Photo by David Hofmann
Directly across the narrow courtyard and one story up from the first-floor apartment my wife and I share lives a man who tends to make more noise than I deem reasonable. Recently, he’s put his attention towards adding high lattice walls to his existing balcony, turning it from an open space into a miniature veranda. The construction sounds and loud conversation that flow through our living room windows have left me feeling tense and angry.
“How dare he disturb my peace?” I say to myself, shuddering at the thought of the parties he must envision hosting in his new outdoor living room. More than once, I’ve fantasized about our management company sending him a sternly-worded notice to cease his amatuer carpentry or be evicted. Sometimes, I’ve just felt flashes of wild rage.
As someone who likes to think of himself as a fairly zen, spiritual person, these are not thoughts and feelings that I’m proud of. “Come on, I’m better than this,” I tell myself. It doesn’t help.
But as the days have gone on, I’ve started to see a connection between my petty grievance and the deep anger and vindictiveness that many of my fellow Americans seem to feel towards some of the people who want to immigrate to this country. There, I believe that I’m standing with the angels—I want us to abolish ICE, create a path to citizenship for anyone who wants it, and open up our borders.
But feeling the sanctity of my own home invaded, I’ve witnessed my generosity of spirit go flying out the window.
A consistent refrain among those who support our government’s abusive behaviors towards immigrant people has been that immigrant people deserve this treatment because they are breaking the law. That coming to the United States and crossing the border without proper authorization is a crime, and therefore merits swift, harsh punishment. “It doesn’t matter how badly we treat these people,” such thinking goes. “They deserve it.”
I’ve been appalled by this line of reasoning. Who hasn’t broken the law in one way or another? Speeding, using drugs, parking in a red zone, taking a questionable tax deduction, littering, underage drinking—I doubt there is an American alive who hasn’t committed at least one nonviolent crime of this ilk.
Abusing people in need because they broke the law is not just hurtful, but absurd when we realize how many of us citizens have done the same and gotten away with it.
But here I am, patting myself on the back for my compassion as I sit in my apartment and secretly hope that my neighbor face the threat of eviction because I’m irritated by his behavior. In other words, under the right circumstances, I start seeing things the same way as the anti-immigrant folks I’ve been looking down on. Yikes.
So what’s all that about?
If I look at myself, I see that a lot of my anger stems from a sense that the order of my home is being violated and things are changing without my consent. In my mind, our apartment building is supposed to be a certain way—predictable, peaceful and quiet. The rogue veranda shatters that order, on the one hand reminding me that my home is not really my castle, and on the other, making me feel foolish for trying to keep my own behavior in line with my imagined sense of propriety.
You mean you can just do whatever you want? The foundations of the universe shake.
Because of course the truth is that very little in life is under our control. There is very little order, at least in a superficial sense—that which seems solid can disappear in an instant. I believe that our actions really do matter, deeply, but the effects are not always obvious or linear in how they appear. Meanwhile, impermanence is constant. Everything comes and goes with the inevitability of waves crashing on the sand, and there’s nothing we can do to hold on to any of it.
But we want to pretend otherwise. We want to feel the sense of security that comes from being a part of something bigger than us. We want to feel that even if we ourselves can’t hold the world together as it is, something or someone can.
So we beat down people who come to our country seeking a better life for themselves and their children, because they crossed an imaginary line. We hurt them to show ourselves that we’re keeping chaos in check; that our rules really can create order. We beat down people within our country too, for all sorts of silly, banal reasons to convince ourselves that the hammer of justice can keep the villains in line. We want to believe that someone is driving this thing, and we’re not just leaves blowing in the wind.
We can take it even deeper than that. We all like to think of ourselves as good people. But to feel like good people, we need bad people, so we can tell ourselves we’re not like them. To define ourselves as separate individuals, we need to create an other to be separate from.
That most of those suffering under the weight of our government’s retribution are some combination of poor, poorly-educated, brown or black makes it easier for many more comfortable folks like me to look away, because, in our minds, those people are all some sort of other.
The gods of order demand blood, and we’ve racked up quite a butcher’s bill. To maintain the illusion of a society in which things are under control, we need to sacrifice people. We need to see power exerted. And who better to target than those at the margins?
Seen clearly, we can see how insane it all is. But we have to look, not just at what our government is doing, but at our own quotidian grudges. Change starts with changing our perspective.
What else can we do? One practice I’m trying this week is to open my own borders. When I hear my neighbor sawing away, I say to myself, “come on in.” As I feel the chaos of a world beyond my control crashing down on me, I repeat, “come on in.”
Sometimes, I say a quick prayer for my neighbor’s well-being. I try to notice when I’m thinking of us as separate and opposed to one another. If I can see it, that sense of separation starts to soften.
I won’t pretend that I’ve had a total change of heart, but I do feel a lot more calm about it. I even find myself thinking about the happiness his project seems to bring him, of his clear satisfaction in building with his own hands something that even I might call elegant.
That counts for something. My wife and I have cracked a few jokes too. When the waves come crashing, what can we really do but laugh and let them carry us? If by doing so, we can also open ourselves up to our shared humanity, then perhaps the world will laugh with us.
Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.