(NOTE: I'm drafting out a handful of the remaining essays that I feel are needed in the new collection that I'm trying to put together over the summer, "This Is Not Me." This one echoes much of what I say here often in The Buddha Diaries, and seeks to fill what I think is a gap in the collection.)
Here’s my struggle—well, one of my struggles, but perhaps the most enduring of them: reason tells me that I’m unable to save the world, but my heart persists in believing that I ought to. I know that my attachment to this belief serves only to bring me needless stress and suffering, but I find it impossible to let it go.
It happens to be a Monday morning as I write these words. The headline in the New York Times informs that the rebel troops in Libya have finally succeeded in storming the capital, and that the dictator who has hideously oppressed them these past four decades is about to fall. I rejoice with them for the freedom they have gained, but tremble at the prospect of what might result from it and despair at the violence it took to bring them to this point. In other Middle Eastern countries, the streets of cities are in turmoil as long overdue liberation movements threaten the stability of whole populations; in Syria, currently, at the cost of thousands of lives. Their future is of grave concern to the entire, ever-shrinking world.
Elsewhere on the planet, wars continue to rage in far too many places, and are likely to worsen as humans battle over territory, resources, money and power, and millions flee to escape oppression or deprivation—some of it clearly due to climatic changes brought about by our poor stewardship of this small globe we call our home. In Somalia alone, tens of thousands have been driven from their homes by pitiless drought and are threatened with imminent starvation, while pitiful human beings with guns do battle over the ephemeral illusion of power.
Meanwhile, here in the country that has adopted me, taken me in and treated me with inordinate generosity, a handful of us live in unprecedented luxury, with wealth beyond imagining; a very large number of us enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of most other peoples in the world; and too many of us live in dreadful insecurity, without the prospect of work or income, or already mired in poverty. It’s abundantly clear that all the significant political power has shifted into the hands of those who value the bottom line of profits above the welfare of actual human beings and that, short of revolution here on the streets of America, the prospects for change continue deplorably to diminish.
I was brought up in a country where “socialist” was not a dirty word but a legitimate political party, believing that we are responsible for our mutual well-being. Confronted everywhere with the evidence of inequality and injustice, I know that I am virtually powerless in the struggle against them; and everything I read and hear in the media suggests that it is a losing battle anyway. I am furious at what I deem to be the willful blindness or plain stupidity of ideologues and the self-importance of those in a position to shape opinion. Yet I have learned from the wisdom of the dharma that I only bring suffering upon myself by clinging to the belief that I can control events in the world out there, and that the work starts with myself, within…
Still, no matter how clearly I can hold these things in at least moderately realistic perspective, I am unable to surrender. I am engaged. It’s who I am—or so I tell myself, even while that Buddhist part within insists on reminding me that it’s all delusion. I find myself persisting in the struggle. I continue to watch the news and read the newspaper, increasingly aware of the outrage they provoke. I feel the tension in the back of my neck, my personal control center. I feel it also as a pain in the gut, a general feeling of malaise as I go about my daily life. Unable—perhaps unready—to retreat into detachment, I work to maintain a semblance of equanimity in compromise: I will try to content myself with doing what I can.
I can write. “The Buddha Diaries,” my daily writing practice, evolved from a more political commitment to “The Bush Diaries”—a commitment made the day after the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. It does not, frankly, feel like nearly enough to me. What I write will certainly not change the world. Even those voices more influential than my own—I think of Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, for example, with whom I mostly, uncomfortably, agree—seem to have little power to effect the kind of change I personally want to see. But I will satisfy myself with writing what I can, and sending it out as I can into the world. I’ll hope that the words I write will fall on some few receptive and compassionate ears. And will continue to remember to breathe.