feeling as I learn of some new environmental regulation roll-back or the latest walk-back of a Trump tweet.
These walk-backs are probably the most entertaining news recently—to see how Trump continues his penchant for bursts of irrational anger and accusations, and how the people around him must pretend to be reasonable while standing behind that which is most unreasonable. Our current President seems congenitally unable to acknowledge that he has ever been impulsive, ill-informed, or just plain wrong.
Of course, all of us know what this is like. We’re all in the subtle business of projecting and defending an image of who we think we are. We all, at a deep level, think that we are a rather more reasonable sort of person than the general lot – slightly more aware or slightly more fair-minded and realistic. It is hard to admit when we are wrong, or have been ill-tempered.
Part of our work with an irrational and impulsive liar like Trump, is to use him as a tool to do our inner work. He is such an easy target to make into ‘the other’—someone who is clearly ‘not like me.’ He is irrational, irresponsible and mean-spirited. He thrives on fomenting fear and separation. We must, of course, watch out and protect ourselves from ‘people like him.’ But when we make him into one of ‘those people who are not like us,’ he has succeeded in creating the world he seems to want.
The inner work is with the part of all of us that is blind, narcissistic and irrational. Not a pretty picture, but part of every human who has ever lived. How do I begin to acknowledge my inner Donald? Can I begin to notice when I am carried away with outrage or blame? And when that happens, can I learn to not pretend that it’s not happening? Is there a way to work with our dark energies that goes beyond just suppressing and denying them?
And then, looking around us, what kinds of deniable dark energies of division are operating the same way within our country and within the world? Where are people being disrespected and marginalized? How can I open my eyes to the differences of power and privilege that are all around me? And what steps am I willing to take to create the kind of world I say I believe in?
This is where ongoing resistance is required. (Invited?) Inner work is only part of the picture.
Each one of us is constantly shaping the world through our thoughts, words, actions and inactions. The Bodhisattva path is an invitation to use one’s life to save all the beings of the world. (More on what this might mean at a later date.) I believe each one of us has something of immeasurable value to give to this mysterious and suffering world. Our truest happiness lies in uncovering our gifts and using them in service of the world.
I’m afraid that I’m becoming accustomed to Trump’s antics. His weekend Presidential tweets were the unsubstantiated accusations of Obama’s wiretapping mixed in with comments on the current TV ratings of The Apprentice. I’m not really shocked by this behavior anymore and I suppose it is better for my adrenal system not to be in continual flight or fight mode. But I feel a real danger in becoming inured to his consistently irrational behavior. On the other hand, perhaps not reacting to his truly bizarre personality will allow me to focus more on matters of content. It’s confusing and I’m already tired of it and it’s only been two months.
On Monday, it was the reinstatement of the slightly revised version of the travel ban. It may be more legal than its predecessor, but it still seems morally wrong and tactically misguided. While I believe in regulating our border to care for our nation, arbitrary closings like this violate the very freedoms that we say we are trying to protect. Rather than protecting us from danger, this executive order adds to the culture of fear and international radicalization that makes terrorism look more attractive to some.
This ban is a symbolic action to rally the faithful through fear and blame. These are such powerful forces in us all, whatever our political persuasion. From this place, the problem can appear to be the other people who are not like me. But we already live in a pluralistic country. This is what we have long touted to the world as our strength – the creativity and energy that happens when different people come together. This diversity is not just something we must tolerate, it has been what has driven the economic and political success of America.
I continue to believe that this tendency to ‘other’ the opposition is one of our biggest challenges. How can we listen beyond our opinion and still stand for inclusion and justice?