When I left Oakland, California and moved to Bremerton, Washington a little more than six months ago, I was a significantly broken, hurt, and extremely beaten down man. Very few people in my life were aware of this with any real and deeply penetrating depths of awareness.
I felt severely let down and believed I had been ill-treated by a small though apparently powerful, somewhat insensitive, and rather persuasive cabal of women of color from within a community I had once felt very strongly connected to. It was a heartbreaking experience that unfortunately came at a very inopportune time and that will likely take me a little more time to completely get over and heal from. In addition, going through this experience with this community and with this group of women specifically, had unearthed some very old emotional injuries and wounds I believed I had sufficiently tended to and had beautifully and completely healed from more than a decade earlier. However, these very old emotional injuries and wounds now unceremoniously and dramatically reasserted themselves into my life, with the force and power of a neutron bomb that I believed I was not particularly prepared for emotionally though at the same time had no choice in addressing, along with all the other hurdles I was simultaneously trying to clear at the time as well.
I was also experiencing various emotional upheavals as a result of everything I’ve already mentioned and as a result of many other challenges I had in the year or so leading up to my departure from Oakland. Thankfully I had enough wherewithal to recognize I was essentially grieving all kinds and types of losses. If I hadn’t recognized this, I might have thought I was going completely mad. However, I wasn’t going completely mad. I knew this quite decisively. Thank you, God. Ultimately, I knew I was being given an opportunity to grow and exponentially so through the well-known “trial by fire” school of hard knocks technical school training so many of us go through in our lives and hopefully successfully graduate from. I understood this very deeply and accepted it even if begrudgingly so.
Some of the losses I experienced were through the physical deaths of several people who were close and important to me.
One friend—a short time prior to my departure from Oakland—who had also been a former co-worker and mentor, whom I had known for over twenty years, was murdered.
Three members of her immediate family had also been killed, including her husband and two of their teenage children. The teenage son had killed his parents and his younger sister. He then himself was killed a few days later, in another state, during a shootout with local law enforcement. This was all incomprehensibly tragic. It was also an extremely shocking and surreal event for all of us who had known the mother and/or her family. I was haunted by nightmares for several weeks, inspired by my imagining how these events may have unfolded since no one really knew for certain. All the people who could have lent some insight into it all were now dead.
Another friend I had known for a relatively short period of time had recently chosen to take his own life, also, right before I left Oakland. I had seen and spoken with him just two days before he died. I was completely unaware of what was occurring within him that was experienced as too much to bear less than forty-eight hours later. Clearly, he had already made his decision when I saw him. He had been in unusually calm and collected spirits.
On the other side of the coin, I knew there was a kind, sensitive, and experienced Zen teacher and a hopefully supportive community attached to this teacher awaiting me in Washington State—the destination of my flight from Oakland. And I knew I had to take flight away from Oakland. I had developed quite an allergy to Oakland in my last year or so there. I didn’t have an allergy to the city of Oakland itself though I did find I had grown quite weary of it. I was even wearier of certain lingering mostly recent memories with various people who either lived in Oakland or whom I associated with Oakland.
All of this placed me in the rather interesting position of both feverishly running toward something I suspected might eventually be very healing and transformational for me and also feverishly running away from something I knew I no longer wanted to be around at that moment. I also knew that experiencing both what I was approaching and what I was leaving would eventually provide the foundations for a healing process most likely unlike any I had ever experienced before.
So let the sideshow begin, as the soulful 1970s rhythm and blues song by Blue Magic says.
Many of my thoughts, ideas, values, and life philosophies were also in extreme transition during the time before, during, and after my move to Washington State. Almost everything I had imagined my life would be grounded in was up for grabs. It was both a very confusing and a very exciting time all wrapped up in a box of divergent, strong, and opposing emotions.
Fast forward to the present.
