Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Social Action and Attachment to Fixed Narratives




Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House wrote a companion post to the one I did on Monday about Haiti. His take was to expand on the notion of "idiot compassion" to speak about the imperialistic history in Haiti. He even coined a term for it - imperial compassion - which I think very accurately describes any number of military/economic interventions over the past several hundred years. The U.S. is definitely not alone in these actions - in fact, there are nations on almost every continent that have taken over others, subjected the people there, stolen resources, and claimed to have compassionate aims.

In response to Algernon's post, one of his regular commenters, Pam, wrote the following:

"Damn, looks like we just can't do anything right. Don't know why we should bother anymore.

No matter what we do or try to do we come out the bad guys."

I've certainly felt like this at times. In the face of all the ugly historical evidence, it's pretty easy to collapse and feel like giving up. We all do it in certain situations; I can recall similar statements I have made about my current workplace over the past year.

Buddhist practice, in my opinion, calls for us to not let these kind of narratives get firmly embedded as truths. Why? Because they aren't true.

If you look at Pam's statement, you can see both an attachment to "national image," as well as an attachment to outcomes. Although I don't spend as much time as I used to speaking about patriotism and it's discontents, this seems like a good time to bring up a few points. First, the image of any nation is, like most of life, fickle and ever-changing. Just think of the last year. President Obama takes office, and the U.S. receives praise from people all over the place. People in the U.S. have hope for a better nation, and people outside of the U.S. are relieved that the U.S. might be turning a corner. Within nine months, his administration is supporting war escalations and has little of concrete value to add to global climate change conversations, and national image, both inside and out, goes down the drain. One of the main problems, as I see it, with patriotism is that it's an attachment to a fiction. The borders of the U.S. were arbitrarily drawn, and any story about the country, positive or negative, can never be the whole story. So, what is it that you love and defend anyway?

As for the rest of Pam's comment - there isn't a one of us who hasn't displayed that giving up energy. And what I have come to see about this energy is that it arises precisely when one grabs on to a desired outcome, or set of outcomes. Specifically, the propensity to "give up," to turn nihilistic, comes when one believes that not only is it impossible for their desired outcomes to occur, but also that such lack of occurrence is a terrible thing.

When a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti occurs, I think it's the responsibility of people in nations that can offer tangible help to both offer what they can, and also do some deep reflection on why they are offer said help, and the ways in which offers of help in the past might have caused damage. The uncomfortableness that arises when seeing how, for example, the U.S. played a historical role in the poverty of Haiti is a consequence of that history.

It's no different, really, than reflecting on ways we have failed to help others in our personal lives. How the repeated advice to a sibling kept backfiring, or the gifts to a child didn't soothe their suffering.

What's fascinating to me is that I've met people who are very good at analyzing national and international situations, and seeing very clearly where past interventions in conflicts failed miserably. These same people might even be able to come up with excellent approaches to the same conflicts, but then when it comes to their personal lives, it's one big train wreck. On the opposite end, I know others who are very proficient at analyzing their personal lives, seeing the blind spots and working through them to have better relationships with others. But when it comes to national and international conflicts, the resolve they've shown in their personal lives disappears completely.

As far as I'm concerned, the way of the Bodhisattva is to bring these two people together. To be able to shine a light of awareness on any situation, be it the struggle with an aging parent, or the crumbled nation of Haiti, and to hang with whatever comes up without being tossed overboard. No easy task, but it sure is a beautifully expansive vision to work towards.


* Cartoon above is from Doug Savage's Chickens page. www.savagechickens.com

1 comment:

LuLu said...

A really human perspective on the state of things. I am new to your blog and enjoy your food for thought. Keep it up.