J. M. W. Turner, Waves Breaking against the Wind, c. 1840 (Tate Britain)
When events seem to take control of your life and the lives of those around you, sometimes the only appropriate response is awe. One night I was driving home along the Mass Pike in a deceptively mounting snowfall, the kind that starts out as picturesque flakes and within minutes grows treacherous. I had instinctively slowed down as a series of semis whizzed past me, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of a newly slick roadway. Sure enough, the glow of brake lights up ahead preceded a gradual halt to the traffic—a layover that lasted more than five hours. By the time we finally got moving again, the sight that greeted us was awesome in the true sense of that word: several jackknifed tractor-trailers lay in the V-shaped gulf separating the roadways, sprinkled among them a few crushed automobiles whose occupants had long since been medevacked away. I never found out who was to blame for the deadly accident, but it hardly mattered. I had learned enough about the consequences of ignoring the signs of dangerous weather to change forever how I drive.
The past year has been a bit like watching an extended car wreck, the implications of which continue to ripple through our lives. I’m talking about not only the political or environmental consequences of the recent election, but also the personal toll it has taken and may continue to take on people for some time to come. In talking to friends and complete strangers on both sides of the political divide (and yes, I have at least a couple of close friends who voted for the candidate that most of my other friends fear and loathe), I've come to what may seem like the obvious conclusion that there is no simple, single appropriate response. Which only implies that we can choose from a number of responses, some of which are actually constructive.
The atmosphere these days is a bit like living with rageaholic parents—you have to be careful what you say because almost anything can set them off. I know because I grew up with one; I needed my father to survive, but I often wondered if it was worth the trauma. Now I've learned that it can be dangerous to post your thoughts on Facebook when even your close friends want to hear only one thing. Yet, regardless of how we might feel about the outcome of the presidential election, we now have an unexcelled opportunity to learn from what has happened instead of simply shouting down anyone who doesn’t agree with us. We can seize the moment to show compassion toward those who are suffering, those who are gloating, and those on both sides who have been worn down to a frazzle.
Our national struggle has certainly made for revealing contrasts. The age-old rock critic for the Village Voice, Robert Christgau, was so reduced to despair after the election that he declared this to be “the end of the world as we know it.” (1) Several weeks before Christgau’s piece ran—before the election had even taken place—an article by a Zen teacher named John Tarrant appeared in a Buddhist magazine, titled "How to Welcome the End of the World.” (2) Adding to the curious synchronicity, each article proposed 10 bullet points in response to these uncertain times. While the former began with a discussion of the writer’s sudden need for anti-anxiety medication, and closed with wistful speculation about impeachment, the latter offered a lucid prescription for coping with any shifting political landscape. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to agree that all things change. Those of us who grew up listening to Bob Dylan once welcomed changing times, but suddenly half the country is greeting that change with high anxiety and fulminating rage. Do we have other options?
Tarrant’s article opens with lines from Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” some of its lyrics borrowed from Marcus Garvey, and the author’s prescriptions include practicing empathy and companionability and letting go of the need to know how things are going to come out. “We never know what will arrive next,” he writes. “Dreadful events can lead to wonderful events, and the other way around. It’s always too early to despair.” He quotes an ancient koan:
A student asked, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?”
The teacher said, “Welcome.”
This approach appears to be in line with the thinking of a psychotherapist whose forthcoming book draws on the basic principles of quantum physics, chief among them inseparability and uncertainty. In The Possibility Principle (to be published in the Fall), Mel Schwartz argues that we not only have nothing to fear from uncertainty, but also that acknowledging its role in our life actually liberates us from one of the major causes of anxiety. “When we embrace the dissonance and ensuing confusion around events we can’t readily explain,” he writes, “old paradigms fall away and new worldviews emerge.” One of those paradigms involves our need to know for certain what’s going to happen next. “Instead of letting discomfort immobilize you, look at the discomfort as your ally, as a signal that you’re venturing out of the familiar zone. Turn the disquiet into your personal coach as it propels you forward.” (3) If Schwartz’s application of quantum physics to everyday life is accurate, it can relieve much of the dread of not knowing whether change will have a severe impact on our way of life. (Full disclosure: I helped to edit his book, which was completed before the election took place.)