Over the past several months while moving through various healing processes, I have also taken some note of various headline news reports that had come into my conscious awareness. Many were met with mostly a passing indifference. However, my ears and eyes did tend to prick up around the various reports that were connected, in any way, to the racially driven upheavals, shifts, and movements that have been occurring in America since a small city in the Saint Louis metropolitan area of Missouri named Ferguson, burned its way onto most American’s radar.
There was a time not too very long ago indeed, when many of these very same types of news reports would have started a very significant fire under me causing my passions to become truly ignited. I realized that the lack of this experience now was likely due to my simply dealing with all the adjustment and settling in connected to my move from Oakland to Bremerton. Yet, I also knew this was not the whole of it. Something else was responsible for the lack of passion and lack of fire I experienced in myself when reading or hearing of these very specific types of happenings in the world all around me.
I was born a black male into a white supremacist world with all the attendant inequities, struggles, and challenges that came with that in just my lifetime alone, not to mention all the generational horrors and suffering that occurred to black folks before I was even born though which I was intimately aware of and that still impacted me. All of this pretty much cemented the probability that I would become a progressive social justice activist. This is especially true when other personality traits I have are also taken into consideration. Then, once I realized I was a same gender loving (gay) black male too, and began dealing with all the personal inequities and struggles I experienced there, and again, not to mention the historic ones, there as well, the cement, if it was not already hardened before, was certainly hardened now.
I unofficially became an activist when, as a young boy, I strongly disagreed with my maternal grandfather whom I worshiped, adored, deeply respected, and loved like no other man before nor since. This occurred one evening at the family dinner table. We disagreed over the topic of capital punishment. My grandfather absolutely supported it. I adamantly repudiated it and still do. I am extremely proud of the fact that my very first and strong social justice stance was being unequivocally against the death penalty without exception and that I took that stance as a relatively young boy.
Several years later I officially became an activist, in my way of defining this word, in 1976, at the still relatively tender age of sixteen, when I became a registered conscientious objector, buoyed largely by my observation and analysis of almost everything I saw as a part of America’s involvement in what we Americans called, The Vietnam War. This was doubly reinforced by my complete disgust with and anger at being forced to sign up for conscription later roughly two years later.
In the interim, between then and now, I have often had a great deal of personal difficulty and disagreements with progressive and liberal minded activists of almost every stripe imaginable. This has been the case even though I currently and have always, at least since age sixteen, identified as being a deeply committed progressively minded activist myself. What this means at its core is that I have always found myself to be at odds with a community of people I saw myself as having a great deal in common with. For a long time this was quite perplexing to me. I attributed it to things I quickly came to understand were not the source of my difficulties with progressive activists at all. So for some time the mystery remained.
These difficulties first started to arise when I began to recognize, in my late teens and early twenties, what I experienced as a very clear, very strong disconnect, as well as a palpable cognitive dissonance between the values I saw many progressive activists passionately and publicly espousing and giving strong voice to and how I saw many of these same activists treating, very differently, the people they said were the most important to them in their interpersonal lives. These seeming hypocrisies and inconsistencies only grew in intensity, in my observation, over the years.
At this point, in my life today, a good portion of the activists I know are also Buddhist practitioners. The form my criticism often takes today then is a reflection of this fact. I often observe social justice activists who are also Buddhist practitioners behaving exactly like all other activists whose activism is not at all grounded in some kind of spiritual or mindfulness practice. This is sometimes confusing and disheartening to me because it is sometimes difficult for me to see and comprehend how these people’s practice is positively influencing their activism. I see what to me looks like so much vitriol, aggression, lack of compassion, sarcasm, mean spiritedness and passive aggression infused into their social activism and social justice work—even their Buddhist based activism work. Rarely, until very recently, did I voice my critical thoughts. Instead, I mostly decided to work on my own desired deeper living of The Eightfold Path in my own life while trying to not be too distracted by the actions of others. Yet, I couldn’t help still being very much aware of what I frequently observed and experienced.
