LESSONS FROM ELSEWHERE - Gareth Higgins
The greatest misunderstanding that people have about the USA until they live here is that it’s a country. I’ve been here for ten years, and the most surprising shift in my perception has been that the place might be better seen as really fifty nations, each with their own culture and laws, connected with their neighbors only as tightly as they want to be. This fact carries tension, of course, if you value coherence; but the liberating consequence is that if the first step to healing a place is knowing it, it may be much easier to know a state than the nation. The handful of key cities and rural communities that make up a state are conceivably knowable by a handful of people who care enough to steward the earth, nurture the people, and imagine “the next stage of good.” That phrase, coined by Bob Woodward to refer to the role of US American Presidents, is spacious and inviting. It’s a way to live. Looking out my window, seeing trees, but imagining the neighborhood and the city behind them, and the region behind those is a beginning of knowing. That knowing is vital to rootedness, and rootedness is the beginning of hospitality, and hospitality will save the world.
I’m pondering this because I grew up in northern Ireland, where an argument over national sovereignty, identity, and the treatment of minorities was weaponized. When no obvious recourse seemed available through the democratic mechanism, because democracy itself had not evolved to represent the oppressed minority, and nonviolent activism was not substantially resourced, violence erupted.
Nearly 4,000 people were killed, and 43,000 physically injured; countless more traumatized, and an entire culture damaged.
After decades, people were tired, scarred, and the realization was dawning that no one could win. That hating your neighbor made the neighborhood a terrible place to live. Eventually, people talked to their opponents, often in secret, often at risk, over long periods of time, with no guaranteed outcome - not even the safety of the participants.
People suffered, but in talking with their opponents they saw that the other was suffering too.
Community organizations, politicians, cultural figures, and the ordinary person in the street were energized. Philanthropic, national and international institutions funded opportunities for people to encounter each other, and for historically marginalized communities to develop.
The legitimacy of opposing political aspirations was recognized by all parties.
Peace talks began, chaired by three independent international figures - a US Senator, a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician, and a Finnish politician.
An agreement was reached whose details include an end to political support for illegal violence, the reform of the police, the release of prisoners whose crimes were politically motivated, the development of radical human rights and equality legislation, and the establishment of local government based on cooperation not domination. The most important point: we’re in it together, and everyone will have to give something up in order for it to work.
It’s not perfect. Victims and survivors have been underserved, and the ambiguous legacy of violence and oppression committed in the past by parties and individuals, some of whom now run the government, continues to hold us back. But two decades after the ceasefires, the previously unthinkable has become a fact of life: on the best days, former sworn enemies share power for the common good. On the best days, people who used to advocate each other’s killing now collaborate on health and roads and education and environmental policy. People have a stake in their future. Currently the local government arrangements are in limbo, pending another round of negotiations among the parties), but people are, if not optimistic, confident that the peace will hold. Lament for the past is real, but we are moving beyond the cruelty and toward owning our story, in all its painful and joyful variety. We know what it was like to live in a society governed by fear and hatred. We’re not going back.
Which brings me to the present moment, as it pertains to the fifty state experiment that may or may not actually be a nation. I’d like to offer some gentle thoughts on the state of the union, emerging from my experience of growing up in a place where we thought we could dominate each other, and are only recently discovering that our needs are shared. I’m going to sketch seven principles and practices for thriving in the current moment. Let’s begin with the one closest to each of us.
1: Feelings are messengers, but we don’t always have to agree with them
In these recent months, I think many of us have been going through an experience of shock followed by fear, then a sense of violation. How could this have happened? What will it lead to? Then a kind of grief as the progress of recent years seems under threat. Whatever the facts associated with these feelings, I do think it’s vital that we acknowledge them. To repress genuine feelings of fear or grief will not serve us. So the first principle I’d suggest is to acknowledge the feelings of desecration and fear, metabolize them, and move forward.
And it is a desecration - the image portrayed of Trump is of a man who is rampaging through deeply held ideals: of respect, compassion, of the notion that actions have consequences, that leadership is supposed to be carried by emotionally mature people who at least pay lip service to the common good. He tramples over all of that. And some of us have particular personal reasons for our fears and lament - he reminds us of actual individuals who behaved badly toward us in the past. The fact that he is in charge of the country - and that nearly 50 million people put him there - is an ugly, distressing thing.
But! There is a very real sense in which this only matters as much as we’re willing to let it. John O’Donohue warned us not to let the media become “the mirror, enshrining the ugly as the normal standard.” There is far more beauty and hope in the world than the contemporary media culture represents. Trumpishness is real, but how we talk about it can also be an overblown fantasy.
