This morning as I drove to work, I found myself behind a car with a bunch of bumper stickers that on their face, pretty much proclaimed the vehicle owner’s political bent. One of the ‘messages’ combined religion and politics into one snarky message that, without naming a single person, made it clear exactly whom they were addressing. As I often do, I immediately decided I disliked the person behind the wheel. I even contemplated driving up alongside the car to get a glimpse of my new nemesis as though that was going to seal my suspicions about the person’s true nature. Ironically, this event served as a lesson in compassion. I forced myself to stop forming conclusions about how this person would feel about me or my friends or my vocation. And it was hard. I wanted to dislike him or her solely for what they displayed on the outside of their car. Granted, what we display to the world often says a lot about what we feel inside. One doesn’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to know that members of the Westboro Baptist church who picket everything from funerals to religious services, hate many things but most prominently, ‘the gays.’
I’m not a bumper sticker person, myself. I don’t like to disfigure my car and I hold no real desire to express something to the world that must be interpreted in a matter of minutes by someone in a motorized cage behind me. Bumper stickers can be misinterpreted, especially if they are trying to convey a message subtly about a subject that begs for a broader perspective. I’m embarrassed to say that I draw pretty clear conclusions about people based on how they adorn their modes of transportation and I suppose that is the point of putting a message on your bumper that basically says, “I believe this and if you don’t agree, you are wrong.”
So, this morning I imagined myself meeting the person in the car in front of me and having a civilized conversation about politics and religion and tried to steer myself into appreciating their humanity. I focused on having compassion for someone despite our differences. And I thought it was apropos of what I have learned from Sharon Salzberg and in my own journey down this spiritual path. It’s ultimately about seeing the commonality not the difference.
There has been a fascinating conversation going on at The Daily Dish about ‘catcalling’ and it’s influence on women (and some men.) This link references the last in the series of posts but it is worth reading back through the previous entries. In particular, I was struck but this piece by a reader of the Dish:
“You struck a nerve with this one, as I was just discussing this very thing a few weeks ago with a group of high-school freshmen in my English class. We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, “That’s disgusting.” We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.
The lightbulb went off. “Oh,” I said. “I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you.” The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.”But,” I continued. “As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time.”
The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked.
“So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn’t actually want you to.”
As I read the posts, I was surprised to feel the rush of memories of my own experiences as a young teen and what struck me was how my memory wasn’t of anger, but of fear. And one could argue that the fear wasn’t rational – I wasn’t in a darkened alley or parking garage – it was broad daylight, but the discomfort was overwhelmingly real. It happened mostly when I was a teenager, shortly after I began to ‘blossom’ as they say. It was startling, disarming and ultimately left more of an impression than I realized until I took that walk down memory lane while reading these posts. Although it continued after I moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, the last straw for me happened in Italy. With my family on a crowded bus in Rome, I endured what we in the business refer to as ‘frottage.’ You know the drill; some creep helplessly ‘crammed’ into you by virtue of a crowded bus, has no other options but to rub his crotch against you for the duration of the ride. Keep in mind, this was Italy in the 70’s. There was nothing to be done. But that was it for me.
When I moved to Seattle, I quickly adopted the look for feministy leaning women with a ‘y.’ Cargo pants and plaid flannel shirts. And that was before I realized I was gay. In hindsight, I think it was my unconscious effort to steel myself against the comments from strange men on the street. It was kind of like cotton kryptonite, if you will. And for the most part, it worked. Now I see my niece-in-laws and how they dress and how they hold themselves and I am so proud of them. Woe be to the idiot who says the wrong thing to them on the street. He’s likely to be tasting his nuggets by the time they are done with him.
And lastly, I was reminded of a conversation with a male friend about his experience in an elevator of his new apartment building in a largely gay area of Seattle. He recounted how uncomfortable he was being propositioned daily (he’s not gay) and I just laughed at him. The look on his face belied his confusion. I simply said, “Now you know what it feels like to be a woman.”
And it felt so, well, vindicating.
I’ve become a little obsessed lately with the whole concept of ‘truth.’ In part, it is because I am constantly surprised at what some people define as ‘truthful’ speech. Not right speech, although truth should certainly be a part of that, but speech that is genuinely truthful. I’ve noticed it mostly around politics and politicians. In this age of 24-hour media, there is no paucity of video and audio evidence of practically everything said or done in the presence of a camera. And yet, faced with that evidence many people will shrug and smile, knowing that someone, somewhere will still believe the lie. There doesn’t even seem to be any shame about the fact that the veracity of any claim can easily be tested. I mean, even my dogs seem to show at least a modicum of shame when I come home and they’ve ‘accidently’ eaten all of the cat food or pooped by the door.
