Sunday, July 24, 2005

When I look at you, I see me

This morning, I was meditating on Psalm 122, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." Historically, this is a prayer that God should grant peace and prosperity within the walls of Jerusalem, but not outside them, or at least not outside the borders of Israel. Interesting to note that Israel never had any allies among the surrounding nation; it was a nation surrounded by hostile forces, hemmed in on every side. Jerusalem enjoys security in inverse proportion to that of other nations, to the extent that their walls lie breached and in ruins and their people live in fear and insecurity.

Eschatologically speaking, however, Jerusalem represents a kind of "everycity," Mother Sion, the dwelling place of all nations, where everyone is assured of a place. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem within this eschatological vision, then, means to seek the same for every city as for Jerusalem: peace and prosperity and blessing and happpiness. The psalmist prays for the peace of Jerusalem "for the sake of my relatives and friends," and this involves the recognition that every human being is actually my relative and potentially my friend.

In a sense, what we are talking about here is two competing visions of prosperity. The first is a prosperity that comes at the expense of others: others have to fail so that I can succeed. The other vision says that no one will live in peace and security until everyone does, that anything that lowers the dignity of another person degrades me as well, that my neighbor's success is my success. I would like to claim to be a believer in the second version, but which is truer to the way I actually live? Don't I often secretly gloat at the misfortune of others, cherishing the notion that this proves that I deserve the spoils of victory, that I am not a loser in the game of life?

After this, I caught the train downtown and then walked the rest of the way to church. While I was approaching the Green Zone (the fenced courtyard around my parish), somebody whistled at me. I looked over across the used car lot to see someone waving at me. It was Hector. So I went over to say hi.

Hector is an alcoholic living on the streets in this neighborhood. I first met Hector as I was passing by the entrance to a little Protestant church on my way to church a few months ago. Hector was standing outside, and started trying to get me born again in good evangelical fashion. Maybe this was a fit of the religious fervor that sometimes goes with bouts of sobriety. I listened politely for a minute, then pointed out it was tough for me to buy his concern for my eternal soul when he hadn't bothered to ask my name. So we made our introductions. I saw him again after bible study one night a few weeks later, drunk and slurring his speech, lapsing frequently into Spanish. I gave him some money for bus fare to get someplace I can't remember, and we talked about his struggle with alcoholism and homelessness. I hadn't seen him since.

Hector was glad to see me. We talked for a minute about how things were going. He told me he has really been trying to get God into his life. Then he looked me up and down (I was wearing a cassock at the time) and said, "You know, I used to be a seminarian. I studied for five years. I needed to finish seven in order to get ordained, but then I started drinking. When I look at you, I see me. I see what I might have been."

I thought about what Hector said for a long time after I said goodbye and walked into the church. The question is, when I look at Hector, do I see myself? Am I that honest? A few different turns, a couple of additional setbacks, and my life could have been very different. I could have been an alcoholic on the streets. I could still be one. I know enough people like Hector to have disabused myself of the notion that there is some great moral chasm between him and me. The line between those who "make it" and those who are ground up in the machine is ever so fine. Sometimes it all just seems random.

If I was Hector, and he was me, what would he say to me? Would he invite me into church? Or would he worry about upsetting the old ladies who don't like seeing strange faces, particularly those with bloodshot eyes? Would he worry about inviting me, like I was worrying about inviting him?

In his beautiful essay "Call Me by my True Names," Zen master Thich Naht Hahn writes:


In Plum Village in France, we receive many letters from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It is very painful to read them, but we have to do it, we have to be in contact. We try our best to help, but the suffering is enormous, and sometimes we are discouraged. It is said that half the boat people die in the ocean; only half arrive at the shores in Southeast Asia.

There are many young girls, boat people, who are raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries try to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continue to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate.

She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I am now the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I cannot condemn myself so easily. In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.

"When I look at you, I see me. I see what I might have been."

I invited Hector to come to Liturgy, which started in about an hour, or at least to stop by for coffee hour afterwards. He said he would. Then he embraced me, and I went in.

But I didn't see him in church, or afterwards.

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.


I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope, the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.


--Thich Naht Hanh


1 comment:

Zanna said...

Sampson - how poignant that I visited your site today to read this post. Today my husband suffered another setback in employment based on his personal situation. Although this time it's not racism he faces, it is an "ism" of some sort. Basically, his employer will not honor the child support garnishment of wages, and has let John go to find another job. The onus is on the employer -- he's legally bound to garnish the wages. However, he "can't get involved."

The most difficult thing when situations arise like this, is to put oneself in the other's position. While we understand mentally why John's boss doesn't want to take the time to follow the order, it's much more difficult to imagine us as him and feel what he's feeling. Especially because we're quite sure he isn't considering the financial instability his decision puts us in. I've worked in restorative justice and conflict resolution for almost 20 years, and still battle within myself to exemplify true compassion and empathy with those who hurt my beloveds.

What a challenge! Thank you for inviting us to look in the mirror.

A friend.