The last few weeks’ blog posts elicited some provocative comments from readers and dredged up some more memories for me.
The contemplation of forgiveness raises the question of how one should respond to others. Are there categories of others, and are we justified in having different responses to them based on our own judgments about who they are and what they do or have done? Is everyone equal, or not?
I like the passage from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that goes like this: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…. It is an attribute of God himself.”
That quality of mercy, from a Divine point of view, knows no bounds and makes no judgments and truly is love toward all, regardless of what anyone is or has done.
I love that this quality is available to all.
It is also the case that for many or most of us, there are miles to go until that quality of mercy can be extended always and to all, like rain. Pending our arrival at an advanced state, it seems to me, we may work on a more modest level with some basic principles.
As I was thinking about my political memoir posts of the last few weeks, I recalled an incident that grieved my heart and still does when I remember it.
A friend of mine had joined the advisory board of our fractious listener-sponsored radio station. There is often a fight brewing within the station walls among the various on-air and off-air personalities. I say this as someone who was, for a short while, a volunteer there. In the 1980s and 1990s, I was often there as a guest.
My friend hosted a summer backyard party to boost his particular slate of candidates for a station board election. I thought it might be a fun party but it turned out not to be.
When I arrived, a youngish guy sitting at a table with a clipboard greeted me with a brisk “hello.” But then when I signed in with my name, he suddenly changed his demeanor: “Oh, wow, you’re Sara Diamond. Oh, wow, I love your work.”
This was 2007, and I had long since retired from working publicly on the Left, so I was taken aback to be spotted and then suddenly treated like some special person, which I am not. As I walked into the backyard, someone else who knew me way back when came rushing up to greet me, and when I didn’t immediately pick up on the latest political news he wanted to relay to me, he abruptly walked away.
I looked around to find some familiar faces to talk to and saw an old pal, someone who’s been a major player at the radio station, who shall go nameless here. I’ll call him “M.” M was chatting with F, a local folk musician who has since died. I approached the two of them to join their conversation.
“Well, I’m just so glad to hear that Pete Wilson died,” said M. “Did you hear the news, Sara?”
“Yeah, I heard that,” I said. “He was only 62. He had a sudden heart attack.”
Pete Wilson (not the former California governor by the same name) was a bay area TV news anchorman, a mainstream journalist, a big, hulking man with bright blue eyes. I had met him once when he invited me to be his guest on his live news analysis show. I had found him to be politically centrist and predictable, and very nice. Unlike most interviewers, he had actually read my book and had it all marked up with post-its and interesting questions.
He was a decent person.
Or, how about just this: he was a person.
“Well,” M went on. “I’m glad he died. He was just SOOO corporate.”
“You’re glad he died??” I asked.
F, the musician, stood there nodding and saying “yeah” while M went on and on about what a “corporate shil” he thought Pete Wilson was.
I thought I was going to throw up as these two cheered the death of someone who just happened to have had surgery and not made it through. I finally just walked away.
Liking, not liking, hating, cursing people – based on what?
The saints and sages teach us that we are to love everyone, love our neighbors as ourselves. This is true.
It is also unrealistic, for most of us, on a consistent day-to-day basis. Our minds generate judgments and categories and likes and dislikes.
Yet something other than pure love toward all is imminently possible – and, dare I say, necessary if we are to stop the violence that plagues us.
The Buddha is often quoted to have said: “Hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone.” I learned from a scholar of the Pali language that this is not exactly what the Buddha said. The classic quote, kept alive by the monastics and eventually written down, translates: “Hatred never ceases by hatred but only by non-hatred.”
Non-hatred need not be warm, gushing love.
Nor need those of us who are not saints and sages feel unaccomplished if we have not (yet) arrived at a consistent state of free-flowing love toward all.
We need not love everyone we encounter. What we must do is not hate them or harm them.
What my old pal M was unable to do was to see his own aversion as having no actual substance to it. It was just thoughts. A negative judgment about someone he happened to disagree with – or be jealous of or whatever the motivation – had morphed seamlessly into his sense of entitlement to spew out vulgar hatred – and to try to justify it as a political posture. M had no clue about how his verbal violence might sound to someone like me, listening to it, or what such thoughts and words were doing to his own psyche.
To not harm is a foundational aspiration. It means not harming with our actions, nor with our words or thoughts. To start just with non-harming is a giant step toward embodying that quality of mercy that is not strained, that blesses both the giver and the receiver.