In the last week, as in every week before it, a multitude of calls for attention, compassion, caring, money, and/or time devoted to issues, injustices, and actions found their way into my life. Most of them came by email, some by facebook, some by phone, some in person. I counted thirteen not including those that I indirectly summoned by reading the newspaper. Often they are prompted by something I’ve said or written. Issues begat issues. Feminism, environmentalism, poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, violence, healthcare, education, animal cruelty—every possible topic brings with it a flood of legitimate concerns, a long list of related injustices, and usually numerous unconscionable acts committed by those with power.
To put it bluntly, I’m overwhelmed by the competition for caring.
The problem is twofold. One, the opportunities for moral outrage are plentiful, multifaceted, and urgent—many worthy of compassion, energy, and time. Two, I’m vulnerable to gravitational pulls and better at soaking up messes than Bounty paper towels. As my father used to say when I’d crumble under his directed anger, “You’re too damn sensitive!”
About eight years ago, sitting alone in a Tucson apartment overlooking Time Market on University Avenue, I had either an epiphany or a breakdown. Maybe both. It was a time of loss—the end of a marriage, the loss of a home, the departure of friends, a change of jobs—and for the prior few months I had spent an enormous amount of time wallowing in fear and self pity. On that particular spring afternoon, I experienced a palpable feeling of things being settled—for better or worse. In that moment, I realized I had to find my way to a life of peace, although, having never before experienced such a thing, I had no idea what it might look like or how I might attain it.
I have a CD of Bikram Choudhury leading a yoga class, and at a certain point of instructing a student on a posture, Bikram says, “What are you waiting for? Somebody going to help you?” Although I didn’t hear this CD until years after that Tucson moment, I somehow heard those words that day.
What I learned in the eight years since is that peace is not attainable. It’s not something one acquires and keeps forever more. It’s a practice—much like yoga. Some days a yoga practice flows smoothly, and one feels the beauty and fullness of the human body in movement. Other days, every posture feels like a battle of will between body and mind. The practice of peace is much the same. But peace is not a monthly, weekly, or daily practice; it’s a moment-to-moment practice. And both practices—peace and yoga—require an act of letting go.
Five months ago, as I began this blog, I came late to the party of facebook. I had avoided it for years in an attempt to restrict exposure to my aforementioned susceptibility to being yanked off course with little enticement. But I had gone too far, pulled the restraints too tightly around myself, and isolated myself. So I joined facebook, the modern way of connecting with the world. Yet, I don’t feel connected. In fact, the opposite. After spending twenty minutes on facebook, I’m frazzled. It’s not the everyday banal posts that trouble me. In fact, there’s something I find almost soothing about the photo of dressed-up deviled eggs with eyes of black olive bits and noses of carrot snips posted by my once-removed sister-in-law. It means someone has found a way to care about this small source of delight in a world of beleaguering madness. What I’m having trouble facing in facebook are the posts that shout, “here’s something you should care about, something you should be outraged by, something you should get involved in, something you should share with others, something you should not remain silent about. Look! Care! Do something! At the very least, show you have a conscience by “liking” the post.”
The irony that I make such posts myself is not lost on me. I find these posts—and emails—useful and informative, even laudable, which is precisely the problem. I do care. But I’m struggling with the practice of peace amid the injustice, violence, outrage, hatred, chaos, manipulation, and absurdity circulating through my world. Is it possible to live with both peace and passion? Is it possible to fill a life with beauty when I’m daily notified that the very places bringing beauty into my life are being destroyed in front of me? Can I continue to carry love inside of me while being assaulted with the death of it around me? In short, is my capacity for caring vast enough to contain the magnitude of the demand?
