‘Tis the season for rolling out the plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes, Santa faces, and life-size biblical figurines. Everywhere from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires to Taipei to Kinshasa and even in Antarctica, people spend hours and excess energy worrying about the best arrangement for their bizarre little plastic wonderland. Some people will be doing so to draw people in and profit from their desire for a merry shopping experience, while others will be engaging in what they regard as a beautiful tradition, trying to recapture magic from years gone by, or trying to create new and flawless wonder for their own children. What is it all for?
To reduce the Christmas phenomenon to its timeless meanings has surely been tried millions of times throughout the ages but it may yet be a worthwhile effort today. Right now, the buzz on the web is all guns and doomsday type talk. The ingredient sorely lacking in most exchanges is the meaning of Christmas, perhaps best described as an eruption of empathy spilling over every cup. Guanyin, instead of Jesus, may be more suited to the task of representing this and not only because she is almost always depicted with a bottle of compassion pouring out to reach the world over, but also because this is her singular purpose. Christ’s mission may very well be as uniquely focused, but too many folks have come to quibble with the details: he died for our sins, he was born of a virgin, he is the incorporation of the one true God, and so on. Maybe Jesus was all about trying to be the best Jesus he could be, despite the problems he (and we) all face. There was war, greed, disease, doomsday-mongering, hunger and famine, political upheaval, religious and territorial disputes, land and water grabs, betrayal, and environmental crises, all waiting for a young Jesus just as they await every child born unto this earth in the 21st century. Yet, everyone of these children, despite the heroic, terrible or just average decent people they may turn out to be, are born equipped with the essential features to deal with the anxiety of the world as self-aware beings. That’s where the bhodisattva Guanyin comes in.
A bhodisattva is sort of like a Buddhist saint or holy figure who embodies a message of strength or protection. The name Guanyin or Guanshiyin itself roughly translates as the ‘observer of the world’s cries’. Her message is one based solely on compassion. That is spreading love and empathy no matter what comes your way. You can find her image in most Chinese homes and nearly every vegetarian restaurant in the Chinese-speaking world today.
Now, I am as weak as the next person when it comes to maintaining my cool in the face of what I consider a personal or general injustice. I am also depressingly willing to throw in the towel on a daily basis when it comes to our species. Then I stop myself, breathe deeply and think of migrating humans thousands of years ago. I think of foraging tribes going into the highest, lowest, coldest, warmest, driest or wettest places on the planet and I realize something completely undeniable, a truth for all people and seasons. The only way they could have succeeded, and they had or we wouldn’t really be here today, is through the love and wisdom that made shame and empathy two of the most important characteristics of these mobile societies. If those migrating families were hating on one another the way we can sometimes hate our family members today, it simply wouldn’t have worked. If they were going to war with other tribes over resources they claimed to own, the way nation states do today, homo sapiens sapiens would no longer exist. Furthermore, if they didn’t have the humility to give in or the wisdom to split apart when necessary, mass extinctions would have been near complete. This gives me hope when I need it most.
I bolster my faith in humanity further by thinking about our closest primate cousins.[i] There are myriad lessons to learn from the other great apes (it is essential to remember that we are one of only six remaining apes on earth today, including gibbons), but I think we miss out on these valuable reminders about coping far more often than not. We can learn from the way they love, share, mate, eat, and even groom. We would recognize the empathy and shame element throughout their daily lives. While I am not going to say these are the most peaceful beings on the planet nor do I aim to deny the war-making of chimpanzees (a favorite for those who like to deny the benevolent nature of hominids), I am going to argue that they understand the overarching law of their societies well: it is either love or leave. Be nice or disappear. This takes practice and it surely must work against other very powerful impulses but it is well worth it. The Dalai Lama spent endless hours of his young life cultivating this skill, as do others who seek enlightenment. Harmony and peace are celebrated in every single culture on the planet, are they not? Goodwill is more of a symbol of strength than viciousness could ever be. In fact, behind almost every effort at war is a promise, by the warmongering leaders, of peace.
In the aftermath of the Newton shooting, the following post went viral on Facebook and other outlets: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” This quote probably caught on in such a big way because of the simple truth of the message and its reminder of what to do when we feel depleted and scared, frightened about what the disaster we’ve watched unfold will ultimately mean for our world. The always familiar Fred (Mister) Rogers delivered this quote years ago to an audience who revered him for his simplicity and his gentle urging to love and be kind. There are certainly many more helpers than those seeking to profit in these disasters, no matter where you look. (Absurd claims about the uniquely organized and peaceful nature of Japanese after the 311 earthquake had racist undertones in my opinion. Haitians were just as dignified following the devastating 2010 earthquake according to most accounts and the same was true in post-Katrina New Orleans, notwithstanding media distortions.)
Despite all the bad news we are bombarded with daily, it is important to be just as diligent and as informed of the positive developments. This can seem like a difficult task and it is obviously critical to be as alert as possible concerning grave and dangerous trends, but there is and was always a growing group of dedicated individuals leading a way forward. Jeremy Rifkin, a contemporary economist and thinker, proposes that empathy is the way out of the current social, economic, environmental clustercuss we are living through today and that the 21st century form of communication, allowing humans much greater reach than ever before, is the key to extending this empathy to every form of life on the planet.[ii] This argument admonishes us to leave behind the self-interested ideas of the Enlightenment and recognize that our survival is actually a greater OUR survival.
