I keep trying to have civil conversations. With myself and others. It’s not easy in either case, though I might be detecting a little improvement lately.
Imagine if Donald Trump (or this clown) were your uncle on your father’s side. And Albert Einstein was your great uncle on your mom’s side. Imagine Neil de Grasse Tyson is your brother-in-law and whoever is the current leader of Isis is your other brother-in-law. Imagine the Taliban is that crazy cousin’s club started by the son of your mother’s sister. Imagine Yo-Yo Ma is your dad. Imagine your mother was Leni Riefenstahl. Krista Tippett your godmother. Imagine Prince is your baby brother.
A pair of young shiny, scrubbed, suited-and-tied young men came to my front door a couple of days ago, telling me they were concerned about their neighbors’ happiness, and by extension I suppose, my happiness. They could have been my teenage sons. At first I thought they were Mormons and straight out of the Broadway cast of Book of Mormon. When I accepted their brochure on God’s plan, it turned out they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I thought Ah, Prince. And wondered what was going on inside that mind of his.
Imagine family Thanksgivings!
Why wait for Thanksgiving? I imagine all these family members living inside my mind. Recall Annie Lamott’s well-known quote: “My mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” When I tell my therapist what goes on in here, she isn’t impressed. So, you’re human, she says. That’s normal she re-iterates. Normal??!! I ask, finding this hard to believe. But I’m willing to try on the possibility of “normal” if that’s what the experts say, and up my degree of self-compassion.
Given the state of what’s going on, I’m always calling for time outs. I take amygdala sedatives of one kind and another —herbal tea, comfort foods, excessively long hot showers, world tours of online videos and articles. I take good notes and know full well who I’m blaming for what. I try to figure out my own opinions and honor them by familiarizing myself with the pro and con arguments that would explain how I got to where I am, in case anyone asks.
Still I try not to be wedded to them, my opinions that is. When someone else attacks someone in my family I try not to get defensive. At the same time I don’t want to be an apologist.
I listen to NPR and hear someone from the Green Party call in to praise Republican Party activist Ron Unz for his stance on English-only education for all Californians as a means for immigrant Spanish-speaking children to get ahead. Unz makes a surprisingly cogent argument and for a minute I feel good about being open to agreeing with a Republican, and understand why the Green Party lady called in. In my liberal progressive mind I can see his point of view though it’s the first time I’ve seen a Republican’s view as possibly having merit since I was 13 and willing to vote for Nixon because I thought his eight years’ experience as Vice-President meant he was the candidate best-prepared for the job. Also my older brother (for real) at fifteen identified as a Republican and might have wielded some influence on my thinking.
I wrote a birthday card to my father (not Yo-Yo Ma) whose 43rd birthday it was (Nov. 5th) and who was a Democrat and planned to vote for JFK. I wrote Happy Birthday to the guy whose candidate is going to lose the election. My mother made me erase that and write a new greeting. She said my dad wouldn’t appreciate my humor, or whatever that attitude was. She said not to mix Birthday wishes with hostile political messages.
Ron Unz told the woman from the Green Party how all the statistics showed immigrant children did better when taught only English. The woman from the Green Party seemed pleased and hung up.
Right after her call, Michael Krasny asked Unz… How do you feel about global warming and climate change? Unz said I mean I really don’t know that much about it, but I tend to think it’s not a problem. Krasny said so are you a climate denier? Unz hesitated a second and said he wouldn’t call himself a climate denier. That he just didn’t know. That he hadn’t read enough to have a position. That he’d written an article about it once, and knew some guy, a Democrat, who didn’t really think it was a problem, so he just didn’t know.
I had a reaction. Bullshit I thought. If you haven’t read enough, I thought, you need to read more. You need to read the science I screamed silently You need to read and understand about the emergently disastrous course our planet is on. I felt tricked. For a minute I’d believed he actually cared about the poor immigrant children.