I’m not speaking about shame in the negative context that so many of us have learned from society. In my opinion, that’s not shame as much as it is non-conformity to some bizarre and unrealistic standard. I’m talking about standing in front of a microphone and making statements that are just completely untrue even despite evidence to the contrary.
There was an article recently in the New York Times about whether or not reporters have an ethical obligation to not only report what is said, but to fact check that statement and correct it. Oftentimes, papers run a side bar as a fact checking function. I just wish those who handle talking points for politicians would stop trying to shade the truth and just give their bosses the truth. And if the truth hurts your candidate, talk about something that doesn’t.
Being truthful about everything and practicing right speech is harder than you think. Is it always advisable to tell your best friend that her pants make her butt look big? Everytime? Some of the time? When is it ok to skirt around the truth? Can we possibly know the infinite number of reverberations that extend from telling a lie?
I always come back to my dogs. They are incapable of lying. Of course, they are incapable of talking, too. But when I look into their eyes, I see only innocence, presence and the truth.
On this day, I strive to be truthful to myself first and foremost. A true self can never be fact checked.
One of the first books I read about Buddhism was Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith. It is a wonderfully reasoned book about her transformation and journey that has ultimately brought us all here for this challenge. I have to say that I was intrigued by the title of the book because the word ‘faith’ is not one that I normally associated with Buddhism. And in fact, faith has always held more of a mystical and certainly Christian connotation for me. And I’m not a very ‘mystical’ person. I’m very pragmatic and practical, perhaps to a fault. To me, having faith in something meant believing in something you couldn’t prove.
When Sharon writes, “Faith is the animation of the heart that says, `I choose life.’ This spark of faith is ignited the moment we think, `I’m going to go for it. I’m going to try.’ “, I think to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s what faith means to me, too.’
So where am I going with this? On Saturday, the Westboro Baptist Church is going to travel to the Pacific Northwest and picket at the memorial service for the two little boys killed by their father, Josh Powell last Sunday. This ‘church’ is pretty much just one family headed by Fred Phelps and his daughter Margie. The reason they are going to picket is because Washington Governor Christine Gregoire has pledge to sign the bill to legalize same sex marriage in Washington state passed by our legislature two days ago. Their reasoning? God was punishing those two little boys for the actions of the legislature and the governor. Make sense now? I didn’t think so.
Now the Westboro folks are notorious. I won’t link to their site because frankly it is repulsive, but if you want to see for yourself, have at it. A few years ago, they came to Seattle to protest several synagogues and a high school. I had to work a plainclothes detail essentially to protect their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. Suffice it to say, it was not a pleasant experience. However, I was so proud of our local high school kids who came out en masse to protest the protesters. And there was no violence despite the very heated rhetoric.
This is where I come back to faith and why this word really needs to be re-acquired by the good and compassionate followers of all religious traditions. The Phelps family uses the word faith as a weapon. They believe in a wrathful and vengeful God who compels them to compound the misery and sadness that so many feel in the name of ‘faith.’
As I sat this morning, I struggled mightily to put into some sort of context a world that rushes by us day after day bringing us everything from the joy of a new life to the sadness at the end of another. My faith will not be defined by anger. It will be defined by ‘the animation of the heart.’
This kind of says it all for me. Washington passed a same sex marriage bill yesterday and Governor Gregoire is going to sign it into law. And then, the haters are gonna hate and ask for a referendum so people can vote on whether or not my partner of twenty years and I can get married. I love Cory Booker.
It’s such an honor to be a part of the meditation challenge again this year. When it was over at the end of February last year, I was reminded of when I was a child and felt that mixture of melancholy and excitement when school ended for summer break. I missed the routine and comfort of knowing I had a place to share my experience on the cushion while realizing it was time to take off the training wheels and give it a spin on my own.
I haven’t been the ‘best’ student, often neglecting my practice out of pure laziness. (There’s really no excuse not to make the time for myself.) But I’ve never lost sight of how profound the experience of meditating can be and how it helps to reinforce the beauty of simplicity and presence.
I’m ready. Let’s go.