Seasons Change

The end of the world looks like everywhere else

What do you think about when you envision the end of the world? Buildings in rubble? Nuclear fall-out? Desert wastelands? The Earth reclaiming shopping malls and office buildings with vines growing up escalators and trees taking over elevator shafts?

Are there people in your version of the end of the world? Dictators? Victims? Police? Families? Terrorists? Doctors? Aliens from Outer Space? Or is your version empty of sentient life?

Pop culture frequently depicts the end of the world as a wind-swept techno-wasteland, with small, armed gangs of bandits who lord over a decimated post-apocalyptic society. There's usually a hero. He's usually a white guy. This is not even close to reality.

For many, the end of the world has already come and gone, and it looks eerily like everywhere else.

In Rwanda, the end of the world came in 1994, and looked like 800,000 people being murdered within the span of 100 days by their countrymen. Many who survived the massacre can hardly explain what they witnessed and how they survived, yet they still live on, with jobs and homes and families. They are traumatized, to put it mildly. Yet, according to a 2016 study, Rwanda is now the 5th best place in the world for women's equality

In Tibet, the end of the world came in 1959, when the 8th century prediction of Guru Padmasambhava Rinpoche came to life: "When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth." Today, though millions of Tibetans survived and escaped as refugees, many of them will never see their homeland again. Everything they knew in the world came to an end, and yet they still live, breathe, and thrive in new landscapes.

In Laos, the end of the world came between 1964 and 1973 as the United States dropped an unprecedented number of bombs there: the equivalent of a TON of explosives PER PERSON in the country. To this day, faulty bombs that did not explode 40 years ago are still killing an average of 50 people per year in Laos. My family sponsored a Laotian refugee family to come to US in the 70s. They arrived with a mother, a father, his brother, and a daughter. The men carried the 8-months pregnant mother over a river to escape widespread civil war. Their daughter was born in a refugee camp. They now live somewhere in upstate New York. It has not been easy for them, yet they adapted and found the things they needed here to rebuild their lives. I'll never forget when they discovered they could buy very, very hot peppers here. That was a huge relief for the whole family after months of bland American food. Sometimes, comfort burns a little.

For modern Jews, the end of the world was the Holocaust. Yet, Jewish people still live all over the earth and thrive, creating secure lives, passing on their traditions, cooking nourishing food, observing the Sabbath, and defending their rights. Truth be told, the end of the world has come and gone more than once for the Jewish people throughout history, yet they survive and continue their journey onward in the name of their culture and religion.

Many of us in the United States are experiencing increased anxiety about the end of the world. We have wild and terrifying imaginings about what might happen. Yet these imaginings are still often rooted in Hollywood ideas, rather than simply looking to history for the facts about what the end of the world has looked like when it has already happened thousands of times.

The end of the world will not be total global decimation. It will not be one sudden bright light followed by 10,000 years of lifeless nuclear wind. It will not resemble anything like Mad Max. The end of the world is actually not going to look like a cinematic worst case scenario. Rather, it is something that has already happened for millions of people in their own ways, and still happens daily in places like Syria.

The end of the world still has people in it, trying their best to live their lives: drinking coffee and making love and working or salvaging scraps, having babies and making art and suffering and getting by. The end of the world truly just looks like everywhere else, but with catastrophic loss as part of the picture. Bearing the weight of that loss, people still find ways to continue.

What hubris hides behind western anxiety about the end of the world? Our fear is no mere worry about "what if I die?" though that is one part of it. Rather, our fear is heightened and becomes phantasmagoric because it includes our presumption that what we have already seen happen over and over elsewhere cannot possibly happen in our country. We look for more fantastical outcomes in our own end of the world visions, rather than noting the grim realities of history that are already present. 

We feel especially fearful because deep down, beneath our hubris, we know it actually COULD happen here, just as it has happened in countless other places to millions of other people. What could possibly make us think we are exempt from the same tyranny, the same violence, the same greed that has hunted and driven humanity for thousands of years of wars and conflict already?

