May 17, 2009 The world around us
Until around fourteen years ago in particular, I too often saw life in shades of gritty, sometimes depressing, sometimes heavily empty, and sometimes constraining gray. When driving through beautiful parts of Maryland’s Eastern shore to or from court, I would obsess about how much more unjust criminal defendants tended to be treated in those courts than in the already unjust Maryland courts closer to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. I would see a beautiful tree and dwell on how environmental degradation left us with fewer trees, dirtier air, fewer wild animals, and dirtier water than a century before. I would go to a wonderful concert, and sometime obsess about all the people who did not have the money to be there.
Part of this conundrum came from not wanting to be in bliss through ignorance. Another part came through my human rights and civil rights work particularly starting with Amnesty International in college, and later my full-time criminal defense work. Recognizing the depths of worldwide and local human rights violations, and the depths of cops, prosecutors, judges, probation and parole agents, and jailers treating criminal defendants like cattle at best, I found myself in a deep, dark often lonely-feeling pit.
The lessons were always present for getting out of that pit and for connecting with the world in a much more harmonious way without sacrificing my devotion to social justice. Amnesty International consistently spoke of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. The Dalai Lama — whom I learned more about as I was reaching greater harmony with myself and the world — is a living example of being happy even in the face of some of the most vile violations by people against people. Gandhi spoke gently and peacefully as British soldiers cracked the skulls of peaceful Indian demonstrators.
I possibly needed to go through the stage of shades of gray before getting to my current stage of finding harmony from within. It did not help, of course, that at the age of just seven or eight, I saw a televised and very vivid Holocaust documentary, including, to my best recollection, scenes of dead victims and emaciated victims at death camps. My free expression fanaticism says not to censor such material. That still does not change the years of trauma that I felt from it, and that it would have been better for me to have had at least two or more years to be exposed to that.
In any event, we give up too much control of ourselves to say that we will only be happy if we get that job or this person as a friend, get into this college, or see torture come to an end. Human vileness, horrendous natural disasters, sickness, old age, and death will always be part of life. When people ask me how I can feel so content when there is so much sh*t in the world, I respond that I might as well go in that direction now, because tons of sh*t will always be around, although each of us can try to reduce the sh*t, prevent the sh*t, stunt the sh*t, shovel away the sh*t (cover your nose and mouth with a bandana if you need), and convert sh*t to fertilizer for better things.
What I do not need is Shirley Temple-type overly rosy glowing views about the world. I would still prefer breaking bread with a fascinating cynic than with a glowing Shirley or Shemp Temple. We need to maintain a realistic and critical view of the world, others, and world events in the process of harmonizing ourselves. Otherwise, we will not recognize the social and environment injustices that need fixing.
Of course, it is important for each of us to recognize, come to terms with, reduce and remedy the sh*t that we ourselves dole out intentionally or not to others and ourselves, both through action, inaction, and failure to act. Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of an American Vietnam veteran who was emotionally debilitated that he had killed many children in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh responded that the man now had the opportunity to change course, and to help people. Likewise, on the one hand, none of us should deny or minimize the sh*t we have caused others and ourselves up to now, but on the other hand, our past sh*t production should not debilitate us from moving forward in a positive way.
Few things in life are black and white. There are few total angels and few total villains. People are better persuaded when they do not feel that they must put themselves in a defensive or skeptical posture with the person they are dealing with, and when they are not constantly worried about whether they are at risk of being humiliated, demeaned, or defeated by the person trying to persuade them. If I do not find a way to like or at least care about the person I am trying to persuade, to empathize with that person, and to feel the person is able to do the right thing, why would that person — including the judge and jurors with my client — care about me or my client, or listen to me? I continue working on this; it is a never-ending process, including to get to the level of accepting that we are so interconnected that it is okay for us to kindly greet a person we know still to be constantly urinating on people’s rights and dignity, and that it harms us and everyone else when we flip the bird or do something worse at even one person. This, of course, does not mean one should not seize the opportunity to bring one’s grievances to a wrongdoer; important moments must be seized. Ram Dass had already reached that level of kindness, compassion, and interconnectedness when the worst thing he would say about George Bush, II, when I heard him speak in 2003, was that Bush must have been undergoing a difficult reincarnation.
Everyone can improve. Nobody stays the same, just as a river constantly changes; the water molecule that is in front of us in the river at this moment will be miles away later today, and the riverbanks will continually be changed by the river. Few people are a**holes, even though most people sometimes or more often than that act like a**holes. The more we free ourselves of the chains of cynicism, then the more we can change the course of the river, of people’s actions on others, and our own actions and thoughts for the better. Jon Katz