Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil

Unbiased Compassion

The love and compassion of a buddha, they say, is like the sun: it shines impartially and unceasingly on all beings. There is no picking and choosing involved, no personal preferences, no hope or fear. A buddha doesn't shine the light of his compassion only on those beings he likes or who please him, and withhold it vengefully from those who fail to meet his standards. "The great Way is not difficult," said the Third Zen Patriarch, "for those who have no preferences."

Most people have no trouble extending love and compassion to the people they like, and to the people whose behavior pleases them. It's easy to love someone who's lovable. But what about someone whose behavior is unethical, or whose personality is offensive? How is it possible to extend love and compassion to someone who is, by any reasonable standard, acting like an idiot, or a poseur, or just a plain, old jerk?

I find this incredibly challenging. I can give lip service to compassion and loving-kindness, but when I'm faced with someone who's a thief and a liar, or someone who's delusional and in denial, or someone who's aggressive and abusive, it's not so easy to find the love and compassion within myself. Instead, everything in me wants to shut down and say "No!" to the offending person.

One thing that helps is to look within myself and remember that there have been times in my life when I, too, have acted selfishly -- when I was almost certainly perceived by others as a jerk (difficult as that may be for me to imagine). There have been times, too, when I was a poseur, trying to impress other people and gain social advantage. And there have been times when I acted like an idiot, when I was in denial, when I shot myself in the foot through my own stupidity.

With pretty much any quality I might find offensive in others, I can discover at least a trace of that same odious quality within myself if I look closely, and honestly. And I have first-hand experience of the fear and insecurity that drive people to behave in such ways. From there, it's not such a great leap to feel empathy for someone who has gotten so stuck in those familiar traps that they just live that way all the time.

Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

It seems that America, my home country, has grown into a nation divided against itself. The never-ending power struggle between progressives and convervatives, left and right, has reached a crescendo of bitterness and animosity that I've never seen before, and that has perhaps not been seen since the Civil War. Citizens of the same country are pitted against each other, determined to fight for their values and defining themselves in opposition to the enemy. It seems more difficult than ever for people on either side of the divide to be compassionate and respectful and tolerant towards those on the other side.

Politically speaking, I know which side of the divide I stand on, and it's not with the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin. But when I look at such people, and at the whole conservative backlash that's now taking place against Obama's rise to power, I can infer the fear and pain that they must be in to make them behave as they do. After all, I suffered the same kind of fear and pain and anguish throughout all eight years of the most recent Republican administration.

It is sad that the vitriolic, "Drill, baby, drill!" nonsense being passed off as public discourse by so many Republicans and Tea Partiers could actually garner so much national attention, and stir up so much animosity and ill-will in people on both sides of the political spectrum. And it is nauseating when individuals who are visibly bloated with prejudice and aggression and greed, masquerading cynically in the name of family values and patriotism -- "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," to borrow a phrase from Al Franken -- are placed in positions of power and influence.

The past week has brought us several outrageous examples (as if more proof were needed) of the widespread hypocrisy of conservatives. Now that BP's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is threatening the U.S. coastline from Texas to Florida, suddenly we don't hear them chanting "Drill, baby, drill!" anymore. And yet another prominent Republican and anti-gay activist, the Baptist minister George Alan Rekers, has been caught and exposed with his hand in a male prostitute's cookie jar. How many of these right-wing homophobes have now been outed as closeted homosexuals? I hope someone is keeping a list of these guys -- I've lost count. Rekers cynically claims that he hired the hooker, and took him on a European vacation, only in order to share the gospel of Jesus with him and save him from his sinner's lifestyle -- but the prostitute affirms to the Miami New Times that they shared a lot more than that.

Sympathy for the Devil

Even as I oppose, on general principle, the entire conservative movement and most of the things for which it claims to stand, it is still possible (admittedly, with great effort) to feel compassion and kindness towards the human beings who comprise that movement. To borrow a phrase from their own playbook: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." The internalized homophobia and loneliness of people like George Alan Rekers is profoundly sad, and having experienced the pain of those feelings myself, I know that as a human being he is worthy of compassion, not mockery. The pain that drove Rush Limbaugh to become a pill-popping drug addict is also not completely foreign to me. To allow my moral outrage at such people's hypocritical actions and deeply misguided political views to make me hate them would be playing right into their hands. It would be stooping to their level. In spite of my outrage, somewhere inside I know exactly where these people are coming from. Their pain is my pain. But it's so easy to forget that.