Isn’t Ron Unz also my brother? I mean, in my species family of course. Another one, the one I mentioned earlier who was a Republican at age 15 has since converted to Democrat. I think it was Evan Mecham (long ago Arizona governor who finally broke the spell for him. Mecham was the first US governor to be impeached, face recall and felony charges all at once). Good ol’ uncle Evan.
I thought about how that woman from the Green Party was probably trying to call back to NPR to retract her previous praise of and agreement with Unz, now that he’d made his “position” on climate change clear. I thought how, if she was in her grave, she was now turning.
To be a politician in this day and age and not have an “opinion” on climate change seems like — I don’t know — being a German in 1940 and not having an opinion on the Third Reich. Doesn’t seem to me there’s middle ground on this. But hey, that’s just my opinion.
I guess some people didn’t know.
Whenever people get going on the blame game, like let’s blame everything on US imperialism, I think of Genghis Khan. When they blame everything on Isis, I think of the Inquisition. When for a minute I think of the perfection of the Dharma, I think for another minute about the recent violent aggression by Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar and the seriously second class status of women in most Buddhist monasteries. When I think of centuries of violence and oppression directed at Jews, I think of fundamentalist Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. But when I think of Ron Unz dissimulating on the radio the other day, I just feel like getting up in his face. Perspective isn’t easy to maintain at close range.
I’m always thinking of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem Please Call Me by My True Names.
I’m not sure, but I think our species is making progress in terms of evolution. One of the art teachers at Creativity Explored wondered aloud this morning if we will destroy our own habitat before our species has a chance to fully evolve to our potential. Neither of us felt that optimistic, but we agreed our lack of optimism doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to do what we can for the common good.
It’s hard enough to be here for our own suffering let alone the suffering of others, our species, other species, the planet. Learning to do it with full awareness, compassion, and willingness to engage seems to me the task at hand. For me it’s a species thing. Here we are, full tilt, doing our best, brilliant AND wreaking havoc with each other and the whole planetary system. Then of course there’s Uncle Bernie and Aunt Hillary too, and all their supporters, also part of the family.
Maybe that’s why Americans eat so much. So our mouths will be full, and we won’t have to talk to each other. That is sad. For our physical and mental health, I think it would be a good idea to change this. Let’s get our civil conversation mojo on. It’s not easy, but it may be worth it. We might save our relationships, ourselves from obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, and our planet from disaster.
Please Call Me By My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh
5 thoughts on “In the ‘hood…”
Interesting Post, glad I get them. The only comments I can make are:
Don’t worry about having civil conversations. As a civilized being, they are. They can be nice, they can be polite, they can be assertive, they can be confrontational, but they are all civil.
I recommend to all I care about a short essay/bookette by Richard Feynman entitled “What do you care what other people think?” The premise is that there are a precious few people that you care about sufficiently to meter your words and thoughts (i.e. your loved ones) , and any and everyone else can either handle the sometimes unvarnished truth or … What do you care ?
It doesn’t make us uncivilized to have rational and sometimes assertively combative discourse. It makes us uncivilized to abandon the graces of civilization. Yes, too many people do that, but you can still make your say. I never feel bad telling the Jehova’s Wintesses to go away. I usually tell them that they are rude, intrusive and that their activities at my home are offensive. They often feel attacked, but I have not been rude, only truthful. What do I care what other people think?
Then again , …
I love your imagined-family approach, Gayle. And I’m struck by Peter’s comments on the meaning of “civil” and “caring what people think.”
I think how we talk to people and express our opinions has been at the heart of the presidential campaign just as much as opinions expressed and positions held. And I’ve been lamenting the rancour between the Dems, although some wouldn’t call it rancour at all. Bernie is perceived as authentic to some, uncompromising to others. HRC the other way around. Bernie supporters don’t feel like they’re making personal attacks. They feel like they’re uncovering the truth.
