Why be good? Why seek a greater consciousness, a source of non-egocentric and non-violent thoughts or feelings? I’ve been pondering this question since I read a statement by a Vatican spokesman on the death of Osama bin Laden: “Osama be Laden, as we all know, had the very grave responsibility of spreading division and hatred amongth the people, causing the death of countless people , and of instrumentalizing religion for this end. In front of the death of man, a Christian never rejoices but rather reflects on the grave responsibility of each one in front of God and men, and hopes and commits himself so that every moment not be an occasion for hatred to grow but for peace.”
I remember well the shock and terror and grief bin Laden brought to New York. I know people who lost loved ones. I remember riding trains and subways and planes feeling hunted. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the news of his shooting by brave U.S. Navy Seals didn’t bring a feeling of completion and relief, a sense that an inevitable karmic justice had been done. And yet–and who could have predicted this 10 years ago?–I feel it is my “‘grave responsibility” not to rejoice in this death but to resolve not to be like him.
One of my friends on Facebook added this glorious quote by Martin Luther King Jr. (who was paraphrasing Buddha at the end): ”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
What can we find inside to help us find a lager consciousness, a way turn towards non-violent thoughts and feelings? How can we be responsible? One thing that can help, strange as it might sound to contemporary people, is the idea that our ancestors live on it us. This can seem most unwelcome, even in small things. Sometimes I hear myself talking the way my mother talked and, worse, walking the way she walked. It’s a funny walk. People sometimes ask me why I’m limping. But lately I’ve come to see that the point is to keep walking. At moments, I even walk consciously.
In The Forgotten Language of Children (which I reviewed in “Giving and Receiving”), Lillian Firestone asks Henri Tracol, a one-time sculptor and respected leader of the Gurdjieff Work in France, where were her parents now that they had died. Did they exist in a realm outside her? Tracol said that he did not know, but he was sure that they lived within: “’I heard Mr. Gurdjieff say three or four times over the years: ‘You and your father and your grandfather all the way back to Adam are one. They exist in you. You have the possibility to free them, or the opposite. The idea of linear time is a great obstacle. It is closer to reality to think in cycles: the day and night, the seasons, heartbeat, breath. If time can be understood like that, in cycles, then I see that it is simply my turn. My parents exist through me; only now it is my opportunity to experience for them. It is my turn to try.’” Gurdjieff spoke about repairing the past and preparing the future. He taught that it can only be done now, in this moment: “Do not do as you have always done.”
Isn’t it wild to think that we do not live for our selves alone, but for all our ancestors –and not just our parents and grandparents but all the way back to our common mother in Africa? Isn’t it awesome to think that ultimately we are all one and what we do has an impact on each other? We can add light or darkness, elevate or drag each other down. Peoples’ reactions vary. I tried the concept on a friend on Saturday who pronounced it “creepy” and said she had enough trouble being responsible for herself and two kids. I find the notion that I am not literally not myself but the green shoot on a tree very grounding, supporting. As earthy Gurdjieff put it (by way of Tracol and Firestone): “‘ You are not the tail of a donkey. You have responsibilities, a family. All your family past and future depend on you…all of your family depend on the way you repair the past.'”
It can feel like stepping across an inner threshold, realizing that we really can live for others, that we are all one in the deepest sense, and that our actions can repair the past. What does it mean to do not as you have always done? For me, it means holding the pain, yet not being ruled by it. It means learning there is a conscious, “empty” way to do what needs to be done. It means knowing that we we have all come very far to be here—and not just from New York and California but through all kinds of difficulties. It means that we can stop and do things in a different way, a way that bring a little light instead of more darkness. In the words of Parabola contributor Mary Oliver: “Tell what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”