Friday, November 8, 2019

"...like a dog..."




            Near the end of August, just before our grandkids left for college, it became a reality that Flash, our beloved  “grand-dog” was rapidly failing and that the most loving and compassionate thing to do would be to “put him down.” We went with our son and daughter-in-law and our grandkids to witness and attend to the end of Flash’s life. I was awed by the amount of grief I experienced, both anticipating it  and then going through the actual process at the vet’s that morning - -the same place where my daughter-in-law and I had picked him out 13 years ago.  Back then he was a sad, unhealthy puppy from a litter that had apparently been “mis-bred” - - not a full Gordon Setter - maybe a mix of Gordon Setter and Irish Setter.  Scrawny, malnourished, wormy - neglected by the breeder due in part to her own mental illness.  But he was the one that appealed!  With love and attention and stability in the family, he grew into a goofy adult dog with the peculiar habit of eating poop and tissues whenever he had the opportunity.  When we arrived at the vet’s office our son lifted Flash out of the back of the station wagon. He was able to walk on his own on the leash.  The place was familiar to him so he was not stressed.  The vet explained that she would give him some anesthesia to relax him and settle him and then would give him the overdose that would ease him out of this life.
            It was a sweet, gently awesome thing to be there and understand how quickly the spirit vacates the physical container -how gently it happens - how complete and final it is.  One second, the heaving, straining breathing signaled life still present - and the next -peaceful quiet absence -and yet Presence- as we sat there and said our good byes and cried our tears.  We mourned the passing of this goofy, loveable dog who had given us all so much love and enjoyment and laughter over the years of his life in our family.
            I was only partly tuned in to the story of Abu Bagr Al Baghdadi’s death when it was announced on the morning news.  As the day’s story unfolded, I was stunned to hear from the president’s mouth that Baghdadi “…died like a dog, like a coward…”  I felt disturbed and sad and not a little nettled by the lack of dignity of these words coming from his mouth, as though, even if an enemy, Al Baghdadi had no value as a human being.   Somewhere, someone, a mother or father, a wife or son or daughter is mourning  the of death of this man.  His life was, without a doubt, committed to a level of violence and terrorism and to the flagrant waste of human life that is beyond me to imagine, and yet he was a human being. 
            Several traditional teachings from Judaism and Christianity keep riffling through my mind.   Jesus, while being tortured  and crucified by Roman soldiers, the occupying terrorist power in Judea at the time, prayed as he was dying: “Father forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”   A teaching that aspires to give us hope that compassion toward an enemy is possible under the most extreme circumstances and that the behavior of the enemy may be a manifestation of the grossest lack of conscious awareness of what he or she is doing.
            Right at the beginning of Genesis, the ancient creation story affirms that humankind is created in the image of God.  Nowhere does it say only “good” humans are created in God’s image, nor does it exclude racist humans or terrorist humans, or female humans or disabled humans - - - it simply affirms that God created humankind - - ALL of us - - in God’s image.  To harm or kill another human being is to deface the image of God.
            In the midst of the kind of polarization that seems to rule the day in this country at the moment, this represents a radical theology of humankind, I think.  How can it be that all human beings, without regard to status, race, gender orientation, without consideration for  a person’s orientation to compassion or to terrorism and cruelty - - how can it be that all human beings are created in the image of God?
            Over the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to a body of Hasidic wisdom called Tanya.  One of the most powerful concepts in the work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman is the concept of the beinoni - a term for the individual who straddles somewhere between  tzaddik (a saint) and  rasha (a wicked or evil person). An absolute tzaddik is one who has absolutely no inclination toward evil residing in him or her.  There is no longer any conflict between good and evil within a tzaddik.  A rasha, on the other hand, is one who is totally directed by the governance of the body drives and emotional whims and there is no awareness of any manifestation of Divine Soul.
Then there is the beinoni  who has not sinned in his or her behavior but who has not completely purged him or herself from evil either - but rather lives in a state of needing to be continually aware of the deliberate, conscious decision never to draw life energy from any source other than God. [1]  Perhaps this is similar to the teachings of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.
            This is a gross over simplification of a very beautiful and complex spiritual psychology but it is helping me to build a frame of reference for venturing toward compassion and understanding of the density of such a one as Al Baghdadi from whom virtually no light could shine.
            At some point the Tanya goes on to teach that a complete tzaddik (in whom there is no inclination toward evil) or a complete rasha  (in whom there is no inclination to good) are extremely rare.  More often there is almost total “goodness” with a touch of “evil” or almost total “evil” with a touch of “goodness” - - something like the Yin/Yang symbol where opposite halves are intertwined with a tiny spot of the one appearing in its opposite half and vice versa.
            So, perhaps it is possible that somewhere in the recesses of the person called Al Baghdadi, a well hidden spark of light might have permitted him to love a child or an aging parent, while the rest of him found it easy enough to mindlessly obliterate human life, to generate hatred and terror on a much larger scale.   Even the tiniest spark of light, no matter how dim, marks him as a human being.  He died like a human being, running from pursuers, alone, afraid, terrified enough that he chose to end it all himself before being captured.   The rest of us lose our own human dignity when we speak of his death with glee and triumph.  His life and his death are part of a human tragedy. 
            Our beloved Flash died like a dog, a beloved member of a human family, attended to with care and compassion, with tears and mourning, with dignity and grace.  There is a huge difference.  
           