This doesn't mean that we should agree with anything that Sarah Palin, for example, has said or might conceivably say, or that -- Heaven forbid -- we should ever allow her to be voted into a national office. But the similarities between us are greater than the differences. Not only are we citizens of the same struggling country, facing the same set of problems, but we are both human beings -- citizens of the same struggling planet. We both feel pain and fear; we both want to have happiness and want to avoid suffering. In the larger scheme of things, the distinctions between us are negligible, almost non-existent. Deep inside, beneath our differences, I am Sarah Palin -- and so are you.

Last week, President Obama addressed the University of Michigan's graduating class and urged them to maintain "civility" in political discourse -- even as a shrill cabal of Republicans and Tea Partiers protested outside and accused him of being a "socialist." Obama's call for civility -- for simple human courtesy and reasonable, respectful dialogue in politics -- sounds almost quaint, a throwback to an earlier, more innocent time in American life when civility was a value that meant something to most people. Listen for five minutes to one of today's conservative shock-jock radio shows and you'll know that civility doesn't mean a damn thing anymore.

But the virtue of civility is precisely what is most needed today; it is the only thing that will de-escalate the bitter, bipartisan stalemate and hateful, internecine struggle that have become the hallmarks of American politics. Civility would be a step towards real patriotism. We can all agree to disagree, and we can work towards solutions to our problems. But it would be a lot less painful for everyone if, in the process, we were to maintain some degree of respect and compassion towards one another. The unbiased compassion of a buddha shines impartially on all beings, even on hypocrites and liars and hate-mongers and shock-jocks and spin-doctors and greedy, thieving rogues.


marie said...

Sir, thank you for writing your views. I try not to consider myself either of these groups, but I come from a small town an d all of my friends and family own small business; so you see where I am coming from. Let me try to shed some light.

It sounded as though you were not seeing the big picture. The problem is that many of us have placed ourselves into a specific group... labeling ourselves as either liberal or conservative. I feel as though you may have used that label far too drastically. There are many people voting conservative who do not fall under your harsh judgement. And do not forget to look at the liberal side with true awareness. You will find there are radicals, theives, and liars on all sides. We are all only human.

The problem here is not that conservatives need compassion. It is that we all need compassion and wisdom. We must recognize we are alljust trying to make this country a better place, unfortunately we come from different walks of life and therefore have different views. Not all conservatives dislike the black race. It is just those select people. If obama were conservative, those people would have voted democrat.

Please do not forget the hypocrity on all sides.
You must be aware of more than just what you see on the news. There are people out there who do foolish things, causing more bad karma out of their own suffering. Just because some of them were conservative, you cannot judge the group of conservatives in general. Who are we to judge?

Just because you finish your venting session with a simple, they need our compassion speech doesn't say much to me. I am sorry if this has been harsh but I really believe you need to try and see the bigger picture, as the church people say (which includes Some conservatives but is not limited to) do not try to pull a splinter out of your friends eye without taking the log out from yours.

Dennis Hunter said...

Hi Marie,

Thanks for posting your comments. I actually don't disagree with a lot of what you said! People on the left are certainly not free of hypocrisy. As I pointed out repeatedly in my article, I can usually find some trace of the same qualities within myself if I look closely.

I think this blog's readership is largely composed of people with a progressive/left-leaning mindset. It was primarily to those people (among whom I count myself) that I was aiming this piece. After hearing so many people on the left (myself included) moaning over the embarrassing and maddening exploits of people like Sarah Palin (et. al.), I began to wonder: how can we hold onto the view of compassion and equality while at the same time opposing injustice when we see it?

marie said...

It helps to remember that it is Their karma and it doesn't have to be yours unless you let it, by getting carried away with emotion and criticism. If you take a step back, it may help you to grow compassion to understand this vicious cycle of life and death, cause and effect that they are caught up in. It is unfortunate for them but does not have to be for you.

Although I must admit, it is a struggle to know that your country and your way of living is being guided by a seemingly very Misguided human being.

It seems all you can do these days is...Practice! Practice! Practice!

marie said...

I may also need to add that I am not pointing fingers and not stating that our president is misguided. I can see how my last comment could be misread.

I mean to say that it is an uneasy thought to know that your country could potentially be ran, is ran, or is influenced by a person who has a history of bad decisions.

Isn't it just scary to know that our lives are so strongly affected by the decisions of another human being? Or by a group that is so segregated?

What will it take to unite the people once again?