On my second day of law school, in 1992, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, one of the most admired and respected civil rights academic heroes in Israel, came to our first-ever criminal law class, and said to the 300 first-year students in the lecture hall, “please call me ‘Mota'”. I thought to myself, there is no way on Earth I would ever bring myself to call you ‘Mota’ and you know it, and proceeded, in the few occasions that I summoned the courage to talk to him, to linguistically pretzel around the need to call him anything. Last year I sent him an email supporting his activism. It was the first time I referred to him by his first name. I was already a tenured professor with a named chair, and even so, I hesitated and reworded the email five times.
Like pretty much every sensible person, I was disgusted and reviled by Joseph Epstein’s condescending, ignorant opinion piece in the WSJ asking Dr. Biden to stop referring to herself as “Dr.” because he found it fraudulent, or in bad taste, or whatever (no need to read that drivel; for takedowns, see here, here, here, and here.)
Given the awfulness of the COVID crisis, I’m surprised how something this trite has rankled me so much, but I can’t get it out of my system, so here goes. Lots has already been said about this, most of which I fervently agree with, so just one comment, if you please, about one of the less explored aspects of this. Consider this fantastic poem by Susan Harlan:
I’m a member of the Law and Society Association, the American Society of Criminology, the Western Society of Criminology, the Society for Empirical Legal Studies, and an occasional attendee at a bunch of gatherings of other professional associations, and I see this “certain genre of man” and this sort of dynamic all the time at every professional meeting I attend. I don’t need to name names, because if you’re an academic, whatever field you’re in, you’ve seen this, too: The young folks, the folks of color, the younger womenfolk, and especially our colleagues who spent a fortune flying to the conference from places like Brazil or South Korea show up in formal, elegant outfits, with a flawless deck of PowerPoint slides and deliver meticulously prepared remarks to a room with three audience members. The guy who is a distinguished professor at Amherst College or Yale or Berkeley or Stanford and considered a luminary in the field shows up in wrinkled dockers, his sockless feet in crocs or Birkenstocks, maybe even a quirky hat perched at a rakish angle, ad-libbing without slides at the well-attended plenary about some idea he had last night.
I submit to you that the folksy, humble, down-to-earthsy, modest, approachable spiel of the dude who has been elevated to knighthood is just as performative as the bowtie, suit, call-me-doctor spiel of those who have not. I don’t mean it’s disingenuous or calculated (many of these shabby dudes are truly lovely people); I merely mean it is a self-presentation of class within class. The person who floats above and beyond the need to hustle, impress, and–most importantly–be taken seriously, signals it by dressing and behaving in a way that signals, “no matter what disheveled personal appearance or casual demeanor I dish out, I am an inalienable member of the oligarchy of the profession.” This sort of guy is above snickering at the well-dressed folks who are trying to hustle, because noblesse oblige, right? He might not even notice them hustle, or he’s a genuinely good guy who has compassion for where they are in the food chain (perhaps remembering his past, hustling self), in which case he’ll offer them a forgiving smile for their faux pas of “trying too hard.” It’s the folks a bit lower on the totem pole who do the snickering. This, by the way, tells you why the snarky takedown could only come from some poser like Epstein: The folks who are the real deal–the folks Epstein respects–are way above dishing out such garbage.
The reason women, people of color, young people, or people from the global south, appear shrill and overly self important when they dress formally or insist on being called by the title they earned, is that they know they have to hustle to be taken seriously, and if they don’t insist on the respect they are owed, they are going to be ignored, patronized, and ridiculed. I think I’ve mostly crossed the age/seniority threshold where being taken seriously is an uphill battle, but it was only last year that I stood behind the podium, prepping my slides for the first session in my own classroom (what could be a more obvious indication that I was the professor?) when an adjunct, who mistook my classroom for his, stepped in, handed me his flash drive, and asked me to pop up his slides and do something about the lighting. This, and far worse, happens every day to academics who are women or other members of disadvantaged groups. And when it happens, they try to calm their breath, swallow hard, feel their heartbeats quicken and their palms sweating, and then, in a voice that sounds ragged and shaky to their own ears and thinly masks the rage, state their honorifics, incurring the scorn of those whose position in life allows them to view this kind of hustle as crass or gauche.
I would happily have us all live in a society of equals, where each of us gets respect for their expertise wearing whatever they want and being called by their first name. Unfortunately, I don’t live in that world and neither do you. So, when you insist on being called Doctor, you are doing it to open the door a bit wider and extend a broader welcome to all your colleagues with doctorates.
Nothing is worse than to finish a good shit, then reach over and find the toilet paper container empty. Even the most horrible human being on earth deserves to wipe his ass.
Hello, my name is Hadar and I’m a quality-of-life offender.
Last week I took our family car to Burlingame for a repair. While the mechanics were working, I took off on a stroll in the town’s beautiful shopping and dining avenue. I had a couple of beverages and some food, and still had some time to kill when I felt the urge to go to the bathroom. Cafés and stores closed their bathrooms to the public, on account of the pandemic, and I was left with no recourse. I walked to the train station, hid in the gravel behind the tracks, and peed. I then walked over to the public park. While there, I needed badly to go again. My experience with San Francisco parks was that they invariably shut down their toilets. I assumed the same was true for this one, so I hid behind a big tree, taking care to be out of sight of the other park visitors, and peed again. Within a few moments, Officer S. Vega of the Burlingame Police called me over, reprimanded me, and became even more upset when I started laughing (“Lady, I don’t understand what’s funny. Children could’ve seen you.”) Turns out there was a bathroom in the park, even though Officer Vega could have understood why anyone would assume there wasn’t one if he were in a more charitable moood (unavailable toilets are the norm, not the exception.) I couldn’t stop laughing–because, really, what more can 2020 throw at you?–as I got photographed, signed paperwork, reported my cellphone number, and was handed a citation without a fine listed (“you’ll be receiving mail from our traffic court.”) My citation reads: Urinating or defecating in a public place. Somehow, that feels unfair: absurdly, I feel outraged at the grouping of urinators with defecators, as if I occupy a more rarified moral sphere than the folks that have to do a number 2, and moreover, I resent the confluence of all public places. Is not a natural spot behind a tree more reasonable than a sidewalk? But that, of course, raises deeper questions.
The issue of public urination remains one of the most insidious aspects of how COVID-19 has reshaped our environment. We have spent our pandemic times in San Francisco County, which exhibited a high level of compliance with pandemic prevention measures. As a consequence, we were full-time workers and full-time parents to our toddler for many months, and the way we coped with this difficult challenge was by spending a lot of time in nature. Park trail bathrooms and water coolers were shut down, and so we did our business in nature.
As stores, cafés, and restaurants have begun to reopen, they have almost invariably shifted to an outdoor service model, offering either only pick-up orders or outdoor dining. Only a handful have opened their restrooms to the public. San Francisco’s public parks, which still feature closed playgrounds (while twentysomethings work out to their hearts’ content in outdoor gyms!) have similarly kept their restrooms closed. This puts people in incredibly difficult situations that have not been discussed at all by politicians and media outlets. It is assumed that bathrooms are dangerous, plague-harboring places. And yet, the inevitable fact remains that people do need to go when they need to go.
