My Dear United States of America,
We've gotten our wake-up call. A nation obsessed with being the best and made up of rugged individuals striving to win doesn't work forever. There are serious repercussions. There are always losers. And in the end, we all lose. We lose ourselves.
I'm not happy with what is taking place around me. It's difficult to think about anything else. But I do sincerely pray, this is only what's needed to wake us up from our slumber. Our sense of false security. Our illusion that if our own quality of life is not terribly affected, then what happens out in the world is disconnected from us.
When our government is influenced by greedy lobbying powers who are apathetic to our potentially calamitous climate change and cater to corporate agendas that significantly benefit the 1% and violently disenfranchise large masses of the population... When our government regularly engages in mischief-making all over the world to spread democracy that turns into wars we engage in out of self-interest while we proclaim ourselves heroes of the world... When our government fails to see how much people are hurting but instead protects itself rather than the people it vows to protect and for which it exists in the first place... When we hail this sad state of government as by the people and for the people, something is absolutely upside-down. This is the "banality of evil." Right under our noses.
Can we somehow come to our senses? Can we give up our own greed that is systemic in our culture? We now are face-to-face with a leader who appears not to care for us, who has no history of governmental leadership but a rich history of lying, cheating, and stealing, while denouncing diversity. He threatens to put us in grave danger as he proclaims himself our ultimate protector. He inspires those who hate. If this alarm doesn't wake us, I don't know what will.
I didn't think I'd live in this world. I liked my own false sense of security, I guess. But I want to change. I want to see a population that is ready to rise up. I want to be part of not just a protest rally (I’ve done those before), but a deep inner rising. The rising of conscience. The rising of introspection. The rising of responsibility. And the rising of spirit.
I could easily be fueled by my anger about the incidents of harassment that keep popping up across the country. And I know what it is to be harassed for my spiritual tradition. When I was a monk, I distributed sacred literature on the streets and subways of New York. I hated feeling ignored, as I understand now a vast proportion of this country feels. I remember vividly how years ago in front of the Dean and Deluca on Prince and Broadway, I offered a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita to a man. With ice-cold eyes, he turned to me and said, “Are you kidding me? I kill people for less than what you’re doing.” Another time, I was on the platform of the Broadway-Lafayette subway stop and innocently greeted a man. He suddenly screamed obscenities at me with such venom that I feared for my life.
I never forgot the looks of these men. It was the closest I’ve come to being the butt of pure hatred. And it haunted me. In the past, I’d have reacted with rage. A boy once made fun of me when I was on vacation with my parents in New Hampshire. He called me names and insulted my masculinity. I promptly fantasized about pummeling him; instead, I settled on writing a story about our fictional altercation where I would strip him of all self-worth through the wit of my words. I hadn’t been made fun of many times, but any time it happened or I felt something unfair, my mind would go to crushing the other person, either physically or intellectually.
By the time I met these two frighteningly hateful people in New York City, my values had shifted. Being a humble servant of society in monastic garb goes a long way… We were taught to be welfare workers for people who would not see any need, who would ignore us, and make us feel lesser. But we had to feel for them and not worry about our feeling lowly. We even had to embrace feeling lowly to begin to let our egos leave us and become truly selfless. It’s further taught me the essential truth that we can all let go of our vindictiveness. We have this choice. It’s accessible. More so than we think.
The key to this powerful freedom – a freedom where no one can control us – is in identifying our own ego. Our ego? But we’re the victims! To experience freedom, I had to actually not feel that I was better than the person who threatened me on the street or in the subway. It’s the very reason we’re in the stark situation of this nation. We think we’re better than other people. Consciously or unconsciously. And people don’t like that. It’s also not true.
But how to realize this? I genuinely thought throughout my life that I was better than most people I met, and obviously better than those who caused me pain or caused anyone else pain. The truth is, if I introspect, I can see I’ve done a lot to hurt others as well. Moreover, I have incredible potential to do worse... I choose to resist that potential. But I can feel how if not for the fortune of having resources and care all my life, I wouldn’t be fit or even want to resist my darker potential. It’s very clear to me that those who don’t have the fortune, knowledge, or love to resist their baser urges are not worse than we are. They’re worthy of compassion. They're suffering terribly and that's all they have to give to others. Suffering.
Today, instead of feeling anger at the state of our nation, I can see my own humanity and the humanity of my fellow-pain-givers that make up our world. What can I really do to help? Vow to stop giving pain the best I can. Be proactive, not reactive. Don’t indulge in hatred or fear, even if I’m righteously upset or realistically frightened. Let a light shine within me without my thinking how bright a light I am.
As Gabor Mate shares at the end of his poignant TED Talk, “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power,” it's high time we stopped looking for a leader to set things right for our world. To get to the position of influence our leaders wield most often requires exceptional hunger for power and exceptional willingness to compromise on values. It’s up to us to become responsible and not shift the responsibility to someone above. We must set the example…
An external act or policy will come and go. A change from within will never leave. May we act on our best desires and rise up in a way that has immediate and lasting impact.
How will you let go of the brewing pain and anger? How will you think wisely and act compassionately? What will you do for the people who cross your path, friendly or otherwise? And what will you not do to further fuel the divide in our country?