I will be taking a break from blogging as I travel in the next couple weeks. In the meantime I would like to leave you with this.
The results of the 2016 American election came as a surprise, and for many of us it was a horrifying shock. (One survey indicates “shocked” was the most common word Democratic supporters used to describe their reaction.) For me, though, this was not an unfamiliar shock. For the 2004 election had shocked me in a very similar way. In 2000 I had comforted myself with the idea that Bush didn’t legitimately win, and I was confident the people of the United States would reject him after horrors like Abu Ghraib. I was wrong. They did not. He even won the popular vote. Those results shook me to the core, filling my every moment with rage and frustration.
I had to learn ways of dealing with a world that so plainly rejected my values. A year or so after the fact, Goenka’s karmic redirection helped me a lot. But in the immediate aftermath of 2004, what helped was writing in my personal journals, thinking through ways to come to terms with the terrible situation. Just as reading can be a spiritual practice, so can writing.
What follows is the journal entry that, I think, helped me most to deal with the situation at the time. I wrote it for myself, twelve years ago. I post it now in the hope that it might be a comfort to some others today who feel, as I had, that they cannot bear the world situation. The particulars of the situation have changed, but I think the thoughts remain relevant. In Śāntideva’s words: “I did this to perfume my own mind. It increases my inclination to become good. For this reason, if another who sees it is of the same humours as me, it could be useful for them.”
The entry was written in a slightly stream-of-consciousness manner and I have largely not changed that. I have edited it somewhat to make it a bit clearer, and I have added hyperlinks to clarify obscure references, but I have not changed the basic content. It is from and about 2004, but I hope it might help a few people in 2016.
I can’t change it. The odds are, literally nothing I could do would affect Bush’s being president. My parents will die, I will get old and feeble if I don’t die first, academics work long hours and get little control over where they live, and George W. Bush is president of the United States. Nothing I do will change any of these facts. That doesn’t mean I have to like them.
Clearly, I don’t have to like them – but should I like them, for my peace of mind? No, surely not. They are all bad, or at least all not good. Even as a Stoic, you are merely indifferent to such things; you don’t like them. Śāntideva says the bodhisattva is even able to enjoy being tortured, but he also says we should suffer-with, be com-passionate to, other suffering beings, such as those who lost children in this war.
So what exactly should I feel then? Treya Killam Wilber’s synthesis was “passionate equanimity” – a synthesis on the Ascent side, perhaps – and it was a reaction to knowing she would die within five years, which frankly is a lot worse than having George W. Bush as the president of the country you live in. How did she pull that off?
It seems like passionate equanimity would be love without need – which I suspect might be the synthesis of intimacy and integrity. Martha Nussbaum says there’s no such synthesis. That’s because love to her is philia, not Śāntideva’s agape. But then I myself have thought that real love is philia. And surely the whole intimacy standpoint would agree; Prabhupāda doesn’t say you feel agape for Krishna! So can you have philia without need?
Well… yes! Think about it. You do not need your parents or your lover. Your life will go on without them, unless you’re really screwed up. It might feel like it won’t, but that will pass. (Assuming you’re an adult, at least!) There is a big, big difference between attachment and dependence. You only need the former for philia.
Now how does that apply to politics? Well, it provides a way to love the good that remains. When it passes – when environmental laws are gutted and the Supreme Court gets an anti-sodomy majority – mourn and move on.
Mourn. That’s a new way of looking at it. Most of the political mourning I’ve seen is mere theatre, mock grief to mask anger and the desire for change and control. But what about real mourning? Why not hold a funeral, say, for welfare programs that did not amount to slavery?
Well… funerals are held on the assumption that the dead person won’t come back! There are surely some things in politics we can control. Aren’t there?
Well: not many, and only with great difficulty. Still, difficult is not impossible, and most things worth doing are difficult. There’s probably a tiny little bit of political change out there that’s possible to achieve, and may even be worth fighting for. Can you have (passionate) equanimity and still fight that fight?
Well, sure you can, if you can have it at all. Political change, beneficial political change at least, is an achievement. Like any achievement it is a puruṣārtha, a contributor to your flourishing. The passion in passionate equanimity leads you to such an achievement, as Treya’s did to the Cancer Support Community.
But perhaps the most important thing there is to treat such achievements as achievements. If something has existed and was lost, mourn it; if it’s never existed, either work to create it or accept its lack.
Right? It’s exactly parallel to your own life. Mourn the loss of a parent, but don’t mourn the fact that you were never popular in high school. And if you get sick, mourn the loss of your health – but work to achieve its return.
The reason I’m saying so much about mourning, I think, is that it is so different from my usual unhealthy reactions, in so many ways:
- Most obviously, it’s not anger, or hatred. It doesn’t chew you up the way I’ve felt my Bush hatred do.
- Mourning is temporary. You take the time to do it – perhaps with a ritual! – when it happens and then you move on. You don’t remain bitter.
- You only mourn what you already had. You don’t mourn what never was. You mourn the gutting of environmental laws, or the destroying of a once-beautiful place. You don’t mourn the absence of complete justice or equality.
- Mourning focuses on the good that was lost, not the evil that removed it. That’s the reason to mourn – you mourn for something you loved and lost. Mourning is a function of love; anger is not. Even if you don’t know what you had until it was gone, mourning reminds you that at least you once had it.
So. Mourn the things George W. Bush has destroyed: environmental laws, the programs cut, the income lost to debt repayment, the innocent lives lost in Iraq, the hard-fought international treaties against land mines and torture. The world is a poorer place without them, as our lives are when a loved one dies, and it will be still poorer without all the things that this thief will steal from the world in the next four years. Mourn these losses, as you might mourn the lives lost in September 2001, or in an earthquake. Or perhaps not quite. I didn’t love those lives. At most, that’s agape, not philia. For good political things I do feel something like philia – or at least I want to.
That really seems like the healthier attitude. Insofar as worldly events matter at all – and I do think they do – love the good ones. Laws now protect women’s right to be equal in the workplace. We provide free education for everyone. We have abolished slavery in most of the world, and apartheid and segregation in much of it. A true nuclear war (as opposed to isolated nuclear terrorism) is unlikely. I have the political freedom to speak my mind on all these things. Governments can be toppled if they show too brazen a disregard for their people’s concerns – without bloodshed! Contraception is freely available. There is no more smallpox. Etc. Etc.
And so. People fought for all these things; they are these people’s achievements. Be grateful to these people, grateful for the courage and effort that made these things a reality. And through that gratitude – as Seligman and Comte-Sponville agree – be happy! Mark this: happy because of politics. Not in spite of it. What a weird idea. And yet it seems possible.