For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
— from “A Ritual to Read To Each Other” by William Stafford
These are challenging times. The fragile lies that separate us are stretched to capacity. Confronted with the imminent challenges of racism, inequality and environmental degradation it is clear that the narratives that have given life meaning in the past, for better and for worse, are no longer adequate. Economic and national border considerations notwithstanding, globalism is real and irreversible. Regardless of the lens we use to view the world, whether it’s scientific, spiritual, political, economic or biological, the interconnectedness of all things is the landscape we see. Likewise, it is clear that diversity is not an exception but the rule, the modus operandi of an infinitely innovative and tireless life force. Wishing to return to an imaginary “better” time defined by ignorance and denial is untenable.
Narratives of power and control may have divided us but they also comforted us with the seductive promise of predictability. The lines were clear. No matter which side of the fence you viewed the world from there was a sense that “rightness” would eventually prevail. As the old stories disintegrate under the pressures of rapid change and unsustainable imbalances they leave a void in their wake. Many people are afraid and confused right now. Where do we turn for direction? Who can we trust? Is there a discernable moral compass in the world? The anxiety of life without clear answers can seem worse than the chronic pain of perpetual conflict and injustice. We are navigating without a map and doing nothing is not an option.
In addition to the work I do with M2, I serve as the Buddhist chaplain at Macalester College. In a staff meeting last week one of my colleagues shared an email she had received from a student, in response to the violence and discord surrounding Charlottesville. Like many of us, the student was frustrated and afraid. In her email she expressed hopes that as faith leaders we might offer a healing statement and perhaps convene a community gathering. It was a reasonable request. Faith leaders often make statements to define and affirm their commitment to some ethical position when something threatens to disrupt that narrative. And, faith communities use prayer vigils and other communal gatherings as a means of comforting each other in times of grief and confusion, easing the pain of individuals and affirming a sense of solidarity. In this case we chose to respond in a different way. The president of the college had already issued a statement which seemed sufficient and multiple responses from the college might be confusing. Convening yet another candlelight felt reactionary and at the same time perfunctory and hollow. Instead, we decided to craft a statement about the importance of ongoing spiritual discipline and community engagement as best practices for effectively coping with suffering in the world, and building the kinds of communities in which division, hatred and acts of violence become more and more rare.
Public statements from leaders and public gatherings have their place in the process of healing and advancing sustainable change. All people of integrity should speak out when the standards of compassion and decency in the world are not met and we need to support each other publicly in times of grief and trauma. But statements and vigils themselves cannot effect change. Transformation begins at the root and grows naturally out of the daily activities of people committed to cultivating clarity and compassion for themselves and for the world. Deeply engaged enlightened communities generate power.
“…. It’s important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep.”
If we don’t take personal responsibility for the change we want to see in the world that change will never happen. Institutions and leaders play a role but it is only the deep wisdom and compassion in the community at large that can withstand the currents of fear and hatred that terrorize us. Without an intentional commitment to practices that develop clarity and resilience, in times of trauma we are likely to either become reactionary or go numb. The capacity to be with, the true meaning of compassion, comes only through sustained commitment to what I call mindful living. There are many systems and paths but those that lead to clarity, patience, ease and joy seem to agree on a set of skills and habits that are identifiable and accessible. If we abdicate our personal responsibility and succumb to the misunderstanding that change is in the hands of experts we are bound to be frustrated, perpetually kicking the can down the road. It is only long standing, seasoned lives of integrity that form the solid foundation necessary for love and understanding. When every day becomes a personal statement affirming our commitment to live ethically and in harmony, when every action we undertake is done as prayer, when maintaining in our hearts a connection to all living things we will see the change we so desperately long for the more beautiful world is possible. We must turn inward to create outward the world we wish for our children and our children’s children. As Wendell Berry says,
“ …. running or walking the way is the same.
Be still. Be still. He moves your bones and the way is clear.”