Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cultivating an Environment of Truth

"Truth is generated from its environment; in that way it becomes a powerful reality."

- Chögyam Trungpa

The man is a regular. He's a thin man, with dark hair and a work-worn face stretched from years of cigarettes and morning coffee and whatever it is he does to earn a living during the day, and he sits at the counter sipping slowly from his cup. Some of the other servers have complained about him in the past, about how he rifles through the pile of discarded checks next to the register, looking for unused coupons that other customers have carelessly left behind. Why does he need two dollars off? All he gets is coffee and toast... A cheapskate, some of them call him, even though he always tips a dollar, just to sit and read the newspaper and joke with the other regulars.

courtesy of j_wijnands, via flickr.comThis morning, I'm wiping down the metal knobs and syrup dispensers before refilling the small red buckets of sanitizer and replacing the old used rags with fresh ones. It's early, before seven still, and dawn is flat like a diorama beyond the restaurant window. Behind me, the regular complains to his buddy. "They're shutting down half the city for the G-20, I don't know if we'll be able to get any work done. Maybe they'll give us the week off, but I doubt it. Anyway, you won't be able to get anywhere..." His buddy makes some amused grunt and pours one tiny creamer into his own coffee mug, delicately pinching the white plastic between his large, grubby fingers. "Well, hopefully the cops'll beat up some protesters anyway. And catch it on film, so they can play it on TV, over and over..."

I barely even flinch or pause in my cleaning. It's no surprise that the man is a committed conservative. He once complained about Obama perpetuating fraud against the U.S. government because he wasn't born inside the United States (I did not bother to point out to him that Hawaii is, in fact, part of the United States, whereas McCain was born in Panama). To complain about such matters when the previous administration allowed wire-tapping of citizens, torture of unjustly detained prisoners, and an illegal war based on false evidence... well, it was already clear the man didn't derive all his political priorities from careful reasoning and unbiased sources.

courtesy of bog_king, via flickr.comBut I struggle to get over this last remark nonetheless. During my college days, and occasionally afterwards, I had been a protester. I had "turned my back on Bush" at his second inauguration, only to come face to face with a fat little man wearing an "I Salute Dick Cheney" baseball cap and baring his teeth through spittle at me and the thin, hippie-dressed girl beside me as we raised our fists in peace signs over our heads. I had marched in D.C. just a week after the Iraq War had begun; I had stood among others at peace vigils in the chill of winter and the reawakening of spring alike during the following years, holding stubby candles in flimsy paper cones to catch the dripping wax. I had swallowed tears of frustration and anger over Katrina and the slaughtering in the Gaza Strip, attended talks, lectures and poetry readings, wandered through galleries of photographs bearing stolid, unflinching witness to the things human beings can do to each other.

For all the man knows, I could be protesting come September, when a handful of the obscenely rich come to meet in my city, a city half-empty and struggling from collapsed industry, trying to rebuild with dignity, culture, art, medicine and education. I could be in the streets soon, holding up signs or handing out pamphlets asking why we still believe, so gullibly, that these men of power have our best interests in mind and not merely their own. I could be protesting, giving voice to the incredulity and hope in my bones. I have thought about it. Even though the papers say that G-20 protesters are struggling against government opposition for their right to legal permits for protest space. I've thought about marching in the streets, adding my voice to those who object, who say "no" when so many others hunch up, keep their heads low and try to avoid trouble. I am lucky, in some ways; I have very little to lose.

"Fucking protesters, man." The man chuckles to himself as his buddy finishes adding creamers to his styrofoam cup and leaves two dollar bills for the coffee at the front register before heading out the door. Then the regular is left alone at the counter, one hand wrapped around his warm mug, the other playing absent-mindedly with the edge of a napkin. I see him almost every morning I work, and sometimes I pass him on the street as I walk the neighborhood on my days off. He always greets me with amiable familiarity, trusting in the gentleness and civility that I have cultivated in my work as a waitress. To him, I must seem like a Nice Quiet Girl, and he's not really wrong in thinking so.

"Did you hear me honk, this morning?" he asks me as I'm refilling his cup. "You were walking up Monroe Avenue--I honked, but I didn't know if you heard me."

courtesy of Rev Dan Catt, via"O, that was you?" I smile, though my mind is still churning silently over his last comment, imagining the officer--maybe one I know, maybe one who comes in for breakfast and gets his meal for half-price--imagining the raised baton, or the mace or taser, imagining the officer approaching a row of us pacing along the curb, signs wavering and drooping as we wonder whether we should run...