Then on August 8, 2015 Marisa Johnson and Mara Willaford interrupted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a campaign stop in nearby Seattle. They grabbed his microphone and forced the crowd gathered to listen to what they had to say instead of what they had come to hear. At first this story, like so many before it, did not really register on my radar. I had become aware of the whole brouhaha several days after the incident had occurred. This is due primarily to the fact that the only way I receive news these days is through the internet and I am on the internet very infrequently. So slowly, at first, and then very rapidly, I began to realize that many people I was connected to on social media were strongly engaged with this story and had very strong thoughts and opinions about it. I am connected to folks who represented various sides of opinion about this. This is not unusual for me to experience because I have friends on every single side of the political divide imaginable. However, the more I read my friends comments and expressed opinions, the more I began to be drawn in. This surprised me. Nothing had really drawn me in similarly for many months. At first I was very unsure why this particular story was increasingly drawing my attention. What was it about this story that had triggered me, or had ignited something in me, or had stirred some sleeping beast within me? It was all a mystery to me at first.
I decided to find and watch a video of what had happened before I formed any strong opinions about the whole thing. Thankfully, the video I found was one that contained audio from the very first minutes of the incident. I also tend to walk around most times with all kinds of music playing in my head. Often when I see something, a particular track is accessed and I often cannot get that song out of my head for the next several hours. When I first saw the video from the event, the song "Where is the Love" by The Black Eyed Peas immediately popped into my head. The line, "People livin' like they ain't got no mamas" is the one that specifically queued up. The next thought that came to my mind was the thought that these two women sounded like straight up bullies to me. I was bullied growing up—a lot. So I know what bullying sounds like, thank you very much. It’s hard to clean that shit up once one gets into that zone. Bullying has probably been around since the beginning of human existence on the planet. And it always sounds the same. I thought, Hmmm, to my ears, "If you do not listen to her, your event will be shut down right now” sounded an awful lot like, “If you don’t give me your lunch money right now bitch, I’m gonna kick your azz.”
Go tell it on the mountain, children!
I examined and reviewed all the arguments put forth by those who strongly defended the actions of the two woman. Among these arguments was a strong assertion that what these women were essentially bringing attention to the historic and generational disregard, slaughter, pain, and suffering of black people and of our black communities being under constant siege both currently and for hundreds of years under the system of white supremacy and two of its strongest subsidiaries, white privilege and racism. I had no problem with that. There was also a belief put forth that in America right now, these were far more important issues for us all to be addressing as American’s than anything else any presidential candidate could possibly speak of. No real problem with that either.
There were others whose strongest concern was that taking a stance against the two woman simply had to be motivated by some sense of a need for some form of wretched assimilation. There were the related and more pointed assertions that if one was black and opposed these women’s actions, surely such a person was giving in to some expressed or unexpressed sense of black respectability, which in fact and in truth is just another expression of wretched assimilation. Uh oh, I see a slippery slope coming up ahead. These particular defenders often made wild and sweeping generalizations about whole categories of black folks they didn’t even know yet somehow magically believed they possessed the heretofore unknown to me, at least, mind reading ability to incontrovertibly know such people had fallen victim of such things as assimilation consciousness and/or black respectability consciousness. BAM! We’re on that slippery slope now. Even with that mind reading foolishness, everything is mostly cool with me even here. BTW, I am a strong opponent of black respectability consciousness and find it an insult to my intelligence when black folks who either do or especially if they don’t know me, accuse me of pandering to it in any way.
There were also those who defended the woman’s actions under the rubric that the liberation of black people in this country was not to be directed by some fallacious and made up timeline that conveniently fit into the comfort zones of those who were not the ones who were to be liberated but rather, needed to fit solely into whatever schedule those who were the ones to be liberated saw fit. If that time ended up occurring during a scheduled speech of a white, male, democratic presidential candidate, then so be it. Good, we’ve cleared the slippery slope and are back on secure ground now.