We are not exempt. We are not protected from the most base aspects of human nature by our constitution, our government, or our military. We are not protected from the worst that could happen by donating to causes or by attending marches (though these things are still very important acts of dissent and collective power). We are not protected by our religions, religious leaders, beliefs, or religious debates. We are not protected from the worst of humanity's acts by our ideals or our ideas, and certainly not by white Hollywood fantasy heroes.

The one thing, the only thing, that can actually protect anyone from the worst of humanity's acts is each individual's deliberate choice to actualize the potential of the decency of humanity (we're not even expecting humanity's best! Just basic decency is all that's required!), and frankly, even that cannot be widely counted upon as reliable. 

This is why it is so important that we carefully examine the history of all of the times that the world has already ended, and ask ourselves how we can individually and collectively diverge from previous patterns of violence, escalation, war-mongering, fear-mongering, strategic avoidance of the truth, the promotion of lies and "alternative facts", enlistment in extremist attitudes, addiction to intensity, bandwagon-jumping, and other fruitless and caustic tactics that only serve to keep us part of the system of human greed, hate, and base selfishness. Instead, we need to reach for something different. 

It is imperative, right now, that we learn to be as humane and compassionate as possible, and that our compassion become our force for change. It is imperative, right now, that we learn to root out attitudes of supremacy and intolerance in ourselves, even when we think we are "the good guys." It is imperative, right now, that we stop bashing potential allies and start find ways to creatively disagree while still honoring the sovereignty of human life and culture. It is imperative, right now, that we learn how to identify the signs of aggression in ourselves and look at how we are at risk for adopting the tactics of our oppressors in times of duress and fear.

The end of the world looks like everywhere else. It's already happening. It's been happening for a long time, but it's not too late to change. We do not want to wake up 6 months from now and realize that our horrified compulsion of our post-apocalyptic fantasy has blinded us to the reality of what is possible right here, right now. We have history and the capacity to learn. We have history and the capacity to love. We have history and the capacity to create new outcomes. Let's try something different, for once.

It actually IS normal, but it's not right

I keep hearing and reading this phrase, "This is not normal." It's being applied to the changes already happening in our government, the limitation of individual freedoms, and the expectations of more changes and limitations yet to come after the inauguration. The phrase is a way for people to share their outrage that the ideals and protocols that govern a democratic society are being systematically eroded, and a way to note that we mustn't become complacent or tolerant of these erosions.

I agree that we should not become complacent about these erosions, but as an historian, I must point out that when we say this is not normal, we are ignoring thousands of years of world history and hundreds of years of American history that show us that dictatorships, abuses of power, corruption, and acts of terror in service to social control are, in fact, frighteningly normal among human beings. From Haiti to South Africa to Rwanda to Tibet to Ireland to Poland to Russia to Mongolia to the Americas to the Pacific Islands, we have seen voluminous evidence of the hard, cruel hand of the privileged elite at the throat of human freedom for the sake of profit, to justify the enslavement of human beings and the theft of resources, and to place a small group of people in power over a large group of people.

The reality is that what is currently happening in the United States IS normal in the wider context of human history and the abuse of power...but it's not right. 

This is why it is imperative that we focus on becoming warrior bodhisattvas. The warrior bodhisattva does not seek to harm anyone or anything, does not puff herself up with arrogance, does not congratulate himself about eviscerating another's well-being. Rather, the warrior bodhisattva knows that in order to create balance and harmony, the path within must remain gentle regardless of what might occur on the path without.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote this about becoming a spiritual warrior:

We tend to think that the threats to our society or to ourselves are outside of us. We fear that some enemy will destroy us. But a society is destroyed from the inside, not from an attack by outsiders. We may imagine the enemy coming with spears and machine guns to kill us, massacre us. In reality, the only thing that can destroy us is within ourselves. If we have too much arrogance, we will destroy our gentleness. And if we destroy gentleness, then we destroy the possibility of being awake, and then we cannot use our intuitive openness to extend ourselves in situations properly. Instead, we generate tremendous aggression.