"You walk alone to work like that every day, in the dark? You'd better be careful..."

"O, it's not really that dark, it's early morning by the time I'm walking to work, except in the winter when it's too cold for anyone else to be out. And this is a good neighborhood, I've never had any problems."

"Still, I hope you carry something--a handgun or something. There are a lot of crazy people out there."

For a moment, my sarcastic sense of humor whispers like a friendly devil in my ear, No shit, I'm looking at one... Carry a gun, for gods' sake!? This is a family neighborhood, with children, and dog-walkers out before the sun comes up. I know my neighbors, medical students, and grandparents whose grandkids visit on weekends, elderly Jewish ladies whose families have owned houses on this hill for generations, and young yuppy couples biking through the wooded park to their yoga classes. Carry a gun! But even this man, this regular who sips coffee and munches on his toast for forty-one cents on someone else's coupon...even he isn't the "crazy" people I might fear, if there are such people. He, too, is part of the neighborhood in its stability and community. I don't believe for a second that he would wish me harm, and as he looks at me over his coffee, I can tell that even his cautions and advice come from a place of goodness and caring for my welfare, no matter how mistaken they may be.

I wonder if that would change if he knew my political views. I wonder how he would feel if it was me on television being beaten by the cops, if it was my slim, defiant body huddled against the pavement, arms bracing against the blows. He didn't believe I was at the Superbowl riots in Oakland last winter, standing quietly in the snow completely sober and awake to the night, as students raged around me smelling of beer and sweat-dampened scarves, setting broken furniture on fire and tipping over cars. I watched the new horned moon set between buildings and let the pulse of city energy run through me, allowing it to swell and subsided into stillness again. I seem small, maybe even fragile, but I am hardly ever afraid. There are people much bigger than me, much less sure of their own power, who carry fear with them everywhere, like a handgun. He doesn't believe I could be a protester, some messy liberal pussy with nothing better to do than make trouble, someone who deserves a beating, sport for the hard-working, entertainment for the up-standing. I have worked to become gentle, kind, self-disciplined--he likely believes I am both too weak and too sensible to be caught screaming and waving my anger in the air under a banner of anti-anything.

It's not so much that he's wrong about me. He is wrong about protesters.

"What is wrong with spelling out the truth? When you spell out the truth it loses its essence and becomes either 'my' truth or 'your' truth; it becomes an end in itself. But by implying the truth, the truth doesn't become anyone's property.

When the dragon wants a rainstorm he causes thunder and lightning. That brings the rain."

- Chögyam Trungpa

Protesters aren't some special category of crazy leftist hippies. They're just people, of course, but then it depends on what you think of people. Despite some of my experiences in this world so far--watching unjust war, corruption and greed, fear-mongering and propaganda, starving children wasting away to support extravagant lifestyles for the wealthy on the other side of the world--despite this, I trust in a fundamental goodness in human beings. There is a beauty to the mess and flux of the world, and people share in this beauty, striving in all kinds of ways, through stupidity and ignorance, through kind intentions and fears of failure, to become better, to do what is good. I have never had reason to doubt this, never in my experience come upon a person who did not have some good in them working its way out.

The regular, sitting before me at the counter with concern on his face, is not an evil man, not a person who would sincerely wish violence on another person. When he jokes about cops beating marchers, he does so casually, almost as if it doesn't actually happen, not in the real world, not to real people. He has forgotten how to really look at other people, to see in them the complexity and messiness that reflects his own. He sees people--or, anyway, some people--merely as means to an end, as the irritable causes of effects in the political world that he does not like, causes that should be stopped, gotten rid of. I cannot agree with him on this view of people, and because I can't agree, I also can't hate him for it. He is not a Reason This Country Is Going to Hell... he is just a man, foolish and messy, with good in him working its way out.

So how do I correct him? Can I spell out the truth for him? No doubt there have been plenty of people dictating the problems of war and corruption, putting forth arguments and making passionate pleas. Sometimes I add my voice to this crowd, crying out for justice and peace and compassion. I am someone who speaks out, who acts to demonstrate my commitments and my ideals. But I am more than that, more than a voice in the crowd, more than a protester and conscientious objector, more than a mind twisting and twirling facts into the strong ropes that hold together an argument for peace and local community building. I am also the young woman who serves this man coffee four mornings a week, and helps him sort through two-dollar-off coupons.

