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Friday, November 12, 2010

What's Next?

After Tuesday’s midterm elections, you may be wondering along with me, “What’s next?” How does a deeply divided electorate proceed? Will Democrats and Republicans, Tea Partiers and Independents find common ground or retreat to separate trenches? Already, we have heard a battle cry to fight, but I wonder, in a rived nation is fighting the next step? I understand the impulse to stand firm in one’s convictions. Our Unitarian forebears Michael Servetus and Francis David were martyred for the certainty with which they clung to their belief in the errors of the trinity. But even they did not seek battle; they sought freedom of choice. They refused to subscribe to beliefs incongruent with their reading of scripture, and they spoke out, but they did not assail others for disagreeing with them.

This is challenging territory: the not assailing part. It has been dogging me this week, even before the outcome of Tuesday’s election. My sister called me Monday night. She is perhaps my greatest teacher; her lessons often come in the guise of my utter frustration. My sister moves through the world emotionally bare; and I am uncomfortable in the presence of her nakedness. Often, she calls to tell me someone angered her. She laces her narration with judgment I react to, most ungraciously I might add. My sister is autistic and part of her challenge is that she lacks the skills or the superego, in Freud-speak, to rein in her uncensored id, her rash responses. She sees the world in gradations of threat so there is little room to consider things. An assault on her senses or sensibilities is just that: an assault. Anger mobilizes her energy; as she steps deeper into it, she steps further away from the fear that dogs her.

That my sister is unable to engage in mindfulness because her mind truly doesn’t allow her to imagine what another mind might be experiencing, sets me boiling faster than water in an electric kettle.

I get screechy and preachy in the worst sort of way with my sister though I never mean to. I try to corral myself and find an approach she will understand, but in my attempt to get her to understand me I totally overlook the fact that she can’t: that her world is so riddled with anxiety and a lack of emotional strategies many adults have. When fear is the only traveling companion, life quickly turns into an arsenal.
What scares me about the recent election isn’t the results as much as the fear that fueled campaigns so often ugly in their tenor. When fake pundit Stephen Colbert rallied to keep fear alive alongside Jon Stewart’s efforts to restore sanity, the pair contrived an easy ending where reasonableness triumphs. Sure, Jon Stewart acknowledged, there will always be the jerk speeding in the breakdown lane trying pass everyone else, but mostly we drive in an orderly fashion, yielding as necessary so we can all get home.

I want to function within that vision and most days I do. But then, not so unlike my sister, something assails my sensibilities, more often than my senses, and suddenly, the image of my sister as a nakedly fearful person turns from portrait into mirror.
Take for instance the murder trial going on this week in New Hampshire with its grisly testimony of four youths charged with slaughtering a woman in her own bed and maiming her eleven-year-old daughter. I, the staunchest opponent of capital punishment, the one who volunteers in prisons to spend quality time with men doing fifteen to life, am so overcome by horror and disgust that I find myself thinking, there is no death painful enough for the perpetrators. The naked truth is, a decade and a half before a couple of young men wielded a machete in Mount Vernon, New Hampshire, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans died by the blade of them. It’s when the blade glints in a sleepy town not so far from my own, that my fear roils; my inclinations toward nonviolence and my faith in the possibility of transformation evaporate.

For any of us, feeling threatened activates fear that unleashes anger—and for a moment the anger distracts us from the fear. Righteous anger distracts best of all, but like the vinegar-activated volcanoes of elementary school, once the fuming fizzles, what’s left but a clump of wet baking soda?

What’s next for a nation rife with internecine distrust and contempt? What’s next for a divided Congress and a chastened President? For an electorate split between the disengaged and the enraged? What’s next for a nation that often appears to forsake tools for weapons? A country truly targeted by extremists who find themselves thinking for longer than a minute, there is no death painful enough for the perpetrators of what threatens them?

