I had just read about a terrible act of terrorism. There are so many of them that sharing which one will seem almost comical to anyone who reads this post a year from now; they all sound so alike that they blend together.
This one involved children. And this year, I became a mother. And these days, when I hear stories about atrocities committed against children, it hits me in a completely new way. I ache for those parents, and for the loss of so much human potential that was loved and nurtured. I think of how, when my daughter is not at home, the house feels empty when her roars of delight or demands to be picked up isn’t the background hum of our life.
Even a second of thinking that I would never hear those sounds again or feel her warm little body against mine or kiss those little fingers and toes that are always in motion?–unimaginable.
* * *
And, then there’s life. I was in a conflict with someone. I was ruminating on things they’d said, things I’d said. Months were passing with no real resolution. I went about my day. I’d hear about some new, more recent thing that they’d said about me, and then feel the anger surging up, again. I’d feel distant and disconnected from myself whenever I thought of the situation.
Things kept amplifying. If I spoke respectfully, it didn’t get better. If I fought back and tried to explain myself, it didn’t get better. If I completely distanced myself to give time and space, it didn’t get better. Tit for tat. You did this, so I’ll do this–oh, you did that? Well, then I’ll do that plus this!
But then, another frustrating conversation or little anecdote would filter over to me, and again, I’d feel frustrated.
It was a surprise to me on a random day of the week when I suddenly thought of, and then began crying for, those children. It was like a dam bursting forth; one moment, I had read about these children hours earlier and simply filed it away in my mind the way we do with most of the endless stream of bad news that we see in any given day, and in another moment, I was aching.
I thought of those parents grieving all the way across the world, and wished that I could hug them tight and close. I wished that there were anything I could do to stop this kind of war and madness.
I felt apologetic, more than anything. I kept thinking, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry.”
This is the guilt that often accompanies privilege: to know that you have it so good when others don’t, that it’s as if you’re getting away with something. In that moment, I felt sorry for having it so good and not being able to do anything to undo someone else’s pain.
But I knew that this grief was not where I wanted to live. It’s tempting for all of us to believe that if someone else would be different (bosses, friends, family), if those outer circumstances (money, time) would be different–why, if only those terrorists would be different, then we’d all be happy! I know that this belief system is a fallacy.
It’s this fallacy that the people or the stuff “out there” needs to change before we can change, that keeps anything from ever changing.
So I asked myself, “Where am I at war, in my life?”
And swiftly, I got my answer.
The Buddhists say that all war starts within. It’s because we abuse ourselves that we will abuse others; it’s because we’ll go to war within our immediate families that we will go to war with other countries; it’s because we starve ourselves (of love, if not literally of food) that we will tolerate the starvation of our neighbors who can’t afford food.
This is why I don’t think that personal growth work is selfish. We cannot give what we do not have, and anything you do to grow who you are on an individual level can only ever benefit the collective whole. The more you grow, the more it becomes imperative to your growth to raise others up, to bring them with you.
For all of my attempts to listen and speak respectfully, to practice compassion, I was at war–the war of wanting someone else’s behavior to change. If only they’d see my perspective, I thought, they’d realize that I was trying to communicate with love, and that I didn’t want this madness between us.
That’s just arrogance. The way to stop the war? Short of enacting necessary boundaries for my physical and mental well-being, I could just let them live the way they wanted to live. Not in a dismissive or condescending way, but rather dropping all desires to get them to make different choices.
That meant, somewhat painfully, letting them say what they wanted to say (to me, about me), letting them be as close or as distant as they chose.
Ending the war is really about releasing control. If I find it to be madness that two religions would fight each other because “you don’t believe what I believe,” then it is just as much madness to be locked in conflict with someone else in our luxurious, first-world circumstances, for the same underlying reason.
Sometimes, there is a pop-bonus-surprise! with these stories, where a day or a week later, for reasons no one can discern, the other person in the story who was kicking up so much trouble magically decides to chill the fuck out and then the conflict resolves itself. Then the narrator of the story gets to wrap it all up in a neat little bow.
This isn’t one of those stories, at least not in that way. What happened for me when I realized that I didn’t want to be at war, anymore, was that I found an immediate kind of peace.
“They get to live, how they want to live.” My new mantra. My new rallying cry of freedom.
Also, in a world where the political system increasingly feels less representative of public will, where calling my representatives and asking them to do something is going to be about as effective as putting a sticker on my butt, ending the war within and trying to create communities of people who are willing to practice respect and tolerance becomes the one thing we can do. It’s how to change the world .
There will always be grief in knowing that my little, individual self cannot stop the suffering I hear about on the news. But I’m willing to do what I’m able to do.
I’m willing to start with my own little heart, and hope that a movement springs from there.