writing on suffering and awakening

We are all responsible for the children

You’ve seen the images, sounds and stories of the children taken from their parents at the border. It’s all over the news, and Facebook, and Twitter, and rightfully so. This is really bad.

For those of us who are Americans, this is happening in our country, under the authority of a government acting in our names. Whether or not we voted for President Trump in 2016, we are responsible for what’s going on. This is our national here and now, and we are a part of it.

So let’s take responsibility.

If we want to do something about it, there are a number of levels on which we can help. First, let’s sit with it. Be with our awareness of the cruelty, the ugliness, the disgusting inhumanity of it all. Sit with it, stay with it, take it in.

Let all of it be. If we’re angry and want to do something, good. We should be. If we notice ourselves wanting to tune it out or turn away, good. We can better understand our fellow citizens who are doing just that. This is not the time to pretend that we’re saints—that’s part of what’s gotten us into this mess.

I’ve certainly felt both the desire to help and the desire to turn away.

If we sit with all of it, we can get grounded, so we can then move forward from a place of awareness, not reactivity. We don’t want to just lash out, because blind, reflexive anger won’t help anyone. Yelling at people who may support the policy of separating families on social media might feel good, but it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

So let’s get grounded first.

Then, from a more conscious place, we really can do something to help. Speak out by sharing your thoughts on social media, writing or calling your members of Congress, or marching. Donate or volunteer your time. On the national level, the ACLU is a good bet for donations. For a list of local organizations in the Texas border region who are helping immigrant people with legal aid and otherwise supporting their basic needs, see this comprehensive Twitter thread.  

Remember, and vote in November.

But if we want lasting change, there’s more we can do. We can understand that while the abuses of the Trump administration may be cruelty distilled, they are not occuring in a vacuum. What we’re really seeing here is our sins as a country, held up before us.

I truly do not believe there are any bad people. But the world is full of people hurting each other by acting in ignorance. Indeed, I’m often one of them. What do I mean by ignorance? The delusion that any of us are separate, that you and I are not connected, and that some of us matter more than others.

That ignorance is harmful enough on an individual level, playing out in our daily lives. But when it compounds, well, we end up with crying children in tent cities in the desert. What we’re seeing today is less the product of some grand, hateful design, and more of ordinary, everyday misconceptions about the way life really is, multiplied and carried into the halls of material power.

I don’t know if our ignorance really has a beginning. If there is such a thing as original sin, that’s it. But we need only look at the last few decades of our history—of wars on every inhabited continent, drone strikes with little or no accountability, massacres of civilians masquerading as anti-Communist or counter-terrorism or anti-drug efforts, mass incarceration of poor and marginalized peoples, police brutality, deep, entrenched poverty, systemic racism and sexism—to see that the cruelty that is manifesting itself on our southern border isn’t new. This has happened under the watch of Democratic and Republican presidents, and more importantly, throughout all of our lives. What we’re seeing now is a reflection of what we’ve already done.

So what does that make the situation today? A heck of an opportunity to change. Many of us may be tempted to tell ourselves: “I’m not like those people who are hurting the children.” But if we want to help, it’s far more interesting to ask: “what do I have in common with everyone involved—those being hurt and those doing the hurting?” That question is crucial if we really want to be the decent people that we like to believe we are.

If we’re outraged by the images of crying children in camps—good! But if we really want to be better than that as a people, we should start by understanding that right now, we’re not better than that. The situation at the border will eventually pass, because the suffering of the children there is but a symptom of the underlying condition. But that suffering will just keep appearing in different forms unless we address what’s causing it. What the Trump administration is doing is ghoulish, but it’s also an opportunity for all of us to look at our own ignorance and say enough.

I didn’t write letters to the Obama administration asking them to stop the drone strikes, or stating my opposition to the hundreds of thousands of deportations that occurred under their leadership. I wish I had. I didn’t speak out in favor of taking apart our massive war machine, and using the money to feed and house people in need. I wish I had—but I just wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention.

Today, if I continue to delude myself into thinking other people are somehow separate from me, that makes me a part of what’s causing this suffering. I can’t right every wrong, but I can at least recognize how I’m contributing to the problem and do what I can to move past that. We all can.

My point isn’t to beat up on myself or anyone else but to empower us. We’re not going to get far by keeping score, but by remembering, as Christ reminds us from the cross, that when we harm others, we do so because we know not what we do. We should forgive ourselves and everyone else, and see all with compassion. If you voted for the president, bless you. If you voted for another candidate, bless you. If you didn’t vote at all, bless you. We can’t change the past, and our sins are the product of ignorance, not some immutable evil.

But—it’s on each of us to learn to see more clearly. That’s how we stop hurting each other. And until we do so, we have to reckon with our past in the present.

For what it’s worth, I truly believe we can break through our ignorance and stop causing suffering. That’s the entire point of spiritual practice—to see reality and our place within it. We don’t have to see it all at once, but let’s at least start paying attention to what’s in front of us. The Buddha began his journey to enlightenment when he went walking outside the walls of the palace he grew up in, and saw the poor, sick and dying people who lived in the city beyond. He came face-to-face with suffering, and knew that he had to do something about it.

Today, we are all the Buddha. Suffering is standing in front of us, in the guise of the children of those who have come seeking a better life among us, and those among us who would turn them away and tear their families asunder. That suffering is not just at the border, it’s right here, right now, with all of us, knocking on the doors of our hearts.

Will we rise to the call? Will we try to see through our ignorance—using honest introspection, mindfulness, meditation, prayer, contemplation, writing, talking to others and most of all, listening? Will we do what we can to help those who really do need our help? I wish I could pretend that I’ve been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land, but for now, all I can say is that I believe that we really can see more clearly, and act more lovingly. Even if I’m wrong, why not make the effort?

Consider this: if you’re reading this, you’ll probably be dead within 50 years. Likely, so will I. Our homes, our friends, our families, our work, our money, all of it is slipping through our fingers with every breath. That’s a scary thought, but it can also bring clarity.  Awareness of our own impermanence can help us see that what we’re trying to accomplish—through closing off our southern border or our own hearts to the suffering of our fellows—is not only not worth the cost, but impossible to achieve. There is no real security. We have nothing to hold on to. President Trump can’t protect us—he can’t even protect himself. So let’s not grasp for an America that no longer exists or build walls to live behind, trembling in fear of those who may seem different. Instead, let’s do our part to see how we can create a kinder, more generous and more connected world today, and then act accordingly.

As a closing thought:

May all those who are suffering be at peace and at ease.
May all those who are causing suffering be at peace and at ease.

Ian Cooper