An old story:
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.
The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.
Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.
The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.
Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”
The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”
This is an old Zen parable that gets passed around in Buddhist and New Age circles to instruct about compassion versus ideology. There’s a romantic in me that is always charmed by these little stories, but the monastic rules it alludes to are too distant for us to really feel. So, I decided to change the story around a little to give it some modern day context:
A senior editor and junior editor at Huffington Post were traveling together. At one point, they came to an intersection of New York city traffic with a strong current. They saw a very old woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat attempting to cross. She asked if they could help her cross to the other side.
The two editors glanced at each other because this woman was the personification of evil in their eyes. Old, white and Trump supporting.
Then, without a word, the senior editor went up to the woman, took her hat, thew it in traffic and walked off.
Alright I couldn’t help myself with the last part, but you can understand where I was going. A lot of interpretations of this story say this is an allegory for the importance of kindness, and people looking for a little spiritual sustenance eat it up. But there’s an underlying thread that often gets dismissed.
If you’re a Buddhist monk, the monastic code you follow is obviously an important part of your life. The senior monk effectively breaks the rules that govern his life in order to help this woman. The younger monk has a right to be upset, because he sees his superior violating something that is presumably important to both of them.
It isn’t too crazy to use Huffington Post editors-the spiritual authorities of liberalism-as an example of modern day monks. These guys spend everyday opining on the evils of conservatism, and when they see a Trump supporter on the streets the junior editor would presumably demonize her, especially in New York.
There is an understated but important difference between ideas and the real world. The internet is a place where we judge people purely on their ideas on a certain topic, especially in the political parts. Most people seem to be fine with that, especially when they want a place to complain with like-minded peers.
A lot of people live their actual lives this way, too. I live in a very bohemian part of the south and most of my neighbors live in a tight bubble of liberalism. To an extent, it’s a great thing that a community has formed in area of the country usually hostile to that belief system.
The problem is, I often see them doing the same things as their conservative counterparts. They demonize the other side and revel in the slightest point of hypocrisy on the news cycle that day.
When that becomes your whole life, you begin to lose sight of the basic goodness of humanity. And when that happens, you become part of the problem.
A few years ago, I worked for a state party in Louisiana shortly after I graduated from college. I’ve always been interested in politics, and agreed for the most part with the group I was working for.
It didn’t really work out. One of the things I began to notice was a decided lack of humor. I tend to make jokes about everything in front of me, and when I made one about the political candidate we were supposed to be supporting, I was met with blank stares.
I noticed the same thing when I went to a protest on police brutality. Obviously, it’s not the best place to inject humor, but there was this wide-eyed zealotry among the protesters that made me realize I could never be an activist.
As someone born in the most powerful country on earth and granted the basic freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I take for granted the importance of humor. For zealots, activists and political ideologues, humor is a poison that interrupts the flow of progress. To acknowledge absurdity in an ideology is the moment that ideology begins to falter.
This is something I was lucky enough to learn early on in life. Growing up in a small southern conservative town, I somehow became a hardcore leftist. I was literally the only person I know who was slightly liberal, so to survive I separated religion and politics from the rest of the people I knew. If I didn’t, I would have been fighting people all the time.
It was effective. Where fellow progressives would see an evil conservative asshole, I saw someone who I happened to disagree with on a few things. Those disagreements actually added to the relationships I made, especially with the people who I had serious conversations with (the funny thing is I went conservative in college, so I might just be a contrarian asshole.)
I realize I’m a bit of an anomaly though. In fact, there’s good evidence to suggest that political prejudice is the most dangerous kind of bigotry that exists in America.
In 1960, roughly 5 percent of Republicans and Democrats said they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone from the other party. By 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they would mind.
I wish I knew exactly when people began to get so hyperpartisan, but I suspect the internet is a big factor. The fact that thousands of online enclaves exist specifically to confirm your biases with like-minded people directly correlates to the lack of openness and empathy we have with different-minded people. A Black Lives Matter protester breaks a glass window and he is pedestalized by liberals and demonized by conservatives.
Meanwhile, our universities are caving in more and more to censorship. Conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos are regularly met with protests when they try to speak at colleges.
What are supposed to be the bastions of free speech and rational discourse are now breeding grounds for partisan emotionalism. Students now graduate and are shaped by this kind of thinking.
I don’t disagree that some social and economic issues are important and should be discussed seriously. They should. But there are rarely times when you can do anything to affect them. The thoughts and opinions you base your identity on electrical synapses in your brain, and the fact that you’re a fleshy creature made of water constrained by the limitations of time and space should never be too far from the front of your mind.
The amount of hours we log-in with our political brethren is only creating a stronger sense of tribalism in the country. I’ve recently experienced a new trend where my friends on Facebook ask those who support a certain candidate to kindly unfriend them. To be willing to lose friends over who’s president is as tribal as it gets. Even the Montagues and Capulets eventually stopped being jerks to each other.
But this is where we are, and it seems to be where we’re going. The one point of optimism in this is that in the rare times times I do see someone display compassion, nuance or humor immediately gives me a sensation akin to opening a window in a muggy room. It’s that refreshing.
That means people who still believe in civil discourse and intellectual honesty are incredibly valuable today. Don’t lose your sense of irony or respect for people, we need it more than ever.
I’m sure there were benefits to the monastic code of those monks, just like there are benefits to our own ideas. Political ideology helps shape people, it gives them an idea of what they want the world to be. But those ideas aren’t more important than other human beings. Cross that damn river.