Days have transpired since a man went into a synagogue and murdered 11 Jews. I waited for words to come up; they didn’t.
The killer, Robert Bowers, found words. He wrote: I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in. He picked up an assault rifle and several handguns, and went in.
Screw your optics. Did he mean, I don’t care what this looks like to everyone else, I’m still going in to kill?
I started thinking about optics, and what the world looks like to so many of us.
I thought back to around 2003, just after Lula became President of Brazil. I was invited by our friend, Ovidio Waldemar, to Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum, a poor person’s alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos. 300,000 people attended in mega heat. I made presentations on the Zen Peacemaker Order and then Ovidio and his wife, Olga, took me around. They showed me a recycling center staffed by homeless people, with an on-site school for their children and tiny living quarters for their families. I listened to the opening talk of the new head of Brazil’s land reform movement and visited a town of land given to formerly landless families, then stood in 90 degrees plus heat listening to Hugo Chavez tell everyone that a new day was dawning.
Enthusiasm, even exuberance, reigned everywhere. Change was coming, change to benefit the perpetual have-nots of the world. And the world admired Brazil, how it stood behind Lula on the frontier of change, on the cusp of peaceful revolution.
Fifteen years later, Lula is in prison and a man called Jair Bolsonaro leads the fourth largest country in the world. That’s our optics nowadays.
In Germany, Angela Merkel, who argued so eloquently for Germany to accept more immigrants and refugees, and treat them with humanity and respect, is stepping down. Her time, too, has come and gone. More optics.
My optics have changed, too, if only for a few days and just geographically speaking. I am in Switzerland to support and celebrate the opening of a Zen Peacemaker House in Bern and the making of a new teacher and leader in our Zen Peacemaker family, Jorge de Mello, whose passion combines meditation practice with permaculture and love of this earth. He, his teacher, Barbara Wegmueller, and I walked along the path atop their home in Bern, looking at an enormous sky and the distant Jura, Barbara’s little dog, Jacinto, scurrying ahead of us. A small Shih-Tzu mix, Jacinto had no fear of the many people who passed by and who are so much bigger than him
If transmission and recognition of a new teacher and leader before a small group of 30 people, making vows to pursue peace with all beings and the earth, seems small to you, then I want to say what Robert Bowers wrote: Screw your optics. Neither CNN nor Fox are covering this (unless someone with a gun comes in and starts shooting). It’s a small, unimpetuous act, capping years of disciplined preparation and hard work, a long ripening process that doesn’t lend itself to cameras and soundbytes.
What it’s about is the long haul. What it’s about is the power of vow, which generates its own momentum, that can take you all the way from defeat through euphoria, from horror and disappointment to an exultant Finally!
Only there are no final Finallys!
I don’t make light of the harm done and the suffering inflicted in these times. I don’t make light of corruption and Brazil’s sky-high homicide rates that caused people to lose faith in basic government, so essential to any country’s wellbeing. These cycles of ours have their price, but contrary to what Robert Bowers posted, it’s usually paid by vulnerable minorities and the poor. It’s not his people being slaughtered.
The Bodhisattva vows, vows that I have taken, are to come back lifetime after lifetime to help all beings. I am writing this in the early, sleepless hours of a Swiss morning, sitting at a kitchen table waiting for the darkness to pass, and it seems to me that my lifetimes are speeding by, one after another, quicker and quicker. And I come back, and come back, and come back: to the innocent people shot on a holy day, to men, women, and children walking in caravan under sun and rain, slowly making their way to a promised land up north, to the families hiding out in small apartments just 15 minutes from where we live in the effort to avoid the police, the ones in sanctuary.
You make a big vow. Things still happen, you stay the course.
Screw the optics.