[reposted from my old (now-deleted) LiveJournal account]
On Doing The Right Thing
Never said I was the most tactful shoe on the rack …
We carry a sensitive cargo
Below the water-line
Ticking like a time-bomb
With a primitive design
Behind the finer feelings
The civilized veneer
The heart of a lonely hunter
Guards a dangerous frontier…
He obviously esteemed himself an activist, and happened to be right about a lot of things. Yeah, a lot of people are. But the more I read him, the more he appeared to be clinging jealously to a notion of himself as some exceptional intellectual elite — “one of the few” who has all the answers — and the notion of most everyone else as, not merely idiots, but evil idiots. And yeah, anyone who disagrees is “one of them.”
In other words, another dime-a-dozen malcontent like so many of us, albeit with a lot of good information — and apparently a considerable history of “dharmic labors” — but with precious little inner wisdom in evidence. Struck me as someone who was stuck in reactionary rebellion against that part of old-school authoritarianism which he himself had internalized, but casting about in search of surrogate targets, instead of confronting the roots that had infiltrated his being and dealing with them where they lived. Yeah, same old story. Flip-side scapegoater. Waiting for his medal of valor with growing petulance. Or something.
His tirades vilifying the tragic, but hardly evil, bewildered herd had quickly grown tiresome, as had the familiar imprecision of his arguments and pop-psychologisms, and thus it all added up to a pattern. So I decided to test the pattern. As expected, he couldn’t tolerate dissent. He channelled Dr. Laura for a few rounds (minus only the pseudo-Christian rhetoric), and then deleted the whole thread after telling me off for having dissed his reasoning.
“Righteous indignation is jealousy with a halo.” –H.G. Wells
Well, we all have our bad-hair days, or even a few bad-hair years here-and-there. Hell, it took decades of brutal experience to snap me out of my defensive, wannabe-do-gooder phase.
Was I wrong to pee in his cheerios? I’d say so. It’s his journal to rant in as he pleases. I had always been pretty lukewarm on his reasoning, but when he friended me for whatever reason, wotthehell, I went ahead and friended him back. The first sign of real trouble was when he mistook some of my self-deprecating humor as some sort of cultural malaise that needed to be exposed. At that point, it seemed pretty obvious that I’d have to unfriend him, but the timing didn’t seem right. I hung around a little longer, and then walked away a little later than I should’ve. But that’s all beside the point.
The bottom line is this: What are we, as activists or as contemplatives, really in this for? You can bet the first, reflexive answer most people give will be wrong. And the second. And the third. How many people ever bother to question their own motives for doing what seems to be the right thing? How many will even tolerate the suggestion that they should?
So … what? Why? How?
Real every-day activists don’t get to be heroes. If you’ve opted into this life and are busy making a difference, you’re much more likely to get heckled, bullied, assaulted, arrested, investigated, jailed, falsely charged, raped-pillaged-maimed or even killed as reward for your efforts. Crying foul with every setback will only get you laughed at. You’re not likely to get your name in the paper for doing the right thing, and if you know what’s good for your cause, you won’t want to. That’s the way it’s always been, and the sooner you make peace with that, the better. “We knew the risks when we joined Starfleet.” If you didn’t even read the brochure, then you don’t belong here. Go home and crawl under your bed. Don’t come out to play until you’ve done your homework.
Likewise, the proverbial “Zen Master” who got where he is by actually confronting his own demons didn’t get a fucking trophy for it. He’s not wasting time simpering about how he’s not being fawned over by flocks of adoring fans and largesse-showering disciples, and he doesn’t get to gloss over his own blunders by pointing the finger at others. And if he’s that one-in-a-billion Guru who gets a photo-op with the Pope today, he’s every bit as likely to get a bullet in the head tomorrow, and he’d better know that and not waste time whining about it. Now, the other billion of us are all in line for that second honor too, but this time no-one’s taking names, so just check your dreams of glory at the door.
Oh, and neither of the above are to be found sitting around spewing all-purpose epithets about some ill-defined “they” in the pseudo-presence of a handful of hand-picked online loyalists. That’s not activism, it’s not enlightenment, and it’s not an example worth setting. It’s just self-indulgence and ego-defense, and that’s nothing to get uppity about.
No, if you really want to make a difference, you’d better be prepared to live and die busting your ass in total obscurity. And if you’re doing it for the right reasons to begin with, you’ll never find yourself wondering if it’s worth it. Well, not long enough to bellyache about it, anyway.
But the craving for social gratification is not a valid motive for activism, and finding the right motives — or rather, honestly identifying and dispensing with the wrong ones within yourself — is by far the hardest part of answering that question of why. Without a sound why, there can be no coherent how. And without solid grounding in why and how, all you can do is ride off in all directions at once doing the wrong thing at every point along the way, and all at a stage in the game when most often the only right thing to do is nothing at all.
Our most monumental accomplishments by far are the ones no-one else can see. Any social acknowledgment offered for such accomplishments will always feel empty, because there’s no way for others to really know what effort or suffering you’ve endured, and your mind can never quite bullshit its way completely around that inconvenient fact. So the more you crave the satisfaction of being praised for such victories, the more disturbingly anemic that praise will feel. In fact, you’re better off without it, as it just confuses your motives.
Now, at some point, it will likely seem horribly bitter that the hardest battles are untouchable by praise, but that wears off so long as you don’t cop out, and the fact remains that those inner battles are sine qua non.
There’s no getting around that.
Critical self-awareness is the foundation on which any respectable path, Buddhist or otherwise (or any sober activism, for that matter), must be built if it is to survive with any integrity in the face of even the slightest adversity. But most people can’t be bothered with that essential component, because it’s by far the hardest thing any of us might ever do, and because you don’t get no ticker-tape parades for conquering yourself. Most people are expert imitators and dramatists — especially if it seems to get them out of doing their own homework — but sooner or later, the odor of testosterone always gives them away. Bitterness, hopelessness, indignation, blame-games … these are all evidence of unfinished business between the ears.
So, start with the nuts-and-bolts of your mind — see there the brutal reality of what we are as a species, and never forget that that brutal reality is, first and foremost, the biggest part of YOU — and everything else will follow.
Start anywhere else, and all bets are off.