Moving Forward Toward Justice

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday, for the first time in years, I went to church. I was motivated to go not only by a need to connect with people in my community in an offline space, but by the banner that was hanging outside the church.

I consider myself to be a Buddhist. The church I attended on Sunday was a Unitarian Universalist church, and I was not familiar with their practices. During part of yesterday’s service, members of the church lined up to place a stone, representing their concerns or celebrations, upon the altar. Typically people can speak about those concerns or celebrations, but yesterday the ritual was deliberately silent.

It seemed as if every person in the congregation stood to place a stone on the altar, many of them with troubled expressions, often pausing to hug each other. It was a moving experience, a physical manifestation of the deep sense of anguish that has gripped many of the people in my life and my community after last week’s election.

The altar was completely covered in stones.

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Since the election, spontaneous protests have sprung up all over the country. As the final mail-in ballots are counted, Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote by millions. Aross the country, racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist attacks are occurring. And because this was the first election in 50 years that did not have the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression may have occurred.

None of this changes the fact that Donald Trump won the electoral college, and in the United States, it is the electoral college that decides who wins the presidency, not the popular vote. Along with over 4 million others, I have signed this petition to ask the electoral college to vote for Hillary Clinton on December 19, but I am under no illusions that this will actually happen. Frankly, I don’t believe the electors have the courage to do it.

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As a Buddhist, one of the teachings that I’ve found most meaningful is Pema Chodron’s essay on “Hopelessness and Death” in her book When Things Fall Apart. She writes:

“In Tibetan there’s an interesting word: ye tang che. The ye part means ‘totally, completely,’ and the rest of it means ‘exhausted.’ Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say ‘totally fed up.’ It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”

Are you totally fed up with what happened during the election? I am.

But the idea that giving up hope could be a positive thing can seem bizarre on the surface. After all, eight years ago, Obama campaigned and won on a message of hope. So what does Pema Chodron mean when she says that hopelessness is “the beginning of the beginning”? She explains:

"The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We are all inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. …

"Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no babysitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that it’s not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient.

“For those who want something to hold on to, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope — hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.”

This is America: “a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet.” No, we are not a very compassionate place. Does that sound harsh? Well, I am reminded of this lack of compassion every time I go to the supermarket on a weekend, and enraged men in cars honk and yell at me for driving slowly through a crowded parking lot to avoid hitting pedestrians.

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Tuesday night, as the election returns came in, I was initially stunned. I remained stunned for days. I couldn’t eat. I haven’t slept well since last Monday. As this shock ebbed away, it became replaced alternately with despair and anger. Shock, despair, and anger. That’s what I’ve been feeling for almost a week now.

Through all this, a certain clarity has emerged. I have listened to Obama and Clinton and other Democratic leaders calling for us to work with Trump, to accept the results of the election, and while I understand why they are saying these things, I do not and will never welcome Trump as the president of my country.

I understand the Trump victory to be a product of many complicated things. It is a racist backlash against Obama and his policies. It is a sexist rejection of Hillary Clinton, the most qualified person ever to run for president. It is a product of an archaic electoral college system; the gutting of the Voting Rights Act; Russian intervention (!); decades of unfounded right-wing attacks on Hillary Clinton; a ratings-driven media that values punditry over facts; a broken educational system that leaves voters believing lies; and yes, a lack of compassion for those who are less white, less wealthy, less Christian, and less male.

I understand all these things. The obstacles facing those of us who believe in equality for all have never been clearer. I do feel hopeless, but it also feels like a new beginning for me.

I have lived my entire life in the shadow of my family’s experiences in Communist China, where they lived and died under an oppressive state that suppressed dissent. I grew up being told to be quiet, because quiet is safer. I have struggled with this, obviously, because I am a stubborn, nasty woman, and I have a lot of pointed opinions. I have found my voice in writing and in advocating for diversity in media, but I have often been afraid to act up, to stand up in my community, to demand better from my leaders. This election has changed that.

Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States, but that doesn’t mean we should roll out the red carpet for him. He has repeatedly shown himself to be a selfish bigot more concerned about seeing his name in lights than in actually doing good for the people. In the United States, we have rights, and we should use them. We should protest. We should call out injustice. We should contact our representatives and demand that they represent compassion and equality. I am going to do these things. I am going to do my part to help bend that arc of the moral universe toward justice, and I urge you to do your part, too.

We are stronger together.