We know that the US is riven by deep divisions—and that other countries are going through similar struggles. We also know that most people are unhappy with the anger and hostilities—and anxiety about politics and world events is high.
Against this backdrop, I found the final question in the fourth Democratic Presidential debate, held in Ohio on October 15, instructive. Moderator Anderson Cooper asked each of the 12 candidates (the largest group of debaters ever) this question, involving Ellen Degeneres, a popular US talk show host who gained praise in 1997 when she publicly announced she is gay:
“Last week, Ellen Degeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, we’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.”
“So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
I’m touching on the responses that I found most relevant (regardless of my opinion of the candidates who voiced them). I’ve shortened them from their verbatim rendering in The Washington Post’s transcript.
Julian Castro: “Some of the most interesting friendships that I’ve had have been with people…who thought different from me…and I think that that should be reflected more in our public life. I believe that we should be more kind to other folks. And there are people, whether it’s our former president, George W. Bush, or others…just as we should be kind, we shouldn’t be made to feel shameful about holding people accountable for what they’ve done.”
Amy Klobuchar: “For me, it’s John McCain, and I miss him every day…I remember being at his ranch when he was dying. He pointed to some words in his book because he could hardly talk. And the words say this: ‘There is nothing more liberating in life than fighting for a cause larger than yourself.’”
Cory Booker: “The next leader is going to have to be one amongst us Democrats that can unite us all,…teach us a more courageous empathy, and remind Americans that patriotism is love of country, and you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.
“And love is not sentimentality. It’s not anemic. Love is struggle. Love is sacrifice. Love is the words of our founders…the end of the Declaration of Independence that if we’re ever going to make it as a nation, we must mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Pete Buttigieg: “I think about the friendships that I formed in the military, people who were radically different from me, different generation, different race, definitely different politics. And we learned to trust each other with our lives…It’s also about building a sense of belonging in this country, because I think that’s what friendship and service can create.
“I think we have a crisis of belonging in this country that is helping to explain so many of our problems, from our politics being what it is to the fact that people are self-medicating and we’re seeing a rise in the deaths from despair…The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president. It is the unification of the American people [to] pick up the pieces and guide us toward a better future.”
I’m focused on these responses because they capture what I believe is the most important and difficult task our next president will have: uniting us as a people. And that effort is needed in many other areas throughout the world.
Cory Booker’s exhortations to love reminded me of an exchange I had with one of my fellow bloggers: Gary Gautier, who blogs as Daedalus Lex and calls his blog “Shake My Head Hollow.” Gary is a very thoughtful guy who often examines philosophical and ethical concerns on his blog. (He also writes wonderful poetry).
Gary’s recent post–which stimulated this inquiry–was titled:
“The political thing no one wants to hear”
The post itself consisted solely of a quotation from Ram Dass, a revered spiritual leader (and former Harvard psychologist, then known as Richard Alpert) who has pursued numerous spiritual approaches, including Hindu, Zen Buddhism, Sufi, and Jewish mystical studies, according to his biography. His most influential work is the book Be Here Now, which has been called “the Western articulation of Eastern philosophy and how to live joyously a hundred percent of the time in the present, luminous or mundane.”
Here’s the Ram Dass quotation, followed by my discussion with Gary, who has graciously agreed to my including our exchange as well:
“You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself.”
My Query to Gary:
I saw Ram Dass interviewed a while back. His stroke seriously impaired him, but as I recall, he reflected that he has been happier since then because now he really has time to observe and reflect.
I am having difficulty envisioning the kind of protest he describes. Did Martin Luther King and John Lewis love their oppressors? Forgive? Probably. Understand? Very possibly. But love? And Mandela? Same question.
Can anyone protesting the people who put babies in cages and open the gates to genocidal acts feel love for those they’re protesting against?
What am I missing here, Gary?
Gary’s Response (with citations):
When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them; he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause,” and several of those guards became allies and attended his first inauguration. (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II).