Having to cope with this incredible (and silenced) difficulty has been a profoundly educational and humbling experience for me. I’m turning 46 next month and have begun dancing with perimenopause. Consequently, my “holding it in” skills are not what they were, and even when I was more spry I was never a particularly successful camel. On top of that, I’m parenting a young child who hasn’t yet perfected his “holding it in” skills and who sometimes needs to go fairly quickly, so a public restroom with a long line is not an option for either of us, even if such were more widely available. The lack of access to public bathrooms, and even more so, the lack of certainty whether public bathrooms will be available on a particular outing, hampers our lives and our movement in public space in serious ways, and surely we’re not the only ones facing this. I’ve decided to talk about this openly in the hopes that it starts a conversation about the availability of public toilets.
What’s even more remarkable about this challenge is that, while for me and my ilk this is a worsening life condition, for some of my friends and neighbors here in San Francisco this is a living reality–and these humiliating experiences are an opportunity to open a small window of empathy and compassion into the ocean of difficulties that they brave on a daily basis. Much of the reporting about the rising housing crisis in the Bay Area has focused on the horrifying, humiliating solutions that people have to recur to. Two years ago, long before the pandemic was even on the horizon, Heather Knight published this piece, which looked at one neighborhood’s struggle with the realities of dehumanizing existence. The pièce de résistance, if you will, in Knight’s story, was a suitcase full of human excrement found in the neighborhood. Knight quoted one of the residents: “Nobody should have to poop in a suitcase, and nobody should have to find a suitcase full of poop.” But what is one to do when there is no reasonable place to go? How can one toe the line between avoiding legal fines (which, despite the existence of the Community Justice Center, inexplicably end up in traffic court!!!), avoiding health complications from holding it in (there are plenty of people my age and older on the streets), and keeping one’s dignity?
I think about this also in the context of protests. My parents are only two of hundreds of thousands of people who are rising up in Israel and protesting against corrupt premier Netanyahu, Israel’s “Crime Minister” as he’s now known, demanding his resignation. My folks are in their early seventies; actively participating in the protests, complete with travel to and from the location, can take hours. It’s still very hot in Israel and people need to drink water, and that means they need to pee. The protesters take special care in cleaning up after themselves (and Netanyahu’s neighbors, who understandably loathe him, actually support and welcome them.) When talking about protests and public action, we tend to forget about these hidden but important sacrifices that people make in giving up their comfort and their health to be heard. Can we have a moment of empathy with protesters who are in a public place and really, really gotta go?
Alternatively, consider how restrooms became the front line of our gender battles. Alexander Davis’ terrific new book Bathroom Battlegrounds offers a rich political and cultural history of the gender, race, and class segregation that goes into the architecture of places for people to pee, culminating, of course, in litigation over laws like North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill”. Regardless of your personal gnosis about predetermination and social construction in gender, can we all agree on the fact that making bathrooms–the place where you confront the lowest and most urgent rung in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–the battle front on trans rights in dehumanizing and horrible? Can we set values and politics aside and just put ourselves in the shoes of a fellow human being–any human being, be they rich, poor, cis, trans, young, old–who desperately needs to pee and can’t find a safe place to do it? Next time you face these indignities, because of COVID-19 or for any other reasons, can you leap on this as an opportunity to find kinship with others who really, really gotta go in an environment that is hostile to their basic bodily functions?
One of the brightest spots in our urban environment has been the emergence of pit stops on our streets. Pit stops are safe, clean, convenient bathrooms, which also offer opportunities to dispose of dog waste and needles, available to anyone for free. They are maintained and supervised by the amazing people at Urban Alchemy, an organization for which I have enormous admiration and affection. Many of the people who work at Urban Alchemy are formerly incarcerated, and much of their people skills, pacifying, conflict deescalation, and problem solving skills were developed on prison yards. They understand where down-and-out folks come from and what they need, and they find ways to provide it with dignity and respect. They’ve been effectively and peacefully running the Safe Sleeping sites, keeping the area around my workplace friendly and safe, saving lives through the use of Naloxone on a weekly basis, and doing all this without recurring to violence or putting anyone at risk. I cannot begin to tell you what a relief my small-bladdered self feels when I see one of these kind, capable people taking care of a public bathroom and keeping it safe and clean for everyone. We all deserve to go to the bathroom with dignity, and my only wish is that we have a Pit Stop on every San Francisco block.
Renowned Buddhist scholar and teacher Pema Chödrön tells of her correspondence with Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist scholar on Death Row. In one of his letters, Masters describes watching angry protesters on TV with the sound off and being unable to determine whether they were from the right or from the left. Similarly, in this terrific series of videos by sociologist Ilana Redstone, she recounts experiments in which people were shown a protest on screen and were much more likely to assess the protests as nonviolent when told that the protest aligned with their own political views.
I bring up these examples because of the prolonged, heated argument on social media over the existence and direction of “cancel culture.” Right wingers argue it’s a left-wing problem; left wingers argue that all the canceling is coming from the right.
I’d like to offer a more complicated perspective, rooted in my own experiences. Having been in American academia for twenty years, experienced my fair share of bigotries, threats, and ugliness, and heard plenty of stories from people I know personally, I think that no one has cornered the market on weaponizing social media. Plenty of academics across the political spectrum go to work every day feeling like they’re walking on eggshells. They spend inordinate amounts of mental, emotional, and pedagogical energy tiptoeing around minefields–especially when they are, like most people in academia now, adjuncts or untenured folks. Who they fret about largely depends on which institution they’re in, what the student body is like, what they teach, and what kind of public speaking (if any) they do.
My personal cocktail of bracing and trepidation is a consequence of the fact that I teach and work in a politically complicated space. I talk about issues of high political and emotional valence–criminal justice, civil rights and politics–in a state that has very blue and very red counties. I teach in a very progressive institution, in which our student body is among the most progressive in the country. This has complicated implications for my pedagogy, similar perhaps to the ones that a colleague teaching in a predominantly conservative institution might take: I have to craft what I say to protect the few centrists, moderates, and conservatives in class, who often have good points to make and make them eloquently and politely because being in a largely progressive space has made them stronger, as well as to prod the vast majority of progressives in class out of intellectual laziness and into developing the kind of resilience to upset and disagreement that they will need in their professional lives. But we can talk about all that some other time: Today, hatred is on the menu.
Here is a quick-and-dirty typology of the kinds of blowback, negative feedback, threats, hatred, etc etc., that I have received so far: From the right–nastygrams and screeds via email, often poorly spelled, ranging from garden-variety insults to specific death threats. From the left–anonymous complaints taking my words out of context and ad-hominems that focus on my Israeliness.
Which is more frightening? Hard to say. The right-wing death threats were a constant thing (ironically, often coming from folks who support the death penalty for homicide) and I hadn’t taken them too seriously until the 2016 election, when they became more vicious and started including a time and place for my demise. I especially remember the one that came in shortly after I spoke on KQED about the havoc that Prop. 66 was going to wreak on litigation on behalf of wrongfully convicted people. That one I even reported to the police. In addition to the email vitriol, there are radio callers, and occasionally co-interviewees, on TV and on the radio who can be hostile and difficult; one particular example is the right-wing politico who bloviated about the “liberal professor” and the “liberal media.” People near and dear to me, like my colleague Dorit Reiss who does world-improving work on vaccine advocacy, or my colleague Veena Dubal who advocates for labor rights, experience concerted efforts aimed at them, professionally and personally, by political opponents.
