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We Are What We Do

action, child separation, children, compassion, family separation
We Are What We Do

My heart is heavy today. 

I am deeply grateful for the public outcry and superb journalism that forced the rollback, at least temporarily, of the horrific decision to separate families at our border and cage children in scattered prisons. Yet left in place is a policy making criminals of asylum seekers and replacing kindness with “zero tolerance.”

For what, I wonder? For the sin of fleeing violence, of trying to feed your family, of trying to save your children’s lives?

Of being human?

“Oh, but the threat, the dire and terrible threat!” we are told. 

Still left in place are the official lies about the nature and magnitude of that threat. The verifiable truth—that most refugees are fleeing violence not agents of it, that even according to ICE almost all report as required for hearings when given their freedom, that immigrants create far more jobs than they fill—is lost in fear-mongering rhetoric crawling with bias and falsehoods. 

Still left in place is the apparent indifference to reuniting the children and parents. Still left unchallenged is the language describing fellow human beings as an “infestation.” In an interview I had with Soledad O’Brien yesterday for a Media Impact Funders meeting here in Pittsburgh, she described that as the “language of ethnic cleansing.” Thus do a people who proudly think of themselves as caring pave their sad way to the unthinkable. 

This is how evil creeps in. We convince ourselves we are only doing what is necessary, unavoidable, right.

For ourselves. Only for ourselves. And therein lies the sin. 

We ignore what those children have in common with ours, what their parents have in common with us. We stop seeing it altogether. We cannot even comprehend what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he spoke of the “network of mutuality” that connect their fate with ours. 

My heart is heavy today. 

In a tiny town adjacent to Pittsburgh, a young high school student named Antwon Rose was gunned down by police. Black, unarmed, running away as I can imagine any scared teenager doing in a moment of panic, he was reportedly shot multiple times from behind, in the back.

The apologists whose knee-jerk response is forever to excuse such acts will tell us, on cable “news” and in white whispers, that there were guns in the car, that there had been a crime, that he shouldn’t have run away, that the killing was unfortunate but necessary. 

Never mind that the same death sentence would almost certainly not have awaited Antwon if he had been a white teenager. Never mind that Black Lives Matter was born from moments precisely like this, torn from a place deep inside as a roar of pain and defiance against the pitiless gaze of those, mostly white, who refuse to see suffering they themselves do not experience. 

This is how evil creeps in. We ignore it, then we excuse it, then we embrace it. 

My heart is heavy today. But I also know we cannot allow our spirits and resolve to be broken.

Hope has no value in moments of ease and comfort. It only has meaning, it is only actually hope, in moments of brokenness and pain and reversal. This moment, these times we are in, are calling us to something new, something profound and different.

Something for which you and I, in this generation, the keepers of this moment, are answerable. 

We need a revolution in this country in how we view our responsibility toward each other, toward our fellow human beings. Freedom is so much more than an accountability-free zone whose momentarily privileged occupants can hunker down against exaggerated threats behind mythic walls, draconian laws, drawn weapons and merciless indifference. This is a formula for plunder and misery, the jealous guarding of dwindling resources, not freedom, not imagination, not hope.

The notion that none of us is free until all of us are free is playing out every day around the globe, and inside our own country, as we struggle with worsening wealth inequality, tectonic shifts in our economies, climate change, struggling democracies, rising autocracies, and attacks on human rights and freedoms. 

If we care about our freedom, we need a revolution in how we view compassion. We imagine ourselves to be a compassionate people but we do not seem to want any longer to do the actual work of compassion. We seem to have arrived at a point where we feel justified in limiting our kindheartedness only to those who move us, which is more and more likely to be those who look like us, vote like us, talk like us, belong to the same “tribe” as us.

It is a noxious and desperately dangerous moment. Because we do not feel compassion, we feel justified in not displaying it. 

But here is the radical truth underlying the whole of human history and all major faiths: Compassion is what we do, not how we feel. It is, in the words of an ancient Buddhist text that could just as easily be taken from the pages of the New Testament, to “completely share whatever good you do with everyone.” Whatever good you do. It is the verb that counts.

In this disorienting age of complexity, acceleration and fragmentation, it can become harder to see each other as one shared people. Maybe you struggle with finding common ground with people whose skin color, religion, or culture is different. Maybe you just can’t see yourself in the travails of immigrants or refugees, or of women who face violence, harassment and discrimination. Maybe you just can’t feel empathy with people who are poorer than you, hungrier than you, more scared than you. Or maybe you are so scared, so uneasy, so weighed down yourself that you can only feel what you personally feel, only worry about those closest to you.

It doesn’t matter. Do we honestly believe this is the first time in our history we have struggled to care about others, to feel some shared humanity? Compassion has never, ever, ever been about warm feelings and fuzzy intentions and easy commonality.

What matters is what we do across the very abysses of difference that divide us. Compassion is an action, a volition to open your hardened heart enough to extend a helping hand to anyone who needs it. The Golden Rule does not say, “Feel unto others as you would have them feel unto you.” It asks us to do unto others. 

Joan Sutherland, a Zen teacher who reminded me of this in her writings, puts this in words I cannot improve: “We are all here in this thin band of life between rock and space, and we lift each other up and we push each other down, and we help and we don’t help, and it goes around and around. Sometimes we offer compassion and sometimes we receive it, and often those two things are so intimately intertwined it’s hard to tell one from the other…There is a humility in this understanding, and perhaps a bit of relief.” (Vimalakirti & the Awakened Heart)

My heart is lifted today, because yesterday also showed what compassion means when it is expressed as doing—as honest reporting, as full-throated protesting, as stubbornly not forgetting, as fearlessly speaking out, as fiercely holding those in power accountable.

There is an ugliness in the human heart that we like to pretend isn’t there. There is an ugliness in our own nation’s history that we like to pretend isn’t us. But it is us. 

And the only way it won’t be us is when we choose compassion not in our words but in our deeds, when we make it our practice to share the best of what we do with everyone else working to find their difficult way on the home we all share, this “thin band of life between rock and space.”

Written by:

Grant Oliphant