Like most of us over the past two years, I have experienced really long nights, weeks, even months. Answers have been few at times and frustration has been plentiful. COVID has impacted the very personal parts of our lives--our families, our health, our finances. Emotions have been raw for a long…long time. Our schools--the intersection of all those personal touch points--have become an epicenter for the very good in us and the not so good. I’m fortunate to lead in a community that trusts its teachers and schools, but even here, I have not been immune to seeing some hard parts of our complicated humanity.
As if COVID weren’t enough to handle, the very real impacts of income inequality, climate change, racism, and authoritarian power grabs have stared us in the face in rapid succession and dramatic fashion.
At least in me, all we’ve been through has resulted in an unhealthy and unhelpful tendency to hold on to anger, blame, and even sometimes hate.
This past week KQED ran an episode from the City Arts and Lectures series, a conversation between two Bay Area favorites--author Anne Lamott and former Buddist Monk Jack Kornfield. If you happened to tune into the conversation, it was quite intriguing: an hour-long back and forth between two emotive and poetic friends full of insight on a range of topics.
Among the topics discussed was Lamott’s process of letting go of her hatred and contempt for those with completely opposite political opinions to her own, and achieving a level of sincere compassion for those for whom she has experienced disdain.
Those who know Lamott know that she is a deeply emotional person--which is likely what makes her such a talented writer. She is also someone who does not mince words. Some are likely to find her off-putting. But in the conversation with her friend Jack, she was anything but.
I was struck by her process toward forgiveness and compassion, especially in light of the last two years defined by deep emotion and division. It got me thinking about what I was still holding on to.
Regardless of on which side of a myriad of political issues you sat the last few years, you would be a rare person to not at times have felt some animosity or incredulousness toward those who thought differently than you. As we enter into spring--the season of rebirth and renewal--I think it might help us all to do some renewal ourselves. I know it will help me.
In their conversation on City Arts and Lectures, Kornfield shares the words he remembers the Dali Lama sharing with him years earlier. In the face of all the injustice the exiled spiritual leader and his people had experienced, the Dali Lama shared that he looks with love and compassion upon those who impose the injustice, saying,
“Hatred never ends by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
In response to Jack’s story, Anne shares that weeks earlier in a moment of frustration, she had texted him for some perspective amidst a bout of unloving misery. To which Jack replied (paraphrasing),
If we see it all with compassion, we will see people’s fear and pain and attachment without it sticking to us. However, because we are all so human, we may also feel hurt for a time. We can hold this hurt with compassion without taking it personally and laugh at the drama. Gradually, we can see praise and blame, gain and loss, joy and sorrow arise with loving awareness and rest in a compassionate and wise heart.
Kornfield’s use of the word rest really struck me. Rest is really what my mind, body, and soul seek. Yet, how will I achieve that rest without letting go of the anger and resentment I might feel toward those who see the world so completely differently than I do? Honestly, I can’t. I won’t. Rest will be elusive until I am able to see that my anger and resentment are manifestations of my own fear, and pain, and attachment, and begin to let them go.
As the constant pressures of COVID quiet, at least for the moment, and we turn our attention to the assault on democracy and the killing of so many innocent people, my mind wants to hate Putin and the powers that bolster authoritarianism. As I raise my children in a world with really consequential challenges to freedom, to the environment, to justice, and the like, it’s hard not to resist the urge to label people innately good or bad, to point fingers, to place blame, to cast shame upon those whom I see as the enemy to my dearly held values.
But, honestly, what my heart really wants, what my soul longs for, is rest. Rest from the hate that is driven by my own fear, and pain, and attachment.
Returning to the Dali Lama’s wise words, what may help me find the rest I so desire is focusing on love alone. Maybe a healthy dose of love and compassion is what we all need right now. In the face of so much uncertainty, in the face of so much hate, maybe the answer isn’t more hatred, maybe it is love. Maybe we all need to loosen the grip of righteousness on our own souls just a tiny bit to see everyone through a lens of understanding. After all, compassion doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility for their actions; it simply frees us to recognize the humanity in others and allows our own souls to rest.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.