essays on suffering and awakening

A tension I struggle with

While government and politics fall short of an ultimate cure, there’s a lot to be said for some degree of temporal reprieve while we get our hearts and minds sorted out. Indeed, the former can help with the latter. Observing our political struggles (and our feelings on them) can allow us to see suffering more clearly. Engaging in politics with an intention to lift up the community is putting compassion into practice. Even the Buddha needs to eat.

That being said, the Democratic Party that (however imperfectly) embodies compassionate policies loses as many elections as it wins. It’s tempting to think, “Oh, well, half the voters are just plain wrong,” and I do go there. But looked at with a little remove, that perspective starts to feel an awful lot like arrogance.

I often feel a fairly clear sense of political right and wrong. That can leave me running hot. But when the emotions cool a little, I’m left with the nagging sense that it’s not skillful to believe that I’m wiser or more morally clear than those who see things differently—whether from the left or the right. Indeed, we’re doing ourselves and the community a disservice if any of us think we’ve got it all figured out.

That being said, political choices can affect the lives of millions, even billions of people, and some lead to a great deal of harm. We have to live with that, too, and we each bear some responsibility for the behavior of a government acting in our name. We each have a voice.

I don’t know how to square that circle so much as make space for it. I do find it helpful to remind myself that the world is a mirror. If we notice ourselves believing that folks of different political persuasions are uncompassionate or ignorant, perhaps the most useful thing we can do with that is to then ask ourselves, “Where am I exhibiting those qualities?”

Doing so, we can see that regardless of how right we may be on the issues, we’re not giving those who view things differently the benefit of the doubt. We each have a unique perspective on suffering, and whatever our politics, we tend to want to address the pain we know. This can seem cold-hearted from the outside looking in; from the inside, however, it’s more about trying to get through the day.

I do think that an attitude of generosity towards those whose perspectives we may not share or even understand is every bit as important in furthering a healthy society as the laws we pass or the programs we establish. That’s certainly how we would want to be treated—so it’s worth trying extend the same courtesy to others.

Perhaps we can learn to be loosely right—to combine a clear sense of direction with flexibility on how we get there and who we travel with. To soften to our opponents. Or maybe we can throw even direction to the wind and focus on treating each other with compassion wherever the journey takes us. Our basic needs are so simple: water, food, shelter, education, healthcare, community, love. Surely we can all get on board with that?

We all have to live in the house that we’re building, after all.

Ian Cooper