Wow, it’s been four months since I posted here! I’ve been busy, I guess. And depressed, and had writer’s block. And was busy writing for my Creative Non-fiction writing class at City College. There were a lot of factors. Some, I’m sure, I don’t even know about.
I awoke today thinking about Thanksgiving, which is only three days away. Writing this blog post today wasn’t a choice. I needed to.
I was thinking about Thanksgiving. And humans. And conversations. And opinions. And labels — especially how we label ourselves and each other, and how that makes us feel about talking with each other. Notice I didn’t say talking to each other or talking at each other. I said talking with. I’m always hoping for a talking with, too often against the odds.
I heard a program on “All Things Considered” on NPR yesterday about how, and even IF, it’s possible for families to come together this year for a somewhat harmonious family gathering. The current problem of course being the state of our nation. And with that, the recently-created alternative fact universe. Most of which, I admit, I believe is owned by the GOP and right-wing evangelical and media organizations of our country. But others think “my side” is fake news. Ugh-a-rama.
I was at an interesting and thoroughly lovely small gathering of buddhists last weekend. We met to meditate and reflect on the question of the climate emergency upon us. Some people in our country don’t even believe in the science of climate change/crisis/emergency and the understanding of consequences that affords those of us who still believe in science. By the organizers of the evening naming it a climate emergency, the terrain of the conversation that night was made clear. People came. Willingly. Happily. Hoping to gain deeper understanding, or the courage to become activists (or continue being activists) or for connection with like-minded souls.
We meditated briefly. A few kind, wise, respected members of the community, including my friends Anita, Kitty, and Charity reflected briefly on the topic. A short quote was read. Then we broke into small groups, read the quote again, and took turns speaking from the heart and listening to and with each other.
I don’t remember the quote in its entirety. The part I do remember is the line, We are all perpetrators and victims. I remember it because it struck me differently than it struck others. Others were ok with it. Even moved. I wasn’t. I have enough guilt. I don’t want to take on another label — perpetrator.
At the same time, its truth is obvious. As part of our species, I can entirely own being both perpetrator and victim, though both designations make me sad to my core. As an individual I feel differently. I don’t feel like a perpetrator; I feel more like a victim, sad, sorry, ever-ready to apologize. The word perpetrator is just SO loaded.
As individuals, and in the face of the climate crisis, we all DO things that are not helping turn things around. Whether it’s the occasional use of a plastic straw (even if I usually have my re-usable metal one with me — thanks to Lisa), or flying off on vacation or to see one’s 99 year old mum in a ginormous-carbon-footprinted-jet, or eating one of millions of slaughtered turkeys at Thanksgiving. None of this helps. All of this negatively impacts the climate crisis.
We are used to, accustomed to, expected to, conditioned to, advertised and preached to do all these things — that is, the things that contribute to the worsening of climate change. Even if we are recycling, composting, eating plant-based, bicycling, petition-signing, marching, activists. Even… anything. As part of the whole of humanity, as part of society’s systems, we are ALL perpetrators as well as victims.
I resist. I resist putting labels on myself and others. There are enough labels, too many. They burden and bind and keep us from seeing each other for the truly complex, suffering, and gloriously creative and courageous beings we are, or at least can be, hopefully will be some day.
Before we even get started sitting down for a meal together with a diverse group of extended family and friends, we’ve got so many labels going on. Maybe we should just have those be the place settings, rather than someone’s name? Like, here sits the Republican, older, white, male, sexist, probable-racist family member. You go around the table and read all the lists of labels. Then, if the description fits, and you haven’t yet lost your appetite, you sit down. Forget that your name is Fred or Ralph, or that you suffer from PTSD from the war you fought in, believing you were doing the right thing for your country, that you brought or made the most delicious thing you could think to share for the evening, or that you’ve already lost a child, or that you volunteer at your local homeless shelter or hospice or as a volunteer firefighter.
Carrying the burden of guilt imposed by pointed fingers and compassion-less senses of righteousness is not only exhausting, it’s not healthy. It’s not kind. It’s not helpful.
“How to have constructive conversations at a Divisive Thanksgiving.”
The belated and beloved Buddhist monk, activist, and author, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem about the species-ness of our perpetrator-ness and victim-ness. If you know me personally, you know I’m obviously NOT the pirate, at least not the most obvious one. But in the poem I am. Thich Nhat Hanh asks us to see more deeply and more compassionately into the human condition, beyond our individual desire to BE a good person and BE recognized as such. To be seen. To be loved. To be welcomed into community.
(LA Times Opinon:”Mr. Rogers was a Thanksgiving Heretic”)
At this time of year, I guess Thich Nhat Hanh is asking us to all see how we are all pilgrims and all Native Americans, all white and all POC, all Republican and all Democrat, all gay and all straight. Perhaps he is even asking us, though he doesn’t go this far in the poem, but I will, to see how we are all the turkey.
Please Call Me by My True Names
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
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,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently 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 Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter 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.
6 thoughts on “Thanksgiving, 2019…”
I love this poem
Yes to all you’ve said . . .and thanks as always for sitting down to write! As you know, I’ve been thinking about the victim/perpetrator duality for years now, especially after being introduced to Bearing Witness practice by the Zen Peacemakers. I’ve come to associate the concept of perpetrator with responsibility rather than guilt. As I bear witness to the terrible, perhaps fatal, damage our species has done to Mother Earth, I see that feeling guilty about it is kind of a dead end while taking loving action with others, out of a shared sense of responsibility, feels like it might actually make me happy! May all our Thanksgiving conversations be marked by kindness. And the hardest one for me–may we always remember, our opinions are only our opinions! 🙂
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Dear Anita, I always appreciate your honest and deep reflections, and the fact that you consistently read and comment on my blog. I appreciate your explanation of your experience with the word “perpetrator” and that you associate it more with responsibility than guilt. I sort of get the use of the word, esp. in that way, but it still bothers me, because of its more commonly understood meaning and implication. And because of how it “feels” in my body. Most important I agree with your reminder regarding opinions! And kindness! May it be so!
This topic resonates with me after being called out by a friend after him seeing on Facebook that I had flown to Hawaii for a vacation. He was appalled that I would do something so damaging to the climate after calling myself an environmentalist which I actually never have labeled myself as such. I try to do my best and make choices that are right but alas I will not stop traveling so that does make me a perpetrator and a victim. But i really found the labels hurtful and judgmental. It was a rough conversation but definitely made me think about this subject a lot.
Dear Terri, I really feel you. This is exactly what I’m writing about here. The issues themselves are not really the question here; we all, more or less, get what the issues are. Next comes what we are able and/or willing to do about any of it, given our conditioning, etc. And then in the process of that, how we speak with each other. What I know for sure (to quote Oprah and the title of her book) is that speaking in a way that is hurtful and judgmental of others does nothing to create positive change and in fact only inflicts harm. Given the nature of our society it is not easy to speak in ways that are both meaningful and kind, to go beneath the surface conversation at the same time we always speak with kindness. The situation is complicated and dangerous, and has a long history to it. We need to feel our way forward in ways that are both effective, courageous and compassionate. Thank you for all the really great environmental work you do do. And for your thoughtful reflection. Love you!
Thank you, dear Gayle, for taking the time to write about…. E Pluribus Unum…for in fact, isn’t that what these polaritiess end up being —part of the whole? And thank you for including the poem by Thich Nach Hanh which sounds so much like Whitman. Welcome back…and please keep posting.