“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.

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“You’re Not Good, You’re Not Bad, You’re Just Nice”

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Right after the election, a meme was making the rounds, predicting that Hillary would come out on stage before the inauguration to sing “Last Midnight,” from Into the Woods.  If you’re unfamiliar with the musical, this may have looked like a jab to Hillary’s character, since after all, the song is sung by the witch.  In the song, the witch denounces the actions of everyone on stage, dooming them all, before disappearing in a puff of smoke and returning to her “uglier,” previously cursed self.  But if you do know the show well, you know that the witch is one of the strongest, most complex and powerful characters of the show.

I happen to know the show backwards and forwards because of the lucky fact that I was an introverted musical theatre child of the 90s and staged an imaginary production of this show in my living room.  Nowadays, whenever I see theatre festival notices that state, “If chosen, play must be fully produced prior to the festival,” I think about how I’ll always have the production of Into the Woods in my back pocket, the audience just won’t be able to see my cast of imaginary actors.

Anyway, to put it in a nutshell, Into the Woods sets a bunch of familiar fairy tale characters in one town, all in pursuit of their personal dream.  The Witch is one of the story’s common threads.  She has a rough past–a history of cursing the baker’s family into sterility (after being robbed by them), and oh yes, trapping her daughter in a tower.  But as the play progresses, we hear each character’s side of the story and watch them either grow into empathetic people, fall into a life of crime, or a combination of both. And as an audience, you start to question: who is justified in their quest?

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An Acting Lesson for Troubling Times

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When I was twelve, I played Anne Frank in a local theatre production up in the mountains of North Jersey.  It was in one of those performance spaces that makes you miss the community theatre scene–a sturdy, 19th-century chapel in the center of town, with original wooden pews, a lady bug infestation, and the smell of books and old coffee.

The timing of this show was a major comfort for me and my family, it was just over two years since we had moved from Plainfield, a town that had become so dangerous that we purposely “disappeared” with as little a trace as possible.  These were the days before the internet, and so all you needed to do was select being “unlisted” in the White Pages, and bam, you were off the grid.  Studying Anne brought such solace to me in a time when I felt that I had also up and left my friends without a mailing address.  The door simply closed on that old life.  Unlike Anne though, I started a new one.  I was welcomed by a chance to play in the woods, to ride my bike until the sun went down, to meet new friends, and through that, work with new theatre companies.

I had a pretty lucky theatre ‘career’ as a kid, I probably worked more then than I have as an adult so far.  But up until that point, I hadn’t dealt with a role with such a massive line-load as Anne.  I also spend 99% of the show on stage, only stepping behind a flat to change during the second act; and of course, I did not come in the final scene, when Otto Frank returns without his family.

But my primary focus was on my lines, of the logistics of staying on stage that long, of the ins and outs of imitating and embodying a historical figure I had already looked up to for years.  You can learn a lot about someone’s energy and enthusiasm for life through their writing voice, and perhaps this is why we’re all so drawn to this girl.  I studied the way she viewed the crumbling world around her, how she always maintained empathy and a belief in others’ goodness, even when she got angry and frustrated and panicked.  I connected with the fact that she had terrifying nightmares that woke her up mid-scream (at least this is how its depicted in the show).  I grew up with nightmares, and still either sleep walk or wake up gasping for breath from time to time.  But most of all, I remember obsessively retraining myself on how to hold my pen–sometimes the two front fingers connected to the pencil, my thumb on the other side, and sometimes the pencil between the fore and middle finger, something that took a good deal of practice.  I still catch myself doing these from time to time.

Like this.

Like this.

And so I learned to sit like her, to speak in a rhythm I believed she would have used, and to sink into the small world of the annex; as in real life, I played with the ladybugs and stared out the church window at a similar chestnut tree she describes in her diary.  In the end, as with all roles, I am still me, and so we slowly became one, walking and talking in tandem.  In the early days of living in a new town, she was a friend.

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It’s Been 10 Days

Just a heads up that this is not going to be a normal post.  I honestly just need to rant, and writing privately for myself is not doing it for me right now.  I have woken up every day since the 8th angry and deeply, deeply worried.  Even hearing people managing to go on with their days sends me into a personal fury, and I am still at a loss of how to move on without rage.

I’ve heard the whole, “This is how the other side felt when Obama won.”  Well, here’s the thing about that.  My fear is based in the idea that people (including myself) will lose their rights.  Fear of Obama was based in racism.  Even if people were unaware of this deep-seated bias, all their vocalized fears can be traced back to the fact that a portion of the country does not trust a non-white man to make intelligent and caring decisions.

I’m currently struggling with the difference between intent and impact.  I have always been a blind believer that intent is by far the most important thing, and that we must find a way to have ultimate compassion for those who act with the intention of genuinely doing good for themselves and those around them.  But the past ten days have truly made me realize that choosing not to recognize our impact hurts others, and for this, I am losing patience.  As someone who has studied Buddhism inside my bubble of suburban peace, I am lost on how to build the discipline to have empathy for those who could threaten the lives of literally millions of people around the world.

As usual though, my Buddhist studies are helping me work through the pile of garbage that has been the past two weeks.  First off, let’s talk about:

Ignorance and fixation on strength.  One of our largest challenges as human beings is seeing the world without lenses and biases.  It has become our nature in the Western world to believe there are only two sides of things, right and wrong, good and evil, democratic and republican.  We often ignore balance and, strangely enough, see the idea of balance as weak.  And heaven forbid if anyone calls us weak!  It’s like we’re a country of Biffs from Back to the Future, waiting for someone to call us yellow so we can unleash our wrath of Facebook vitriol to prove them wrong and show the world how strong we are.