And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his colonial oppressors when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiog, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242).
I think both had found Ram Dass’s truth – that beneath vicious action is generally a confused or mangled soul. Fight for what you know is right, fight against those who wreak havoc on humanity, lock them up if you have to, but don’t give up on the spiritual imperative to help those who are most morally fallen – from people on death row to the politicians whose actions you find vicious.
I believe Martin Luther King had reached the same transcendental space of love. In contrast to today’s woke crowd, who all-too-enthusiastically reduce people to “enemies” and “racists,” King saw white people as much more than just racists and was ultimately much more optimistic about America’s founding principles and about the American people — including white people.
This is all hard to see as we duke it out at street level, but these spiritual masters were able to view it from a million miles above, from the perspective of unlimited compassion, viewing themselves below fighting the good fight in the trenches, and viewing their opponents and all others in the same light.
I’m sticking with Baba Ram Dass on this one.
And My Response…
I thank you, Gary. I practice mindfulness meditation, and an important aspect of that is lovingkindness: “May you/I/we be filled with lovingkindness.” I have often sought common ground in my blog posts. I do try very hard to walk in the other person’s shoes, so I don’t rail against the folks at the hate-filled rallies with the vehemence of many people I know.
But I am a long way from loving those in power whose cruelty and/or indifference is damaging so many individuals and our society/world.
I shall try to dig deeper—without faulting myself if I fail. The Ram Dass bar is exceedingly high for us mere mortals.
My Questions for You, Dear Readers…
We are all tearing ourselves apart with our political hatreds now. It’s no good for us as a country, as members of the world community, and certainly as individuals: think of the levels of stress-induced cortisol coursing through our bodies. We need a better approach.
Can we get beyond this point via the Ram Dass message? Regardless of which side of the political divide we’re on, can we “hate the sin but love the sinner”?
If you share my strong feelings about this president and those complicit in his actions, can you and I, personally, look beyond all the devastation that we feel President Trump is wreaking on people and nations and try to find compassion for the clearly damaged, wretched soul that resides within him—and the frightened, worried people working with him or supporting him? (That doesn’t mean we don’t hold him/them responsible for their actions!)
If you’re on the other side of the political divide, can you find it in your heart to feel that those of us who differ with you politically are not your enemies? That our wants and needs as human beings are, on the most basic levels, quite similar to yours?
(I realize I’m leaving out the vast middle here, those who are just unhappy that things in their personal lives aren’t going as well as they’d like—and are simply trying to make do from one day to the next.)
Can we all shift our focus from people to problems, and work together for the greater good?
Just days ago, we lost an invaluable American statesman: Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland, who died at age 68. “A Pillar of Baltimore Who Was ‘Loved by All,’” wrote The New York Times. In his years in Congress, he worked assiduously across the aisle to get things done for the people he represented and the country he loved.
Apparently, when President Trump attacked him on Twitter this summer, calling his district a “rodent-infested mess,” some of Cummings’ constituents wanted a full-throated response. Instead, Cummings calmly observed: “Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors.”
Being “nice” to the President was an example of the spirit that made him unique, according to his friends. His church pastor said Cummings was…
“…so much larger than what he was…He was something so different. He was not the angry protester. He was not the passive peacemaker. He was the deliberate man who stood for right and wrestled wrong until right became the natural winner.”
I have a strong sense that Congressman Elijah Cummings was the embodiment of the Ram Dass credo that Gary Gautier has brought to our attention.
Tell me, please: What do you think of all this—as political strategy and/or guidance for life? Can you accept the concept of loving the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself? Even embrace the idea and consider/try putting it into practice? Feel it’s a fine idea, but…?
Or does this concept strike you as naive and unworkable? Do you think I’m nuts to even raise the issue in today’s political climate?
If the latter, do you have any other ideas concerning how we as individuals move ourselves out of our current angry divisiveness?