Monday, October 15, 2007

Radical Compassion

I've been thinking about the climate of vitriolic extremes gripping our country - a lot of judgement is being splashed around, a lot of stones being thrown. And it makes me think of one of the Bible's best, yet least heeded, moments. The one when Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

So who among us is blameless? Not me. There are things I've done in my life that I think are shameful. OK, admittedly, I've never started a war, or ordered torture, but I've done hurtful things to people who deserved better. And yet I think I'm a good, kind person. So both of those things exist within me, but neither defines me entirely.

And I think about my family: My mother is a truly sweet person, adored by almost anyone who meets her. But she also believes that our ancestors, who were slave owners, were "good" slave owners (!) because the records show that they bought their slaves shoes. I have fussed at her endlessly about this: told her that the shoes were, no doubt, bought to increase productivity; that there can be no "good" ever in the enslavement of another person. She shuts up about it now, which is something. But I think, in her heart, she wants to believe that our kin were better than those other, bad slave owners. Good woman, silly woman, self-deluding woman all in one person.

Then there was her mother, an activist in getting women the right to vote, who worked on the campaigns of every democratic presidential candidate since women got the right to vote. She knew FDR and JFK, who appointed her to the UN as ambassador for women's rights. But she was a Democrat by way of our family being Dixicrats. Dixicrats were the lovely folks who, after the Civil War, worked to divide the suddenly mixed-race working/farming-class vote by racial fear mongering. In North Carolina my kin did this by starting the Klu Klux Kan. So, back to my Grandmother, the admirable suffragette. When I was in college, visiting her, she asked me to make ONE sandwich for the gardener, who was black. He'd been working hard all morning, so I said I thought two would better. "Just one," she says. "Because if you make more, he'll always want more. Also, don't invite him in to eat." Ouch. The ugly past finds its way into the present.

My past, everyone's, is an unwieldy mix of pride and shame. I come from crofters (subsistence farmers), who were driven off the Isle of Skye by greedy lords in "The Clearances." The children of these abused and disposessed crofters later became slaveholders and Klansmen, abusing and dispossessing others. I'm sure that I have black "cousins" whose great great grandmothers were raped by my kin. but I also come from the Cherokee (dna test proven!) who were murdered and driven off their lands by the U.S. government. All of them inform but, I hope, don't define who I am.

So I've been pondering all this as I listen to pundits skewering people, left and right (yes, pun intended). Because I have friends who are (gasp) Republican. We disagree entirely on the solutions to most of the problems facing the world today. But we share our experience of those problems. We have the same worries and goals: we want our children to be safe, to be educated; we ache over their missteps and worry that we are not doing our jobs as mothers well enough; we pinch pennies and do without things ourselves, so our kids can have the things they need; we hope that when we retire we'll be able to get by. We might see eachother as misguided fools, but not as irretrievably evil because we've shared our fear and exhasution, rallied each other to keep going. My knowing them helps me to not dehumanize others who share their views. I hope that knowing me, an openly pinko, knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal, does the same for them. Because it's the dehumanization of others that allows us to abuse them, and so become less fully human ourselves. Now, I loathe George Bush and Dick Cheney as much as anyone (who is a pinko bleeding heart liberal) does. but I also feel, in some vague way, that that's a failing in me. I want to be able to judge the actions of the human, but leave their (and my) humanity intact. It's hard. I'm working on it.

In Buddhism there is the concept of "Radical compassion," using love like a sword to break the chains of misery and rage that bind most humans to rebirth. I don't know what I think about rebirth, but I like the strength implied in radical compassion. We certainly need to be strong, to rebuke and repudiate the evil acts of those around us. But we also need to break the "chains of rage" that bind and dehumanize us all by seeing the essential humanity, especially, perhaps, of those we rebuke most strongly.


Monica said...

we can only be who we are are and not get caught up in our familial shortcomings. understanding our history is super important though. cyclical thoughts make me dizzy.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, I know. It is dizzying, and not exactly pertinent to raising four kids and trying to get by. But my mother, who is 81, took me to the Isle of Skye last year to see where we started from. Seeing the abandonned crofters cottages all over that paradisical island (it's on the gulf stream, so it has mountains, moors, beaches, and palm trees!) brought these people vividly alive to me, and they've been rumbling around in my head ever since - who they were, what they lost, what they became.....