Others still, resorted to the argument that since black women as a whole in this country were often not given full agency in the world, and that because of this fact, these two black women, by necessary and required unquestioned decree, should be given agency to do whatever they wanted with absolutely nothing else needing to be taken into consideration. Uh oh, I see us approaching another slippery slope up ahead there folks. Fasten your seat belts, babies.
I understood all of these arguments and defenses intimately and very well. Each of them were par for the course type arguments and defenses that deeply represented the progressive social justice activists hive mind—a hive mind I had become very familiar with and had indeed been an active participant of for decades. Personally, I found most of these arguments to be reasonable enough. I saw all of them as being grounded in varying levels and degrees of provable truth. I did not find any of these arguments and defenses neither absurd nor completely indefensible. There were some slippery slopes. I had however, navigated far more slippery slopes in the past. None of these arguments however, persuaded me to support the actions of the two women. Not in the slightest.
On the other side of the spectrum were mostly arguments putting forth the idea that these two women had simply chosen the wrong presidential candidate to “bully.” Many of these people seemed to have a personal investment in Bernie Sanders himself and cited his time of marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights era, as proof of this. Many of these folks also presumably would have seen the two women’s actions as being far less problematic if not wholly forgivable if they had taken place, oh let's say at a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz rally. Lovely. As if it was totally OK to bully someone simply because you didn't like him. Good grief. Anyway. I understood these people’s positions. I however, was not really that sympathetic toward them. Their concerns in no way represented the reasons why I did not support the actions of the two women. For that, all I needed to mostly do was examine my own decade’s long experience with progressive social justice activists as a whole.
For years there often seemed to be this secret understanding and unacknowledged agreement that the more apparently self-indulgent, self- righteous, self-absorbed, mean spirited, bitter, and with the least amount of humility displayed—the far better progressive activist one was universally assessed and hailed as being. I felt like there was this memo that was periodically being sent out to progressive activists asserting precisely these sentiments yet somehow I consistently failed to receive that memo. And also at the most basic plain ole human level, I realized I now had an aging body that was disabled and always experiencing chronic pain. I also recognized I, like everyone else who was roughly my age, had spent much of my life dealing with my own and other people’s drama and bullshit and the emotional toll it had all taken on me was beginning to show—especially the toll from my own drama and bullshit, mind you. Still, it simply began to wear me out always feeling like I had to make excuses for the seemingly perpetually angry, negative, narcissistic, self-indulgent behavior of those in this tribe I sort of reluctantly belonged to called progressive social justice activists.
The problem however, was not so much one of myself no longer being in alignment with the underlying ideas, philosophies, constructs, thinking and understandings of what I viewed as the overarching progressive social justice activist community and creed. That wasn’t it. The issue was a little more nuanced than that. It was more an issue of approach, I suppose, than anything else.
I now, at this stage of my life, want a kinder, gentler approach to my activism work than what I consistently seemed to experience with most other progressive social justice activists. I want an approach that doesn't seem to be so heavily influenced by unresolved and unaddressed personal pain, trauma, and suffering. I want an activist ethos less seemingly fixated on negativity, pessimism, and despair. I want an approach that's not so reflexively defensive and so threatened by opposing ideas within its own ranks. I want a social justice activism that isn't so seemingly self-righteous, so seemingly self-absorbed, so seemingly believing that all of us progressive activists consistently live at the absolute center of the known universe, so seemingly fueled by righteous indignation directed at those who are assessed as not living at the absolute center of the known universe with us or passive aggressively assumed by us as somehow always being smarter than such people as well.
I want an approach that is less snarky, less sarcastic, less mean, less self-indulgent, less thought policing of those with different takes on things and I want an approach that is more obviously humble. I want something that is more compassionate, more empathetic, more infused with loving kindness, and one that is more joyful and more loving—though definitely not in a spiritually bypassing kind of way. I suppose when it is all said and done I basically want an approach to progressive social justice activism that is more in alignment with how certain people both living and no longer living—heroes and sheroes of mine, seemed to approach social justice activism in their own lives—people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr, Peace Pilgrim, The Dalai Lama, and Thích Nhất Hạnh. It is a social justice activism underscored with a spiritual acumen and consciousness that I can identify with and understand.