Still, not all observers are taking the current turn of events with complete equanimity. A gay activist writing for the same Buddhist publication as Tarrant presented his own list (nine bullet points this time), arguing that “a self-centered mindfulness practice is not enough. While non-reactive presence to what’s happening within you and around you is foundational, for me non-reactivity simply creates the conditions for a wise response. Non-reactivity is not the end game. Action is!” The author, Pablo Das, finds that a certain kind of anger is constructive. “For the love of Buddha,” he writes, “stop telling us not to be angry. Anger is an appropriate response. In the trauma world, we see anger as the energy that naturally organizes in a person to support a self-protective response to threat! The very movement of trauma resolution is from disempowered collapse into an empowered, self-protective response. Yes, anger demands mindfulness to relate to it skillfully, but I think it is an exquisite fuel for change.”
Citing how gay resistance, from Stonewall to Act Up, “transformed the AIDS crisis by channeling their appropriate anger into direct action,” Das proposes that we get involved in resisting what we don't like about any continuing outcomes of the election. (4)
I choose these responses from the dozens that I’ve read because they represent three possible paths to coping with what is right before us. One is panic, and the rage born of panic; another is equanimity and empathy; and the third is enlightened engagement, fueled by righteous anger but guided by non-reactive awareness. The last two can overlap, but they are both built around the practice of compassion—for ourselves and others. Activism, including nonviolent protest, is not incompatible with compassion, as Gandhi, King, and others have shown. The question of righteous anger is one I’ve wrestled with before. The example I like to cite is Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (although it’s also possible that this led to his crucifixion). Righteous anger has fueled all the major protest movements of the past century, including civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, and although violence did occur in connection with those movements, it came primarily from the forces opposing them. So I advocate a combination of compassion for those on both sides, and activism when and where it’s called for.
While I was working on this piece another magazine piece appeared from out of the past, as it were. First published back in 2003 at the time of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman’s article—revived online by Tricycle—originally proposed an option to anger that he referred to as “cool heroism: developing a tolerant, deliberate, and wise energy.” (5) Reflecting on his own rage at Bush’s “warmongering,” Thurman suggested three options to indulging that anger, starting with remembering that “in another lifetime [Bush] was my mother, and that even the most evil people were at some point my errant siblings. That immediately takes a certain edge off the anger.”
This option may not appeal to non-Buddhists, or to anyone who does not believe in rebirth. But Thurman’s second “step” is more universally applicable: “To realize that we, too, have the potential to be demonic. Given certain conditions and confusions and insecurities and fears, any of us could do bad things. It might start with an imperceptible change; we wouldn’t think we were being bad—just a little naughty here and there. Pretty soon we would take it too far and be really bad. People can become deluded like that.” And as the third step, he proposes that we can “develop real sympathy for the people who are doing harm, because if they bomb people, if they pollute, if they poison the food chain, they will have the bad karma of having harmed so many people.”
Again, this approach may be more accessible to those who believe in the ineluctable suffering caused by karma. The Dalai Lama, when asked why he wept when he first heard that Mao Zedong had died, explained that he knew the enormous suffering that Mao would endure in the afterlife because of the violence he had loosed on the world—not least, of course, on Tibet.
Such a level of compassion many of us in the West may find hard to comprehend, although it lines up with almost clinical accuracy to the teachings of Jesus, derived from Judaism, that we should love our enemies. Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s favorite text is a model of compassion ideally suited to these tumultuous times in America. In his classic work The Way of the Bodhisattva, the 8th-century Indian sage and scholar Shantideva expressed his desire to personify the healing needed by all humanity, a yearning we might well take to heart. It embodies a kind of engagement with the world that transcends anger while embracing activism:
For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.
Raining down a flood of food and drink,
May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.
And in the ages marked by scarcity and want,
May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.
For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need. (6)
1. “Robert Christgau on the End of the World,” Village Voice, Nov. 15, 2016.
2. John Tarrant, “How to Welcome the End of the World,” Lion’s Roar, Sept. 2016.
3. Mel Schwartz, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love (Louisville, Colo.: Sounds True, Fall 2017).
4. Pablo Das, “Why this gay Buddhist teacher is dubious about Buddhist refuge in the Trump era,” Lion’s Roar online, Nov. 17, 2016.
5. Robert A.F. Thurman, “Rising to the Challenge: Cool Heroism,” Tricycle, Spring 2003.
6. Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, trans. the Padmakara Translation Group (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), 3:8-10.