What’s a face in the crowd?
I think of Donald Trump’s big rallies. He’s so proud of the thousands of cheering, flag-waving men and women who crowd his rallies. Their energy carries him, but at least on a few occasions it looked more like a mob wishing to inflict punishment, lock people up, laugh at them, mock them, assert again and again that they’re not human beings like they—those in the rally—are.
Do they understand what they’re doing? Do they understand how deep this can go?
A phone conversation with my mother this morning:
“Chavale, tell me, where am I?”
“You’re in your apartment, mom.”
“No, I’m in prison. I can only go four steps in each direction.”
“Do you recognize your bed, mom? The dining table in the next room?”
“No,” she says. “I’m in prison. Do you know why?”
“You’re not in prison, mom. The coronavirus is causing many of us to stay home.”
“It’s not because I’m Jewish?”
I read of Mahatma Gandhi’s darshans as he traveled across India, thousands of people in attendance. He talked a little, chanted, read from the Bhagavad Gita. Those close to him said that even when he was exhausted and sick, those gatherings carried him, gave him confidence and life. They didn’t take him away from himself but stronger inwards, to Ram, or Rama, representing ultimate reality and truth according to Hinduism. He invoked that name again and again. It wasn’t his name in flags that he wanted to see, or on hats or sweatshirts or big posters held up high, but rather Ram.
At the same time, he never insisted that everyone do so. Gandhi took it as a personal failure when Indian Muslims seceded to form Pakistan; he wanted Muslims and Hindus to live together in peace. He was very clear about his mission in life: He wanted to build an enlightened society. Getting the British out of India was only a secondary cause, the primary one, he said again and again, was to transform Indian society. Otherwise, he said, they will take the place of the British after the British leave and persecute others. In that spirit, he would be appalled by what Narendra Modi’s government has done in India.
These are gray, rainy days in New England while the coronavirus is surging around the world. Those not sick find their lives curtailed. It tears at the hearts of single people living alone, not seeing their children or grandchildren for many months; children not playing with friends, parents unable to go to work. It may feel right to shrink into ourselves for protection, into some essence that feels solid and unbreachable.
But there’s nothing that can’t be breached. And when some of us see the world as a fearsome place and ourselves as threatened survivors, others reach out instead, seek to widen their focus of attention and concern, ask who needs help right now, who needs more help than I do. That’s not just spiritual, that’s healthy. Believe me, you’ll be a lot happier doing the latter than doing the former.
Yesterday I heard two questions on the phone: How does God want me to be in these times? How does God want me to act in these times?
I realize that I’ve been carrying these questions, or a version of them, since the virus began. Engaging with them, feeling my way around them, singing and dancing with them, have lifted a possible depression and transformed my anxiety into excitement. I hold on to gladness and curiosity and make sure not to deplete my spirit.
In this vein I sat with Jimena de Pareja last week and said to her that it was hard to keep bringing in $1,000 a week to help immigrant families with their basic needs of food, rent, and utilities. You and I have managed it for 7 full months, along with a lengthy Amazon wish list of school supplies, well over $32,000. But I sense a fatigue both inside and out, from myself and others; nobody’s rich around here. People send me ideas on what to do—talk to local churches and civic organizations, social agencies, etc. It adds more work for me, and honestly, I do other things as well. I teach, I help create an order for dharma-based activists, and I write.
These coming days will be extra busy: An online Auschwitz plunge takes place (the retreat at Auschwitz/Birkenau had to be canceled), elections, followed by the second memorial of Bernie’s death. I need to take care of myself. Most important, I want to do things with gladness, not under pressure.
Since food is so essential, I plan to keep up a reserve of food cards, though maybe not as many as before, focusing especially on families who really can’t feed themselves. I also want to know about people with special needs—someone sick who can’t afford to get treatment, a family thrown out of their house in the middle of winter, serious situations that require, as my friend Jon Katz says, small acts of great kindness.
When that comes up, I’ll write about it and ask specifically for that situation. Later today will bring $500 of food cards and some cash. It’s pouring outside (the remnants of Hurricane Zeta), but Jimena won’t cancel. They’ll stand out there in the rain, men, women and children, because they need those food cards, and I’ll be there as well, though this time may leave my good-will ambassador, Aussie, behind. She’s not in a hurry to go outdoors (see photo above).
So that’s the plan for now. Will keep you apprised as we move forward.