Then one day, about a week or so ago, for no particular reason that I could identify, I received a very strong impulse to go retrieve my copy of Andrew Harvey’s book, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism. I knew it was somewhere in a closet in the house we are renting that hadn’t been gone through since the move to Bremerton. For some unknown reason I knew I was being instinctively drawn to this book and more importantly, being drawn to two very specific chapters contained within it. It took me almost an hour of diligent and near exasperated searching to find the book in question. However, I did finally find it. I quickly flipped to the first chapter I had been inspired to revisit. This was a chapter entitled, “Two Stories of Sacred Activism.” As soon as I flipped to the beginning of the chapter, I knew why I had been drawn to it. This chapter contained a story I had read numerous times before. It was a story that had moved me deeply every single time I read it. I had recounted and included the story in several Dharma talks as a lay Dharma teacher. I had posted it on my blog several years ago. I had bought multiple copies of the book when it first came out and gave many copies to friends and colleagues largely because of this story. I had somehow forgotten just how important this story was for me. It is my understanding that this story was first brought to popular awareness in a sermon given by Rev. Maake Masango. After that, it has appeared in various essays and books written by numerous writers, spiritual teachers, and educators. Here is that story:
After the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to bring the violence of apartheid to light and to give both victims and perpetrators a chance to be heard.
The Commission brought an old black woman into the same room with the white man, who had confessed to the murders of both the old black woman’s only son and of her husband as well. She had not witnessed the murder of her son. However, as part of the sheer brutality of the deed, she had been forced to witness the death of her husband. Because of this, she was able to hear his last words before he died. Those last words had been, “Father, forgive them.”
Now the old black woman found herself standing in an emotionally charged courtroom, listening to white police officers acknowledge the atrocities they had perpetrated in the name of apartheid. Among these was the confession of the man who had murdered her son and husband. The man who confessed to the murders was a one Mr. Van de Broek.
Officer Van de Broek first acknowledged his responsibility in the death of her son. Along with others, he had shot her 18-year-old son at point-blank range. He and the others had then partied while they burned his body, turning it over and over on the fire until it was reduced to ashes.
Later, he similarly confessed of the murder of the old woman’s husband. Eight years later, Van de Broek and others arrived to take her husband. A few hours later, shortly after midnight, Van de Broek then came to fetch the old woman. He took her to a woodpile where her husband lay bound. She was forced to watch as they poured gasoline over his body and ignited the flames that consumed it. Now, Van de Broek stood before her awaiting judgment. An assistant of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked her what she wanted, what she thought should happen to this man who had so brutally murdered the only family she had on this earth.
The old woman replied:
"I want three things," she said calmly. "I want Mr. Van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband's body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial." "Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. I want, secondly, therefore, for Mr. Van de Broek to become my son. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him." "Third, I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. I would kindly ask someone to lead me to where he is seated, so I can take Mr. Van de Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven."
The assistants came to help the old black woman across the courtroom toward the man she had just requested to embrace in her arms. Mr. Van de Broek, overwhelmed by what he had just heard, fainted. As he did, those in the courtroom—friends, family, neighbors, all victims of decades of oppression and injustice—began to sing "Amazing Grace." Gradually everyone joined in.
The second chapter I had been drawn to was entitled, “The Voice of the Fire.” In the first passage I am recording here, Andrew Harvey is recounting a dream he had. Here is the first of the passages I was intuitively drawn to in this chapter. He states: “One night I dreamed I saw two rivers of flame meet in a sea of boiling fire and hear these words: “When the two fires meet, a third fire is created, more powerful than either.” “When I awoke and meditated on my dream, I understood that these two fires were the fire of the mystic’s passion for God and the fire of the activist’s passion for justice, and that in the fire I had experienced in Coimbatore, these two fires were fused. In the greatest of human beings—Jesus, Rumi, Buddha—and in beings of our own time such as Nelson Mandela, The Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King, Jr., these two fires were fused in a “third fire”—the fire of wisdom and love in action.”
