This endemic pandemic
There is a disease spreading across the land, and the anguished cry, “I can’t breathe!” is being heard in the ICU wards of our hospitals, and likewise on our mean streets – and despite everything that we do, the struggle of living and dying continues, inexorably.
Over a thousand years ago, Chan Buddhist master Yunmen Wenyan posed this koan: “Medicine and disease cover the earth; the whole earth is medicine: where do you find the Self?” Of course, he did not ask this in English, and it has been translated in various ways throughout the centuries. Here is my own current version: Disease and cure struggle with one another; understand that their struggle is their dance – and find your place to join in this dance.
Two centuries ago, Hegel’s dialectic method in philosophy gave us the intellectual tools of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – the progressive sequence of a formal statement, a (seemingly) contradicting statement, and a statement that addresses the tension generated by those two statements. This is the challenge given us by Yunmen, and by the exasperating paradox unintentionally created by our forefathers as they established their government: protecting property ownership, while promising unlimited opportunity for everyone – for everyone, that is, who is white and male. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s always got to give.
Declaring themselves free from the old world rule by royalty in their new democracy, it was understood then that every man is created equal and is a king, head of his household where his home is his castle, and the members of his family are his subjects. The indigenous people inhabiting this “New World” they had come to settle, as though it was not already settled, were viewed as part of the natural flora and fauna of a rich garden they had discovered. And the people they brought from Africa were viewed as little more than appliances to help tend and harvest the Manifest Destiny of that garden. It’s true that, since those days, the idea of democracy has been extended to give more people permission to vote – if they can get to the polls.
I well remember the turmoil of my days at Berkeley, beginning in 1960 with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco, where protesting students were washed down the marble staircase of City Hall by police wielding fire hoses. Throughout that enormous decade there were the sit-ins and the teach-ins promoting Civil Rights, opposing the war in Viet Nam, and demanding the right of Free Speech. Over and over my eyes and mind were opened, especially after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enlisted an actor named Ronald Reagan to be governor of California, to bring our movement to an end.
At dinner one night my mother took me to task for the ways we had damaged the reputation of the university with our demonstrations, until my grandfather remarked how the Communists had roiled the campus during the time she was there, in the pit of the Depression. I then reminded my grandfather that when he was there a fellow by the name of Jack London had exhorted crowds, preaching Socialism from his soap box at Sather Gate. He smiled and agreed. “It has always been so,” he said.
It’s not really that we’re asymptomatic – we just don’t recognize the symptoms of our disease. As with my own racism, although I may believe that I am asymptomatic I must assume that I have the virus, and act accordingly. I follow all the recommended routines, the protocols that we’ve been told to: the social distancing and minimal contact, the wearing of a mask when I’m close to others, and the washing of my hands religiously.
It’s one thing to be aware of the prejudice of others; it’s another to recognize one’s own unconscious cognitive biases, which create stereotypes in a clumsy defense against the diverse complexities of life. I like to remind myself that I speak and write in English, because that’s what my parents taught me. English shapes my thoughts and describes my feelings. I have to wonder what else I learned from them, and how they have shaped my way in the world without my realizing it.
My two eyes have different points of view, which is necessary to see something one eye cannot see: depth. The thing is they must not struggle against one another, which would only create a headache. There is work to be done – but it’s not really yet begun. Nothing can be resolved until we establish something on the order of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped bring Apartheid to an end in South Africa.
Forgiveness cannot take place without having built trust, without taking the steps of a fearless inventory and the making of amends in a deep apology – the sort of apology that guarantees it can never happen again. This is what I believe true reparation would mean, a paradigm shift in which 2020 vision can finally be fully achieved.
Perhaps then we will all be able to breathe more freely.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at email@example.com