In the Shadow of Terrorism: Loving Kindness and Permission to be Human
Here’s what I ate the weekend ISIS attacked Paris: pizza on Friday night; leftover pizza for breakfast, a big bowl of buttered rice and veggies at lunch, and pasta for dinner on Saturday; and on Sunday, granola for breakfast, ravioli for lunch, and more rice and dal for dinner.
Here’s how much I exercised: not much. Mostly I was a love seat potato. I sat bundled under a blanket, just me and my laptop, with its images and articles about the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks. I made myself watch the disturbing home video of the exterior of the Bataclan Concert Hall, a video shot as concert goers escaped the killing. I forced myself to read a lengthy March 2015 feature in The Atlantic, “What Isis Really Wants” and other articles that spelled out how globalization and climate change would continue to create conflicts over scarce resources.
As I immersed myself in learning, I questioned my choices. Should I really be drenched in so much negativity? After all, I consciously never watched any Isis beheadings. I felt the same way for a long time about watching videos of unarmed black men being fatally shot by police officers. Eventually I decided that it was my responsibility as a United States citizen to watch some of those videos.
Saturday, I felt that same responsibility as a citizen of the world. As soon as I heard about the carnage in Paris, I believed we had slipped into something like what Pope Francis called a “piecemeal third world war. I had to know more –and even more, when I found out about Beirut. Why wasn’t that city receiving the same media coverage and sympathy? Do Parisian lives really matter more than Lebanese? What was going on? I plowed doggedly through the weekend, with my body taking on what my mind wouldn’t let me feel.
Not that all this information provided answers. It is a big, nasty, complex mess requiring tough choices by people with higher pay grades than mine. However, it is clear to me that both systemic and personal happiness thinking and strategies have important roles to play in the upcoming days, weeks, and years. When you combine climate change with its droughts and natural disasters, along with the demands of an insatiable growth economy, the result will be wars, famine, and refugees. Warning lights are flashing and the sirens are going off: we need to move toward a new economic paradigm of well being, much like that advocated by Gross National Happiness USA.
On the personal side, to stay sane and productive no matter how all this plays out, we need to invest in: nurturing and savoring relationships, growing community,building resilience, living with gratitude and meaning, practicing forgiveness (maybe not of ISIS just yet, I’m no saint), experiencing joy in the here and now, and tending to practical matters like getting a good night’s sleep.
Perhaps the two most important personal happiness strategies are kindness and permission to be human.
In the preface to Piero Ferrucci’s The Power of Kindness, the Dalai Lama wrote, “It is clear that our very survival, even today, depends upon the acts and kindness of so many people. … our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. Similarly, if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. On the other hand, the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become. Therefore, we cannot avoid the necessity of kindness and compassion.”
Some of the necessary kindness will be on a grand scale, like the Beirut father who tackled a suicide bomber, thus sacrificing his own life but saving scores of others, including his own little girl. Some kindnesses will become viral, like the man who saved the pregnant woman’s life in the Bataclan video. But for most of us, most of the time, our kindness and compassion will be small because we are only human.
I learned the phrase “permission to be human” from the fabulous Tal Ben-Shahar. He helps happiness students understand that we can do ourselves and others a big favor by embracing the fact that we are beings with bodies, biology, emotions and sometimes very whacky brains. Permission to be human does not mean permission to misbehave, or to hurt another. It means sometimes being a lot angrier than we would like — or feeling a myriad of other less than desirable emotions. Last Saturday it meant my body compensated for all the work my brain was doing by demanding comfort food and lots of carbs. Permission to be human — that is where kindness can start. Cut our own poor hearts a little bit of slack.
Then, with more compassionate hearts, we can radiate greater kindness and understanding to friends and loved ones. That day with my laptop, I was frustrated with friends who seemed too strident with their Beirut postings. Their reactions were different from mine, but no less valid. Permission to be human. The next day, when I asked a friend why he was only talking about Paris and not Beirut, he was shocked. He hadn’t heard about the Beirut suicide attackers. Not omniscient? Permission to be human, my friend.
The next layer is sharing kindness and compassion with our broader communities. Later that day, I had the opportunity to do just that, when I found myself walking next to a friend of a friend. He was weighed down by personal troubles and shared some of his sorrow as we walked. Before going our separate ways, we hugged for a long time.
Hugs. What a great expression of mutual kindness.
Finally, in prayer and meditation, political action and choices, and our use of social media, we can extend our kindness and compassion to wider and wider circles — even to those we don’t understand, who infuriate and frighten us.
But there are caveats and limits.
First, being kind is not being spineless, as was powerfully demonstrated by the reaction of Parisians holding a vigil for victims of the ISIS attacks. When confronted by anti-immigrant protesters, the larger crowd rose up in love and forced the hate mongerers to back off.
I also want to shout “Boo! Boo!”– and plan to do essentially that tomorrow at a counter protest in front of the Vermont Statehouse. In response to a previously scheduled anti-Syrian refugee, Islamaphobic protest, the word has gone out to rally in support of justice, fairness, and accepting Syrian refugees into our cold but loving state. I will be there.
Sometimes kindness is hugs. Sometimes it is saying loudly and non-violently, “Your actions are unacceptable!!”
Second, there are limits. When I played Barbara Frederickson’s inspiring “Loving All” guided meditation for a meditation class this week, I just could not extend loving kindness wishes to “all.” Though Fredrickson urged listeners to emphasize “all,” I thought not only of ISIS but also of the hate-spewing, anti-Syrian, so-called political leaders. At this point in time, I just cannot open my heart to people engaged in such mean-spirited and dangerous tactics.
Cultivating kindness and compassion is a lifelong practice. It can be challenging in the best of times, much less in these anxious days. I would never deliberately hurt anyone, but just now, if my heart isn’t as open as I would like it to be, so be it. Permission to be human.