This world is like a dog’s curly tail, and people have been striving to straighten it out for hundreds of years; but when they let it go, it has curled up again. How could it be otherwise? ––Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga
I recently found myself sobbing over the kitchen sink. (No, it wasn’t the huge pile of dishes—this is serious.) Wanting my children to hear the music that shaped me as a child, I had downloaded a Peter, Paul and Mary anthology, and was wrist-deep in suds when I heard, for the first time since leaving my parents’ house, the trio’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a’Changin’.”
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
All the starry-eyed, this-time-for-sure passages of my life descended on me as I heard those words. With that song in their hearts, did they really believe, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, that racism and bigotry were finally at bay? While we sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” at summer camp, did we really believe that unnecessary and unjust wars ginned up for venal and cynical ends would cease when the soldiers came home from Viet Nam? When Tracy Chapman sang “Talkin’ About a Revolution,” did we really believe, as we elected a president who felt our pain, that we would henceforth neither feel pain ourselves nor inflict it on others? Did we really Hope for Change as Springsteen revived Dylan’s song, and believe Change had come as we listened to the swearing-in on that “historic” January morning?
We were imposed upon. It isn’t going to happen.
“Your Efforts Are Helping to Save the World,” proclaimed the envelope from one of the liberal PACS I have supported. Nonsense. Sometimes the game will go our way, and sometimes it won’t. We are never going to save the world.
Swami Vivekananda knew this; so did the author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?…The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises…All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.”[i]
The planet will eventually be engulfed by the dying sun. The light bulb of prana in the Lava Lamp of the Cosmos will burn out, and all the swirling, ephemeral forms it has been animating will settle back into undifferentiated akasha. At last, even the distinction between matter and energy will be revealed as illusion, and the whole universe will subside into Oneness. When the time is ripe—insofar as we can speak of time in a universe without name or form—the whole blessed thing will start over.
My efforts aren’t saving diddly.
Oh, I do what I can—we all do. We make donations, attend vigils and demonstrations, stay informed, shop responsibly, pray, volunteer, recycle, vote. These are all good things, and it is good that we do them. But we deceive ourselves and court discouragement if we believe we are really fixing things.
We aren’t the owners of the world—we are merely the housekeepers. We cannot order major renovations; the most we can do is clean up messes. The floor we clean today will be muddy again tomorrow; whether trampled by well-meaning people who didn’t think to check their shoes, or big-booted jerks who couldn’t care less, it will need to be cleaned again sooner or later. And we can either be miserable about that, or we can learn to love the housework for its own sake, and for what it can teach us.
This summer, heavy rain washed seeds from our flower bed out into the grass, and now the lawn is full of marigolds. Meanwhile, the contaminated leaf mulch we put in the garden has filled the flower bed with grass. We can plant seeds, but they may not stay planted; we can pull the weeds, but they will not stay pulled. New ones will come in their place. And even if the lawn and garden are immaculate for a while, lo: the grass withers; the flower fades.[ii]
I am in dire need of a new way to think about politics, because the stress of defending the world from greedy, cynical hypocrites is turning me into something just about as unpleasant. If I walk around in a foul mood because of what I read in the Huffington Post, are the people in my immediate vicinity any better off for my righteous indignation?
This is an easy trap to fall into because even the most spiritually committed of us can still secretly believe that all this stuff we practice only pertains to our little, subjective lives, whereas politics represents hard-headed objective reality. Though we need to love our neighbor, it’s very important that we hate Dick Cheney– as though emotional calories expended on politics are like those in ice cream eaten straight from the box: they don’t “count,” somehow. But they do.
So this is why I am no longer posting links to snarky, Schadenfreude-laced political news items on my Facebook page– I am reframing my politics. Personal, emotional crusade out, karma yoga in. And when the world goes right on doing what it does on its own timetable, it will not mean anything; I’ll just get out the mop and the weed-digger again tomorrow.
“I wonder what’s wrong with the crepe myrtle,” I asked my wife. “Look how brown the blooms are.”
“Well, it is August, you know,” she answered.
Ah, yes…so it is.
[i] Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, 5, 7
[ii] Isaiah 40:8