As longtime blog readers, friends, comrades in The Way of the River Facebook Community, and readers of my Monday love letter know, I am extremely attached to the three days as some of the holiest in the calendar. And this year, while the Wheel is turning, I find that I am at least as concerned about what will happen when I become an ancestor as I am about what my ancestors have done.
What do I mean by that?
I am thinking of the following:
“Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem to be much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they’ve left us in, with the wars, the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about the people who came after them.”
I think Collins’ assessment is harsh, but has points of interest. The planet is not broken; we may just make it uninhabitable for most human beings for thousands of years. The planet will be fine in the end. Earth will win. It is we and the people who come after who suffer.
Will our descendants—by which I mean all who are not yet born—have a place with that Earth? What in the name of All That Is Holy are we leaving to our children? (Keep in mind here that I have no children by blood and adoption. The concepts of Descendants is at least as complicated as that of Ancestors) I think of my uncle Steve, who died this year, and leaves behind for his daughter (and the rest of us) this war- and violence-torn, and environmentally damaged and unjust world.
As far as I know, my uncle no longer has the opportunity to directly affect the course of history. His life has made its marks. My father’s life has made its marks. My aunts and uncle, my grandparents, their parents, all our forebears gone into the unknown…their lives have left marks. The lives of all our ancestors have made their marks, and yes, it is the blood of the ancestors that flows in our veins. We are on the shoulders of giants who did not always pay attention to the weight of their steps, the power of their movement through history.
How then, shall we be more mindful than they have been?
The poet Adrienne Rich writes,
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
Who are these people who reconstitute the world? Not Earth, but the world, the civilization(s) in which we live?
The question becomes, at least for me, who are our heroes and to what standards shall we hold them. Shall we ignore the problematic sexual ethics of revolutionary Mohandas Gandhi; non-violent resistance leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Missionary Sister of Charity, Teresa of Kolkata; President John F. Kennedy; theologian, Dr. Paul Tillich?
I have chosen this list precisely because of the problematic pasts of each of these people. Tillich, while not familiar to many of my readers, is nonetheless a giant in Protestant theology, and committed acts of racist misogyny that turn my stomach. Teresa of Kolkata’s theology of suffering is repugnant to me, and her insistence that Missionary Sisters of Charity in upstate New York be garbed and treated identically to those in Kolkata (sometimes sleeping on the floors of unheated spaces) infuriates me.
Yet many of us identify these people as heroes, as people who “reconstitute the world,” or the goodness in it.
Sister of Saint Joseph, Helen Prejean, the subject of the book and movie Dead Man Walking, reminds us that for any of us to have our worst acts be the only ones by which we were known publicly, we would be permanently humiliated, degraded, and dehumanized. Sr. Prejean herself is a hero of mine, though when I met her, I found myself put off by her manner and the way she spoke to people.
If those of us who have shoplifted in our lives (which is most people in the US) were shown on television show after show committing those crimes, and that’s all people knew about us, what would that mean for our lives, for the people who tries to love us, even for the fabric of the culture.
The United States criminal “justice” system is wildly broken. Even looking at and past instances of police brutality, Black men are incarcerated in this culture at an astonishing rate. Once former inmates get out of prison alive (if they do), they are felons, branded for life. Doors are closed to them again and again and again. And many of them return to prison.
Other poor people, especially people of color suffer in food deserts, in places the government has seemed to forget, where the environment is ravaged, and availability of clean air and water are tenuous, at best. Indigenous people on reservations live in the worst poverty in the country, in communities wracked by alcoholism, diabetes, suicide, and other violence.
What have we done?
What are we doing?
I am sitting on my sofa, next to the fireplace that runs on natural gas. My electricity is powered by wind because of choices I am lucky to be able to make, but my oven, my heat, and my lovely fireplace are all powered by natural gas. And getting natural gas, despite all the ads I remember from as far back as the ‘80s, as to its “clean nature,” is certainly not clean.
We are desperate for fossil fuels to run our lives as we have known them.
The practice of fracking, somewhat like oil drilling, is getting natural gas from deep, deep inside Earth. It is destroying forests and communities. Cutting down and poisoning trees that help clean the air, bring beauty to our hearts, and hold down the soil necessary for life. And fracking is perhaps most devastating to the water supply on which our lives depend.
You cannot eat money. You cannot breathe it. You cannot drink it.
Yet so many choices in United States (and other countries too, but I live here) have been and are made on the premise that money is everything, that to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps into great wealth is the greatest achievement, even the greatest moral achievement one can make.
What are we doing? What has been done?
EcoBuddhist Joanna Macy takes a view I can only hold in moments. She rests in the Buddhist’s sure knowledge of the transience of all things. She says that just because something is going to be lost doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in love with it now. Just because all things die and change doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in love with them now.
If we fall in love with one another… If we acknowledge our flaws and failings and the ways in which we also reconstitute the world… If we smash the clay feet of our ancestor heroes and allow them to fall and yet still acknowledge the blessings they have left… If we love… If we love…
If we love, I believe almost anything is possible.
If we love the places we live, we can run for local office and protect the land on which we live and the neighborhoods and people with whom we live. If we love one another’s children, we can work to eradicate bullying and violence against and trafficking in children. If we love one another, can we save one another?
If we love ourselves, can we save ourselves?
My liberation is bound up with yours, with Earth’s healing, with everything that is, that has been or ever will be.
I know some things:
People are imperfect, cracked, never-not-broken (like the Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari, about whom I have written in this blog before). But just because we all make mistakes doesn’t mean our mistakes don’t have consequences.
People I honor for their deeds of goodwill and care have done terrible things. What kind of redemption is there for them in my heart and the hearts of others who learn of the complexity of these people? Is redemption what is required?
Well, if love is what is required, and I believe it is…then there has to be some way to acknowledge us in our complexity. “Darling, I care about this suffering,” offers the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn.
Darling, I care about this suffering. Can we say these things together?
Darling, I care about this suffering, the suffering of my own heart, even when it leads me to hurt others.
Darling, I care about this suffering, the suffering of those I love.
Darling, I care about this suffering, the suffering of those I do not know, but whose actions I see and revere.
Darling, I care about this suffering, the suffering of animals, plants, systems, soil, water, and air.
Darling, I care about this suffering, the suffering of those whose evil deeds I know and whom I am inclined to know only as enemies.
If I care about this suffering, all this terrible suffering, if I allow myself to take it in and not look away—something I find nearly impossible to do—then I am moved to action. To the hope that is in action.
Because if I care, then I will do something. I will put on more clothes to stay warm in the winter. I will come to know my neighbors. I will learn more about the terrible suffering wreaked by misogyny, white supremacy culture, and capitalism in my homeland.
Darling, may we care about this suffering? Can we care about this suffering? Can we at least try, try to care about this suffering and be better ancestors than those we revere in these days of the dead?