Last month, my dear friend, author and generally awesome lady Susan Piver asked me to write something before the U.S. elections about overcoming "Us vs. Them" mentality. She wrote a great, thoughtful post here. If there was ever a collision of events to force a needed discussion of how to overcome "Us vs. Them" mentality, it is a horrific and unprecedented superstorm striking a week before what is possibly the nastiest, and definitely the most destructively expensive, election in history.
This past week in NYC was nothing short of heartbreaking, bizarre and, yes, amazing. On the external level, I tried my best to be a Bodhisattva, a helpful guy, in my Brooklyn Bourgeois way. Having to cancel an excursion to Ohio to help with the Obama campaign efforts where two of my closest friends are working their butts off as field organizers, I instead stayed stranded, welcomed 20-30 refugees from the more harshly affected areas of NYC into my home. At one point, eight people were simultaneously charging dead smartPhones in my kitchen, and I laughed and felt simultaneously guilty at our privilege -- our privilege denied its requisite electricity. I e-mailed and talked on the phone with countless friends and students, exchanging voices and stories and rushed assurances of okayness, an exercise in mutual support and comfort. I got mildly addicted to Twitter, and I now think that social networking is the perfect companion for surviving the zombie apocalypse, at least for as long as batteries last. Could I have been more helpful to sentient beings? I ask myself that question every day of my life, with equal parts egoic guilt and truly cultivated compassion. Internally, I'll say that this week was hard for me. I found time to practice meditation, yoga and running every day, but felt sad and jittery the entire time. Blame the jitters on my newfound Twitter addiction. Blame the sadness on Basic Goodness.
At first, the lesson I take from Sandy and the elections is clear. WE. ARE. ALL. IN. THIS. TOGETHER. Further, this lesson is URGENT and the very opposite of some philosophical abstraction about reality. All useful philosophy has direct impact on every moment of every day of our lived experience. This is what I believe the dharma was always intended to be: tools for living, made useful and relevant to humans in a huge and interwoven world.
All useless philosophy is merely the product of too-comfortable people fantasizing about things in playfully abstracted universes. But Interdependence is the most useful idea of all, and there are now clearly severe karmic consequences for a society that does not live by this truth, and remains anxiously avoidant of its implications for ourselves, our society, and our fragile yet omnipotent Mother Earth.
Of course, as I tried to argue recently in response to Mr. Romney's infamous 47 percent comments, Buddhism is not about interdependence alone. It is also very much about taking personal responsibility for our own mind, our own life, our own actions, empowering ourselves through the development of awareness. At first, personal responsibility and interdependence seem in direct contradiction to each other. How do we then reconcile the two premises? Here's what I believe. Interdependence provides the proper and appropriate context for understanding personal responsibility. In other words, it is when we begin to understand interdependence that we see the true importance of personal responsibility. Once we see that nothing happens in a vacuum, that all beings are really in this together, that's the exact moment that we are properly inspired to become responsible for our own mind. To preach personal responsibility without preaching interdependence seems to isolate our view of life outside of its true context. What Sandy has done here, at least for the week, is rip away some of the veils of ignorance obscuring our connectivity. Missing the truth of interdependence is simply not longer an option, especially if we are mature enough to truly take responsibility. If we don't, who else will?
The challenge, for a Buddhist, is tricky to articulate and much trickier to live by, because we have to work on two levels at once. First, we have to constantly train ourselves to take total Personal Responsibility for our own mind, beyond blame or shame, within the vastness of realizing that We Are All in this Together. Thus, we have to work hard to overcome the fearful Social Darwinian instinct -- embedded in our very nervous systems -- to view ourselves as separate from others, especially others with whom we disagree. We have to love the "Other," whomever the other might be, and train daily in empathizing with the specific causes and conditions that makes the "Other" seem so damn different from "Us."
Yet, while not separating ourselves from others, while not villifying a "Them," our practice DEMANDS that we also identify false views and work to overcome them. Simply put, all beings are equal, but all views are not. Our society, sadly, runs on a set of false views that are way past their day. The archaic view of selfishness and isolation has to be identified and argued against, in ourselves, in others and in our social systems, because false views have true consequences. The planet's survival is at stake now. There will be another Sandy. Maybe many more.
We need leaders who lead by the example of interdependence. And we need to do everything that we can to lovingly disempower those who lead by the example of selfishness. We need to do this while never villifying anyone at all. Tricky, right? Speaking personally, there is a certain former Governor from Massachusetts who I am hoping wakes up Wednesday morning, totally unemployed, yet loved and appreciated by the humans who surround him.
Being a mindful human, balancing personal responsibility with interdependence, is a perfect challenge for this fragile era on Planet Earth. It's a challenge way harder than charging iPhones and hosting a few dozen bourgeousie refugees. But the challenge is here, for all of us, and if we accept the challenge, we might just start to enjoy life, enjoy each other and heal the planet.