There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
- Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene ii)
I ended the previous post (click here) with, “there’s more to it.” I'm not going to back off from, but rather dive into -- for our lives bear tragedies far beyond mosquito bites.
In the story, you'll recall, the farmer raises a fine stallion, and it’s stolen, and it comes back with more horses, one of them throws of the son, breaks his leg, which saves the son from having to join the army. Good, bad, who knows? It just is what it is, right?
Well, wait a minute. The story ended too soon. What about that war that the army was going to fight – forcibly conscripting young men (maybe young women, too – though it’s an old story from ancient China, so in the context of this story, probably not) – to go and kill other young people, likely also forcibly conscripted? It’s one thing to say, a horse comes and goes, and we don’t have to think about it as good or bad. But what about war? Death and loss and suffering on a huge scale. Can we be so shrug-shouldered about that? Would we want to be?
The second of the six "sources of the living tradition we share," articulated in the Unitarian Universalist Association's by-laws is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.What about the work of those prophets? Don’t we need to be able to judge what is good and what is evil in order to confront evil, as the prophetic voices of the past did? If we answer the horrors of abuse, torture, young girls enslaved in prostitution, sweatshops, by saying, "Good, bad, who knows?" then how can we be prophets?
Can we go through life saying, it’s all good, it’s all good? War. It’s all good, so let it happen. Greed, destruction of the planet. It’s all good, so let it happen. It’s one thing for the annoyance of a mosquito bite to dissolve under the gaze of attention. It's quite another thing to face the massive scale of harm humans inflict. How can we say that's all OK? It's not OK.
The loss of a loved one. That's not OK. How could anybody say that was OK? Are we stones that have no feeling?
War, and destruction, and denial of human rights. Those are not OK. The Carolina Parakeet, vast flocks of which used to cover the Eastern U.S., was hunted and it's habitat cut down until it went extinct 100 years ago, and the world lost forever the green and golden beauty of these wonderful birds. That's not OK. Ongoing species loss, destruction of the rainforests, melting of the polar ice caps: these things are not OK.
Yesterday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a majority, addressed the awful pit of despair known as California's prisons, and he said that level of overcrowding is not OK.
There can seem to be a dilemma between the peace of equanimity and the need for courageous confrontation with harm and oppression. There is one word which names the solvent to dissolve that dilemma: compassion.
You may be confronting the apparent dilemma if you are asking yourself: If there is no good or bad, then why be compassionate? The question itself is the source of the dilemma. Try asking the question from the other side. Instead of looking at what would motivate compassion, look at what blocks compassion.
What is it that blocks your compassion? What keeps you from acting in every moment out of love and caring for any and all who suffer?
I find in my own experience that every time I have failed to be compassionate, it is because there was something I was having a hard time accepting. There was something I didn't want to lose, or didn't want to get. When I can move into a place of accepting reality just as it is, then the barriers to my compassion fall away. I find some judgment about what is good and what is bad at work in me everytime I have failed to be compassionate.
The phrase is: "spirituality of resistance." "Spirituality" refers to the cultivation of inner peace and equanimity, awareness of the final goodness of the universe in which grief and joy are parts of an overarching harmony. Spirituality means being fully at home with our lives and on this earth. "To everything there is a season."
"Resistance" refers to resistance to systems of oppression, harm, ecological destruction, and greed -- resistance to the tendencies to consume and use up the planet, to destroy without thought -- resistance to the impulses to violence -- resistance to whatever is life-denying.
I am NOT talking about "balance." I am not saying, "Have some balance in your life: a balance of inner peace some of the time and activism some of the time." Oh, no. I'm saying that our work as human beings is to cultivate our capacity to have both spirituality and resistance at the same time, all the time, each as the ongoing manifestation of the other.
The energy for resistance flows fiercest when we are not committed to our own ideas, opinions, ideologies about good and bad. Compassion for human suffering flows freest from us when it flows from a source in equanimity. Compassion is drained by the energy we pour into denial or into wanting things to be different. Presence to "just is" leads to action that "just is" -- seeing suffering for what it is, and bringing ourselves to address it as we can, without attachment to results. Compassion does not aim to "make things better" (though it does), it aims only to manifest itself.
There is an aliveness in equanimity, a vitality to inner peace. It is not lethargic complacency -- just the opposite. When the wet blanket of craving and fear and judgment is taken off our heart, we become more fully present to just what is -- more able to engage with our world. From love for all things of this earth just as they are comes the strongest power to resist what hurts them.