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The Squirming Buddha

The world hemorrhages. Refugees flow from its wounds.

Is there a way to be innocent of this?

People are washed ashore. They die of suffocation in humanity-stuffed trucks. They flee war and politics; they flee starvation. And finally, we don’t even have sufficient air for them to breathe.

For words to matter about all this, they have to express more than “concern” or even outrage – that is to say, they have to cut internally as well as externally. They have to cut into our own lives and personal comfort. They have to cut as deep as prayer.

“Wonderful column, Bob. It brings up the post-Katrina images of armed citizens blocking a bridge so that our own refugees could not infest their neighborhoods.”

These are the words of my sister, Sue, who emailed me last week in response to my column about the refugee crisis and the global shock over the picture of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body, which washed ashore in Turkey after his family’s boat capsized during the short crossing to the Greek island of Kos in their attempt to flee to Germany. As she let her personal feelings wash ashore as well, I thought about where I had not gone with that column: into the realm of personal responsibility for the larger welfare of the human race.

“I thought,” she went on, “of offering to open my home, and then the multiple worries, inconveniences, fears, etc., etc. sounded in, trumpets shooting fire as ‘practical arguments’ shot down compassion.

“What in my life today, in myself, in my community, in my culture, prepares ME, not some other person in some border area trying to live his or her own complicated life, what prepares ME to take in a refugee?”

This is where I felt the cut of razor wire.

“My bigger TV? The little glider in my backyard? Any of my stuff? My careful savings in order to have enough to pay my quarterly estimated taxes and what’ll come due next April? My love of poetry and Shakespeare? . . . I look around at my conservative neighbors, who and wherever they are, and I wonder just how very different I am — not in what I believe but in what I will actually do.

“I’d contribute money — and occasionally do — but to which Band-Aid?”

I open this door of uncertainty not to pretend I have answers but precisely because I don’t.

Sue concluded: “I really and truly do not know how to work effectively for the changes that are needed. I know it is not ‘up to me’ — thank goodness for that — but my day-to-day life just leaves me so unfit for much more. Even taking the time for this email effort at dialogue means that I’ve blown the window of time I had to maybe catch up on my paperwork, a daily and weekly depressing dilemma for me. I’ve never fit in solidly with collective humanity, and that I have not remedied this in any realistic way, I can truly attest, is a failing.”

I confess not knowing what to say in response. I think about the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire: “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark . . .” I think about the refugees in my own city, Chicago, standing at intersections holding signs that plead for help. Help means money. Maybe it also means eye contact. Sometimes I don’t even have any of the latter to spare.

But no, that’s not quite it. Eye contact can be the beginning of God knows what. A dozen years ago I gave eye contact to an old friend, a Guatemalan who had fled U.S.-sponsored hell in his native country in the 1980s. I’d written about him when I was a reporter. We were friends, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time.

Then, there he was. It was 2004, a year into George Bush’s occupation of Iraq. We were at the Federal Building, at the end of a march protesting the war. When I saw him, my blood ran cold because I could tell in an instant that his life had collapsed. I could tell that he was destitute and homeless and utterly lost and the last thing I wanted to give him was eye contact, but I did. And with it I offered him the mirage of hope.

We talked. I invited him for dinner. He was a skilled carpenter and did some work for me. Eventually, a few months into our reconnection, I invited him to move into my house. He lived there for almost five years.

This was not an easy situation. His spiritual wounds were deep; he treated them with alcohol. I know that I helped him, but I don’t think I would be so open again. I’m careful about the eye contact I dole out, but I cannot sever myself from a sense of responsibility to others in need.

Once I found a $10 bill in a parking garage. As I exited the garage, I passed a man panhandling for spare change and kept on walking, but half a block later, stopped, paralyzed with guilt. Whose money had I just found? I returned to the panhandler, reached into my pocket and dug out a dollar in change. I was still $9 ahead. As I continued to my destination (a movie theater), I felt my inner Buddha squirming inside me with disappointment. I had selfishly kept the bulk of my lucky find, to be squandered, no doubt, on junk food. And suddenly I knew the title of my autobiography, if I ever wrote it: The Squirming Buddha.

I hate the idea of razor wire on national borders. I am torn apart by the suffering of refugees and the bombastic manipulation of politicians, who try to turn the planet’s most vulnerable into national enemies. But like my sister I don’t trust or understand my relationship with collective humanity. Who are we in relation to others? What do we owe them? What do we owe ourselves? How do we unite in all our flawed humanity? Let the dialogue begin.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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