Further, in the second passage, here are Andrew Harvey’s words about the fire he describes himself as experiencing in Coimbatore, India—the fire he references in that preceding quote. I believe this additional information is helpful in order to receive the full power of the above referenced quote as well as to more fully understand what I was now beginning to understand as the unraveling of my own sacred activist calling. These words are Andrew Harvey’s from just a few pages earlier in the same chapter in, Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism: “I realized increasingly that what I had been put in contact with in Coimbatore was the primordial fire-force of Divine Love known in all authentic mystical traditions: known as Ishq (or divine passion) in Sufism, as Shakti in the Hindu vision, as the Shekinah in Jewish mysticism, as the absolute Bodhichitta in Mahayana Buddhism. The great universal mystic Ramakrishna called this force “Mother’s fiery love,” and I came to understand that it was this divine fire of compassion that was now going to be embodied in as many human beings as possible in order to transform the world.”
And here, in all these words, in the remembered dream sequences, and in the recounted South African story presented by Andrew Harvey, lay my deepest understanding, my salvation, and my future. Like him, I had come to realize I am a man of the third fire. I always have been. I simply had no concrete coherent knowledge of it, no conscious awareness of there even being such a thing. I had even begun to refer to myself as a sacred activist when I first read, Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism. I simply had somehow allowed myself to move away from this out of thoughtlessness and lack of attention. I had also allowed myself to get pulled off course, allowed myself to be a follower in a crowd that was not mine to follow instead of allowing myself to be the natural born leader that I am.
I now also fully understood why I had always experienced such a disconnect between myself and other progressive activists, a disconnect that also seemed to be there even between myself and various other Buddhist activists and other activists who stated and perhaps even truthfully believed their activism was rooted in some other spiritual or wisdom tradition as well. These other folks I now understood were of the activist’s river of fire, of the activist’s fire of the passion for justice. I however, was from the third river of fire that was a merging of this river of fire and the river of fire that was the mystic’s fire of the passion for God. This explained everything. The veil had been lifted from my eyes and now I could see. This accounted for everything. This was the explanation for years of frustration, for decades of feelings of alienation, for why I inevitably found Oakland to be such a difficult activism inspired city to live in and for whose activist’s energy it was so difficult for me to try to repeatedly and unsuccessfully absorb into my own consciousness. I understood this to not be a question of one fire being better or worse than the other. Rather, it was principally a situation where people found themselves more called by the heat of one or the other closely fires. I simply now knew which fire’s heat was calling me and my heart more authentically. I was deeply relieved. I was very excited and overjoyed about my potential future, living and being authentically guided by the third fire. Hallelujah!
I found myself asking myself the question, what if Marisa Johnson and Mara Willaford had also been motivated by the third fire on some grand or even a minute level on that eighth day of August in Seattle. What if they had each been motivated even just a little bit by the love and forgiveness of the old black woman who had found herself before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Just how might their actions have been different in such cases?
I have no doubt there are those among us who imagine themselves as being so unfathomably hurt, tortured, and traumatized by life that they experience the actions of the old black woman in that South African story as being only slightly less horrifying to them as those of Mr. Van de Broek. I probably have such people in my own life. I sincerely pray for all people who hold that story in this way. That is the best I can offer to you at this moment.
There are perhaps others who will assert that the old black woman in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission story reached her perhaps extreme level of love and forgiveness precisely through the many years of experience that comes with getting to the place of being able to be called an “old black woman.” I have many words to adequately address this, I believe. However, for now I’ll only use two of them—Malala Yousafzai.
