November 26, 2008 § 2 Comments
Science demonstrates that the instinct to seek justice–defined in the sense of seeking revenge or self-protective retaliation or third-party moralistic punishment–is found in many species. Guppies, to site a humble example, send out scouting parties to keep a collective eye on big predatory fish. The members of the scouting party take turns approaching the big fish to see it is hungry, sharing the risk. Biologists have observed that if one member hangs back from taking its turn, the fish in front will loop back behind the slacker guppie, forcing it to take its turn. In traditional and modern human cultures alike, people (and some more than others) are apparently hardwired to enforce just desserts.
Scientific study also reveals that humans possess a strong countervailing force of forgiveness and cooperation. Indeed, research suggests that we prefer cooperation over punishment. “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” said the Count of Monte Cristo (a line picked up by the Mafia). Yet in the end even the Count–whose suave and worldly identity was fueled by the desire to get justice–verified what a recent study suggests–hurt and outrage fades steeply over time. Living well does turn out to be the best revenge. People seek peace and reconciliation….and there are always a few brave guppies among us who will step up to enforce what is fair for the whole.
The pages of Parabola carry proof that we humans contain an even finer energy–and a capacity to imagine a higher justice. At this time of the year, I can’t help but experience Parabola as a great feast I feel so thankful to be able to taste and share proof from such different sources and cultures that transcendence, inner freedom, a harmonious relationship between inside and outside, between above and below–its called many things in many times–is possible. Thanks for reading!
November 20, 2008 § 1 Comment
In the “Justice” issue of Parabola, the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsalz talks about the difference between limited and infinite knowledge. “When it comes to real knowledge, we do not have it,” he explains in an interview conducted in Israel this past summer. ” The divine knowledge, being all-encompassing, is something very different.”
Who knows why the wicked seem to prosper, why the treacherous seem happy? Rabbi Steinsalz freely admits that people are not born equal and that there is inequality throughout creation, that some are better off, some worse, but this is not proof there is no divine justice. God knows what we do not know.
So what does Rabbi Steinsalz’s view have to do with the daily efforts of death row prisoner Damien Echols to live a full spiritual life in solitary confinement? I interviewed Rabbi Steinsalz along with Jeff Zaleski back in the early spring. The tape got mangled somehow so much of the interview was lost, but two remarks the rabbi made stayed with me. Everyone has a spark of the divine in them, he told me. But in some people it is so deeply buried it never emerges, while in others it shines out even in very adverse circumstances. People are not born equal, he told us. He drew on his pipe during that talk, looking very much like my childhood image of droll St. Nick. And his face really did crinkle up when he told us that Parabola has always reminded him of a fashion magazine (which he was very familiar with as a boy because his mother was a seamstress). With each issue we present a gorgeous collection of spiritual experiences and insights on the runway of the readers’ imagination…readers who of all different shapes and sizes who can only dream they are going to be able to squeeze into that dress and look like that model.
Who knows why the innocent suffer while murders walk free? I came away from my conversation with Damien Echols convinced that I had met someone in whom the spark of the divine burns bright in the most adverse conditions. He is a daily reminder that spirituality is meant to be lived. I keep thinking of this description of taking in the energy patterns of someone who had just been executed. “It was like he never knew he had been a person. It had no idea who it was, where it was, anything else. It was like leaves caught in a high wind, disintegrating, being blown in every direction.”
I happen to be listening to a series of lectures on Indian religion around the time of Buddha that describe to just this sense of the blind wandering of transmigration. How do we claim our lives? In those moments when I feel the need to call my energy and spirit home–when I know to actually try on some of the great ideas I’ve encountered in Parabola, to live them body, heart, and mind–I think about Damien Echols practicing in his cell.
November 15, 2008 § 2 Comments
On Wednesday, I waited most of the day while my husband had surgery on his spine at Beth Israel in Manhattan. I knew it would come out well. He had a brilliant surgeon, a member of the renowned Spine Institute of New York, who assured us that he had done this particular procedure about eight hundred times before and nothing had every gone wrong. Still, as the operation crept towards the six hour mark (I had been told it would probably last three or four) I got to revisit that strange land of waiting and not knowing that has a way of stripping away all our comforting illusions.
I remembered other times I’ve waited for a far less certain outcomes, how the inner guard dogs of instinct can start to stir from their slumber–and then give way to glimpse of our real situation here: We don’t get to write the story. A special kind of awareness can spring up in times of uncertainty, in those moments when our usual narrative gets suspended. I realized that this quality–a surrendered receptivity, a broken-open patience (how about, a beaten-to-a-pulp, crying-uncle attentiveness? too much?) comes up in myriad ways in the new “Justice” issue of Parabola.
Of course, I’m biased but there is so much worth reflecting on in this issue. Not the least, a moving reflection on Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman who left behind a diary and letters before she perished in Auschwitz at the age of thirty. The author of the essay, Joyce Kornblatt, illuminates Hillesum’s “Bodhisattva spirit,” her realization of an extraordinary compassion for others in the face of darkness. There is also an interview (mine) with Damien Echols, who lives in solitary confinement in a “supermax” prison facility in Arkansas. Young Echols, who is facing a death sentence for a crime that reliable new evidence indicates he did not commit, described to me how he lives fully–ferociously”–every day. Anger and bitterness are the worst prison, he told me. How do we live with injustice? How do we live rich lives even in the face of unimaginably harsh conditions? What Hillesum and Echols (and Steinsalz) have to say has particular resonance in these dark times. Read “Justice.”
November 5, 2008 § 2 Comments
As I walked the dog this morning, I noticed a number of my neighbors had American flags up. I suspect that in most cases showing the flag was an election day signal that they firmly believed in putting “Country First,” John McCain’s campaign slogan–this corner of Northern Westchester is surprisingly red for being so close to New York City. But I came home from my walk determined to take down the blackand orange Jack O’Lantern flag and put up the old red, white, and blue today for my post-election reasons. It’s impossible–regardless of your political views–not to be moved by what happened yesterday and by the reaction of the world.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of democracy, tonight is your answer,” said Obama in his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago. “It’s been a long time coming…but tonight…change has come to America.”
The media chronicles reaction around the world. From a distance, it looks as if we have changed course, as if we have returned to a narrative of opportunity and possibility after a long desolate stretch when it looked to many as if this country’s sense of its own specialness–of special destiny and mission–had made us blind. From a distance, we have become a country that talks about freedom and justice (Parabola’s latest issue is “Justice”) at home while practicing imperialism, greed, even torture abroad. Now, at least for today, there hope that a movement in another direction has begun.
This is what is so interesting and captivating for a spiritual type like me. In the midst of all the admittedly ephemeral coverage of the meaning of this historical election, there statements about what has marked the president elect as special that are food for thought. The editorial page of The New York Times writes of Obama’s “focus and quiet certainty”…allowing him to sweep away presumptions, to stay calm and alert while his opponents lost their balance, giving in to greed or anger and fear. Reporters around the world create a composite picture of a hope that Obama is truly an everyman, a global one among many, a man who can rise above divisions–and be both extraordinary and humble.
As President elect Obama said in his victory speech, we are at the foot of a mountain. We face huge problems, and we will see how it goes. But for just today along with people all over the world, I feel like something momentous and extraordinary has happened. The media juxtaposed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous “I have a Dream” speech–predicting that the day would come when a man would be judged by the contents of his charcter rather than the color of his skin.” That day has come, and bearing witness to those qualities I feel like a treasure that has been a long time buried has been uncovered at last, that qualities that really mark a man or woman special have been tested and they have prevailed.