Promises to keep
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
- from Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye
Behind the chain linked fence
There’s been a heat wave in London, evoking childhood memories of growing up in the 80’s in the suburbs of Boston. On hot, sticky summer days my family would all pile into our old wood-panelled station wagon and head to the local public pool, a sprawling, aqua blue rectangular tank of over chlorinated water teetering on the edge of a polluted and unswimable pond.
On the way, we’d pass the grounds of the private Pool and Racquet Club.
There was nothing to see, except a small sign on the side of the road and an understated gate. But we knew what was behind the simple chain link fence and beyond a mile or so of thick forest. My mother’s church friends had taken us as guests once or twice.
Compared to the public pool, it was paradise. It had multiple diving boards, one so high you could practically kiss the sun. The ice creams sold there were fresh, sweet and creamy, not like the old, hardened, watered down popsicles of Rosemary Pool. At Rosemary Pool one could set up on either a muddied lawn or pebbly beach, but at the Pool and Racquet there were reclining sun beds and an unlimited supply of fresh, clean white towels. The changing rooms at the public pool were dark, concrete blocks reeking of mildew and urine, nothing like the tiled, sunlit halls of that just-out-of-reach Shangri-La.
When we were kids my mother was desperate for us to join the private Pool and Racquet Club. We were on the list, but the waiting time was something like 10 years. Families that had lived in our town for generations didn’t have to wait that long. But we had only just arrived.
At least we weren’t put in cages
For almost two months, between April 19th and May 31st, the Trump administration separated 1,195 children from their families and put them in cages along the US-Mexican border. The Central American families crossing the border were simply exercising their right to seek aslylum based on international law. They had broken no laws. That’s worth repeating: the adults who brought children with them across the US-Mexican border had broken no laws.
According to one poll, 27% of the American public supported Trump’s policy. And although he’s since signed an executive order to end the separation of families, he has done nothing to end the indefinite detention of whole families seeking asylum.
27% of the American public amounts to roughly 88 million people. 88 million people think its ok to take children, including toddlers and infants, away from their families and put them in cages for an undetermined amount of time with no clear process for how they’ll be reunited. 88 million.
At the start of World War II the population of Germany was roughly 67 million people.
That means that 21 million more people than the entire population of Germany at the start of WWII think its ok to take children away from their families and put them in cages.
You must see how this could be you
What’s happening right now in the USA is cutting me to the bone. Only 30 years earlier and it could have been us. When I think back to my mother’s desperate need to assimilate and appear to our neighbours as upwardly mobile, her pain pales in comparison to what immigrants face in America today.
At least we got in. At least my father found work. At least we had the means to get a good education and live relatively safe and sheltered childhoods. At least we didn’t have federal agents knocking down our door, threatening to deport us back to a country where any prospect of living a meaningful life had been lost alongside the lives of the 26 revolutionaries killed and buried in a mass grave during the 1973 Chilean coup.
When I was 16 my mother died and I finally had the courage to come out of the closet.
In Chile, sex between two women was illegal until 1999 and civil unions have only been an option since 2015. Compare that with Massachusetts, where I grew up. There, laws banning homosexual activity were struck down in the 70’s, domestic partnership became an option for same sex couples in 1992, and gay marriage was legalised in 2003. So basically, Chile is roughly two decades behind.
What if we’d been sent back to Chile? Thinking about the culture in Chile in the early 90’s I know I would never have found the courage to come out. I would probably have killed myself. I would probably have chosen death over the unbearable notion of living an inauthentic life.
Seeing the size of the cloth
The sheer magnitude of the problem we face today as a global civilisation is bigger than any problem ever faced by human beings on this planet, ever.
This keeps me up at night. And I admit that in the last few months, I have descended into dark and hopeless places within my own aching heart.
When I was a young girl we studied the Diary of Anne Frank at school. I remember thinking deeply about what I would have done if I had lived in Europe during WWII. I remember desperately hoping that I would have harboured the persecuted and stood up for what’s right. But I can’t honestly know for sure.
We are all deeply conditioned by every event in our lives, and the lives of our parents and ancestors. The unimaginable web of events resulting in us being here now, as we manifest today, is at the same time amazing and terrifying. So I can’t possibly know what I would have done had I lived back then, in those times, under those conditions.
Often I wonder, and have many times heard others ask, how could the German people, a relatively well-educated, pluralistic and modern society, have allowed fascism to grip not only their own country, but practically the entire world?
Yet again, we are living at a time where fascism, fundamentalism, and nationalism are on the rise, threatening us all, but most obviously, at this stage, the most underprivileged amongst us – people of colour, women, children, LGBTQI folks, refugees, the disabled, and the religiously persecuted.
And although a child of immigrants, an immigrant myself (to the UK), a person of colour, and queer, I am not yet personally affected. Yet.
Looking at my own life right now, and the lives of many of those I know and love, I finally understand how it could have happen. The German people were simply living their lives, following through on their plans, going about business as usual. They were caught in the slip steam of the day to day, and the strength of that steam whispered promises of comfort, stability and security that were difficult to resist.
We are no different to them.
So what does this have to do with Dharma?
Right now it is crystal clear to me what the Buddha taught when he said that the root of all our suffering is our delusion. We are deeply deluded about what we believe will bring us lasting happiness and fulfilment.
That delusion foments greed for what brings pleasure, comfort and temporary relief from suffering, while at the same time fostering hatred for the things and people who we view as a threat to our happiness and security.
We build our whole sense of self and the world we inhabit based on that delusion, greed and hatred. And we’ve inherited a world built by those who also were acting from that deluded place.
Based on delusion, greed and hatred we have collectively built a world with militarised borders, privitised prisons, an economic system that favours the privileged few over the unfortunate masses, and an environmental crisis that threatens all of life as we know it. And these are only a small fraction of the problems we have created through our collective delusion.
My promise to the world
So how does one begin to turn towards, accept and work to transform this suffering world? I am sorry to disappoint you and say, I do not have the answer.
But I do have a working theory, and my theory is this: if we are indeed deeply and completely interconnected, then each and every thought we have, word we say, and move we make has a profound, everlasting and immeasurable effect on everything and everyone.
So what if we took ourselves more seriously? What if we lived in a way that deeply honoured this truth? What if we were able to hold space, a space that transcends the poles of hope and fear for what might come, and brings us into a more profound and intimate relationship with the moment we face right now.
I can’t change the whole world in my one flash-in-the-pan lifetime. This lifetime is deeply flawed by its limited and brief nature. But what is unlimited is the effect of my energy in the world. And that effect can only be manifested in each and every moment of this life. So this is what I promise to do:
I promise to bring the whole of myself, as fully and completely as I can, to every moment and interaction I find myself in, with as much awareness and kindness as is accessible to me at the time.
I promise to bring as much love, compassion, joy and serenity to each experience I have, and each person I happen to be having it with, as I am able at the time.
I promise to listen deeply to the currents of energy surging through my living, breathing body, follow the threads of my inspiration and creativity, and share what I learn in the process with as many people as possible.
I promise to develop as much wisdom and compassion as I can so that I may not slip into the delusion of separateness that breeds greed and hatred in my heart and in the heart of others.
I promise to bring awareness and kindness to moments of awakening to my own delusion in order to reflect, learn and grow from the experience.
I promise to never give up on these promises, for my own sake and for the sake of the whole of humanity.