A week ago Sunday, a friend sent me a link to a story about Time Magazine covers. According to the article, the magazine has different covers for its US edition as compared to its three other editions (Europe, Asia, South Pacific): the former focus on personal issues and feelings while the latter on international events of significance. Although the assertion itself has been questioned by some who commented on the story, this story sparked some conversations and reflections for me that led to my deciding to make it this week’s topic.
At the time of receiving this link, I was leading a retreat. Later that same day I led a session in which I described some of my vision and thoughts about money and resource allocation. Little did I know that, in the end, an interaction I had during this session would lead to my having more understanding about the significance of this difference in cover stories.
During this session I explained how, in order to be able to develop a vision I take pains to create a critical distance within myself from the context within which I live so I can reflect on it sufficiently to see it. This is my intuitive understanding of what Karl Marx did in order to create his analysis of capitalism. As part of this, I have made a point for years now of not collecting coupons. I know that being able to make this choice is a form of privilege that those who live in poverty cannot take on. I do it as a way to distance myself from the repeated exposure of my nervous system to the idea that getting things for less money is the most important thing in life.
In the midst of my description, which felt both vulnerable and passionate, I learned that someone heard my story as criticism and became defensive. This person, whom I will call Mel, is someone I have known for years, for whom I have deep affection and whom I consider a friend.
This is not by far the first time I am heard as judging when I don’t experience myself inside as judging. It’s not that I don’t ever judge people. I definitely do. Rather, it’s that I am seen as judging way more often than I actually am judging people. Although many people didn’t hear a judgment, Mel was far from the only one.
What I felt at the time was a level of acute anguish and despair, which included two intertwined strands. One was the experience itself, the gap between what I saw and felt and how I act, and what Mel, my sweet friend, saw and felt and how he acts. The helplessness about how to invite people into seeing what I see as happening in the world is so deep I sometimes don’t even know how to breathe fully when I experience it. Is there a way in which I can support Mel in seeing that his choices about what he buys and how much of it are affecting people he doesn’t even know? How could I speak to him and invite him to see that there is an ongoing structural connection between the many millions like him who are accustomed to getting cheap merchandise, and the many other millions who manufacture those same products in conditions that would make the shoppers shudder if they knew them?
The other strand of the experience of despair was about my own inability to speak without creating alienation. After the session was over, I sat and wailed with a few people just to come back to my sense of self, to regain my strength and faith. As is often the case when I get to cry so fully and with so much support, my heart opened much wider, my sense of separation was diminished, and I had a profound insight about the nature of this alienation.
As I sat and savored the togetherness with the people who supported me, all of whom understood intuitively what I had been talking about to Mel, I felt the aloneness dissipate. It’s truly rare for me to have a complete reprieve from the experience of being alone, and I allowed it to wash all over me, to feed my nervous system that is not catching up with the realization that I have more and more people in my life with whom I experience true companionship and alignment.
I realized, then, that the more I can savor that sense of alignment with some, the less likely I am to appear to others as separate and judgmental. This is because I bring with me an unacknowledged hunger for companionship, for people to join my vision, and that inner agitation is likely part of what I protect by continuing to focus on and articulate what is different between me and others instead of seeing and capitalizing on the unity and commonality.
While digesting this understanding, I was overtaken by another wave of shocking grief about how much people don’t know. That was when I had my second insight which allowed me to reconnect fully with Mel. Simply put, relative to what we each see and know, we act with the most integrity possible in each moment. This is not the abstract “everyone does the best they can.” This was personal and specific, based on knowing him. That was how I found the strikingly simple unity between me and Mel.
Later that evening I connected the dots between my interaction with Mel and the story about the Time covers. As I see it, and I am sure others would disagree with me, these covers are part of a larger effort designed to ensure that people in the US won’t easily know about the effects of their actions.
In parallel with stretching to find my commonality with Mel, I was engaging with another friend, let’s call him Daniel, to whom I had forwarded the story about the Time covers. Daniel was at the other end of the challenge, barely able to grasp that it truly is that much of an accomplishment for anyone in the US to find a way to know what the consequences of their actions are. Daniel wasn’t settled with my description of Mel, and helped me remember that care is not just a feeling; that care translates into action. In this case, the action he so wants people in the US to take is to examine and inquire into the nature of poverty, both in the US and globally, and staying with it until they find the information.
What, I wonder, has been done to people in this country to leave them so unable to engage in precisely this kind of care?
I am reminded of a moment when I was involved with homeless activism in Berkeley in the late 1980s. One night I was called to witness a particularly painful event of the police rousing people who were sleeping in People’s Park. Many people were there in this big commotion. At one point I was standing close to the city manager who was getting back into his car. I caught the moment and asked him: “What will you be telling yourself tonight when you get into a warm bed knowing that so many people don’t have a place to sleep tonight?” His response, while continuing to move and barely looking at me was: “That I am very fortunate.” Speaking in terms of fortune makes invisible the connections between his life and that of the homeless people, as if the fact of him having more resources is divorced from systems that perpetuate wealth gaps that are sometimes hard to even grasp conceptually.
I don’t have to go very far to have personal knowledge about being in the dark about the connections between things. Growing up in Israel, a big part of what was being masked was the connection between specific decisions made by the leadership of the Zionist movement and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
I remember reading a publication by some government agency called something like “Know how to Respond,” which gave the official answers to various questions that critics of Israeli policy could potentially ask. I remember vividly being impressed with the answers and critical of those who would be posing the questions. It took active and specific efforts, connections with specific people, before I could even conceive of there being other ways of seeing the world. I had to muster immense courage to walk from the thick tapestry of common knowledge to the frayed edges of doubt, questioning, where I could possibly be shunned and definitely would be standing up to an entire culture that I still felt part of.
Even after I stopped believing those myths, I still believed what I now consider to be the myths about the US. I remember, growing up, a close family friend whom I completely adored, a European-trained intellectual who was generally despairing about things, with a flair of high culture added to it. I asked him, more than once, whether there was anything he believed in. He said, always: “Yes, the United States of America.” His answer left a mark on me for years, to the point of ringing in my ears a decade later when I was making my decision to leave Israel. I really believed I was coming to live in the stronghold of democracy. Even after waking up to the role that Israel was playing in the region, enough to where I wanted to leave because I didn’t want to have certain things done in my name, I still believed what I had been told about the United States of America. It took several more years for me to repeat the feat of questioning to the point of losing that faith.
Reviewing my own personal history from the vantage point of my current views and understanding of what happens in the world adds to my compassion. I think maybe I have at least part of the answer to the question of how this continues to happen. It seems to me that three things combine to make it so unlikely for people to become aware of and take personal responsibility for what is done in their name in this country: 1) Massive and active campaigns to keep people from knowing by making the information not as easily available and by discrediting information consistently; 2) an ongoing and pervasive stress that everyone in this country seems to be in (me, too); 3) and fear, just raw fear that I think feeds the lack of awareness, fear that there is so much to lose, or some fundamental sense of deep scarcity.
As someone who so often alienates people when attempting to invite awareness and companionship, I am very humble in this moment about what any of us who have shifted our gaze and now see things we may not have seen in the past can do to support others in seeing the same. I am grateful to all who have faith in me and continue to call my attention to all the ways I continue to assert difference instead of commonality. I don’t yet see how to talk about privilege in a way that those with it would not be defensive and those without it would hear in my words sufficient acknowledgment of their experience. I know that I want to find it, because I see it as essential if I want to play a significant part in bringing about change in the world towards more people’s needs being attended to all over the world.