In William Friedkin’s revised cut of The Exorcist, during the break that the two priests need to take from expelling satan from the little girl, the younger asks the elder in despair why such a thing could be allowed to happen - how could someone so innocent be treated so badly? What had she done to deserve this? The older priest replies, “I think the point is to make us feel disgusting, unworthy of love.” One of the dangers of the current moment is that we will allow Trump and the noise around him to project what looks like their own self-loathing onto the rest of us; that we will allow a deeply dysfunctional individual to define our lives for us.
We hear a lot about resistance, and this can be a useful posture, but the first resistance must be to the idea that we deserve this distress, that there is nothing we can do about it, and that our political opponents are less than us.
I think we would be better served by checking into the hospital of contemplation, that we might find our feet, breathe, and know that the good is more real than we can imagine. When I find myself in distress these days, I’m trying to pay attention to a simple four step process taught me by Mahan Siler. Feet - Breath - Allies - Wonder. And when I say simple, I mean really really simple. The kind of simple that seems so obvious we might disregard it without realizing we’re forgoing astonishing gifts.
So let’s try it.
Seriously - wiggle your toes. Slowly, up and down, while pressing the balls of your feet into the ground. Then take deep, filling breaths. Do it for a few minutes every day.
Then connect with allies: friends on the journey, inspirational figures of history, even fictional characters. It can be anyone who calls to your mind a sense of solidarity, safety, and community.
And finally, look for the wonder in every painful situation. The early twentieth century Irish activist Roger Casement wrote of the beautiful butterflies he saw by the side of the road, and the handsome young men, on his journey to document human rights abuses under the Belgian King Leopold’s oppression of the Congo. Beautiful butterflies and handsome men, mingling for attention with the cruelty humans can do to each other. Casement knew what we need to rediscover: that life is lived mostly in the in-between spaces, of sacred and profane, pain and healing, ecstasy and despair. It is possible to find happiness amid distress; or at least to know that we lament because we believe for something better. Our tears deepen our memories of hope. And when we look at a situation clearly enough, we will find wonder in it.
And with these four steps in mind, we might consider the rest of the seven principles:
2: The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better
Are we police officers whose primary purpose is to control the behavior of others, whether well-meaning folk who stumble into using the “wrong” terminology, or those who try to enact laws that harm the marginalized? Or could we be better served by seeing ourselves as the pioneers of a new story?
3: The duty of privilege is absolute integrity
This means we take responsibility for learning about the advantages you have, whether you believe them to be earned or not, and using that power to serve the common good. And when we notice the places where we lack power, it is from there that we may learn to ask for help.
4: Tell the truth, which also means understanding context
Seek wisdom, not merely “facts,” and treat the media and cyberspace as an overgrown garden, some of which is well tended, some of which is toxic. Spend too long in there, and it will trigger allergies.
5: With those who are targeted, threatened, or otherwise vulnerable, commit to witness, solidarity, and when necessary, protection. Start by seeking conversation with people you can actually see in front of you, in your own local communities.
6: With political opponents: build bridges at the local level
Find ways to ask the question: What is it like to be you?
And finally, as Garrison Keillor says,
7: Be well, do good work, and keep in touch
This is a difficult moment. It’s also a beautiful one. It’s also just a moment - not an era, or an epoch, or a generation. Just a moment. Some of us are suffering. Some of us are working hard. Some of us are realizing that we have lots of opportunities, right now, to devote ourselves to love - of the transcendent, of ourselves, of our neighbors, no matter who they may be?
The English poet Christopher Fry wrote, in A Sleep of Prisoners
“Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul folk ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for?
It takes so many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake?”
Will we wake?
Will we expand your vision beyond the present moment - to not see merely the pain and trouble in the world, but the beautiful butterflies too?
Will we live only in fear and lament at how some things seem to not be working out the way we want them to? Or will we wake to a different way of seeing things: the fact that perhaps as never before, there are lots of opportunities to practice what we believe?
I recently walked about three hundred miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, an ancient pilgrimage route along which there are hostels every few kilometers, and people everywhere looking for a reset in life. It’s hard to put into words what I learned, and I’m sure the lessons will continue to reverberate for a long time.
But if I could say something about what seems to be true for me now, it is this:
No matter what, love is stronger than death.
People are the same everywhere.
And kindness is waiting. All it takes is for someone to go first.
So let’s consider this: could we let our pain and fear fuel our loving action for the common good? Could we allow our anxiety to trigger us into the present? To see how far we’ve come, to know that this is not the Trump era, but the Trump moment, as well as the moment when we have more opportunity to practice what we believe. That the path to happiness is, as Naomi Klein says, to ask not just what we want to say “No” to, but what is the bigger Yes?