That’s the sticky part: daring to even look for the us in them. I am the first to admit how much I resist that exercise. I don’t even like doing it with my sister. I prefer to sizzle and snap every time she recounts what a pain someone at her church is, or how the pastor should kick out the homeless guy who sat next to her and suggested they ought to kill President Obama. I prefer to take deep breaths and explain how she belongs to a Christian church so it is incumbent upon the pastor to follow the teachings of Jesus: to do for the least among them: the homeless, the deranged, the disregarded. Reluctantly, I might get around to admitting, not so unlike Juan Williams, that I would get nervous around an unkempt, possibly paranoid man advocating murder. I might give my sister that nanosecond of identification: I too, can relate to being afraid, though I know nothing of the depth of her fear, the relentless all-consuming anxiety: the only partner she has.

And then, I inevitably hang up the phone and despise myself for doing what I can’t tolerate in her: I want so desperately for her to have more skill at clothing her responses. I want a world where all of us engage mindfully, where each of us pauses to consider how the other might be feeling, how another’s experience shapes not only a world view but a way of being.

We may not agree with or condone the actions of another; we might not even be capable of imagining the means, but we do ourselves no favor if we don’t try at least to understand the ends. Yes, psychopathology exists and it may elude all but the forensic psychiatrists, but teenagers who take up machetes, and strap on suicide vests and assemble IEDs roam among us and come from wombs not so unlike the ones from which we and our children emerge. Anger cloaked as violence may be the only mask for otherwise naked fear.

When the adults start screaming epithets, when the politicians accuse each other with more gusto than gunslingers in the wild west, when fear mobilizes anger to the point that ordinary citizens conflate a Nobel peace laureate with Adolf Hitler, confuse a constitutional law scholar with a monkey, decry a secret Muslim in the White House; when we who value religious freedom sit back and let the media skewer a female candidate for being a witch, what’s next?

Some of the threats we face are real and my sister teaches me that all of the threats we feel feel real. If feeling threatened can make a peacenik like me reach—even for a moment— toward a violent answer, if reasonable fear can cause reasonable people to assail others who seem unreasonable to us, what can God or the earth or the thrum of existence count on us to do?

To be responsive, to read the news and try to comprehend the despair that descends yet again this week upon Haiti. To notice the ones in our neighborhood whose longing threatens to disrupt our own and recognize them as neighbors even if we don’t invite them to the block party. To understand that being responsive to others means we have a responsibility to ourselves not to get overwhelmed, and if we do, not to stay there.

We can acknowledge the relationships that bless us, the good fortune that underpins our existence and know when to shut off the news and stand in the presence of beauty. Lie down at the roots of a great white pine or copper beech. Rest for a while under broad canopies that outlive recessions and even wars, gerrymandering and pandering, twenty-four hour news cycles chattering and blatting. We can unplug ourselves long enough to stroll in the wake of kindness, plunk ourselves down in the vast fields of compassion that blanket the earth as much as the schisms and horrors that defile it.

Because we are all human any strong emotion will evoke our own. The nakedness of my sister’s responses threatens to undress me. When I hear rhetoric devoid of reason and chocked full of fear, my frustration ignites far quicker than my compassion. And in the shortness of my wick, I catch a glimmer of my sister who smiles at me in the mirror and says, “But Leaf, you have a choice. You have the capacity for what neurologists call theory of mind: ‘the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.’”
For all the uncertainty that plagues us and gives our life meaning, there can be constancy in what’s next if we exercise the freedom of choice our forebears died for—if we speak up and cry out without assailing others. We can predict but not know, fret or fume, turn away in haste or slow ourselves with mindfulness.

My sister tells me she will keep her judgments to herself. In her nakedness that is her fig-leaf of compassion.

We dwell in the garden: afraid of its serpents, in praise of its fruits—together.
The sight of her fig-leaf makes me reach for my own.


Closing words: This from Nietzsche: I am still living, I am still thinking: I have to go on living because I have to go on thinking . . . I want to learn more and more to see what is necessary in things as the beautiful in them – thus I shall become one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: (love of fate)may that be my love from now on! I want to wage no war against the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. … And, all in all: I want to be at all times hereafter only an affirmer!

If our lives are a song, let it be a serenade to compassion. Even in our keening let our song be an ode not a dirge. Let the notes rise till they fall graceful as leaves onto common ground.