I spent decades denying I was an optimist before copping to it, and now – instead of trying to live the label down, I find myself trying to live up to it. I’d say this year has left me with an acute case of whiplash.
Turn my head one way, and I see activism at a height I haven’t observed since the Sixties (which lasted into the mid-Seventies, by the way). The humongous People’s Climate March in September, the colossal outpouring of sadness and rage at state-sponsored killings of black people: impressive, overwhelming, and even in the face of the devastation being protested, encouraging.
But when I turn in the other direction, it takes a powerful act of will not to be dispirited by the hardening of the hearts of entrenched power. I hear myself saying that I can’t understand how a human being can remain unmoved at the sight of broken-hearted parents consumed with grief at the deaths of their children, at the sight of the fear that evokes in other parents’ hearts.
But really, I think I do understand it. Those with hearts of stone put bereaved parents and dead children in a category marked “other,” marked “less than,” refusing to see the life-spark that mirrors their own faces in the eyes of others. I have been writing for years about the Golden Rule, the universal exhortation to avoid doing to others what would harm ourselves. This is from an essay I wrote for an art exhibit on that subject by Bay Area artist Beth Grossman:
In Deuteronomy, and in Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations, the Hebrew bible’s references to the pupil of the eye are almost always translated as “the apple” of the eye, symbolizing what is most precious, most in need of safeguarding. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,” reads Psalms 17:8.
Literally, though, the Hebrew text reads “bat ayin,” “daughter of the eye,” greatly resembling the English word’s Latin original, pupilla, a diminutive for child. Why? When we gaze into another’s eyes, the etymologists say, we see our own image in miniature reflected there. The Golden Rule is inscribed in the apple of each person’s eye.
Although all spiritual systems exhort us to follow The Golden Rule, I’m not foreseeing a Kumbaya moment in which we all reach across the very real barriers dividing society to join hands. I think there is a price of admission to the full human community that many are unprepared to pay, thinking their special privileges deserved, perhaps, or at least dearer to themselves than justice and compassion.
On this new year’s eve, I want to offer some words from myself and others that may help to diagnose our whiplash. As Gandhi said, “A correct diagnosis is three-fourths the remedy.” And then I want to tell you about something that gives me hope.