Peter’s remark called to mind a currently difficult person in my life who recently accused me of being “nice” (in the sense of smiling nicely the way your mother told you to). In the same tirade he called me a “phony.” He said he was telling me these things because he loved me and worried about my happiness. This may have been in response to (i.e. it came some weeks after) a conversation we had about spiritual practice in daily life and the Eight-fold Path. I was surprised that as a life-long practioner (a Vedantist) and teacher of world religions, he had no understanding of what was meant by “Right Speech” and no sense of the harm that unwise speech can inflict on the world. The whole experience did make me wonder about niceness and authenticity, principles and open-mindedness.
And BTW, I really really do not agree with Unz and the Green Party person about English-only. I won’t bother to tell you all my reasons. . .but they’re good ones! And you probably know them. And they’re right!! 😉
Remind me to tell you about a first-person story I heard recently told by a woman whose mother was one of the Black children who went into an all-white school in the south during the movement to integrate. That one really turned my mind around. The stats that support English-only education. . .not so much.
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Hi Anita, Was that the story about the little Black girl who hated being chosen (and not being given a choice by her parents) to be one of the first kids to integrate a southern school. I heard that story on NPR a week or so ago. It was really interesting. I hadn’t thought that much about besides being terrified, it might feel like being sacrificed to be obligated to go through that. I don’t know if that’s the story you wanted to tell me, but it just came up for me. Is there another?
I totally believe you about Unz and the Green Party person (and Me). For a minute his argument was convincing, and I get that part too. But after I heard him dissumulate about climate change, I realized he wasn’t to be trusted about other matters either. So I’m perfectly open to hearing both sides of this one, and I’m pretty confident that bilingual education is best for ALL children.
As for your long time spiritual practitioner and teacher friend, all I can say, from my own experience, is that even the longest practicing teachers don’t always see clearly what is happening and don’t always use right speech (recall my own severe wounding in just such a situation). Having spiritual credentials doesn’t always mean that much in terms of inter-personal behaviors.
Hi Michael, So glad you found the post interesting. I always enjoy hearing your perspective. I’ll have to take a look at the book you recommended. Actually I was extremely well-trained by my parents to “care” what others think. It’s been a long road not to care so much. And while at the same time I don’t want to care in that way (eg worried about validation, or some such) I do care a lot in the way that I want to listen better, not feel so reactive (and hijacked by my amygdala) and have more interesting conversations with people. I agree totally with Marshall Rosenberg (who wrote a book called Non-Violent Communication) that most of what passes for normal conversation is actually fairly violent to one degree or another. It just doesn’t seem that way because people are used to it. There are old patterns of power at play that have to do with skin color, gender, class and other power imbalances (children vs adults, employers vs employees, etc etc) that create situations where some people are actually risking a lot to speak their truth and attempt to be heard. For instance these days women in sports broadcasting. But there are many many examples. I think in general people who were raised in a house where children’s thoughts and feelings were welcomed — as opposed to probably most of us who were raised in houses where children were “to be seen and not heard” and Most definitely not allowed any disagreement with their parents — the children who were seen and heard with respect might have more confidence and ability to engage in difficult conversations. I’m no longer that worried about speaking my own truth (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog) but I see where the difficulties are for myself and others, and I feel a lot of compassion for how difficult it actually is to connect in deep, meaningful ways, not just superficial ways, with other people when it comes to having meaningful conversation.
Regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the guys was really sweet, the other more of an introvert. I actually enjoyed the sweet one’s earnestness and sunny disposition. I told him right from the beginning that I am not a Christian and not interested in becoming one. But he was sweet in his conversation and I didn’t really mind spending 3 minutes chatting with him. Besides I felt a like I was in a Broadway play. When I found out they weren’t Mormons, it set me on a course of thinking about Prince and how many people loved him so much, and what was going on inside his mind besides great music and amazing lyrics. Personally I didn’t feel the guys were rude and intrusive at all. They were just doing their thing in a very polite way.
I agree rational and even assertive conversations are sometimes good and necessary. It’s just very easy to fall over into hostilities like what is happening between the Bernie and Hillary camps. I am a total Bernie supporter, but I see the “hostility” issue on both sides. The idea is to have discourse, but not to have it be full of innuendo, blaming, and sweeping generalities.
Much love to you Mike,