When a person discovers the basic goodness in herself and in others, she discovers fearlessness. She discovers that there is no reason to be afraid, even when destruction and death threaten. Destruction isn't personal, and there is no cause for resentment. When a person discovers this inner strength, this courage within her, she becomes gentle with others as well as herself, she does not worry so much about correcting every wrong view around her. She trusts. Because she knows that the way to remedy fear is not to render life docile and harmless through explication, but to encourage others to discover the goodness in themselves. How to do that? It takes courage to face this truth (though why it should be so hard to admit to ourselves that we might be basically good just the way we are I've never quite figured out). But you cannot just tell people about it; to explain it would rob them of the opportunity to embody courage themselves, to face this truth on their own.

courtesy of kwerfeldein, via flickr.comIn the end, I don't say anything to the man at the counter. I cannot change his view of people except by being most truly myself, by treating him with respect and gentleness, holding up a mirror that he might see his goodness belying his prejudices, revealing his blindspots. In the end, I don't say anything, this time. There is nothing I could say that I am not already saying with my being, with my presence there full of everything I am--pacifist and intellectual and poet and mystic--all crammed into the body of some unassuming waitress, coffee pot in one hand, clean rag in the other.


  1. When I grow up I hope I can be more like you.

  2. Pom: me too. :-)

    Ali, I love this post more than I can say with words. I was thinking about what you said earlier today -- about how the basic 'problem' your customer has, here, is that he doesn't trust enough in the basic goodness of people; and all you can do to convince him to do otherwise is to be, yourself, a Good Person. I agree that people are basically good, and I am wondering now why we think so -- why you and I and many others share this faith in the goodness of all humanity, and many other people do not. It's certainly not because we've had easy lives or always been surrounded by loving people...

  3. Cultivating truth requires receptive soil. It's not having a different opinion that causes the problem (and I'm pretty confident you're not suggesting that!), so much as inability to consider---not accept, just consider---alternative viewpoints.

    I'm never sure what to do in situations like this. I honestly don't think "simply living" works (at least, towards that particular goal), but the harder you try to get them to open up, the harder and more viciously they fight.

    I fear it's going to take something really catastrophic to make people self-aware again. I'm generally pessimistic about human society, though.

  4. My mother lives north of Pittsburgh. In her eighties, she would be in assisted living except for her amazing safety net of neighbors - half of whom listen to Rush Limbaugh.
    So, I do believe in that essential strand of goodness that is rooted in Spirit, even as we on the Left and others on the Right can violently disagree. I think of Marshall Massey's response to Cat on the Two Powers. While his language is very different, it reaches toward that central spiritual core.


  5. Jeff, Thank you, as well. You're making me blush. ;)

    But yes, I do often wonder about "how I got to be this way" and what it was that convinced me of basic goodness, not just in people but in the world as well. Every time I try to answer that question, what I come up with is that, well, I listened and watched closely, and goodness was there to be discovered. Throughout my childhood, it was my accidental obsession with poetry (which started, really, with me just wanting to be really good at something my first grade teacher once told me I had a knack for) that led me to quietly observe the world in all its strange and particular details. Try as I might, even during my darkest hours when I've felt on the verge of desperation and despair, goodness seems to reassert itself before me, in the simple act of people and animals and plants and weather--and earth, and sea, and sky--being who and what they truly are. Even when those things dwarf me and my needs and desires, making me feel tiny, even when they seem utterly indifferent and even a bit callous towards me, there is something beautiful in this genuineness and essence shining through. This, to me, seems good. I don't know why--it just... is that way. Maybe because it reminds me of everything I don't know and don't understand, of how big the world really is, and that gives me hope that my cynicism or frustration or impotence isn't the final word, after all.

  6. Daniel, I feel like, in my line of work (waiting tables--if that's really a "line of work" ;), I find myself in situations like that all the time. I've written once or twice about it in here before, about how to respond to a coworker shrugging off global warming as government hype, or what role my strong pacifist views play when I'm waiting on soldiers who come in decked out in full military uniform... With coworkers it's a little easier to engage in direct confrontation, but somehow I feel as though with customers it's different. There is an integrity to the role of waitress, a kind of gestalt that incorporates some qualities and not others. Somehow, I feel as though lecturing customers, or even kindly confronting them about certain things I disagree with, would violate the aesthetics of job. I don't know if that makes any sense.... I know that, afterwards I often wish I could have found a way to say something, but when I'm in the moment it seems like keeping silent is the appropriate thing to do.

