My baby sister had brand new red roller skates. She lurched through the kitchen as I stood silent, radiating envy. The floor trim between the kitchen and the next room was beyond her skill level, though, and she fell on her bottom. I laughed. “See what you made me do?” she screamed.
The ensuing squabble was ended by my mother, but not to my satisfaction. “She doesn’t know how to take responsibility for herself yet,” my mom said. “Your sister will learn. But you’re a big girl. You don’t have to blame anyone; you can let it go.”
Instead, I pouted.
These days, as in those days, I don’t always want to be the big girl. It’s exhausting. I want to pout, blame other people, maybe pound on somebody. “It was already hard enough!” my inner victim cries. “Why are they making it harder?” Plus, I find that I’m envious of the glee others seem to be feeling as they make a big mess—a mess, says my big girl self, that someone else is going to have to clean up.
There’s a lot of verbal and physical force strutting its stuff these days, trying to pass for grown-up. But the hallmark of a grown-up is to move beyond physical and rhetorical violence. The hallmark of a grown-up is to find skillful alternatives to brute force. In the midst of the mess we’re in—as the biosphere gets more fragile; as the skin of civility stretches thinner; as the depths of injustice become clearer—what are the skillful alternatives?
If you, like me, don’t want to add to the tsunami of blame and fear, here’s my best guess about how to proceed. First, I take responsibility for myself. When unsettled, I try to look deeply into my own fears and prejudices: I try to face that scary stuff inside me. I ponder rather than pout.
When the kerfuffle in Ottawa started, I found myself blaming the Americans. Yes, some of our southern neighbors have fanned a fire in this country. But truthfully, this kind of division, disrespect and blame lives here in Canada. It’s hard to admit that it even lives inside me.
Once you face your own mess, it’s not as difficult to view those messy others with compassion. By definition, a hate-filled person suffers, because hate detaches us from the reality of our interdependence—the true source of joy. Detached, we suffer. How can we not feel compassion for someone who doesn’t experience that joyful belonging?
The next step? Conscious action with an open heart. When we look deeply into ourselves and our foes, we’ll know what our particular action should be. Maybe you will have a real conversation, organize an environmental action, or refuse to ignore racial slurs. Do it again tomorrow, the next day, and the next. Watch yourself get braver. Every conscious act, no matter how small, changes the world. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”