Sorry; a bit in arrears here. Here’s a hugely long post to start the process of getting caught up!
At the soup kitchen one day in January, a guest was sitting on a chair outside eating a bowl of soup. On the ground underneath his chair was a second bowl, empty, with some debris in it, likely left by someone else. “Shall I take this away?”, I asked, and without waiting for an answer, I bent down to take it and the guest glared at me, clearly enraged. He said, “Sure, go ahead—Hitler.” Perhaps in the future I’ll wait for an answer.
In November’s chaplaincy class, one of my classmates made an evidently racist remark, which no one, including our three teachers, flagged in the moment. A good deal of angst arose in the hours and days after that class, for teachers and students alike. In December, we had a long discussion about it, but the person who had made the remark wasn’t there, as he had previously arranged to be away on retreat. In January’s class, we were all present and our teachers said the person who had made the remark wanted to say something to us all. That could have been, “There was some unseen racism in what I said—I’m really sorry.” I time that at approximately six seconds, and it would have fixed the whole thing, but instead what we got was about a six-page essay he had written, about some of his own suffering, and overall quite the reverse of an apology, and after he read it to us, he left, though one of our teachers asked if he would sit silently with us for ten minutes before he went, and he did do that.
So then we had another long discussion about the whole thing, very emotional for some; there were tears. That discussion also made it obvious whose sympathies lay where. While most had perceived the remark as racist, some didn’t, and agreed with the remark-maker that he was being persecuted by us, his classmates.
We had done the council process, where each person speaks briefly, preferably from the heart, with no crosstalk: certainly no interrupting, and no responding directly to what someone else has said. It is optional to speak, and we went around the circle three times. By the third time around, most people had nothing more to say, but just in case, we left the “talking stick,” in this case a microphone, in the center of the circle and just sat in silence while we waited to see if anyone would have any further urge to speak. A couple of people did.
While people were literally weeping for the suffering in this world, including that of the remark-maker, I felt quite the opposite, and wondered if there was something wrong with me for feeling judgmental and, in general, for not easily sharing deep emotion in this kind of setting. However, those who were very visibly emotional were in the minority, not that it should really matter, and I decided that how I am is fine. Or, at any rate, it’s how I am.
In regard to not feeling compassion for the remark-maker, I shared that fact, and said that I could see that my mind and heart had snapped shut, and that while I hoped they might soften—I would like my mind and heart to be open to everyone—at the least, I could try to be aware of and acknowledge my reactions.
The day after class, I went to Laguna Honda and visited all my regulars plus a couple of new people, one exceedingly anxious, continually gulping water. Someone had told him he was going to have an appointment that morning and it had thrown him into a panic: What appointment? With whom? When? About what?
C., who I have visited every time I’ve been there, who has had surgery on one eye and is awaiting surgery on his other eye and then on his brain, told me and Bob that he was mugged—beaten nearly to death—for $60, which he would gladly have given his muggers. He was happy to have reached the point, after months in the hospital, where he can walk on his own, just using a cane, and in fact he was moving at a good clip. He looked very steady and hardly seemed to need the cane at all. He told us that the brain surgery, unfortunately, is risky. If it works, it will stop chronic bleeding in his head, but if it fails, it will erase his ability to see and speak. He’s trying to decide whether to go ahead or not.
I notice I’m feeling a bit more paranoid, or more cautious. I find myself more carefully looking both ways before I cross a street, for instance, now that being at the soup kitchen and at the hospital has made me more aware of the many ways life can really get messed up. I’m more aware that some people out there are genuinely dangerous. C. was beaten by strangers; A. was shot in the back by a stranger; another hospital resident was hit over the head with a baseball bat by strangers. Three lives changed permanently, and so many more like them, here and everywhere. I sometimes have bad dreams lately, where I’m in a room full of people with dreadful, alarming problems. I think these arise more from the soup kitchen than the hospital.
In some cases, no doubt people are engaged in activities that bring them into contact with those who incline toward violence, but in others, people may live in crappy, dangerous neighborhoods because of the systemic effects of racism.
Sunday of that weekend, I did my cooking and found myself thinking about a guest at the soup kitchen, H., who so far has tended to do most of the talking when we visit. I was pondering how he obviously wants me to see him as having this and that good quality, and I was thinking that this is because he values those qualities and aspires to have them, and even if he has done the reverse up until now, and even if he fails 90 percent of the time from now on, that very aspiration is beautiful and touching.
That caused me to think about my classmate and how he wants to be seen. Obviously no one wants to be seen as a racist. No doubt he wants to be seen as tolerant, kind, and fair-minded. He wants to feel respected, understood and liked by us, his classmates. Therefore, how excruciating it must have been for him to sit alone at home, listening to the recording of the discussion we had at the December class, while he was on retreat. And what a shame he wasn’t able to hang in there for the emotional discussion at January’s class, which made many of us feel much more connected as a group. Wouldn’t it have been great if he had been there at the end of the day, sitting with us all, feeling connected to us all? And so, voila! Compassion for the remark-maker.
After my epiphany, I sent him this email:
After you left, we had another discussion about your original anecdote and about the written piece you shared with us on Friday, using the council process—attempting to share from the heart.
It was quite emotional and also made the spectrum of opinions and feelings much clearer. Therefore, it was surprising to me that there didn’t seem to be any residue from this discussion, with people of evidently opposite sentiments visiting in a friendly manner during the rest of the day. By day’s end, there was a noticeable feeling of group togetherness, which I think was due to the more emotional sharing. While I completely understand that self-care required your leaving in the morning, I was sorry you weren’t there. It would have been wonderful if you had been able to share in that feeling. (Which is not to assume that you would necessarily have felt that way if you had been there.)
I must be honest in saying that I still think the original remark was racist; however, I acknowledge that I may be wrong about that. I therefore was further inflamed by much of what you read, though also shocked by the dreadful mistreatment you have received in the past.
However, in sitting with it since then, it became palpably clear to me how utterly excruciating it must have been for you to sit by yourself listening to the discussion from the prior month. I can imagine feeling very, very upset in that situation, and very, very angry. I salute the courage it took for you to come to class this most recent Friday.
Friday’s class made it clear (once again) how much every single one of us aspires to be kind, and how we can care for and feel safe with those whose opinions we couldn’t agree with less and those who have not at every moment acted or spoken precisely as we would prefer. [Smiley face.]
I hope you will be with us in February, and I hope that we will as a group reach a sense of friendliness, understanding and togetherness. Based on Friday’s class, I can easily envision it.
With best wishes,
Lately I have been not listening to music while I cook. Listening to music is an immense pleasure, and I’m sure I will get back to doing so, but thanks to Sayadaw U Tejaniya, I’m now aflame with curiosity to notice just what is happening in the mind in as many moments as I’m able to be aware of it. I doubt I would have had the insight about H. at the soup kitchen and my classmate if music had been playing.