What most struck me about that story about the old black woman is how, through her actions, she, who had her entire family slaughtered by the man who is now before her, not only demonstrated profound compassion, love, and forgiveness toward him but how by doing so and through the heart-filled manner in which she did it, invited him, a fellow human being, back into the human family, back into the human communion. With that invitation she extended to Mr. Van de Broek to come back into full communion with the human family, the old woman had embraced someone who very conceivably could have been lost to active and full participation in the human family forever. Yes, he would have still been walking around in his human shell of a body and form and through visual and other perceptual prisms would have appeared to have still been a fully active part of the human family. I however, am here to testify to the fact that appearances can be and are very deceiving in such matters. I have met members of the walking dead. Indeed, I have been among them for short periods of time more than once in my own life. There are various types and sets of people in the world whom, for all kinds of reasons, feel we have been actively or passively uninvited from full participation in the human communion. Some of us are men and women who have committed acts, sometimes criminal or criminalized acts that the culture we live in considers to be unspeakable acts. Some of us are consigned to less than full participation in the human communion simply by certain aspects of our humanness that come with us at the time of our birth.
And, of course, Marisa Johnson and Mara Willaford are also part of the human communion and absolutely, unquestionably need to be seen as such. I understood that as well.
The world stage is vast, weirdly construed, and constantly shifting. By far the largest percentage of people on the planet stand very little to no chance of ever standing on that stage for even a few fleeting moments. A very small percentage of people find themselves on that stage for all or the greater parts of their natural lives. There then is the relatively small percentage of us who, because of statistically unpredictable circumstances and events, luck, providence, coincidence, or being at the exact right place at the precise right moment, are thrust onto the world stage for an extended moment for all to see, hear, and observe.
Because of the nature of the world stage in those extended moments, our name may not even be recorded for posterity during those moments we find ourselves on that stage. This is the case with the central figure in that story from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We only know her as “the old black woman.” Yet, of course, her namelessness does not in any way reduce the significance and power of her contribution to the world for those few moments when she inadvertently found herself thrust upon its stage.
Once we appear on the world stage no matter how fleeting our appearance, we will also find ourselves before the extremely subjective and sometimes ruthless court of public opinion. Sometimes this court is uncharacteristically loving and warm towards us. Often it is viciously harsh. The court of public opinion, for the most part, doesn’t care who you are. One can be a well-respected world leader or other public figure with tens of millions of adoring facebook fans and one may still find that for some portion of your time on the world stage, you are completely vilified for something you did or didn’t do while on that stage. The same is true for those who were completely unknown before their, most likely quickly evaporating moments on the world stage, right before they retreat back into relative obscurity, unlikely to ever return to the world stage ever again.
Even though the court of public opinion is highly subjective it is not entirely so.
You, as the one on the stage, do bear some responsibility for what you did while there even though there may understandably be endless interpretations and projections around what you did and why you did it.
And what exactly did you do or what did some photographer or videographer record you doing during your time on that stage? Were you a nameless person caught throwing a Molotov cocktail into a crowd during a hoped for bloodless coup? Were you a concealed Black bloc member during the Occupy protests caught on film busting the windows out of buildings in downtown Oakland? Were you captured compassionately rescuing an entangled and obviously greatly distressed whale or dolphin from the perils of a fishing net that was not intended for it though nevertheless is now ensnared in it?
Or were you involved in something, for whatever reason, was considered so newsworthy that it became imperative that you in fact not remain nameless? Were you a—for the moment—nameless American police officer caught viciously beating down a young black man or woman or person of color? Were you captured literally taking the clothes off of your own back and graciously and humbly handing them to a presumed homeless person whose eyes spoke volumes about the endless gratitude contained within them? Or were you recorded jumping up on a stage in Seattle, Washington aggressively grabbing the microphone from a national presidential candidate during one of the candidate’s requisite campaign stops and forcing the audience gathered to listen to what you had to say?