We’ve only just passed Mental Health Awareness week, and already we are judging ways that people are choosing to cope with this legitimately frightening occurrence.  As someone who has spent large amounts of energy and many years managing my anxiety, I recognize projection.  When someone online calls another person weak or whiny, it’s because they are not at peace with their own confidence and mental wellness.

Anyway, lenses.  I have them, you have them, the Dalai Lama has them.  If we didn’t, we’d all be perfect, enlightened beings and wouldn’t need to be on earth anymore.  These lenses fog up and misdirect ideas and information around us.  The issue has become so extreme that false news stories are actually shifting the results of world-altering decisions.  Our job in the coming months is to remove these lenses, and to challenge others to remove theirs.  We should not give others our lenses, but instead, actively seek out the truth–actively seek out what we would still see if we were wearing neither side’s biases.

Obsession with Winning.  We have been taught, through our myths and fairy tales, through our religions, through our schools, through our superhero movies, that good wins and evil loses.  The whole week, all I’ve seen is “You’ve lost, get over it.” It comes from this mindset that the world through their biased lens has prevailed, and that peace and certainty will be restored to their unstable lives.  “Before” was bad, and “now” is good.  They chose their hero, ignored any words against his qualifications to be a hero, and fought for his victory.  Now that they believe they have “won,” they are confused by those around them looking outside of winning and losing.  They think we’re upset about losing a race, they think we wanted the trophy.  No, we don’t want the trophy, we want everyone to have the freedom to safely live their damn lives.  We want everyone to feel supported by our country’s system and to feel equal to someone they pass in the street.  Because, guess what?  We are equal, we just aren’t treated as so.  It’s not about winning, it’s simply about living and having the option to work and thrive.

Levels of Awareness.  When you’re driving in your car and someone cuts you off, what’s your first response?  I flail my arms and usually scream something like, “What is wrong with you?”  I see others do it all over town.  I am, quite literally, seeing the world in my small bubble of awareness.  I am protected there.  I then get to work and talk to my coworkers, talk to my husband online, and occasionally hear from my family and college friends through email or on the phone.  This is my medium bubble of awareness, and I want to protect this bubble.  Both Bubble One and Bubble Two feels within my control.  For some people, this is where their world ends.  They only have these two sections, and seeing outside of this world feels daunting and confusing.

Then there’s Bubble Three: everyone else, both in time and space.  People from America both now and 100 years ago, people from Australia, from Pakistan, etc. You get the idea:  not you and not your personal circle.  This circle most likely will not come to you, you have to go there yourself.  For me, I read constantly, if I’m busy, there are audiobooks.  I listen to podcasts, I read blogs, I read articles across political lines, across country lines.  I don’t get locked into one job for too many years at a time.  I work in theatre–a job that constantly pushes you outside both small levels of awareness.  I study religions other than the one I was raised on.  And hey!  I am not wealthy.  I am also not an Ivy-League educated person.  I do have extreme, extreme privilege, however, and I recognize that.  I am also still incredibly ignorant to so many things.  But, these are my weapons against staying safe inside my small levels of protected awareness.

When the bubble breaks.  I always felt a little different from my childhood friends because I was forced to see the outside world when I was very young.  It was obvious to me the moment my house was broke into that my small level of awareness was not all that existed.  Illness can also be something that breaks this myth.  On the other side of the spectrum, really amazing surprises like winning the lottery or getting hired for an incredible job can break this bubble as well.  They are all reminders that you are part of a larger world.  But without an occurrence like this, or without the push to seek out the environment outside yourself, what happens to someone?

It’s sadly clear that many people choose to only protect and defend their space, oppose to reaching out and learning about the greater world.  They build walls, they buy guns, they erect a fortress of fearful beliefs.  They keep themselves locked in a tower. Now suddenly, all these tower dwellers have felt that they’ve won, that their tower will be protected.  No one is going to force them to look outside their bubble anymore.  Hooray!  What these people don’t realize, is that by hiding, they are perpetuating the idea that those without the privilege of a protective bubble will be stripped of their rights as citizens.

But tower dwellers are not just rustbelt Republicans.  When I get really low, my bubble shrinks.  I often literally feel like the space around me is getting smaller.  I lose motivation to read, to reach out, to find new career opportunities.  I want to hide inside my personal space and protect myself from anything that will challenge me to come out of it.  I develop what, psychologically, is known as learned helplessness.  I begin to accept that I will always be in my small bubble, and nothing will bring me out of it.

This is what I see when someone tells me they are unwilling to see outside their own views.  I see the pattern of learned helplessness–the acceptance that what they know is all they can ever know.  Their small bubble is protective and perfect and strong, and the large bubble of the world only wants to threaten that, to destroy it.

But this week, I am watching their fear, and using it to become more aware of my own.  I am not helpless, and neither are you.  This past week has allowed me to feel justified in my anger, in my fight.  I got over my fear of writing to representatives and electors, I got over my fear of defending my choices online.  I got over the fear of reaching out to friends with opposing views and trying to gently start a difficult conversation.  And I am so uncomfortable. I feel terrible.  And you know what?  Good.  It’s really good I feel terrible.  If I didn’t, I would still be going on long walks and thinking lofty thoughts about my plans for next summer.  I would still be assuming that Obama’s beautiful presidency had actually calmed the racist fears of many Americans too afraid to see their weaknesses.

I’d rather feel terrible now than later find out I had spent my life living in ignorance.