As a destructive force there is nothing as strong as anger. An instant of anger can destroy all the positive actions…Indeed there is no fault as serious as anger. Patience, on the other hand, as a discipline that neutralizes and prevents us from succumbing to anger, is unrivaled. Through it, the suffering we endure from the heat of the negative emotions is relieved. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we resolve to practice patience, gaining inspiration through reflecting on its advantages and on the terrible effects of anger.
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama
This fiery season of the presidential primaries has reached a level of anger, hate, intolerance and bullying unlike anything I can ever remember. A current of fear is growing in me and I wonder where our sense of decency has gone. Sometimes I feel utter resignation and want to disappear into the quiet of my life hoping this will all just go away and everything will be fine – the way I want everything to be. We really are all alike – wanting things to be the way we want them to be. Yet it’s frightening to think that the way things turn out might actually depend on who can incite the most fear, the most anger, and scream the loudest.
Recently when I ran into a friend at the farmers’ market, she said “Wow, I haven’t seen you in such a long time! Where’ve you been? Some other country?” I hadn’t been, but in some ways it felt as if I had. I live in a very progressive small town in northern California, and I had just returned from visiting family in a very conservative small town in Wisconsin – in fact it was rated by Business Insider the most conservative in the state.
It’s a lovely setting along Lake Michigan; the cottage at the end of the wooded gravel road sitting just a few steps from the beach, the lake’s vast horizon, the endless color changes and the perpetual gentle shushing of the water on the shore. In the summertime, family dinners on the screen porch are the norm with at least ten of us at most meals, from grandchildren to grandparents along with any neighbor who happens to wander by. The conversation commonly includes the latest news of friends, the varying health ailments at the table, and the on-going efforts to maintain some semblance of a beachfront in the face of unstoppable natural forces. Eventually, the conversation always circles around to politics, and we tenderly avoid the galaxy-sized black holes between our views.
During dinner on the day of our arrival, my mother-in-law, sitting at the head of the table, made a very matter-of-fact comment about white supremacists in Idaho. I, equally matter-of-factly, said I thought there also were a lot of libertarians in Idaho. Without skipping a beat, my father-in-law reared back from the opposite end of the table and said “Hey! Wait a minute! I’m a libertarian. So you think I’m a white supremacist?” Oops. “That’s it!” said my mother-in-law in her incisive let’s-keep-the-peace voice, instantly putting a stop to the conversation. And that was the end of that, until about five days later.
It was a tranquil and beautiful morning walk along the paved cattail-lined path, ponds on either side, and in the distance the biggest American flag imaginable waving high above everything; each stripe alone was 13 feet high. I’d never seen anything like it. My father-in-law was talking with my husband about the growing Muslim population in the community, Islamic laws and customs, and the general culture of fear around Muslims that was spreading far and wide. Despite the growing outrage welling in my gut, I decided to keep quiet, stay out of trouble, enjoy the scenery and just listen. A little walking meditation – just walk and listen, I thought, breathe, walk and listen.
I was feeling pretty proud of myself for keeping quiet, a little lost in my own thoughts, when my father-in-law turned to me and said “And what about that comment you made the other day.” In a heartbeat, I felt myself take a breath as I gingerly and steadily stepped across the galaxy and into the morass. I started by apologizing for giving him the wrong impression, and assured him that I do not think of him as a hateful white supremacist. I was relieved when he accepted my apology with a tip of his head and slight smile. Then he asked me if I knew that Webster’s defines him as a heathen – as someone who does not believe in God. “ Well, maybe you don’t have to believe in Webster’s.” I said, and got a bigger smile.
As we walked, he talked more about libertarianism and the Constitution, baiting me to challenge his way of thinking. It was clear that neither one of us really wanted to cross the great divide to the other’s side of the black hole; but this is my husband’s father, my children’s grandfather, a man I’ve known for 30 years, and I love him.
So I stopped, looked him in the eye and said, “You know, we’re so loyal to our opinions. How would it be if we suspend our loyalties long enough to ask ‘Would you be willing to tell me what you mean by that?’ Can we talk with each other with curiosity and let our knee-jerk assumptions go for the moment?” “Of course you and I can do that,” he said, “but the rest of the world can’t.” “Well,” I said, “let’s just you and I try.” He looked at me a little quizzically and I said, “You know that mindfulness stuff I was telling you about? The stuff I teach? This is how it works.” And in that moment, something between us shifted and softened, leaving both of us feeling a little triumphant.
For the rest of the visit we didn’t talk about politics or anything else too controversial. On the quiet early morning of our departure as we said good-bye, this lovely man of 82 looked at me, gave me a hug and said “We did good, didn’t we?”