I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980’s and 90’s. Raised Jewish, I went to Hebrew school like any good little reformed Jewish boy. I loved going because I could sneak into the back with friends and smoke cigarettes. As a teenager I frequented the punk rock clubs of Berkeley and San Francisco, getting drunk and stoned with friends in the gutters and back alleys of the suburban America we so loathed.
When I was 16 my mother lost her battle with cancer. Six months before she died I was visiting the Western/Wailing wall in Jerusalem, Israel. It was part of a confirmation trip I was on with sixty other young Jewish teens. Although I was mostly enjoying the trip because I could buy and drink as much beer as my friends and I wanted, I haphazardly found a strange calm in the old city of Jerusalem. As I was standing at the wall reflecting on my life and my mother’s illness, I tuned into the sounds all around me. All at once there came the ringing of church bells blended with the call to mosque and the mumbled prayers of orthodox Jews. At that moment I simultaneously felt a connection and a dissonance. The connection was what I have now come to understand as the unity and interdependence we all share as beings inhabiting this planet. The dissonance was the war, isolation and suffering that come from forgetting this unity and interdependence. It was so obvious to me in that moment that we are not separate, we all depend on each other for our well-being and life. A few moments later I stuck a piece of paper in the wall with a prayer written on it as is Jewish custom. My prayer was asking that my mother could be spared from her illness and eminent death. This was my first lesson in impermanence.
At my mother’s wake you could find me in the garage punching holes in boxes. I just wanted the half-hearted condolences to stop and people to just leave me alone in my anger and grief. I couldn’t relate to anyone and I was frustrated and at odds with the world. The cynicism of my punk rock roots had opened my eyes to a wider world, but it had also instilled a hatred and frustration with it. This cynicism combined with being bullied much of my youth and growing up in an environment that prized the individual over the community, formed the conditions for the self-isolation and low self-esteem that continued on throughout my teens and into my twenties. The only way I knew how to deal with it was to create an emotional wall and to swallow all of the pain, unconsciously driving the blame into myself. This wall not only cut me off from a genuine connection with others, but it cut me off from a genuine connection with myself. It wasn’t until I was able to unpack the layers of my pain, cease blaming outside factors and make a conscious choice to feel, that I was able to understand my inner turmoil, begin to heal and to experience my true pain as the wall I place between myself and others.
The story of my early life as described here is not unique. We have epidemics of low self-esteem and self-isolation in America and elsewhere, and we have a million ways to numb ourselves. In the developed world material wealth and individualism have become the markers of status and happiness, our basic human frailties of confusion, greed and hatred are preyed upon to serve corporate, economic and ideological interests, and we are taught that strength is derived from self-sufficiency and independence. This couldn’t be further from reality. It is an illusion to think that even if we have personally amassed comfort and wealth over a lifetime of hard work, it’s fruits are solely our own. If you analyze carefully there is nothing that we can or have accomplished singularly and individually. There is always interconnection and interdependence. When we neglect to recognize the interdependent nature of the world it is easy to become cynical and apathetic. When we don’t take care of our own inner world of judgments and biases it is easy to blame and hate others for the problems we perceive. Instead we must make a conscious choice to recognize and live our interconnection by becoming soldiers of love and compassion towards ourselves and others.
Truly embodying and training in love and compassion takes extraordinary courage and it does not always feel good. It is as much a training and practice as an act. It requires us to gradually give up our own selfish aims and motivations and to at least make others wants and needs as important as our own, if not more. When we practice and train in developing love we are increasing our ability to give affection, wish happiness and to genuinely find joy in the well being of others. When we practice and train in developing compassion we are strengthening our ability to bear witness to suffering and to spring into action to relieve the pain of others when necessary. Too often we box ourselves into an ideal of what we think love and compassion should look like. Instead of putting effort into growing them we catalogue our failures and therefore our efficacy to actually be loving and compassionate decreases. As an alternative we must begin to broaden where we place our value. Outward acts of love and compassion are important, but if we limit the value of love and compassion solely to an outward act it is easy to turn it into just another hallmark card for our shelf. The strength of love and compassion not only lies in their expression, but in the mind that is embodying them.
We have seen the breakdown from the community, to the family and finally down to the individual. Alone, isolated and surrounded by stuff, many of us are questioning a model that espouses exponential material growth as the touchstone for human well-being. Our education, economic and political systems are built on competition and over-consumption, media and main-stream religious expression has been watered down to serve corporate and economic interests, and the only remedies we are offered are endless wars and more consumption. With all of these pertinent issues coming to a head, maybe it is time to stop searching outside for the answers? Systems of inequity and oppression must be challenged and dismantled, but systems are also made up of the people who support them consciously and unconsciously. Our states of mind and actions are what drive those systems. If we wish to have economic, political and social systems that reflect love, compassion, care for our environment and overall well-being, we must embody and train in those qualities ourselves. We must begin to shift the focus within our individual lives, families and communities away from hyper-individualism, materialism and competition. We must begin to consciously create environments, communities and human interactions that honor and embody interdependence, love, compassion, and liberation for all. Step by step we can put effort into watering our individual seeds of love and compassion, and we can put the conditions in place to help our families and communities develop them as well. We all have the seeds and potential. We must put effort into the changes we want to see.
Photos by Bess Hamiti, Kosovo.
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