First Person Plural
There's a character, Otto, in the movie, A Fish Called Wanda, whom those of us who are cult fans of the movie love for his buffoonish, self-involved, self-sabotaging misunderstandings of the philosophy of Nietzsche. The character is a perfect depiction of the id running free, uncensored, unaware of how absurd its behavior is. At one point in the movie, Otto's girlfriend, the leading lady of the movie, Wanda, in a fit of pique, launches into him by pointing out each of the bits of philosophy he gets wrong. It's a great scene.
My favorite line from the scene is this: "Otto, the main tenet of Buddhism is NOT 'every man for himself!'"
The first time I heard it, I didn't realize the irony. That line is played for laughs, because we all assume it must be wrong, so it seems completely absurd. Actually, though, that is the main tenet of Buddhism. It just goes way, way deeper than Otto ever imagined. When you get down to the bottom of the rabbit hole and come out through the looking glass, it appears to be something completely different.
There's a quote that I see every so often on twitter that I really love:
I heard a piece on NPR. An American reporter was interviewing a European businessman who pays 50% in tax income.The reporter kept asking why as the businessman kept trying to avoid the question. Finally, the businessman said, "I don't want to be a rich man in a poor country."
This really resonates for me. This is what "everyone for themselves" means to me. What kind of world do we want to live in? I'm pretty well off right now. A lot of my neighbors are struggling. Am I okay with this? No. Not because I'm a nice guy. Because it's unhealthy. There but for the grace of God go I. A society that doesn't take care of people who are down on their luck is a society where none of us are safe. A society where people can work really hard and still be struggling is a scary place to be. Because it could all come tumbling down at any moment. Cancer, a lawsuit, a moment of allowing some dark part of me that I don't consider mine to surface when a camera is pointed at me.
Fostering a social environment where we all agree to take care of each other sounds really selfless, but it's actually the most selfish thing imaginable. It's real selfishness. Selfishness that sees the situation clearly, and does what's needed. That doesn't fool itself, doesn't whistle past the graveyard. That sees that, on some very basic level, we are all one, not because that's a nice way to see things, but because it's true. We are all in this together.
Selfishness of the sort that doesn't recognize this basic fact is a pathology, a sickness, a mistake. You aren't a bad person if you are selfish in this way. You are injured. It is not our job to injure you some more to make you a better person. That simply won't work. It never works.
And yet that is what we do, over and over again. Read twitter. Every third tweet on my twitter timeline is someone trying desperately to hurt someone else, with words, because they've been hurt, maybe not with words, and the person they're trying to hurt represents the hurt they have experienced.
I say "they," but I am not immune to this. I've done my share of angry tweeting in the past couple of years. But now it just feels stupid to me. It makes me sad to see it. It makes me weary when I feel the urge to do it myself.
Shantideva, a Buddhist teacher of the bodhisattva path, said "when someone beats you with a stick, you don't get angry at the stick, do you? The stick isn't in control. The stick didn't decide to beat you. So why do you get angry at the person? The person isn't in control either. It's this crazy idea, this idea that if you hurt someone, somehow you will feel better. That's what's in control. That's what we should hate." Of course, he said it in Sanskrit, and he might have worded it a bit differently, but that's the gist of it.
We need to recognize that if we get angry at the person who beats us with the stick, what we are really doing is making a new home for anger, the thing that actually hurt us. We are welcoming into our inner heart of hearts the very thing that is the source of our pain.
This is not a self-interested act. This is an insane act. And yet we repeat this insanity to each other as if it is the truth.
This is what I've been getting at in the previous two posts. This is the wisdom that Otto quite unintentionally shared with us. Otto is the exemplar of this mistake. Watch the movie, you'll see what I mean.
When we get into arguments with people to satisfy our inner pain, we are just spreading the thing that caused our inner pain. And if we want to stop making a home for that thing, we need to learn to see beneath the surface, beneath tribalism, beneath the cheap and easy debate about Coke and Pepsi. That asshole who hurt me is in pain. That's why they hurt me. It doesn't mean that it was okay that they hurt me. It doesn't even mean that if I just forgive them for hurting me, they'll stop hurting people. But if I understand how it happened, clearly understand it, then maybe I can at least not also be an asshole who hurts people.
And beyond that, if I can find some way to reach down and connect with at least some of those assholes and talk about the things we care about that we have in common, then maybe my newfound habit of not being an asshole will rub off a little bit on some of them.
To be clear, I'm not saying this because I think you, dear reader, are one of those assholes. I'm saying it because if you've had the patience to read this far, you can probably do this practice that I'm describing, and if enough of us do it, it will change the world. I know this because it's happened before, and you can read about it in the history books.