Friday, January 16, 2009

So Long, Farewell and Other Thoughts

Lately I've been reading Ron Paul's The Revolution. I don't know much about Mr. Paul other than that he serves the United States as an elected official and that, once upon a time, he was a Presidential candidate running toward the 2008 election. I do know that what I've read in his book so far makes sense.

Last night President Bush gave his Farewell Address. On several TV stations, at 8 p.m. New York time, regular programming was interrupted so Bush could say good-bye. Of what I heard, I remember he made a comment about the fact that, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there have been no more terrorist attacks on American soil (or any other American targets). I don't know if he said it explicitly or not but the implication is that the money spent on Homeland Security, airport security improvement, etc has been money well spent. Frankly, I would rather have watched the first 15 minutes of "My Name Is Earl".

Before I go on, let me just quickly say that the easy thing for us to do is to judge Mr. Bush's efforts as President as inadequate or worse, and I understand that I risk sounding naive by not addressing here some of the things Bush Jr. has done while in office that are easy to feel outrage over. Suffice it to say that I expect to see Bush Administration officials working at AIG, Citigroup and other companies that benefit from the bailout $ after President-elect Obama is sworn in next week.

One of the things in Mr. Paul's book that caught my attention was his quotes of Mr. Bush's attitude regarding U.S. foreign policy before Bush was elected* President in 2000. Mr. Bush, in various speeches, voiced the traditional noninterventionist attitude toward U.S. foreign policy.

Begin quote:
In a debate with Vice President Al Gore the following year [2000], Bush said: "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.' . . . I think one way for us to end up being viewed as 'the ugly American' is for us to go around the world saying, 'We do it this way; so should you.'"

Bush also rejected nation building. "Somalia started off as a humanitarian mission and changed into a nation-building mission," he said. "And that's where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called 'nation building.'" He added, "I think what we need to do is to convince the people who live in the lands [themselves] to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here - we're going to have a kind of a 'nation-building corps' from America?"
Finally, when discussing other countries' perception of the United States, Bush said: "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we've got to be humble." We should be "proud and confident [in] our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." The Revolution, p.11-12
End quote.

Clearly, Bush's project of installing democracy in Iraq runs counter to his previous statements regarding U.S. foreign policy. What Mr. Bush thinks about that, what he feels about that, I don't pretend to know. He might ask me to respect the fact that he made tough choices. We all make tough choices every day when we decide how much credence to put in our leaders' words. I'm sure Bush is a man who is, like any of us, fallible and susceptible. Likewise Bush's Vice President Dick Cheney. The Washington Post's four-part Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the Vice President is available online.

Another book I've been reading lately is No Time To Lose by Pema Chodron. Ms. Chodron provides a running commentary here on a Buddhist text titled The Way of the Bodhisattva and attributed to Shantideva who lived sometime during the 8th century. About Ms. Chodron I know even less than I know about Mr. Paul. Her text, however, has become one of my favorite books of all time. A particular passage I want to share with you here:

When I pledged myself to free from their affliction
Beings who abide in every region,
Stretching to the limits of the sky,
I myself was subject to the same afflictions.

Thus I did not have the measure of my strength -
To speak like this was clear insanity.
More reason, then, for never drawing back,
Abandoning the fight against defiled confusion.

This is what distinguishes a mature bodhisattva, such as Shantideva, from bodhisattvas-in-training. When he says that taking the bodhisattva vow was clear insanity, he's not expressing feelings of despondency or inadequacy. He's saying it as an incentive to get busy, to do whatever it takes to live his life as attentively and wakefully as possible. Instead of indulging in guilt and other variations on the theme of failure, he spurs himself on.

The next time you are feeling hopeless because you can't make a dent in your confusion, you can encourage yourself with Shantideva's words: More reason, then, for never drawing back.

Every courageous gesture we make, whether or not we think it's successful, definitely imprints our mind in a positive way. The slightest willingness to interrupt our old habits predisposes us to greater bravery, greater strength, and greater empathy for others. No matter how trapped we feel, we can always be of benefit. How? By interrupting our defeatist story lines and working intelligently and wisely with our kleshas.

This shall be my all-consuming passion:
Filled with rancor I will wage my war!
Though this emotion seems to be defiled,
It halts defilement and shall not be spurned.

In verse 43, this emotion is anger. Although it is usually seen as a problem, Shantideva takes a homeopathic approach and vows to use anger to cure anger. Rousing his passionate enthusiasm for the task, he proceeds with all-consuming warriorship and joy.

Better if I perish in the fire,
Better that my head be severed from my body
Than ever I should serve or reverence
My mortal foes, defiled emotions.

As the years go by, I understand this kind of passionate determination and confidence more and more. The choice is mine. I can spend my life strengthening my kleshas or I can weaken them. I can continue to be their slave; or, realizing they're not solid, I can simply accept them as my own powerful yet ineffable energy. It's increasingly clear which choice leads to further pain and which one leads to relaxation and delight.
[end quote]

I believe that the only time we fight for what we love is when we work to improve ourselves. Whatever his faults, Mr. Bush is a human being who suffers when he makes bad choices. He has a conscience. If he has the desire to continue growing, I am not going to hold his sins against him. Certainly, I am not going to ruin my days thinking about how much better the world would be had Bush and Cheney never been leaders of the free world.

As much as I would like to, I am not going to elaborate on the benefits of daily reflecting on Shantideva's teachings as they apply to one's life right now. I do have a few comments though. Shantideva talks a lot about bodhichitta. Raised in a Chritian (Catholic) tradition, I associate bodhichitta with divine grace. Shantideva also talks about the struggle to stop one's negative emotions (i.e., kleshas) from having power over one's life (i.e., over one's choices). This I associate with the Muslim's notion of jihad (with a little j). Shantideva also talks about taking the bodhisattva vow. I associate this with Judaism because the vow is to always be of help to anyone and everyone. The connection is in the so-called "Jewish guilt". For a Jew to deliberately withhold aid is the worst type of sin a Jew can commit.

As much as I love the notions of self-improvement and world peace, I am going to talk now instead about poetry. Specifically, I want to say that I believe that one's poetry benefits in quality when one refuses the easy way. In poetry, the easy way is often the lazy way. It is easy to overlook or to ignore the shadow of a houseplant as the day goes by. Paying attention can be difficult. We expect ourselves to focus on the livelihood of the ego, and the ego doesn't care about ephemeral beauty. "The old law says work for food." -William Stafford. Paying attention to anything outside our typical workday requires a generosity of spirit if you will in order for the thing to have any meaning to us. If there is nothing new under the sun, what can a creative spirit do except to rearrange what we already know and have and love and so forth. It becomes more a matter of how we regard seemingly insignificant things. For example:
by Theodore Roethke

To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top,—
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had committed, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.

If a poet can arrange the representations of things in such a way as to trigger connections in the reader's mind that might not otherwise be made, perhaps the poem can provide some service to the reader.
The poem might help the reader access an emotion perhaps, or arrive at a clearer understanding of a historical event.

I don't think Bush needs forgiveness for what he did or didn't do while in office. Cheney I don't know about. Maybe one day we will have a film like Breach but instead of being about Robert Hanssen and his selling state secrets to the Soviets it will be about Dick Cheney and what his role was in the 9/11 attacks. Whether we ever have such a movie or not, we need to look forward and see how can our participation help to improve our communities, our culture, our opportunities and oursevles.


Middle Ditch said...

Hi Andrew, thanks for becoming a follower on my other blog.

Andrew Christ said...

Hey you're welcome, good stuff