    Maybe "simply living" isn't the best way, but I think that living simply is a step in the right direction. I was thinking about this today again when reading the paper, about local gun control laws being enforced because of the G-20 and the likely protests, and the NRA objecting to things that seem harmless (like requiring gun-owners to report lost or stolen weapons) on the grounds that any regulation whatsoever is automatically oppressive. Sometimes we live our political lives in a realm of extreme abstraction, amidst talk of "slippery slope"s and exaggerated "what if"s, and we forget some things that are really quite obvious. Political debate definitely has its place and is incredibly important, but living a life of simplicity and immediacy, where we engage in the present moment with those sharing our landscape and local community, can help keep us grounded in the real, concrete consequences of abstract theory. In my role as a writer, I can wander off into abstract contemplation with ease and often good results, but my role as a waitress benefits from me being fully present in the immediate moment and working to meet the basic needs of my customers, like nourishment and friendly company.

    In Buddhism, there is a concept called "teahouse practice," that I've always found very relevant. It's the idea that, by trying to embody the dharma (or whatever teaching of truth and spiritual loving-kindness you might follow), you can pass that teaching on to others directly through your interactions with them, without ever having to preach a word. I don't know if it works, but I want to believe it does.

  7. David,

    Thanks for the link! I hopped on over to check out the post, and do remember reading it, I think, but only vaguely. I certainly agree with what Massey says, about seeking a spiritual center transcendent (or perhaps integrative?) of Left and Right. I would add, in fact, that political life itself is not actually so dualist and that this dichotomy has been rather over-emphasized in this country, not least because of our two-party system. It often seems like the competition between Pepsi and Coke; the two major parties of our current system hold so many common assumptions that their differences are, in the scheme of things, quite minor, and yet people are willing to riot and rage over them, condemning neighbors and even rejecting family members if they disagree.

    Though Pittsburgh as a city is quite liberal, my particular neighborhood tends towards the conservative side, and it's so interesting to listen to casual comments from customers and coworkers alike regarding politics. One of the first things I noticed was that I could hardly ever guess someone's political views based on obvious demographics (like age, sex, race, class, etc.) or even based on aspects of their social and personal lives. The truth that "we're all people, and we all share a common human condition" may sound obvious, but it has a powerful, visceral impact when you see it played out before your eyes on a daily basis.

  8. Oh, dammit Ali, you've made me cry again.

    This is wonderful. Thank you for writing, and thank you for carrying your compassion as well as your ideal through the world.


  9. Stunned with your beauty. Thank you for this.

  10. I do like the idea of "teahouse practice," and I think it's a piece that I've been missing. In fact, I tripped and fell facefirst onto it today: after having to work the weekend, I took 30 minutes to hit a local park and meditate under a tree a bit before I lost my mind. I came home for lunch with my fiancee afterwards, and she went from agitated to comfortably quiet within about five minutes. She seemed more content than usual to not have a conversation and just sit eating and being with each other. (And, most importantly, she didn't know beforehand I came in from meditating.)

    The problem I always have with it, though, is the same as before: How receptive can people be? It's one thing to have it happen with Jen, since we live together and are (symbolically anyway) becoming one person. I guess I need to have more faith in people being complex growing creatures instead of closed-off caricatures, but it's really hard amidst all the inane shouting that passes for public debate these days.

    Anyhoo, thanks for your reply!

  11. Cat, and Beth, thank you both very much. :)

  12. Daniel,

    I totally understand where you're coming from! It's incredibly difficult to trust that others will be receptive, especially in the face of so much evidence that seems to suggest just the opposite.

    The way I think of it, utilitarianism can only take you so far. If you're only ever worried about how great an effect you will have, or how best to influence others, than you might end up spending your whole life treating each moment as a means to some further end, instead of appreciating the present moment as an end in itself, with its own value and inherent beauty and worth.

    So I ask myself: what is it that I really want of others? Do I want them to agree with my views and do what I do because I've managed to convince them? What I really want is not to be surrounded by a bunch of automatons who just happen to be doing the right thing because I made a more convincing argument than somebody else--automatons are still automatons. What I really want, when I stop and think about it, is to be surrounded by people who are also striving and finding creative ways to realize and express goodness and beauty.

