12/05/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Ode to Eric Garner From the City of Shiva

This morning was the first really foggy morning of winter. I sat on Bhadaini Ghat and looked out over the Ganga and thought about how the gloom was ethereal in a way that seemed to be without beginning or end. Monochromatic is a word that rarely has application in India, but the gray muted the hues of everything, and was more correctly grey, the one with an 'e', that shade of Dickens' prose and London daybreaks as if it were one final stroke of spite left by the retreating Britishers last century.

It's hard to be in Banaras and not think about time. At almost every turn there's some sign that this place is old. Older than you. Older than anybody you know and the oldest people that they knew. Basically, it's just beyond time as you can conceive of it in any concrete, meaningful way. At some point our relationship to the past kind of blurs into some sentiment that amounts to, "It was." Well, Banaras is that but also still is.

At times there's something comforting about being immersed in a place that forces one's hand when it comes to awareness of inescapable realities such as time. Or, more specifically: frailty, impermanence, our relative insignificance in the ceaseless march of history, etc., etc., etc. The drumline-led funeral processions weaving through cobblestone gulleys to the burning ghats, the indecipherable daily rituals of the devout, the bells and vermillion and beauty of unimpeded decay. There's a quality to these things as reminders of our place in time that is both liberating and existentially obscuring. But what can you really say? It's probably never a bad thing to be reminded of the truth; it's up to you to deal with it.

To be really honest with you, I'm not feeling so great about time today. I just came back from the gym and I'm sitting here typing in damp clothes. It's almost cold outside, but the gym was warm and yeasty with all those bodies hoisting and pulling, bending and pushing. I'm thinner than I've been in about 15 years, and I have a wicked cough, but I felt like Hulk Hogan wrestling a 5 year old anyway. A strong cocktail of anger and angst is good for your workout, I guess. I wanted the plates to clang together, I wanted to drop the weights even when I didn't need to, I wanted to snarl at the reflection of myself in the mirror.

Just before I sat looking out over the river I'd watched the video of Eric Garner being killed and didn't know what else to do. It made my stomach turn. It made my eyes sting and my throat tighten. There's a physical reaction even older than this city that happens when we see the reality of violence. Or at least there should be. So I thought about it all for a while, then I went to the gym. And of course we now know the latest verdict of the latest grand jury, and there are people marching in the streets with the same feelings of anger, angst, and heartache. For most of them the hurt is intimate in a way that I'll probably never understand, gangly white guy from Louisville that I am.

There's this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that I love that goes, "The arc of moral history is long, but it bends towards justice." MLK is probably my favorite American, and one of my favorite wordsmiths, but there's a part of me that questions this idea just as much as I like it. There's a kind of positive fatalism in those words that feels all wrong, especially on days like today. Not that anyone should be faulted for being hopeful, (Wendell Berry, "Be hopeful because it is humanly possible") it just seems like surely he knew better than just about anyone how much hard work went into bending history's arc even a few degrees, not to mention how often it seems to meander like a river away from that which is just.

Maybe it's just another of life's realities that we always feel a little on the run from futility. It seems like at some point you kind of come to realize that no matter how hard you try, your work amounts to precious little, and even that probably doesn't last. A first step, it seems, is to get a little angry. But tossing rusty weights around a steamy gym in Ravendrapuri isn't doing anything for the cause of justice, and neither is clattering away at these keys for that matter. But if we're beginning from the baseline that fatalism of all kinds is flawed and unproductive, then resigning myself to ultimate impotence in the face of what I believe to be wrong is a position not even worth acknowledging.

So, what do we do? I've been sitting here trying to process it all and I don't claim to have any answers. I don't always know where I fit into the narrative of humanity that only becomes grander the more I walk down its many passages. I can't begin to comprehend the cosmos and its vastness without size. And yet I believe deeply that life matters. Why else grieve for Michael Brown and Eric Garner? Why else mind the faceless victims of drone strikes in Pakistan? Why else care for children trafficked in Uttar Pradesh or dying preventable deaths in Liberia? Why else wake up some days still missing my grandmother?

I'm not intentionally pitting the head and the heart against one another, nor do I think it's necessary. The secret, I hope, is finding a way to see through what feel like dilemmas and integrate our strongest urges. I say all of this because I hope it's what we're doing here, too. The issues may be different than policy brutality and institutional racism in the United States, but the inner grappling is the same. Trying to understand our place in it all is the same, too. These questions are bigger and older than we can really conceive, and it's ultimately up to us to use them as liberators instead of frustrations.

Still, I'm avoiding the question. What do we do? My only answer right now is to love the people around me a little more. To try to affirm with my every word and action that life matters. Banarsi lives. Black lives. Dalit and Brahman lives. The man I buy lassis from. The woman selling malas. The rickshaw driver that cuts me off twice without noticing on my bike ride to the program house. Isn't this how peace is made, anyway? Doesn't it happen drip by drip, the way the Ganga is carrying the Himalaya to the sea? Isn't it all a matter of immeasurable increments? Time? History? Justice? All of it?

And again a possible dilemma: anger versus love. Outrage versus kindness. Because I don't want to lie to myself or anyone else about the fact that I'm angry. I'm tired of the pervasion of ignorance and the triumphant march of the unfettered and ill-trained ego. It's disgusting in all its forms, and we should all be disgusted. But I'm also reminded that love that uses indignation as fuel without being consumed by it is a powerful flame indeed. On days like today this all feels even more urgent because the arc of moral history doesn't bend any way except to the will of those that shape it.