How, amidst the turmoil of a society that is being steered by a sociopath, with a populace made up of individuals so concerned with their own welfare that they would deny the welfare of others, can we find gentleness? Is it even appropriate to find gentleness at this time? Are we foolish to think gentleness has a seat at the table in these conditions? Questions like these lead us toward aggression if we allow them to, if we allow ourselves to answer from our fear rather than our wisdom. Wisdom points us back to Rinpoche's words, and the acknowledgement that if we do not generate and practice gentleness, we risk becoming just like the aggressors we fear and distrust. 

So, in order to truly touch the heart of gentleness, and to understand the vastness of the power of gentleness, we cannot turn away from thousands of years of world history and hundreds of years of American history that point to the truth: that what is happening right now IS normal in the scope of human behavior. But even though it is normal, it's not right. We must do better, and we can do better if we begin within.

Don't forget, we also have thousands of years of history to show us that no matter how many despots have come along they have all failed eventually, that humanity's need for goodness has always prevailed, and that it has prevailed through individual acts of gentleness: neighbors helping neighbors, parents helping their children, children helping elders, the wealthy helping the impoverished, those with privilege helping the underprivileged. Ours can be a revolution of helping one another through these difficult times, and emerging stronger for having found our gentleness.

Breathe deeply. Stay with your heart. Rise, and be helpful. Down this path is the surest way to create the type of history that runs counter to the longstanding, all-too-normal narrative of abuse.

You are the Light

The Solstice is near, and every day, the sun sets earlier now. The gathering dark is a reminder of how important it is to rest, to pause, to nourish ourselves with quietude. In the dark, growing things germinate. In the dark, our shadows sigh with relief, grateful for a moment away from the harsh light that seemingly always finds our flaws. In the dark, we can be present with the truths about our vulnerability that we might fear to bring out into the public square.

When we are submerged in the dark time of the year, we can bleed the crisp edges of our mundane lives off the page a bit and become more magical, more diffuse, less judging, more generous, more magnanimous. For many, the nadir of the solar year represents a complex combination of revelry, love, stress, and critique of false or forced jollity. It's not simply the holiday season that brings this forth. It's something about the light, or lack thereof. The peaceable and inconvenient silence of the long night beckons us inward, away from inauthenticity, regardless of how many blazing neon signs leer and tempt us to fling caution to the winds and overindulge, overdo, overspend, or overachieve. We are, if we deeply listen, instead being called to just get very, very real, and love very, very much.

In the gathering darkness of this solstice season, and the gathering shadows of greed and systemic abuse in the world, it is tempting to vanish inward in a spirit of discouragement, fear, or sorrow. While these feelings are valid, they are not likely to accomplish much, so try your best to reframe your perspective so that your quietude is not torturous, but is rather nurturing and healing. You must not allow yourself to be overcome. You must remember who you are, and the power of one person's love.

How many times in your life has the kind word or gesture of one person changed everything in a moment for you? Countless times, to be sure. When you needed it, many times, loving people in your life came along and lit a lamp for you in your hour of confusion and murkiness. When you are feeling low, one of the most valuable things you can do is to recall those kindnesses, and to light your own heart like a candle, illuminating the way for someone else in pain for a while. Doing this may not end your own pain, but it can supply you with a different emotion for a while, and even that is enough. 

You can succumb to the glaring stressors and hide from the world, or you can soften into the glow of your own inner fire, warming yourself and others, even when times are tough. The choice is yours. Try it. You are allowed to emerge from the dark night of the year, and from the dark nights of the soul, feeling grateful for what you have and who you are, generous, pleased to participate in the joy of others, and aglow with the happiness that even a single moment of compassion can generate.

This winter solstice, and every season, you are the light. Don't forget.