Saturday, December 31, 2011

All shall be well: thoughts on changing the world in 2012

On a wall in my house hangs a fading, framed newspaper clipping from 2008 with the headline, "Change has come." My friends on the political right have had a good deal of fun deriding that claim in recent months, and much as I admire my president, I'm tempted to chime in myself with "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Just to balance the equation, it should be noted that in the closing hours of 2011, Politifact presented a report card on the Republican presidential candidates. When the big prize goes to the guy who only lies 75% of the time, it's not exactly cause for celebration.

Don't mistake me. This isn't a partisan post, and it's not about shadenfreude. The problem's systemic. Will the face of politics change any time soon? Nah. As Eddie Izzard likes to say, it "tastes of human, sir!"

And that's the problem.

I'm a deeply political animal. I care about social justice issues. I still believe the old adage that the test of a civilized society is in how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and I still agree with Gandhi who, when asked what he thought about western civilization, replied, straight-faced, "It would be a good idea!"

But I'm stuck. I'm stuck in the widening gap between my ideals and an unsustainable deficit, between what I like to think of as humanity and our all too evident humanness. I'm stuck watching the train-wreck that occurs when Nietzsche's warning is ignored--again, and again, and again. "He who fights monsters should see to it that, in the process, he doesn't become a monster."

It doesn't work to "take arms against a sea of troubles" if, in doing so, we abandon the very things we are fighting for. The need for expediency is, perhaps, the oldest of the "old lies": we must torture in order to get the upper hand against a regime that violates human rights; we must impose a death penalty to show that killing is wrong; we must lie and cheat our way into a place of political power in order to fix the mess that other liars created.

Really? And how's that been working for us so far?

In the classroom, I'm frequently faced with knee-jerk, sound-bite answers to complicated questions. The most challenging part of my job is opening spaces where students will dare to think, truly question, crack open the door of an inner prejudice just a little to let some air and light in, so they can attempt to work out complicated responses to a complex world for themselves. Why is it so hard for them to imagine nuance? Why is it so hard for all of us?

It's easy to point the finger at the pants-on-fire politicians and to rave about how bad they are. What's harder is to admit that the politician we disagree with has shown an admirable commitment to his marriage and family, the one we love and who had a great handle on the economy treated his wife like crap, and the one whose faith--or lack of it--we can't understand might have some ideas worth considering. When we refuse a complex world of nuance, we force our politicians into playing caricatures of their true selves--and then, of course, we beat them up for giving us the government we deserve.

I'm not going to stop voting. I'm not going to stop caring. And I'm not going to stop arguing for what I believe is right anytime soon. But I begin to suspect we can only change society as we change ourselves... and that happens slowly, haltingly, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears, as we return to the place of integrity again and again, remember who we truly are.

I was chatting with friends the other evening about my crazy youth, when I abandoned my career and flew out to Romania after the revolution, determined to make a difference, to change the world, or at least some part of it. Who did I think I was: Batman? Mother Theresa? The greatest thing I learned was that change is slow, and incremental, and grindingly difficult.

In 2012, I'm not looking to change the world through grand gestures or partisan politics. Instead, I'm going looking for it in all my favorite places: in the middle of lakes, through the wisdom of poetry, in the laughter of friends and the colors of sky, on empty, wooded trails, and in challenging poses on my yoga mat.

From those spaces, I hope to come back to engage in my complex world with just a little more balance, just a little more integrity each time than the time before... That's how I'm going to try to change the world in 2012. It's only a practice--I make no promises.

The last word of 2011 goes to T. S. Eliot in this extract from "Little Gidding" in which he tempts us with "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)." Yes, please!

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

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