“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.” ~Marshall Rosenberg
Wouldn’t our lives be easier if Sarah Palin was single-handedly responsible for the atrocities in Arizona yesterday?
She was not. Obviously. Today, however, I have zero compassion for Palin or her ilk.
An innate idealist, I want to believe that bigotry and verbal and physical acts of violence by people (wherever they may fall on the sane/insane spectrum) against people of a different skin color or sexual orientation or political stance is ever so gradually dying out. That humans in my generation and younger are more open-minded and less likely to detest, shoot, and murder black people or Hispanics or gays or liberal politicians than, say, in past eras.
Upon hearing news of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of the innocent bystanders on Saturday, January 8 in Arizona, my idealism was invaded by pessimism. Hatefulness in thought, speech and, ultimately, action, is all too alive and well. Foreign Policy magazine warns of 16 potential war zones in 2011, including Zimbabwe, Sudan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Columbia, Mexico and right here in my adopted country, Guatemala. And with the firing of those bullets on Saturday morning at that Tuscon Safeway, even the United States is apparently a political terror zone.
A year ago, I was oddly compelled to research and write this opinion piece in which I defined “Palinsanity” as a psychological conundrum that debilitates victims by turning Americans (left, right and center) into frothing citizens who utter incoherent claims about our country’s demise.
After immersing myself in Palinisms and reviewing footage and articles until I was red in the face, I slaved over the essay with help from my friends and editor. Then, to avoid succumbing to full-blown Palinsanity myself, I turned away. Clearly, as a liberal-hippie-yogini-vegetarian, I typically opt not to watch Fox. I haven’t seen her reality TV show. I removed her from my Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Ignorance was bliss. Still, anyone could see that she wasn’t retreating but reloading and gaining fame and power all the time. Her every inane tweet generates publicity. (By the by, her Twitter and Facebook fan count has more than doubled in the past year and is nearing 3 million.) I did take a gander at her new book, America by Heart, in a Boston bookstore last month and laughed lightheartedly as I read its inside flap, which says preposterous things like, “graced with intimate memories, this remarkable book gives us a close-up view of an extraordinary woman who is not afraid to speak out and defend the American values in which she so deeply believes.”
The most irritating thing about her persona is her Fundamentalism: the narrow minded way she sticks to her boilerplate position on any issue. It riles me up because she then becomes an unattractive mirror for my own tendency to stick to MY beliefs, MY boilerplate position on issues like nonviolence and enlightened living. (I am a yogavangelist, after all.) So right there, with the admission of something I have in common with Sarah Palin, there is a tiny spark of compassion beginning to ignite.
I do not hate Sarah. Former Governor Palin is not the root of the problem, but she and her popularity are a symptom. (True, an obnoxious symptom, but still a symptom.) There are a plethora of complex, overlapping issues here. Where does free speech end and inciting violence begin? Why are gun laws so lax and how can they be quickly and effectively improved? What is so horrible about the health care bill? When will we be able to begin a civilized debate on immigration? How can we fix our very broken mental health care system and offer real therapy and healing to the mentally ill or unstable?
But to me, the biggest and scariest issue at hand is the continuing polarization of our country, our world, ourselves. The separation, the never ending Us-Versus-Them mentality, and the building of higher and higher fences between factions is reflected in the ever absurd 24-hour cable news media and blogosphere. People in America haven’t changed, the marketing and packaging of “news” has. The right wing seems frozen in some fantastic long-gone generation when our country was more dignified. Yet people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (and some pundits on the left like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, to a certain extent) have made it cool to be extremely right (or left) wing, histrionic, staunchly defensive, and proudly offensive. As self-described “vitriol-spewing” member of the political media, Matt Taibbi, poignantly points out:
There’s plenty of power and money to be won by skillfully stimulating public anger against some or all of the rest, and there are few rewards for restraint.
In the media, the situation is even worse. You can make vast fortunes riling up mobs. And because it’s a fiercely competitive market, there’s an obvious and immediate benefit to using superheated rhetoric — it’s more entertaining, gains more attention, and definitely gets more viewers and listeners and, er, readers.
This terrible tragedy, like all terrible tragedies, brings to light (again) the irrefutable fact that We The People are ignorant. And just what is it that we are ignoring? As Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You, “Entrenched in the tunnel vision of our personal concerns, what we ignore is our kinship with others. One reason we train as warrior-bodhisattvas is to recognize our interconnectedness—to grow in understanding that when we harm another, we are harming ourselves.”
We know this in theory and from personal experience. No matter our spiritual or religious beliefs or practices, in the face of a disturbing tragedy, it’s natural to experience reactions of disgust, despair and/or disdain directed toward some scapegoat. It gives us something we can point to and blame and then feel that we’ve accomplished something. But lashing out and hurting others hurts both us and them. When are we going to integrate this truth into practice? How will the events of history and of yesterday lead us to cure this ignorance, this apathy, this inaction? I, for one, am not ready to send metta (unconditional lovingkindness) to Ms. Palin, or Mr. Beck, or the shooter, Jared Loughner. (You can’t fake metta; it doesn’t work that way.) But one day I will be able to connect with the fact that they and all beings want what I want: happiness, health, safety and freedom. As long as I keep practicing vigilantly, maybe compassion will come sooner than later.
p.s. If you have the time and soul, take this pith advice on honoring the shooting victims through service. And, if you haven’t already, please sign the MoveOn.org petition to Congress and TV networks to end the violent rhetoric, because “we must debate, not hate.”