These are difficult days. The sense of injustice and horror is overwhelming. Some days I think this must be what it’s like to be in a falling elevator – weightless, terrified, aware of the inevitable conclusion of the journey. Hopelessness can seem like the only reasonable reaction.
Thomas Merton, Catholic monk and great thinker, wrote this about hell:
Hell is where nobody has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and themselves.
They are thrown together in their fire and each one tries to thrust the others away from him with a huge, impotent hatred. And the reasons why they want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them: and all recognize in one another what they detest in themselves, selfishness and impotence, agony, terror and despair.
The tree is known by its fruits. If you want to understand the social and political history of modern man, study hell.
That’s from “Hell as Hatred” in New Seeds of Contemplation.
The words there are familiar, and they ring true. This is what we see in the world around us – impotent hatred creating impotent hatred, a snowballing cycle of anger and despair. To turn on the news today is to turn on despair in ourselves, and it increasingly seems as if that’s the point, as if the extraordinarily clumsy cruelty of the Trump administration is not only meant to punish asylum seekers and immigrants but also any of us who have hearts. This is performative cruelty, a cruelty whose ends are demoralization and happiness reduction, a cruelty that aims to separate us from the parts of us that are good and to plunge us into misery and hate.
But that isn’t all Merton had to say. He went on:
And yet the world, with all its wars, is not yet hell. And history, however terrible, has another and a deeper meaning. For it is not the evil of history that is its significance and it is not by the evil of our time that our time can be understood. In the furnace of war and hatred, the City of those who love one another is drawn and fused together in the heroism of charity under suffering, while the city of those who hate everything is scattered and dispersed and its citizens are cast out in every direction, like sparks, smoke and flame.
It is here, in these hard times, that the greatest good flourishes. It is not the evil of our time that defines our time, it is the good that rises to meet it. There’s another quote from another saint that is popular:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.
That, of course, is Mr. Rogers. That quote circulates every time there’s some tragedy. I like it, but I have some small problem with it – it’s for children. And that means it’s for people who are helpless, as children are. I think as adults we look at that quote as a way of taking responsibility off ourselves, and I’d like to add two words to what Fred Rogers’ mom told him:
Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. Join them.
Come to Thomas Merton’s City of those who love one another, and join in the heroic charity under suffering. It is so easy to feel helpless in times like these, and in fact the forces of evil (and I am not using that word lightly, especially as a non-dualistic Buddhist) count on us feeling helpless, in not knowing how to respond. They want us to look for others to do the work, because then nobody does the work. Or so few do the work that they toil in vain.
We need to be the helpers. And we don’t need to be the helpers on some grand, heroic scale. We don’t have to fly to Texas and free children by ourselves. That’s great Hollywood stuff, but it isn’t real.
We can be the helpers in our day to day lives. One of the truths I have found in recovery is that service is the key to freedom – to be in service to others, to help others, to be of use to others, lifts the chains of self that bind me in hate and anger and selfishness. Putting others first – not all the time, because we’re not saints, but sometimes, and maybe more often as we go along – has the magical effect of making ourselves feel better.
There are so many ways to be of service. We can be of service one on one with people in our lives. We can listen to friends without offering advice, giving only the kindness of our attention. We can extend kindness to strangers in the moment. We can give of our time as volunteers. We can march in protest against the barbaric policies of the government. We can stand alongside those with much to lose and give our love. We can give money.
Any and all of these will change the world, and ourselves. Last week I had the privilege to not only work one-on-one with people in recovery, I was able to volunteer to service my neighbors experiencing homelessness and I marched against family separation policies, and I am still riding the emotional effects of all those things. I feel good, positive, useful, like I belong on Earth. I feel connected and happy, even as atrocities multiply around me.
But most of all I don’t feel helpless. I feel like a helper. I feel like a citizen of the City of those who love one another. I’ve been a citizen of hatred, I’ve been adrift and disconnected and it was bad. I may yet be there again, but today I’m not, and for that I’m grateful.
It is so easy to define our times by the evils happening around us, but we can choose to define the times by the response of the good. And we can be the good doing the responding. It is our choice. We are not helpless. We are powerful in our love and our sacrifice.
Be the helpers. Fight back hell.