    But I can't force people to act freely and creatively. That's the paradox. All I can do is invite them, and maybe inspire them a little. And sometimes, that feels like such a small thing, and so easily ignored or overlooked. Still, that doesn't mean I'm off the hook. I know full well that trying to control people won't accomplish what I really want, so I have to accept that. I don't always have a very optimistic view of people, either--sometimes, the whole human race seems plagued with blindness and stupidity and I would love to just slink off into the woods to live by myself with the sky and the trees. But even when I'm in one of those cynical moods, I try to hold myself to the ethic of love and kindness and creativity I've chosen. Not always because I think it really makes a difference; sometimes just because that is the kind of person I want to be, the kind of person I choose to be.

  13. This is well-written, but it feels a little one-sided, you know? You speak eloquently of your life, your experiences, but you don't tell us much more about him than a couple stray comments and a personality quirk.

    His real views remain absent, elaborated, at least as this piece goes, strictly by your own inferences.

    I think before you make big claims to truth, you need to talk a lot more about who he is with him, hear about his life, the way truth has shaped it. What life experiences does he have that make him feel passionately?

    It seems to me that if there is ever real change in the world, it happens because we reach out to each other and try to grasp the truth in the other person and not just despair that they don't see the truth in us.

  14. Lanternlight, O, I definitely agree that to shape our world we must consciously and deliberately connect with others (I say consciously, because I believe that we are all already connected, and that this interconnection needs attending and expression more than anything else). I certainly don't despair when others don't see eye to eye with me, and in some circumstances (such as this blog! :) I revel in reaching out, asking questions, seeking alternative perspectives and ideas, etc.

    I think this piece is lop-sided precisely because most of us are living in a very lop-sided world much of the time. I can see this man four days a week (admittedly, for about ten minutes or so at a time, during which I'm engaged with other work), and yet I hardly know anything about him! Is that my fault? Is it his? I'm not so interested in placing blame. After all, this piece isn't really about him--it's about me, and how I struggle to integrate my ideals with my sense of respect and kindness towards others, how I ask myself, again and again, what the "right" thing to do is, and sometimes easy answers are not forthcoming.

    You can imagine how hearing this man speak casually, even humorously about horrific acts of violence and brutality against people who share my views doesn't encourage me to open up or engage him in conversation... On the other hand, I do not withdraw or bitch beyond his back like most of my coworkers. I continue to engage with him in the ways open to me, ways that circumvent direct confrontation that would probably quickly get him to put up walls or if not would at least, I think, demand that I harden my own armor. Is this the best way to go about things? I don't know. I don't know if there is a "best" way, or if there's only whatever way allows us to connect best with others in love and kindness, even if those must sometimes be nonverbal and slipping under the radar of ideology...

  15. Lanternlight, as an afterthought/postscript:

    Thinking back over your comment, I wanted to come back and clarify one other thing. Perhaps this man may have had experiences in his life which lead him to conservative views. That's certainly fine with me. I'm not even bothered so much by the one example of clear-cut misinformation that I mentioned (about Obama's and McCain's birthplaces), since misinformation these days is practically ubiquitous and a person can still act ethically and lovingly despite factual errors.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure what life experiences might lead a person to find the brutal beating of a fellow human being funny. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate experiences that could give rise to such an attitude... but then, just because someone's life experiences lead them to hold certain attitudes doesn't automatically make those views healthy or ethically sound.

    It is important to understand others and where they are coming from, in order to better understand their views. But that does not mean we should excuse those views if we find them immoral or unjust. My commitment to understanding is not so that I can embrace all opinions and attitudes as equally valid, but so that I may seek the essential goodness in others, as well as the flaws in myself that they reflect back to me, so that together we can strive to become better, more loving human beings.

  16. Ali, here I was thinking that is really strange. She is not posting anymore, then I checked again and for some reason I've not been getting you feeds. Anyhow, I just fixed the little problem, I guess all what's left is to come back and catch up ;)

    Hope you are well.

  17. As usual, a wonderful post full of insight, comments that make me think about my own life and some real-life example to illustrate your point.
    Thank you for writing these posts.


  18. Magaly, Yep, I've been writing, though not as much as I'd like. :) It's odd that the feed wasn't updating... but I hope you have fun catching up on the reading! ;)

  19. Rose, thanks very much for reading. The reader comments for this post have been pretty awesome and thought-provoking for me as well. If you haven't already, I highly recommend going back and checking out Daniel's and my exchange in particular. He brings up some really good ideas. :)