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