Did you see the New York Times story about the guy who is staying ignorant of all Donald Trump related news? It’s so crazy that I half think it’s a hoax; the premise is that on November 8 this former Nike executive was so traumatized by Trump’s win that he decided he would ignore ALL news about Trump, going so far as to wear white noise headphones when at the coffee shop.
Let’s assume this is not a hoax. We can approach this guy from a few perspectives. The least helpful perspective is the one where we clown him and say bad things about him. Slightly more helpful is the perspective where we note that a wealthy white guy has the privilege to just ignore the horrors Trump is visiting upon our nation. But that’s only helpful if we turn it inwards – what are WE ignoring in the world thanks to our privilege of living in industrialized nations? Recognizing where this guy is wrong is useless unless we take that recognition and internalize it.
But maybe the most interesting (for me, a nerd) perspective is the Wakandan one.
Stay with me here. Having seen Black Panther a few times now I’ve been struck by how much the movie’s interWakandan conflict resembles the arguments I’ve seen happening about “Engaged Buddhism.” There’s a wave of Buddhists who believe that the ethical precepts of Buddhism require us to get involved in the world. There are other Buddhists who believe that the point of practice is to work on ourselves and thus, in an indirect way, to improve the world by improving ourselves. This argument seems to stretch back a long time, and it manifests in two types of goals of Buddhist practice (goal is a loaded word in Buddhism, so please take it in the least objectionable way possible).
Arhats are people who seek inner peace; think of the guys who go off to live in mountain caves and meditate 20 hours a day as arhats. They detach from the world to achieve a state of true happiness that is not attached to the shallow pleasures and experiences of life. Then there are bodhisattvas, people who go right up to the line of attaining Buddhahood but hold back, instead dedicating themselves to walking among the people of the world and helping them all achieve Buddhahood.
I once read a quote, and I can’t find it right now, that basically said: “We have enough arhats. What the world needs today is more bodhisattvas.”
Is either side wrong? Beats me. I’m drawn to the bodhisattva path; I feel like my duty is to help others. But I don’t judge those who aspire to be arhats. Still, I agree with that quote – the world is desperately in need of people who want to help other people.
So what does any of this have to do with Black Panther or that guy who is ignoring Trump? Glad you asked, imaginary reader. I believe that Black Panther is about the debate over Engaged Buddhism, and I think that the guy ignoring Trump is walking a weird, modified path that shows the dangers of aspiring to be an arhat/staying a Wakandan isolationist.
Wakanda wasn’t wrong to stay hidden. It was a nation gifted with incalculable resources that found itself very near to one of the most destructive and horrible colonizations in human history. As Wakandans watched their neighbors fall – shackled in slavery, resources scavenged, land redistributed to foreigners – the impulse to self-protect was reasonable. Wakanda had to take care of itself first. There’s a metaphor I hear a lot in recovery and other self-helpy spaces – when you’re on an airplane they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others put theirs on. You’re of no use if you’re passing out due to cabin depressurization.
In many ways this is what Buddhist practice/spiritual improvement is – putting on your oxygen mask. We meditate, we go to recovery, we go to therapy, we engage in self-care so that we can be of use to others. The point of being on the cushion, I believe, is to get off the cushion and take the insight and equanimity we have found and use it to aid all beings. At least that’s the approach from a bodhisattva perspective.
The question is when do you take what you have learned and begin using it to help others? How do you know when your oxygen mask is on, spiritually speaking? It’s a question that Wakanda had to grapple with. And even those who thought Wakanda had finally achieved a strength that would allow it to engage with the world had different ideas on how to do that. Nakia told T’Challa that Wakanda was strong enough to open its borders AND protect itself, while W’Kabi told T’Challa Wakanda was strong enough to go beyond its borders but not strong enough to bring others in.
Obviously W’Kabi is an extreme example, but we’ve all met people who are evangelical about the stuff that matters to them. Whether Christians or Browncoats, there are people out there who are dying to force their beliefs on you. It can be tempting to do the same and claim you’re on the bodhisattva path. But I think of what we say in recovery – we rely on attraction rather than promotion. We try to live our lives in a way that shows other people the benefits of the philosophies we have adopted (and don’t worry, I know that even writing this blog could be seen as blurring the attraction/promotion line. I try to remain mindful of all this stuff). That’s why Nakia is right – she wants to let people see Wakanda for what it is, who they are, and to share what they have, not to come and force their beliefs upon the rest of the world, as W’Kabi and Killmonger do.
And then there’s the guy ignoring Trump. He’s the old school Wakandan elders, the lady who is mad that T’Challa is going to go on a mission to get Klaue. He may think of himself as a renunciate, rejecting elements of worldliness, but he’s actually super selfish, as are Wakandans who want to stay hidden behind their electronic defenses.
If W’Kabi represents the dangers of doing the bodhisattva path wrong, then the Trump Ignorer represents the dangers of doing the arhat path wrong. As a culture we’re really attracted to this wrong path, and we make a lot of excuses for it. We call it ‘self care,’ but it’s actually indulgence. Self care is real, but it’s sort of like exercise – not always that pleasant! I know that I wave the ‘self care’ wand over my indulgences all the time; when I have a hard day and then veg out playing video games for hours I tell myself I’m doing self care. But I’m really indulging in denial and avoidance, and it’s actually the opposite of self care. I’m harming myself because I’m not confronting and dealing with the things that are bothering me.
Basically rather than putting on my oxygen mask I’m knocking back a few of those airline minibottles of booze. In my case (and in that of Wakanda and the Trump Ignorer), I’m also isolating, a behavior that can feel like self care in the moment but is actually negative and eventually destructive.
I cannot judge the path of the Trump Ignorer – I don’t know his life, his traumas, his coping skills – but it does seem to me that the impulse to just pull yourself away from the world’s troubles, especially when you might be in some small position to be of use, is a selfish one. Again, I understand selfish impulses… but if the right thing to do was the easy thing to do, we wouldn’t be impressed when people did the right thing.
Maybe the Trump Ignorer’s self care regime will allow him to go see Black Panther, and maybe the struggle of Wakanda to figure out how to live in the world while taking care of itself will inspire him. Earlier I said I couldn’t judge the path of the arhat, but I sort of find myself doing it anyway. How can you understand that we are all in this together and then opt to take yourself out of it? When the Buddha achieved enlightenment he wondered whether he should bother telling anybody, as he thought what he had to teach would be too difficult for most people. He could have gone off by himself and been perfectly content – he had attained nirvana, after all – but he instead opted to spend the next 40 years traveling and teaching and trying to get his concepts through people’s heads. I think that the example the Buddha set is pretty clear.
And I think the example that T’Challa set at the end of Black Panther is also clear. You have to take care of yourself, right up until it’s time to start taking care of others as well. The wisdom comes in knowing when that time has arrived.