“But that doesn’t make it okay…”

Cloe Ridgway via Unsplash

Just before leaving the house this morning, I flipped open a book by Pema Chodron that I’ve been slowly reading.  I specify slowly because it’s a breakdown of an eighth-century text called The Way of the Bodhisattva by the Buddhist sage Shantideva, and most of it takes some time to process.  I usually have to be in either a very concentrated or spiritually depleted mood to focus on the densely packed text–and then take a bit and walk around with it throughout the day.

Well, this morning, I was the latter of those two–spiritually (and in this case, physically) depleted.  As I hoped, the book’s message was exactly what I needed to read in that moment.  Not only did Shantideva talk about the damaging and purposeless effects of self-resentment, but I was also reminded of Pema’s tonglen meditation method–or, the process of breathing in someone else’s vices, and breathing out peace.  In this practice, you are fully experiencing someone else’s anger, hatred, confusion; recognizing it in your self; and breathing out peace for both parties. It got me thinking about a dilemma I’ve had during this rough time.

Prepping for a spiritual pilgrimage during such an angry, fearful period in our country can feel bizarre some days.  There’s a part of me that feels like I’m abandoning the fight, or worse, running away and hiding from it.  On top of the stress we’re all feeling, I’ve packed all of my final projects and work into the final eight weeks before I get on that plane.  I’m overwhelmed, tired, and on edge.  I was doing okay, keeping my chin up and meditating more that usual–another prepping stage for my hike–but last night, I felt like I was partially knocked off my horse of general wellbeing by some random angry thoughts thrown my way on a blog post I wrote (about flowers, of all things).

And so I began the usual process–where does this anger come from in those that target strangers on the internet?  Clearly, the root of the problem (hehe, no pun intended), is not the the flowers, it’s something deeper.  But engaging with them would only stoke the flames of their ingrained fear, I don’t feel that you can truly connect with people through a comment war.  Either way, considering their spark for these actions is my attempt in following Pema and Shantideva’s suggestions–have I been in their position when it comes to anger and fear, and what did that feel like?  On that basic level, I get it.  They are too angry or afraid to give constructive feedback/start a constructive conversation, so there is nothing I can do but seek the source of their feelings so that I don’t further stoke the flames of their pain (and in turn, my own pain).

When I talk to people about this idea, I am almost certainly met with, “But that doesn’t excuse them” or “But that doesn’t make it okay.”  No, of course it doesn’t, that was never said.  But it has made me realize that in our common daily conversation the idea of “seeing where someone is coming from” has become synonymous with forgiveness.  I think this confusion may be hurting us.  On one hand, if we are afraid to understand–or try to understand–where an angry or scared person is acting from, then we will never know how to truly evoke change.  But on the other hand, we may ask: why should I risk my own wellbeing by exploring their negative mindset if I know they are in the wrong? In other words: they do not deserve my mental energy.  This is a legitimate and understandable concern. Pema Chodron talks about tonglen practice as just that, a practice.  We cannot begin by trying to understand where someone like Trump is coming from, that would be diving into the deep end of the pool.  We begin with people we care about, branch out to our acquaintances, and slowly open up the circle to those that seek to cause us pain.

So why bother?  What is the point of exploring someone else’s negative or harmful feelings if we’re not trying to agree with them?  Because at the end of the day, we all walk around with our own brains, our own anger, our own peace of mind–that’s all we really have. Seeing the humanity in the people that cause me harm will–in time–make me a calmer, more balanced and clear-minded person.  The opposite will make me cynical, closed, and unable to see when I am wrong.  In this case, the anger in these people have “won.” Their anger–like fire–has started to burn down my mental house.  Instead of putting out the flames, I just continued to let them grow.

So today, as I try to keep up with the flow of emails and to-do lists, and try to understand the negativity flowing in through a blog post about flower arrangements, I will try to remember two things: 1. self-anger and doubt takes up precious mental space, distracting me from what’s really important, and 2. Sending peace to those that cause me harm is difficult, it’s supposed to be difficult.  But I am thankful for the practice.

And so the next time you say, or hear someone else say, “But understanding them doesn’t forgive what they did,” I hope this idea helps a bit.  In the end, understanding someone does not mean we need to try to change or “save” them, it doesn’t even mean we need to seek justification for their actions.  We are not in control of those two things.  What we are in control of is the anger, resentment, and fear that their actions spark in us, and if we catch it and work on it, we can all become better listeners, communicators, and an overall community of those that put empathy over fear.

Happy Thursday, all.  Thanks for reading.

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