The left wing stuff has been frightening in a different way, because it threatens my job security. One of the biggest frights in this department came in 2011, when I taught torture and spoke of the Israel Supreme Court decision to abolish it. To show that the decision was not followed, I showed the Human rights org B’Tzelem report, which included a diagram of a man being tortured, drawn based on his later testimony. Result: An anonymous complaint to the Dean, strategically sent three weeks before my tenure vote, accusing me of “trivializing Palestinian suffering with a cartoon.” Later, in 2019, an editorial board member of a law review to which I submitted a paper asked me to erase my relevant professional experience (as a public defender in the Israeli army) from my CV so that he could “sell” my paper more effectively to his friends. Stuff like this terrifies me, because I know personally of several people who were more careful and diplomatic than me and had their lives wrecked by a few folks who misunderstood them and took their grievances to twitter (it’s telling that these folks want to keep their fears confidential, but there’s certainly the cases of Greg Patton, Erika Christakis, Laura Kipniss and others, which have been made public.)
I’ve also received cancel efforts from both directions in the form of two 1-star reviews on my books (reviewed with 5 stars by everyone else). In both cases, these were calculated to trash me and hurt sales, but the difference in style was instructive. The right-wing review, sent first to my email inbox, was a lengthy, insult-filled screed misinterpreting my book and calling it “rat droppings.” The left-wing review was headlined, “Israeli militarist on the loose!” and full of ad-hominem insults that had nothing to do with the book (which was not about Israel) or my actual opinions/biography.
As I review my experiences being on the receiving end of ugliness, I notice the following insight: When right-wingers have attacked me, they attacked my opinions (misconstrued and insult-filled.) When left-wingers have attacked me, they attacked my Israeliness. Which was the worse experience? Again, hard to say. Both of these essentially consist of efforts to box me into a hated stereotypical category that’s not quite cut to my size and shape.
Here’s why this matters: the public conversation about who is getting “cancelled” and who is doing the “cancelling” ignores the importance of milieus of reference. Yes, it’s true: nationwide, the threat to science and academic freedom is greater from science-denying administrations, who are cutting funds, reducing opportunities, hindering scientific integrity, and vilifying higher education. But people don’t live and work only in “the nation.” They also live and work in their local communities and academic institutions, where their ability to freely present ideas and pursue research agendas is impacted at least as much by their students’ evaluations, colleagues’ opinions, and administration’s preference, than by the Trumpian kakistocracy. This can explain the wide variation of opinions on what the bigger “cancellation” threat is: people simply do not experience the same threats because they are not exposed to the same milieu. An environmental science professor teaching at a rural college in a red county, with students who are staunch climate deniers ready to complain about religious oppression, faces a very different set of concerns than a law professor teaching race and politics in an urban school in a blue county with students who came from liberal arts colleges ready to perceive slights and take offense at trivial faux pas.
Having the unique experience of absorbing both left and right critiques makes me sympathetic to the concerns of lots of different people; I believe all of these concerns are valid. Who threatens you and who you’re afraid of in academia depends on where you stand. Because of this, I wish we were less resolute and vitriolic in the debate about who “really” instigates cancel culture and who “really” suffers from it.
And why is it that we’re at each other’s throat arguing about who is victimized and who is doing the victimizing? As I explained elsewhere, I suspect a lot of this has to do with the primacy that victimization has taken in American society as a precursor to having a public voice. Years of punitivism (which, in itself, has done very little for victims, as Leigh Goodmark, Aya Gruber, and Justin Marceau have explained in their respective books) have acclimated Americans of all political persuasions to the notion that they will not be listened to unless then can claim victimization. I really wish we could listen to ideas without this extra prism because it primes us to marinate in the uncomfortable, scary place of being a victim for far longer than is good for us.
Unfortunately, unbridled hatred abounds, as well as channels to deploy it. I’ve often thought about the fact that, while stories of academic careers destroyed over misunderstandings and misconstructions have always been around, the role of social media as an amplifier of grievances has greatly increased the risk of wrecking people’s reputations and prospects because of political contention. Working like this is not only upsetting, but unsafe–and when I say “unsafe”, I mean genuinely threatened in terms of one’s livelihood, not “unsafe” as in “upset over something disagreeable that someone said.” I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I do know that both sides of this debate might do well to accept the possibility that their enemies have not cornered the market on stifling academic freedom and scaring others into silence.
I try to be patient with the travails of parenting. Trust me, I have plenty of my own. But massive hypocrisies get my last nerve. See this parenting column from Slate:
Our sweet, funny, VERY sensitive just-turned 4-year-old daughter loves animals—and is right on the verge of figuring out where the meat we eat comes from. To be clear, we have never deliberately hidden this from her, but she has never expressly asked about it, and there’s no good way to randomly segue into “By the way, your dinner used to be alive.” She avoids eating chicken and turkey, and we’ve realized this might be because they’re called “chicken” and “turkey.” She does eat (with great joy) meats that don’t have the same name as their source animals, such as bacon, steak, and pot roast, but it’s clear from her comments that she doesn’t have a lock on what they’re made of. (“Dad, wouldn’t it be funny if bacon came from a pig like the ones that oink?!”) At some point soon, the jig will surely be up, and it is not unlikely there will be a lot of tears, some deep existential horror, and feelings of betrayal directed at us. If that’s the case, she’s also going to feel sad and mad about her conflicting feelings about whether to eat some of her favorite foods or not. How can we address this honestly while minimizing her distress? It seems like we should be preemptive about it, but how do we bring it up? For the record, we will tell her about vegetarianism and would be happy to stop feeding her meat if she asked (while ensuring that she gets enough protein and other nutrients, of course). We also do make an effort to purchase cruelty-free meat whenever possible, but I’m not sure that “Hey, the pig had a pretty nice life until someone killed it so we could have it for breakfast” is going to impress her.
And see the “great” advice to facilitate the hypocrisy:
I know I don’t have to tell you not to dismiss her feelings when she discovers the truth about her meals. I do urge you to be truthful with her about how you feel about eating meat. I think being honest with our kids, always, is foundational to being good parents.
The bottom line, though, is that you can’t really minimize her distress, and, as much as we want to protect our children from pain and sorrow and conflict, we shouldn’t protect them from all pain and sorrow and conflict. If we do, they’ll never learn the coping skills all people must develop to deal with these feelings. The best thing you can do is sympathize with her and be supportive. If she tells you she is going to be a vegetarian from now on, talk to her about how you’ll have to make sure her nutritional needs are met by finding other sources of protein that she likes eating. (This could be a fun project, trying new foods and cooking together. I know it was for us.) Your job as a loving parent in this situation, I believe, is to support her decision, whether it lasts a few days, weeks, years, or forever.
I remember this coming up, with some nervous chuckles, in parenting groups I attended when Rio was little: people embarrassed when their kids pointed out to them that they use the same word for the nuggets they are served and for the cute farm animal (“chicken.”) A breathtaking variant is the person who doesn’t like the animals on their plate to look like what they are, which is animals.
Conflicted? Embarrassed? Giggling about your own hypocrisy? Facing your child’s tears upon learning that you are participating in something horrific for animals and for the planet? Go no further! I have some advice to offer you, offered in all caps for those who need special clarity:
IF YOU ARE UNCOMFORTABLE SHARING WITH YOUR CHILDREN THAT MEAT COMES FROM ANIMALS, DON’T EAT ANIMALS.
IF YOU FEAR YOUR CHILD WILL BE DISTRESSED WHEN THEY LEARN THAT THEY ARE EATING ANIMALS, DON’T FEED THEM ANIMALS.
