I recently came across a social media post labeled, “We have failed these wonderful young souls” captioning a photo of all the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Below the post someone commented, “WE have not failed them. Society has. Not me, not you specifically. It is a societal thing that runs deep.” I recognize this urge to distance ourselves from the ills of society. Looking at the sweet faces of these little children, it’s hard to bear the thought that I may have had something to do with their deaths. But, we must face the reality that when we participate in the systems and structures that make up our society – especially when we are the beneficiaries of privileges bestowed by them – then we too are responsible. To shift that responsibility to an impersonal “society at large” is to hold suffering at a distance, making it easier to be complacent or to fall into despair and inaction. It’s an illusion of self-protection that only condemns us to suffering. When we dare to take responsibility with mindfulness and compassion, we find the motivation to face great challenges and tap into our potential to contribute to a better world.
These challenging political times have awakened me to so many things I’ve had the privilege to pay no attention to most of my adult life. Because I was relatively comfortable within the system, I didn’t have to take the time or exert the energy to look deeper. I took lots of things for granted and still do. But, ignorance is only bliss if what you don’t know isn’t immediately hurting you – and the bliss of ignorance, like everything else in life, is temporary. It might not occur to us that our particular situation isn’t the only context people are living within – that this time in history will have ripple effects into the future. So, we think if something is working for us personally right now, it’s a good thing and should be left well enough alone.
I read about a couple of towns in North Carolina where children and young people are dying of a very rare form of cancer at an alarming rate. It is suspected that something in the environment is causing it – likely some sort of toxin or pollutant released by industry. This isn’t a new or isolated story and if true, it’s a good example of how even when the privileged seem to profit by their short-sightedness in the near term, nobody escapes the high cost in the long run.
It’s understandable that we would prefer to turn a blind eye to troubles that seem far away from us in distance or in time. After all, we’re busy and hassled. We have desires and dreams that we’re trying to fulfill. We would rather worry about the hard stuff later – to put out fires rather than go through the hard work of preventing them. Also most of us haven’t developed the innate skills and tools needed to face difficulty with equanimity and perseverance. When we are presented with great suffering, we lack confidence and turn away, or we fall apart, or we fall into despair.
In a wonderful video featuring Bhikkhu Analayo and Joseph Goldstein, they talk about the importance of mindfulness in opening our eyes to the world’s problems and the necessity of compassion in allowing us to respond in a way that is effective and sustainable. Goldstein said compassion helps us arouse the energy to become more mindful. But, he said that in order to feel compassionate, we have to be willing to come close to suffering – we have to step out of the human habit of distancing ourselves from it. Denying responsibility is one way we distance ourselves. Separating ourselves from those who are suffering most is another way. Both of these are delusions – we are inextricably interconnected and therefore, we are all responsible.
Fortunately, the practice of mindfulness can help us cultivate the awareness needed to see suffering and the kindness and caring required to work toward alleviating it in ourselves and others. Bhikkhu Analayo said, “The path to awakening and the path to facing social problems… they are not two separate paths. They can be aligned with each other and move parallel in the same direction.” He said he doesn’t understand how some people in the West see mindfulness and social justice as separate things – a product of “Western imagination”.
…there are many pathways to radical change. But they all begin with personal commitment to becoming more present to the nature of suffering in our own lives, and in the lives of others in our midst. We need to see this suffering, here and abroad, as part of a larger cry for deepening our commitment to loving responses to all who are vulnerable everywhere, and especially – though not exclusively – to those vulnerable to state-sponsored harm. We need to see them as a call for action aimed at ameliorating systemic, institutionalized harms to which we have gone ‘culture blind.’ To overcome blindness of any kind, we must regain the capacity to see… We must become more aware of the layers of experience and the dimensions of reality that comprise our lives and the lives of others. And just how do we overcome our blindness? The good news is that both research and our own experiences show that mindfulness practices can help: Mindfulness and compassion practices are profoundly beneficial in our efforts to see reality more clearly. And, fortunately, these practices work for all of us. Each of us has a role to play, however small, as there are no small efforts when our actions are motivated by a desire for justice. – Rhonda V Magee