[1] Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom, trans. By Rabbi Rami Shapiro, SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2010. p.xi

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, November 1, 2019

"...ends in the making"

              As you read this, the library has had their semi-annual book sale. There were 200 boxes unpacked on Tuesday morning and I'm sure there were plenty of books left Sunday afternoon when you could get them for $2 a bag. I went three times, filling five canvas bags.    I've been complaining for months about how we need to downsize. There are enough books in our house to start a bookstore. In years past, we've had book giveaways. We invite folks for refreshments and books. The books are arranged attractively on tables. No one is allowed to leave the house with empty hands. If my goal is downsizing, then the means to get there is giveaways and curing my addiction at book sales. That's easier said than done. In my case, the means are not always in harmony with the end one seeks.
 
In the summer of 1959, a friend and I hitchhiked from Aberdeen, S.D. to New Orleans, LA. We had been told that if we showed up at the office of the Scandinavian Shipping Lines in New Orleans, we could get jobs working on cargo ships for the summer. They didn't tell us we couldn't work on the same boat when we first contacted them. My friend left on an oiler bound for Venezuela. I left on a banana boat headed for Honduras.

         Honduras was what was called a "banana republic." Bananas were the economic lifeblood of the country. United Fruit Company owned the plantations and was the political and economic power in the country. In those days it appeared to me that most of the economic activity in La Ceiba, where we docked for bananas, was centered in the harbor and the banana industry. Shoe shine boys appeared on the docks as soon as the boats arrived, prepared to shine your shoes or sell their sister. Almost every street had an armed soldier on patrol and the bars did a brisk business with banana boat crews. Poverty was rife and most work seemed to consist of tending and hauling bananas.
       That early experience has led me to try and understand better the way corporations can exploit countries to the detriment of all of their citizens. Honduras was poor and there was no way a small farmer was going to be able to grow bananas for export. The land and business was owned and operated by a foreign multinational with political clout.   Add to this history the political and military influence our country has exerted there, it's no wonder the Honduran people are fleeing in droves. The overthrow of an elected President in 2009 in a military coup drew a weak response from Washington and has insured a corrupt, even criminal administration, in power.   In short, if you want people to stay in their own country and not approach the U.S. border as migrants, exploitation and violence in their home country needs to end.
 The means to  the  end of avoiding border wars is economic and political freedom and stability at home.

         It appears there is bipartisan support against the decision of the President to hastily withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. On the one hand, I couldn't agree more with the desire to bring the troops home from these pervasive and seemingly permanent deployments all over the globe. The end goal is a worthy one. But the means is in question. Shouldn't such foreign policy questions be a matter of consultation, where all of the ramifications are carefully considered? Apparently there was little consultation with anyone, including the military and Congress, certainly not with the allies on the ground, the Kurds. The means this President uses to reach his ends are increasingly autocratic and questionable. This is typical of authoritarian thinkers, who can't be bothered with the interplay of various opinions, data and possible outcomes.

            The President might argue the ends justify any means necessary. Others have made the same argument. 45 wouldn't be alone. But if one looks at the historical record, one discovers that it leaves much to be desired. Seeking the end of racial purity left millions dead in gas chambers and concentration camps. Believing one has the exclusive ownership of religious righteousness left whole continents of people designated as savages.

Ends and means must be in harmony. In fact, Gandhi is likely right when he says that, “For me it is enough to know the means. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life. We have always control over the means but not over the end. I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means. They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.”

It's obvious that if we plant a weed we won't get a rose. It should also be obvious we reap what we sow. We make a serious error, if we fail to see the moral connections and interrelationships between the ends and the means. Great crimes and grievous mistakes can follow. Gandhi said, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.”



Carl Kline