IF IT EMBARRASSES YOU TO TELL YOUR CHILD “HOW YOU FEEL” ABOUT EATING ANIMALS, STOP EATING THEM, AND THEN YOU’LL FEEL FINE.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOUR CHILD ABOUT EATING ANIMALS, DON’T EAT THEM, AND THEN TELL THEM WHAT I TELL MY SON: “ANIMALS ARE OUR FRIENDS AND WE DON’T EAT OUR FRIENDS.”
That’s fucking it.
A few recommendations for books to read with your child:
Smitri Prasadam-Halls and Katherina Manolessou, T-Veg
Essential viewing for you:
Also, enough already with the fucking protein. It’s not the struggle/challenge that people make it out to be. Kids need 1-1.5 g protein for every 2 lbs of weight. If you feed them good food, they are getting enough protein. Kids all over the world happily eat beans and tofu and their parents don’t fret about protein. Why don’t the animal eaters ever ask themselves about vitamins and fiber?
In any play, however trivial, there has to be a still point of moral reference against which to gauge the action. In our lives, in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties, no such point existed anymore. The left could not look straight at the Soviet Union’s abrogations of human rights. The anti-Communist liberals could not acknowledge the violations of those rights by congressional committees. The far right, meanwhile, was licking up all the cream. The days of “J’accuse” were gone, for anyone needs to feel right to declare someone else wrong. Gradually, all the old political and moral reality had melted like a Dali watch. Nobody but a fanatic, it seemed, could really say all that he believed.. . .
In those years, our thought processes were becoming so magical, so paranoid, that to imagine writing a play about this environment was like trying to pick one’s teeth with a ball of wool: I lacked the tools to illuminate miasma. Yet I kept being drawn back to it.
“Once again, as the latest racial travesty pierces our collective consciousness, I watch many of my white friends and acquaintances perform the same pieties they played out after Trayvon, Eric, Sandra, Korryn, Botham, Breonna. They are savvy, practiced consumers of Meaningful Things: They’ve listened to “Serial” and become expert critics of our broken criminal justice system after just one season. They’ve watched “Insecure” and can suddenly imagine life as Molly or Issa. They’ve shared the preordained “amplifying” social media post that just reads “This,” followed by a link to something profound from a black voice.. . .
“The confusing, perhaps contradictory advice on what white people should do probably feels maddening. To be told to step up, no step back, read, no listen, protest, don’t protest, check on black friends, leave us alone, ask for help or do the work — it probably feels contradictory at times. And yet, you’ll figure it out. Black people have been similarly exhausted making the case for jobs, freedom, happiness, justice, equality and the like. It’s made us dizzy, but we’ve managed to find the means to walk straight.”
Johnson, of course, falls into the trap that everyone else has fallen into, but at least he sees the trap. The combined effect of COVID-19 “content” (what an odious word) and, once more, the merry-go-round of commentaries on yet another horrific racial tragedy, have filled the social media universe with exhortations: Stay the fuck at home! Check your privilege! Wear your mask! Look within yourself! Be a good ally! Educate yourself! Flatten the curve! Dismantle white supremacy! The electronic town square holds trials for the Karens and Beckys of our time, which, given the centuries-old racist marinade we have been submerged in, are never in short supply. Everyone has an opinion about those (me included.) Everyone has an opinion about someone else’s opinion (me included.) Lists upon lists crop up in our social media feeds: Rating activities as to how safe they are (followed by the obligatory argument that the writer refrains from all of them, out of an abundance of caution); do’s-and-don’t’s for protesting “properly” are modified. Well-meaning people sincerely ask whether their white children may raise a fist on TikTok and receive fifty replies, all different. The actual issues are buried under edifices upon edifices of performance, performance, performance. Meta conversations about performance are rabbit holes. Every day some celebrity or other wears something or says something or performs some physical gesture, providing more grist for the mill. Every horrific incident of violence, racism, or racial distress, every photograph of someone out of compliance with the pandemic mandate-de-jour, becomes a morality tale, fueling endless takes, opinions, and new lists of instructions. Pandemic prevention enforcement and “how to be a good ally” have linked hands and are now the new religion of social media. We are in a panopticon, but the Foucaultian roles are reversed: we sit in the watchtower in the middle, and all around us are bloviating pulpits.
(I realize this post is falling into the same trap of exhortation, but this underscores my point–there is no end to a sea of pointing fingers. It’s turtles all the way down.)
If we were half as busy actually doing world improving things as we are performing our goodness in the public square and moralizing others, we might be in a different place. But public image is everything, and “content” (there it comes again!) must be provided. Citizens United has come full circle: now that corporations can speak like people, people speak like corporations. Everyone is a public entity, and so everyone has to issue on-point “messaging” to the public. Jeff Skilling’s infamous statement, “I am Enron,” is now true for everyone. Performance comes before feeling or doing. We must be on brand.
The problem is that “the personal is political” works both ways. It is one hundred percent true that we all play a role not only in pandemic spread, but also in the perpetuation of white supremacy. It is one hundred percent true that every revolution starts with individuals, and that individuals have the power to change the world–especially when organized. But these truths obscure other truths. “Flatten the curve” and “dismantle white supremacy” are big, pompous, vague goals, and in the absence of responsible adults at the helm of the country, there are bound to be differences in how we, the people, parse them into everyday behaviors. We’ve missed the train on testing and contact tracing, and now we’re left to pick at each other for mask violations.
The incessant chatter, be it contrite, derogatory, or both, is not “doing the work” that we are told to do. It is performing the work, which is something else entirely. It is exhorting others to perform the work. All the world’s a stage, and on this particular stage, we are performing The Crucible 24/7. There’s no escape from watching, from participating, from fretting about participating lest our flawed goodness be exposed.
I deeply understand where the urge is coming from. There are good intentions. There is a desperate need to do something in a situation in which we feel particularly powerless; we are sheltering at home, our face-to-face meeting places are closed, this online discourse is a poor substitute to our in-person conversations. As more and more avenues to do good close, either because they are impossible or because they are severely criticized, we are clutching at straws. These bursts of personal propaganda are the best thing we have, and we figure they are better than nothing, because silence is also a problem. And most importantly, there is pain. Searing, unbearable pain and grief. Grief for the sick, grief for the dying, grief for the people being killed and injured and ostracized and ignored. Grief and guilt. It feels overwhelming to sit with it. We take to our keyboards to find some relief, to tell some story about it, to remove the center of grief from our hearts to our heads to our keyboard. But verbose descriptions of grief are not the grief itself.
Can we take an intermission? Not from the work itself–improving the world is the project of a lifetime–but from the performance of it? Can we stop obsessing about our goodness and the goodness of others? Can we stop “messaging” so that we can actually feel something? Can we quiet our nimbly typing fingers to listen to the cries of the world, of friends and neighbors born to disadvantage, of our dying planet? Can we quiet them long enough to hear our own hearts quiver in compassion?
What a treat we all had this evening at the Law & Society Association Annual Meeting! We got to view the excellent Israeli documentary Advocate about attorney Leah Tsemel who represents Palestinian defendants in Israeli courts. Tsemel is revered in some circles and reviled in others for her iconcolasm, bravery, and unwavering commitment to the Palestinian struggle.