Rifkin and others claim that these ideas are backed up by cutting-edge science and cannot be dismissed as new age noise. We can certainly recognize the differences between humans: male and female, ethnic backgrounds, national citizenship, sexual orientation, political and philosophical leanings, and weakness and strength. We should also see that all of these meaningless divisions are becoming increasingly blurred in modern tolerant societies. Equality under the law should be extended to each and every one of us and this should be genuine. I certainly want to live in a world where people are not discriminated against based on how they choose to live their life, as long as the lifestyles people lead are not sociopathic of course. Yet dangers lurk behind accepting progress in this form as real progress. Obama supporters constantly celebrate the fact that we have a president who is hip, and has evolving views, but they are blinded to the harsh reality that the current president can easily be proven guilty of manslaughter in any genuinely free society that allows equal protection under the law. Of course war is murder but battle lines are blurred and Obama’s tears for the children of Sandy Hook are meaningless so long as he sanctions the death of children in Afghanistan or Pakistan. What about the children of his political headquarters of Chicago? Why hasn’t he led the way in encouraging approaches that actually work there? For example, the pioneering efforts of the group Ceasefire who send out interrupters to give a real human and local presence to preventing violence[iii] would seem like an excellent way to lend support to a community in desperate need of violence intervention. Why aren’t we all shocked and demanding something be done to halt gun violence that is very real and more dangerous on the streets of the poorest cities in the country?
Instead, we hear platitudes from the president and his supporter about possibly reintroducing a ban on assault weapons or “looking at other sources of the violence”[iv]. Does that mean we can talk about the addiction to war or the unquestioned support of Israel or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia? What about the constant antagonizing of peaceful governments who provide for their people more than any previous governments but don’t obey the US model or the Washington Consensus? It is hard to believe that any real change can happen while we bail out and reward the greediest members of society and don’t bother to strengthen empathic organizations and professions. As pointed out by many around the country, the most selfless acts and the brave helpers that the country is rightfully honoring today are teachers.[v] It is built into the profession to care about and want to protect children but this becomes harder to do in schools that are crumbling where teachers are dependent on absurd measurements of success and salaries that don’t allow these professionals much comfort, if any.
So it is in this time of phony and false words amongst phony and false, plastic symbols of nature and benevolence that have somehow come to represent Christmas or the birth of Christ that we might turn to a Buddhist symbol instead. While the dread of the end times haunt us on a daily basis and with many more nightmares yet to appear, we can turn to an idea as old as our species itself. Love and empathy need to be brought to the forefront of our society and we cannot be naïve enough to expect leadership from our “leaders”. It must come from ourselves and from our perceptions of the world. It must come with a renouncement of the idea that human nature is the problem. Rather, it should be recognized that the cause is the scatterbrained plastic nature of our society that scarcely allows for even decent exchanges if a profit is not to be gained. Plasticity implies the ability of something to be molded. Neuroplasticity, an exciting concept in neuroscience that has replaced the absurd outdated belief that the human brain is a physiologically static organ, is often overlooked and there aren’t many indications of this in the way we organize our society.[vi]
When Charles Dickens created the character Ebeneezer Scrooge in the middle of the 19th century, he was renouncing not so much the greedy nature of humans or the problems that wealth creates but rather the ignorance of those who know and do not do anything. Or as one excellent analysis of the work points out, “there was nothing Dickens hated more than people who deliberately shut their eyes and pretended not to know or understand in order to promote their own already established attitudes.”[vii] In a world where poverty was so brutal or where death was so prevalent and haunting, such as Dickens’ own, pretending you were blind to the harsh nature of society took an enormous amount of trying. Is our world so different though? Aren’t we all so bombarded by the nasty brutish reality of our modern economy? Then maybe we should abandon the knee-jerk reactions to the disasters we face and instead incorporate this empathy, which comes in abundance during these frightening moments, into a new self. A real human self that reaches out to people everyday everywhere even if it seems there is no time or no patience to do so. We can awaken every morning as Scrooge did on that 19th century Christmas morning we all can recall so clearly. Maybe we can place a statue of Guanyin near our bed and remember to observe the world’s tears and listen to the world’s cries and be emboldened and strengthened in our resolve to help alleviate them, as opposed to weakened by our inability to address them. Bolivian president Evo Morales interprets the Mayan end that we hear so much about to actually be the end of greed and selfishness and the beginning of an age of collectivism that will restore balance and harmony to our Pachamama or Mother Earth.[viii] Here’s hoping he is right!
Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] For more on this, please read the intriguing and excellently researched book by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, Harper(2011) and check out their website at http://www.sexatdawn.com/
[ii] See Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis Tarcher/Penguin; (2010).
[iii] Please watch the 2011 documentary, The Interrupters, directed by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz.
[iv] From a comment made by President Obama during the second debate.
[v] Please see Dave Lindorff’s excellent article “America’s Teachers: Heroes or Greedy Bastards,”17 December 2012 at https://www.counterpunch.org/2012/12/17/americas-teachers-heroes-or-greedy-bastards/
[vi] For more on this, please see an interview with University of California at San Francisco, Michael Merzenich at http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/merzenich.htm
[vii] See Katherine Kroeber Wiley’s Introduction to the 2004 reprint of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth published by Barnes and Noble Classics.
[viii] Transcript of Evo Morales Ayma, President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, at the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 26, 2012.