I remember one time standing on Shuhada Street in Hebron, Palestine and Miriam Levinger, one the founders of Israeli settlements in the 1960s, was yelling at me and saying that, who was I, an American to tell her that her behavior was terrible? Look at what the soldiers of my own country are doing! Look at the wars of the United States! Take the sliver out of my own eye before criticizing anyone else’s behavior, she seemed to be implying.
I remember looking at her while she was screaming and calling me a Christian Nazi, and thinking, ‘but Miriam, you’re also an American – you’re from the Bronx. And, I am here because I’m an American and because the United States is funding this catastrophe, and funding you. Not to mention I’m a human being who cares about others’ suffering even if they are not from the same “group” as me.’ I don’t remember exactly what I said to her. She would often scream until she was short of breath and it was hard to get a word into the mix.
I understood what she was saying, but I also saw that she was using it as an excuse not to look at her own behavior. To say, ‘well you guys are just as bad’ is really no excuse and no solution. I’ve heard such things in the U.S. too when pointing out the results of the unbelievably destructive military ventures by the U.S. throughout the Earth. I’ve gotten literally the same response in mirror – “well, come on now, the U.S. isn’t the only one! There’s a lot of governments that are a lot worse.” And this seems to be the crux of a great problem.
I remember when September 11, 2001 happened, I was 19, and I was apparently quite naive to the ways of the world. When I heard what happened, I thought, ‘whoa, they must be really upset to do this. Hopefully we can figure out what happened and rectify the situation.’ I assumed this logical reaction would prevail, and dialogue would begin to address root causes. You can imagine the terror I then felt to become aware of the times I was living in.
I remember being in a college TV room watching George W. Bush’s first press conference after towers fell. He called for war, for revenge, he called for death and murder to avenge death and murder. I remember scoffing openly repeatedly and then looking around the room and seeing stern faces watching; they absolutely believed him and were going to follow him down that terrible road. I felt a terror sweep over me and soon realized I was living in a place descending into madness.
I do believe that had someone led the way to reason in those days, many would have followed them too. There were many who were just scared and would follow some confident authority figure’s declarations whichever way they went. They wanted someone to describe reality to them. And in this reality, the way it went down, they walked together down an awful road.
It was my great mistake to stop believing in the people of the United States during the period that would follow. When Bush declared that this would be a “generational war” and people went along with it, I think that’s when I began to stop believing in the people. But this was like saying, ‘well, you people are just like that, you will never change.’ It was a lack of belief in people’s capacity to transform, grow, become great humanists, even out of the deepest sickness. And when I started to walk down that road, so a sickness also grew in me that I did not understand.
These kinds of sentiments have become common. People dismiss others as though we can just throw each other away and be done with it. Of course, that’s not a solution either, since we all still inhabit the planet. Together.
My mistake was believing that people wouldn’t change and writing them off. That led to a brick wall dead end.
I did not want to become what I was seeing around me and my error was not distinguishing between behavior and the potential of people. The behavior was terrible, and it’s not logical to excuse unhealthy behavior and normalize it. It’s crucial to point it out and make it known in order to change it. And of course, it has to be changed, otherwise we will be in a state of confusion, hatred, and pain. Much like we are in today.
Many spiritual traditions teach that we have to start with ourselves. This is wise because then we understand the sicknesses firsthand, and also understand what is involved in changing them. This powerful understanding leads to a much deeper ability to then change society.
Knowing that behavior can change, and that people have the deepest potential in them creates an energy of deep creativity and love. I understood this through learning about the Lotus Sutra and the compassion of Shakyamuni, and beginning to practice Nichiren Buddhism. Shakyamuni Buddha knew that all people inherently have Buddha Natures in them and taught that to disrespect someone by denying their vast potential is to go against the Mystic Law. Shakyamuni had immense wisdom, courage, and compassion, and saw through King Ajatashatru and Devadatta, who were trying to murder him; rather than condemning them, he saw them as sick children who he worried about, wanting them to become healthy. He continued to work on their behalf through much difficulty, and they became their deep potential.
Shakyamuni explicitly left the medicine of the Mystic Law for the people of our age, which he described as the “age of fear and evil” when the majority of people would not have teachings to guide their living. It is a teaching and medicine that gives people the ability to see each other’s true nature, and empowers us to bring it out of ourselves and others. To those looking for something to guide them in this age and on their journey in life, who want to see things improve in this world, these teachings and practice are available. It is a practice of self-transformation which leads to action for the well-being of others. It is not a practice that encourages naiveté, but rather summons up strength and ability to confront and transform the challenges we face.
The greatest dead end I’ve ever faced – and I’ve faced it repeatedly – was in not believing that people would change. And it truly is a dead end. We face this now in the global society. The only solution with this understanding is to fight, to war and more war, to condemn them, lock them all up, try to get rid of them, ignore them, push them away and try to shut the door. Then you have a society full of sickness and the ones who need the most help are pushed the furthest away – and then it gets deeper and deeper.
It’s not easy to deal with people who are behaving in terrible ways. But to deal with it knowing that they always have the potential to change puts a different energy into it right away. Otherwise, we all get sick, and it would be better if more of us stop hating, condemning, and giving up on each other.
Truth be told, I didn’t believe in Miriam Levinger, but I remember Palestinians living in that area saying over and over, “we used to have great Jewish neighbors here [before the Balfour Declaration]. They were our friends, we went to each other’s parties, raised our kids together. If these new neighbors [the Israeli settlers of Hebron] could just act like our old neighbors, it would be paradise here again.”
There is a depth to this thing beyond what I can say. I hope I’ve done my part.
Chelli Stanley can be reached at www.writingsthroughchelli.com/.