The documentary showcases one of Tsemel’s most difficult cases: the defendant, Ahmad, 13 years old, ran around with his cousin with knives. They stabbed an Israeli child, also 13 years old. The cousin (15 years old) was killed by the Israeli police/military. Throughout a horrific, brutal investigation, after sustaining serious beatings and a cracked skull, Ahmad argued that he had no intent to kill, only to frighten, and did not want to attack children. Tsemel faces a tough dilemma: because of his juvenile status, if Ahmad confesses, he won’t be incarcerated but rather sent to six years at an institution. if he goes to trial, he might face imprisonment. She is adamant that she will support his right to continue to tell his truth.
The film also tells the story of Tsemel’s life, from her experience of the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem as a law student, through her activism in socialist anti-Zionist movement Matzpen (“compass”) in the 1970s, her husband’s involvement in radical activities, and her adult children’s thoughtful, complex reflections on their family life in the shadow of their mother’s convictions and unusual career. Tsemel emerges as an unusually brave and committed person.
I was very glad to have the opportunity to see the film, and surprised at the points at which Tsemel’s life choices illuminated my own. I served for five years as a public defender at the Israeli Military Defense Counsel’s main office, where I occasionally represented people who, on the surface, are on the opposite end: Israeli soldiers who looted Palestinian homes and abused Palestinian detainees. I vividly remember an evening at which four of us, who strongly identified as left-wingers, sat at a pub in Tel Aviv and talked about our moral convictions about the occupation. Two of us said they would refuse to represent soldiers in these cases; one of them, still someone I like and admire a lot, explicitly said so to our commander and ended up getting disciplined but insisted on taking on other cases as a trade-off.
I admitted to my friends that I saw no ethical problem representing these folks (older than Ahmad, but not by much.) I sometimes worry that expressing this position will be incomprehensible, or even reprehensible, to friends who see the conflict in black and white. It was precisely because of my conviction that the occupation was vile and debased everything and everyone that touched it that I saw it as a duty to represent these soldiers. To me, they were placed by their government and their commanders in morally impossible situations akin to the student participants of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Encouraged by the overwhelming racism and intractable duality created by the conflict, and marinating in a military culture that ignored (at best) or condoned (at worst) their wrongdoing, they were victims of the horrors of the occupation, like their Palestinian counterparts (albeit, of course, not to the same degree.) When I interviewed Israeli conscientious objectors, most of them former combat soldiers, about their experiences, it was evident how tortured and scarred they were by the memories of engaging in things they now considered atrocities; this is one of the reasons I have so much respect for Breaking the Silence (“shovrim shtika”), an organization of former combatants revealing their experiences. If there is ever to be peace, everyone should have the opportunity to exorcise the demons of this horrible, violent conflict, so that real peacemaking work can be done. I see the way the occupation has damaged the occupiers every day in Israeli society–the machismo, the lack of empathy, the culture of not listening, the verbal and physical violence. Of course the other side suffers orders of magnitude more, and both sides are locked in positions in which they ascribe victimhood to themselves and crimes to the other party. These identitarian labels and the truthiness they come with are very hard to shake.
Growing up as a largely nonpolitical nerd, I was fascinated by organizations like Matzpen and by friends who had strong political consciousness, were radicalized since high school, and went to protests and somesuch. I envied, and marveled at, the ability to wake up in the morning with the unwavering feeling that One Is Doing God’s Work and that the adversaries were unquestionably the bad guys. I felt so childish by comparison because my opinions were so unformed. It was much later, in the army, that I found my own political consciousness. There’s nothing like ranks and stupidity and reading Catch-22, which felt like a documentary of my life at the time, to crystallize unfairness, injustice, inequality, and the burning need to help people caught in Kafkaesque situations not of their making. But even then, I simply couldn’t resign to a formula under which one side was the good guys and the other the bad guys. The miasma of the conflict infected everything around it, and the crumbs of ugliness that fell on my professional plate did not always neatly arrange themselves in a way that made moral determinations easy. It didn’t always favor one category of humans over the other, and it made for interesting, reflexive experiences, thinking about what world improving action I could take given what I had in front of me. Much of what I learned in practice, particularly how class differences played a horrible role ruining young people’s later civilian lives, informed and enriched my later scholarly work.
But the sense that the world of good and evil is complicated, and that there is too much suffering around me to take sides and stick with them in perpetuity, seems to have remained as a permanent feature. Today our hearts cry as protesters respond to the horrific killing of George Floyd. Opinions fly back and forth about rioting and property destruction–is it wrong, is it right, who is doing it, what would MLK say about it–and I just find that the heart is big enough to contain and feel, really feel, the suffering of everyone, before being so sure about what I think about every aspect of this situation. Maybe Leah Tsemel would shrug and simply say that the evils of racism justify any means and that it’s not for her to judge the reaction–and would feel comfortable in her unwavering commitment to this ethic, and sleep soundly. Me, I’m not sure of anything, except of the profound sadness I feel–for George Floyd’s family and friends, for his community, for Black people feeling traumatized, for Black lives being devalued, for the rage and grief that prompts people to destroy, for the unloved, cynical emptiness that would lead people to jump on the bandwagon of destruction, for the losses of local businesses, for the people challenged to respond in a human, decent way, and not knowing what to do, for everyone who is angry and sad and afraid and feeling inadequate to mend the sorrows of the world. It is a thicker, more overwhelming sensation, perhaps, of ethical humanity, but I have grown to accept what is in my crying heart–in any human heart–and its miraculous ability to hold the extremes of joys and sorrows. When called upon to rebuild, I trust in my ability to determine, as best I can, how I can reduce suffering in the world. It’s all any of us can do.
A few years ago, Susan Silk and Barry Goldman penned a wonderful article in the L.A. Times about how to cope with situations involving suffering and grief. They advised to draw a set of concentric circle, with the person directly experiencing the distress at the center, the people closest to them around them, situating people on a continuum to closeness to the situation:
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.
I mentioned ring theory in my mindfulness meditation course Sheltering in Compassion when we talked about reactivity to pain and fear. Later, my friend Sarah made a really important observation: because on social media one has a large and diverse audience, the rings get “smooshed together.” Some of the people you speak to are closer to grief than you are, and some are farther away.
The pandemic really drives home this “ring smooshing” situation. It is tempting to offer the comparing mind free rein to scan around and assess who got dealt better or worse hands than ourselves. But the comparisons are always incomplete, because while you might have the external parameters of another person’s situation (and sometimes not even that), you do not have their internal experience. Some people might be busier than others, or caring for more people, while others may feel more isolated and lonely. In short: When we complain online, we don’t know whether we are being read by people in a closer or a farther away ring. Being mindful of the impact of our complaints of others, and noticing when we hoard emotional energy, is valuable.
But complaining can have a detrimental effect on our own wellbeing as well as that of others. Recently, I came across Cianna Stewart’s No Complaining project, and read her book (more of a workbook) with great interest. As she points out, hearing oneself complain can generate despair, aggravate depression and anxiety, and, importantly, give the person a sense that they are “stuck in the complaint”, thus divesting us from the power to figure out solutions to our problems. Stewart, who worked in HIV prevention during the AIDS epidemic, knows a lot about the importance of changing the script of a negative, self-defeating narrative.
So, should we clam up and never complain? Should we say that everything is hunky dory at all times? Suppressing or denying all negative experiences and feelings, sometimes extremely manifested as “toxic positivity“, does not make the negative experiences or feelings go away, and ignores an important cue that we are experiencing something meaningful. Any emotion, positive or negative, is our mind’s way of calling attention to something important about the human experience.