You know, it seems to me, in that last example there, at the very end of the previous paragraph, that one has to believe, at least a teeny tiny bit, that he or she resides at the precise center of the universe in order to do something like that—that his or her own wishes and concerns take precedence over everything else at that very moment and place, no matter whatever else he or she may also believe. The court of public opinion will ultimately decide like it always does. It may not be fair. That however, is how the world stage works. If you don’t like the rules of the game, don’t play it or create your own game with its own rules distinctly removed from all other existing games and their rules. Otherwise it will simply look like you’re trying to use a clandestine and sly back door approach to the existing game in which case you’ll still be subjected to the rules of the world stage and the court of public opinion whether you like it or not and whether you or your supporters think that’s fair or not.
Additionally, one of the things I learned from over two and a half decades of working as a helping professional is that many people are having an extremely bad day many days of the year even though their countenance may not betray this in any way, shape, or form especially if the person happens to be male. Many males have been culturally conditioned not to show our pain, our emotional distress, our suffering. We’re supposed to hold our heads high, swallow it, and pretend everything is A-OK. Let’s just imagine for a moment, if you will, that Bernie Sanders was having a really bad day that day when Marisa Johnson and Mara Willaford decided to abruptly interrupt him. What if someone he had loved had fallen ill earlier that day? What if he had found out just a few hours prior that someone he loved had been diagnosed with terminal and inoperable or untreatable cancer? What if he had found out that someone he loved had died that day? These, of course, are all hypothetical questions. Still, being a helping professional for as long as I was I can remember numerous accounts of anonymous people treating one of my clients badly or without respect, or in a thoughtless or insensitive manner not at all knowing these actions were directed toward someone in a serious and lifelong battle with depression or in some other emotional crises deep and that these thoughtless actions whimsically engaged in brought their unsuspecting, unwilling victim literally to the brink of suicide. Ask me how I know.
Thinking about this, I suspect, is one of the differences between the activist’s river of fire, of the activist’s fire of the passion for justice and the third river of fire that is a merging of this river of fire and the river of fire that is the mystic’s fire of the passion for God, that Andrew Harvey speaks of because one of the first thoughts I had when I heard of the actions of Ms. Johnson and Ms. Willaford, at Bernie Sanders campaign stop was, “I wonder what kind of day this man was having before this happened." There are however, those I suspect are of the activist’s river of fire, of the activist’s fire of the passion for justice who have absolutely shown a high capability for this type of insight. The two rivers may not at all be as distinct as we might initially believe.
With all of this I also suspect a line has been crossed by me—meaning that some enduring changes, shifts, and affiliations are probably forthcoming if they have not already arrived. My experience of both significant segments of the black community as well as large segments of the progressive social justice activist community has been that both have relatively little tolerance for those within their ranks who do not tow some theoretical though still intensely adhered to party lines and positions. No one is immune, it seems. When the esteemed History Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., former chair of The African American Studies department at Harvard University dared to write about black Africans role in the transatlantic slave trade, that there were black Africans who sold other black Africans to Europeans for profit, he was quickly vilified by many who, before this, saw him as a black God who could essentially do no wrong and who ruled supreme among the relatively small circle of greatly respected contemporary black American intelligentsia.
When Julia “Butterfly” Hill eventually grew into sounding and writing more like an awakened and emerging spiritual master than a radical, slightly angry progressive activist, her following began to shift dramatically and I’m sure the audiences at her speaking engagements did as well.
So many of us simply cannot deal with nor accept someone within our ranks being an individual and not being slavishly beholden to the dizzyingly enforced monolithic groupthink. Membership certainly has its rewards. However, you better toe the line baby, or you will be hung out to dry faster than you can say Salem witch trials.
It’s all grist for the mill, I suppose. With this piece I am taking a long overdue and decisive step away from the enslavement of groupthink mentality. It’s likely just the first step in something much more pervasive and meaningful yet to come. Throw another timber on the death pyre with my name on it and be done with it.