Part of my care fatigue is caused, I believe, by what I perceive as the lost art of argument. The comments on facebook and elsewhere reflect an atmosphere where we are quick to take a stand, quick to take offense, quick to make assumptions, quick to draw conclusions, quick to employ ad hominem fallacies, and as self-righteous as humans can possibly be. Although we could easily rename the ad hominem fallacy after Rush Limbaugh who has reprehensibly perfected the service of it, I don’t find these unfortunate traits to be the private property of either the right or the left. Many—me included—were outraged by George W. Bush’s insistence upon setting up a false delimma—you’re either with us or against us—but it seems we’ve since adopted such a battle cry on almost every issue. We don’t have discussions; we have stand-offs.
Another part of my care fatigue comes from the fact that I’m slow to arrive at certainty. I like to sit with issues, ponder them, think about them, toy with them, discuss them with people who don’t think the same way I think, and let my thoughts develop and evolve unhurriedly, but that sort of approach can only be done one small issue at a time. Perhaps that’s why it is out of favor—we’re operating in crisis mode. One must adopt a position immediately. I envy those who seem clear and certain about the answers because deep in my heart, on many issues, I believe we have arrived at a place without answers.
This niggling feeling that the answers are not there, that we have extended past the tipping point, I believe, resides at an unconscious level in many of us, the fear of which adds to the vitriol of the discussion and may deter the process of finding creative alternatives. Some are of the position that I have no right to argue or point out a problem unless I can also propose a solution to the problem. It’s the “if you don’t have an alternative solution you have no right to argue against mine” defense. Whenever someone intimates that I should shut up if I can’t propose a solution, my inner skeptic flares. It is this stance that leaves us with overly simplistic answers to complex problems and solutions with unintended consequences. We, of course, have every right to argue against the means without having a solution for the end. Isn’t that what public discourse is supposed to be about, the discussion of ideas and issues before arriving at a conclusion rather than the stomping around insistence of right solutions? At times wrong action is obvious. Right action may not be quite so apparent, but that does not negate one’s right to comment on the wrong action. Fracking, for example, seems to me to be an act that is utterly deplorable and destructive, an act that can in no way be justified, and an act that should be stopped immediately. Yet I have no answers for the nation’s dependence on energy. My gut instinct is that we must—and will when we have to—become less dependent on energy, but there is no simple, clear, easy process and the answers remain fuzzy. So be it. A state of uncertainty is not the worst thing; certainty can be far more dangerous.
We also seem ready to ignore the nuances of any given issue, as if recognition of such might give our opponents an opening. I find myself grossly over-generalized, placed into camps based on a particular point of view I’ve expressed in the past, as if my opinions can then be extrapolated to every related issue. It causes me discomfort. Every issue is unique; every argument is nuanced. In addition to being slow to arrive at certainty, I’m also hesitant, once I’m there, to gather every related topic into the circle and proclaim confidence on all of them.
To approach issues thoughtfully within the life of peace to which I am committed means that I cannot be tugged by gravitational pulls but must instead be narrowly selective. The activists I most admire are those who devote their energy, passion, and sometimes their entire lives to a single cause, recognizing, of course, that every single issue is interconnected with every other. Those focused in their approach—Jane Goodall comes to mind—also find in their work, I believe, joy residing alongside sadness and beauty residing alongside ugliness. When the fist-pounders come calling with related issues, the person singularly focused has guts enough to say, “I care, but my focus is here.” Unless we are invested in thinking “you’re either with me or against me,” that answer is more than acceptable.
The truth is I have to let go of more than I grab onto. I have to spend fewer hours of my life being morally outraged and more hours of my life at peace. I believe this is a worthwhile pursuit. I believe that peace spreads from one person to another, that if more people were committed to the practice of individual peace, we may find a way to approach the enormous problems that we face with less fury, less noise, and less need to convince others of our rightness.
I have decided to grab onto the most near and dear, to expend what energy I have within a close circle because caring in a small, non-technological way makes sense to me. It feels real; it feels manageable. In my mind, small cells of caring dotted across the earth can’t help but bind into connective tissue that then supports the growth of healthy organs. My focus is the community of Escalante, Utah, and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a place that allows a perfect union of peace and passion.
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