Nor does intellectualizing the feeling or telling ourselves stories about it help. Some of the behaviors we frame as “healthy venting” aren’t; they foment the sensation and cause artificial upheaval, propping ourselves up through a sense of righteousness that masks any insights we could draw from a quiet reflection on the situation. So, both expressing and repressing unpleasant feelings can take the shape of resistance to what they have to teach us.
A good way through the muddle is to heed the Buddha’s instructions on right speech (samma vaca), which is part of the Eightfold Path, to abstain from “lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter.” I found lots of fantastic resources and examples of right speech, ranging from Marshall Rosenberg’s well-known classic Nonviolent Communication to Beth Roth’s terrific article about improving communication with her teenage son. In the context of complaining, the elements of right speech can help us discern whether our complaints are making the world (including our own minds and spirits) better:
Is It True? Unexamined emotional upheaval can lead us to be stuck in a rigid view of a situation in which we are 100% right and the other person is 100% wrong. This is seldom true. When I revisit painful conflicts from many years ago, I invariably find that, with the perspective of time, I can open myself to a broader view of the situation. This is not easy to do when I’m “hooked” and in the throes of the strong emotion. All the more reason to sit quietly with the emotion, befriend it, try to find out what it needs or what it wants to teach me, and only then respond. I’ve mentioned here before Byron Katie’s The Work; while I have reservations about how she runs the workshops, I think using this worksheet to process a situation can be helpful as a mind-opening tool.
Is It Gossip? I once visited a Waldorf school , where the principal told me of the school’s efforts to foster a healthy communication culture not only among the students, but among the administrators and teachers. One of their most important communication rules was “go to the source, or let it go.” This prevented gossip from leading to misunderstandings and festering in the community without solution. It also occurs to me, along the lines of Cianna Stewart’s work, that going to the source empowers the person with the grievance to shift the situation in a constructive way, whereas witnessing oneself gossip without solution doesn’t help. I’m going to add to this that “callout culture”, which is sometime hailed as “speaking truth to power,” is not exactly a “go to the source” solution. True, the source will be exposed to what is going on, but so will many others: callouts are a social theater and have an audience. Precisely because of the performative aspect, the supposed benefits of “starting a conversation” or “bringing about a reckoning” usually fail to manifest (I’ve written about this here and here and talked about it here.) Whatever can be resolved with a direct conversation, should, and going behind someone’s back or broadcasting broadly should be done only when there are important considerations that rule out going to the source.
Is It Abusive? Relatedly, complaints should be framed in a constructive way. Lashing out at people, especially in public or behind their backs, or engaging in cynicism and ridicule, is counterproductive. Striving to find a way to say even difficult things with kindness not only encourages a broader view of the situation, but also goes a longer way toward ensuring that our speech has its desired effect.
Is It Necessary? Online discourse has a democratizing feature–the virtual floor is open to anyone who has an opinion and wants to share it. Consequently, we are bombarded with hot takes and opinions from all directions; even when we have good crap detection skills, it is still time consuming and burdensome to deal with the incessant flow of opinions. This pandemic time is teaching me great lessons about the need to be more discriminating in my online communications, if only not to overburden people who are already drowning in a sea of things to read, to process, to engage in. I’ve started asking myself whether what I have to say really adds anything to what is already out there. A related important inquiry has to do with the social footprint of the speaker. My good fortune in life and what I do for a living mean that I often get to hold the proverbial talking stick, and have become mindful of the importance of passing it to voices that receive less than their due attention, or speaking for them if their own voices are muted by tragedy or lack of social advantage (speaking for incarcerated people during this pandemic, for example, is crucially important, because it is hard for the public to get the information firsthand, but whenever possible we should hear from people released from prison and from families of prisoners.)
Underscoring these four guidelines is the fundamental question: Am I expressing myself to deflect, ignore, or rid myself of feelings that have important lessons to teach me? Or am I engaging with my feelings, aware of them, accepting their valuable teachings, and then skillfully considering where my words might have the most beneficial effect? It is not necessarily true that “if you don’t have something positive to say, it’s best to say nothing at all”; sometimes negative things need to be said, pain needs to be voiced and honored, for things to change. Let’s put our precious and valuable words to their best effect.
A few weeks ago I finished teaching my last practicum course for my mindfulness meditation teachers certification program. It was called Sheltering In Compassion, and the curriculum was focused on the Four Immeasurables and their application to the pandemic. Because of the wonderful company I keep, all the participants were committed activists, each of them improving the world in their own way. We spent a lot of time talking about the complicated roles that anger, outrage, despair, and fatigue play in an activist’s life, and I came out of the experience eager to find a way to refresh the passion and vision of activists and connect them, spiritually, to their values and dreams.
I’ve now spent a couple of weeks reading pretty much everything Joanna Macy has ever written, as well as the work that has come from her students and collaborators, and I am so impressed–it is exactly what I was looking for! The Work That Reconnects, formerly known as “Despair and Empowerment Work”, is all about honoring our pain and suffering as coming from our overall love of the world and deep connection to all living beings. It is such a deep, rich way to mill the difficulties and challenges in the activists’ path and engender hope and passion.
Too often, we receive well-meaning advice to draw boundaries, to leave our work aside, to numb ourselves to the pain we encounter. But this is very hard to do, and for people who come to social justice work with deep compassion, very difficult. It occurs to me that the challenges and fatigue is one of the reasons why activist groups bicker and splinter so bitterly (I’m going to write something about this in a separate post, as I’m now reading some social movement literature to understand it.) Even though lashing out at others seems to be an expression of anger and pain, it occurs to me that it is more often an effort to ricochet the pain and suffering away from us.
But the pain and suffering can be composted through expressing them–to ourselves and to compassionate listeners–and they can be rich soil for growing hope. This is where the four-step trajectory of Macy’s work comes in. The first step is Coming From Gratitude–acknowledging the beauty of the world and our commitment to it. Then we truly allow ourselves Feel the Pain of the World, which comes from how much we love the world and want to save it. Then, we See with New Eyes”–we understand our pain as reflecting our unity with everything that surrounds us. Finally, we Go Forth, allowing the unity to infuse us with vision and motivation.
If I have any non-family-obligation time left after grading, curriculum development (my fall teaching will happen online and I have some great ideas), and scholarship, I plan to spend it adapting Macy’s work to the law school classroom, so it can nourish and equip law students interested in social justice work with the skills they need to stay fresh, sane, and hopeful, even as they despair. I also hope to facilitate this work with activist lawyers.
When I became Río’s mom, my dear friend Sarah and I, in the throes of sleeplessness, milk, and diapers, started an ongoing conversation and bond that stays strong and joyful to this day. One of our recurring gags is an ongoing mockery of parenting books, their jargon, pretentiousness, and dogma. In the baby years, it was child-led-this and play-based-that, you know the drill. When we were looking at preschools, we attended open schools about parent-involved-this and developmental that. At some point I quipped that I would become the devout groupie of whatever educational method would get us off the waitlist. We often fantasize about writing a parenting book titled “Do Whatever the Fuck Makes Sense to You.”
But this morning I realized I did, however, come up with some sort of credo. I offer it to you with love on this Mother’s Day, whether you are a mother, a daughter, or both; whether you are near your mother or you miss her; whether she could or could not be fully present for you, in person, in body, or in spirit; whether you’ve had to make hard choices about the timing and form of your motherhood; whether motherly love is easy or difficult for you right now; whether you are mothering a human child, animals, plants, colleagues, friends, students, and/or mentees; in whatever form mothering energy manifests in your life.
1. I see my child every day with fresh eyes.
I wake up every morning to the miracle that this little boy is a member of my family. It is a miracle that he is alive–just as it is a miracle that all of us were babies once. Even when things are hard, there is deep appreciation and love of the opportunity to spend the rest of my life being his mom–and the incredible gift of love from Río’s birthparents, who chose us to be his parents.
One night when he was perhaps eight months old, my son woke me, not by crying but by gurgling and laughing. He was in an extraordinary mood. Fully awake, his face broke into a wide smile as I came into his room, his eyes glistening in the glow of the moon above the Brooklyn rooftops. His movements, still uterine, as though he were weightless, were clearly giving him great physical pleasure. And the attention he was directing toward me, the central object of his massive happiness, was as powerful an experience of primal love as I had ever known. Basking in it, stroking my son’s hair, I found a nearly unbearable sensation of regret come over me.
What was it? I asked myself, standing in the moonlit room. Why was such pain attendant on such massive love? The koanic opening line of Yeats’s short poem had long haunted me as an enigma: “A pity beyond all telling/is hid in the heart of love—” koanic because I sensed its truth intuitively, enigmatic because the list of anodynes that followed—regular, everyday occurrences, from markets to clouds—did nothing to explain what that pity was. This night, the poem’s enigma seemed to me more urgent than ever. What is the pity that hides in the heart of love, and why was it overpowering even the magical immediacy of my child’s joy?
Already, I saw, my daughter had transformed from a wondrous baby into a curious, cheerful, intensely imaginative little girl. Already she had friends, interests, secrets. These moments with an infant in a crib—moments stolen from sleep—were likely the last such moments in my life.
I was more right than I knew. My son never again awoke laughing—at least not loud enough to wake me—and soon that eight-month-old face was two years old, then three, and the fat cheeks had smoothed to show my wife’s cheekbones, and the thin baby’s hair had grown into the thick bangs I once had as a boy. And from that night and for a long time after, my experience of my children came to be infused with this pity of love. So much so, in fact, that I thought it was something very like depression. But as I became more versed in this emotion—and particularly as I watched it in my practice of meditation—I became more and more convinced that this pity was not pathological but existential; that there was within it a dharmic insight.
And Mary Talbot writes about awakening to the Four Noble Truths through her children, and awakening them to impermanence and change:
Motherhood—and its corollary, childhood—in their current optimistic models are relatively new historical constructions and haven’t always had such a good rap as pathways to liberation. Until as recently as the 1930s, maternal mortality rates in the Western world were as high as at the time of the American Revolution. And throughout most of human history, infant mortality has been so widespread that well into the 19th century, American parents didn’t name their children until they hit toddlerhood, when the chances for the kid’s survival began to increase. The probability of child death was too extreme to risk developing parental bonds. For anyone who has had a miscarriage or given birth (I’ve done both, twice), fatality feels—is—viscerally close. It’s a painful, perilous business and an ear-splitting wake-up call to the unreliability of this body, this life, these relationships.
Experiencing a child’s life through a parent’s eyes deflates the myth of immortality in other ways, too. Most of us nurse the illusion of having an expansive life because the murky backward stretch of our own childhoods creates a perception of having lived for a very long time. But watching a child grow up explodes that sense of personal timelessness. When my children were in nursery school, I would come across things in the back of my refrigerator that were older than they were. The very phase of life I remembered as stretching out for an eternity was, in fact, over before I could use up a jar of capers packed in sea salt.
Río is now at a phase in which he is upset at time’s one-directional flow. He eats a banana, and then wants it back. I offer him another banana, and he cries: “No! I want the banana I already ate!” A tower of blocks collapses, but he rails against rebuilding, because even if we build a tower that looks the same, it won’t be the same tower that fell down. Whenever we talk about how we can’t bring things back, I see my own grief of impermanence in him–the grief I felt holding one of his baby suits and knowing that he will never be that little again. Thinking about our children’s past (nostalgia) and future (hope) takes us away from the only mothering moment we truly experience–the one that is happening right now. The fourth of the five remembrances in the Upajjhatthana Sutta is, “I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.” A thousand separations happen every day; our children grow more independent; they leave home; they move far away; we quarrel and put distance between us. And all of them foreshadow the last and final separation that death–ours, theirs–will bring. We are assured of this final loss–we cannot prevent it. What we have is now. And it makes now, which is only now–not before, not after, never to come back– precious and special.
3. Through my child, I love the children of the world.
When I started studying dharma and mindfulness, one of the most impenetrable doctrines was the “doctrine of the no self.” But through Thich Nhat Hanh’s Interbeing and through Joanna Macy’s Greening of the Self, as well as through vision quests and journeys, I learned that the separation between the self and the rest of the world is false and malleable. The miracle that is my child is part of the overall miracle of life. Through the joys and pains of my child I feel the joy and pain of other mothers–human and nonhuman alike. It is through this profound understanding that the separation is false that the courage to fight for the life and dignity of all children emerges. Macy interviews ecoactivist John Seed about what motivates his work:
He replied, “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.” This is what I mean by the greening of the self. It involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is a shift that Seed himself calls “a spiritual change,” generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. This is hardly new to our species. In the past, poets and mystics have been speaking and writing about these ideas, but not people on the barricades agitating for social change. Now the sense of an encompassing self, that deep identity with the wider reaches of life, is a motivation for action. It is a source of courage that helps us stand up to the powers that are still, through force of inertia, working for the destruction of our world. This expanded sense of self leads to sustained and resilient action on behalf of life.
Working for human rights and for animal rights, for the liberation of life, is part and parcel of being a mother.
4. I let the self grow as it will.
Many of us are in the habit of boxing ourselves in rigid beliefs about who we are: “I’m not the sort of person who…” As our children’s personalities start taking shape, it is tempting to box them, as well. So many preschool admission forms I filled out ask you to “describe your child.” I can describe my child today. I don’t know if the description will fit tomorrow, or even an hour from now; the self is flexible and boundless. I leave room for my child to surprise me every day.
5. I bring the miracle of compassion into my child’s life.
Earlier this year I found myself facing a difficult situation in my law school class that involved some cruel interpersonal behavior between students. As I was contemplating the unappetizing prospect of “giving a stern lecture,” whatever that means, I thought to myself–why would anyone whose empathy muscles are still growing learn kindness, when our government offers so little in the way of role models? But I was also struck with the poverty of cruelty as a go-to approach to the world. Why would you want to experience the small, petty cackle of the small self, when you can laugh with sympathetic joy and embrace with compassion? I don’t know how to “deliver a stern lecture” on that. All I know is that it has to be experienced. So I offer my son as many opportunities as I can to experience what it feels like to be compassionate–from cheering up a sad friend with a handful of blueberries at daycare to rescuing an errant spider from the tub, unscathed, and gently transporting him outside. We talk about our diet and consumption as choices that come from the desire to live as compassionate a life as possible. It is his choice what to take from this to his future life, but I trust that the experience of compassion itself, which is so rewarding, will be palpable for him.
6. I listen first.
There is a phenomenal children’s book I might have mentioned in a post before called The Rabbit Listened.:
I try to be like the rabbit. It is very tempting to superimpose my own interpretation of the situation, but I am not the one experiencing it. My aspiration is to make as much space as possible for Río to sit with what arises for him, without jumping to offer solutions or framing it in some way. I can help with descriptions, which is also an opportunity to learn how to define feelings, but I need to give the feelings as long as they take to process.
7. I let joy and sorrow grow side by side.
Río’s grandparents, who adore him, live far away from us, in Israel. They visit us for weeks at a time, which are times of joy for both Río and them. When it’s time for them to leave, it is very very hard to say goodbye. I insist on goodbyes in person. Feeling the sadness of parting with a loved relative is a gift. It teaches us that we can contain sorrow and grief, that sadness is a part of life, and that we are accepted and loved all the time, not only when we are happy. It has occurred to me that many of us were not given the gift of being allowed to feel sad by our families, and that’s why we don’t know how to pay it forward. It is very difficult to contain the sadness of someone we love. But it is a precious coping skill that I try to nourish from infancy, so that Río learns not to be afraid of the depths; Khalil Gibran reminds us,
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Nurturing a great capacity of love also means building a receptive container for the joys and sorrows of life. Offering compassion allows children to develop self-compassion.
8. I open doors to grow.
One of the gifts of adoption is that we don’t automatically assume that our child will have our affinities and interests. He is who he is. It turns out that, by contrast to this bookish/weird parents, Río is a natural athlete who enjoys ball games and skateboarding. Who knew? He might grow up to enjoy going to a symphony concert with me, or he might not, but I open doors to the things that interest us as well as to the things that interest him. Through him, we’ have learned a lot about ball sports and about moving around in ways that were less interesting to us before Río joined our family. I think the lesson can be extended to biological parents as well–our children are vast, open canvasses for the world, and the more doors we open, the more curiosity and exuberance they will find. I acknowledge that the ability to enrich and open doors is largely an accident of birth; because I want all children to grow, not just my child, I work to bring about equality and justice so that other people who love their children and want to open doors for them are able to do so.
9. I build a village.
My friend Ifat Matzner-Heruti, who is a parenting coach, recently wrote on Facebook:
It takes a whole village to raise a child. You are not a village. You can’t be. You can’t do it all, it is simply impossible. You can’t care, and work, and teach, and clean, and cook, and train, and launder, and contain, and listen, and educate, and create, and dance, and jump, and write, and breathe. You are not a village and you never will be. You can’t do it all.
She’s right–and I wrote some thoughts about this a couple of weeks ago. The upshot of it all is that, in the absence of paid preschool or caregivers, I realized that we have an unbalanced life. I don’t need more paid care so that i can work more. I need a shorter workday–we all need that, actually, parents and non-parents alike–so that there is more room to be with my child and raise him. Yesterday, out of the blue, Río said, “I don’t want to go back to the teachers. I want to be with you and Aba at home all the time.” That may not be entirely possible or desirable (and I won’t live with him at his college dorm!) but it conveys a deep, strong sentiment that needs to be honored. Love requires time, and if I don’t have all the time in the world, I want to fill this time with loving extended family, friends, and neighbors.
10. I mother myself.
I apply all of the above to my own life. I appreciate my own present body, mind, and spirit, even as I work daily to grow. I cultivate love for all beings and aspire to put that love into action every day. I listen to myself, I let myself feel sorrow as well as joy with self compassion. I accept the self as malleable and changing and open doors for transformation. And I cultivate a village around myself and my family, at the same time as I aspire to be part of your village.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of you! May your mothering path be filled with love and compassion.
A couple of weeks ago I posted about the comparing mind and how to soften our judgment of others. The pull toward judgment is so strong–I’m encountering it in myself as well as in lots of people around me who are ordinarily kind and patient–so I find myself posting about judgments again. During today’s outing with my son I was mindful of how a six-foot measuring stick has been embedded in my brain, and that was the first thing I noticed about people around me–that and whether they were wearing masks. It was as if something inside me yearned to control and chide other people’s behavior. The act of perceiving others’ compliance was so instantaneous that it frightened me. Being cognizant of this feeling, and sensing the “hook” of the temptation to judge in myself, has given me more understanding of the judging behavior of others.
On our outing, we traveled 2.23 miles to honor the memory of Ahmaud Arbery, the young man who was so cruelly murdered a few months ago while going on his daily run. Two suspects–a father and son–have now been charged with his murder. We will learn more during the trial, but the chilling footage suggests that Ahmaud was gunned down for no other reason than the color of his skin–yet another horrifying tragedy building on our racist legacies.
As we were walking, I was thinking about the horrors of these immediate judgments and biases. Before our pandemic times, we would look at passers-by in the streets and our unconscious would sort them into groups based on their gender expression, ethnic or racial appearance, or the apparent quality and fit of their clothes. These and other factors determine not only how we see people, but sometimes whether we see them at all. China Miéville’s wonderful novel The City and The City is set in two European city-states occupying the same physical space, but without mutual diplomatic relations. The citizens of each city are socialized, since infancy, not to see the buildings, cars, and people of the other city. When the hero has to investigate a disappearance from one city to the other, he has to undergo training to “unsee” his own city and “see” the other.
This week, UC Hastings and other businesses and people in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco sued the City of San Francisco for its neglect to address the overwhelming crisis of homelessness, drug dealing and mental disability that has characterized the Tenderloin, especially since the pandemic. I’ve spoken about this with students who live in our dorm, the Tower; even though we all have witnessed the immense suffering in the streets surrounding campus for years, the virus and resulting crises have magnified the suffering, to a level that affects everyone in the Tenderloin–housed and unhoused alike. We think of ourselves as good, kind, compassionate people, and yet we must harden our hearts and “unsee” the human suffering at our doorstep; it has finally risen to a level of tragedy that can no longer be unseen.
These snap judgments we make are at the heart of the many mundane ways in which we treat others badly. Most of us (I believe and hope) do not share the murderous intents of the people who accosted and shot Ahmaud. But how many people who think of themselves as kind and compassionate perceive people who do not look like them as dangerous, threatening, unpleasant to interact with, and move to the opposite sidewalk?
With the current threat at our doors, the usual features that our biased minds would glom to, to offer a snap judgment of the person walking toward us–poor, dangerous, friendly, you name it–have receded to the background, and our immediate biases have clung to masks and distances. The first thing we see now goes beyond poor/rich, male/female, white/nonwhite. It goes to masked/unmasked and distancing/not distancing. And so, our judging energy has gone there, where it might have gone elsewhere in past times when we noticed other things. It has been a profound education for me in the nature of instant visible biases.
I imagine some people reading this will be rightfully upset about the comparison between racist murderers and people who just want others to participate in the measures we are taking to prevent contagion. Of course motivation matters. But look at what the presumably commendable effort to shelter in place is making people do: scream at other people, slash each other’s tires, write horrible notes to each other, place rotten meat at people’s entrances as punishment for their perceived violations. For people imbued with a commendable motive, these are not particularly commendable (or effective) actions.
We must heal and fix the world, so that young people’s promising lives will not be cut short by race-fueled hatred, and so that poor and suffering people will not be ignored and unseen. Let’s start by sitting with our own judging minds, let go of others’ behavior that we cannot control, and then find the space to unite in active hope to work for racial and economic equality. The revolution is bigger than all of us, but it starts inside us.