Wednesday, October 12, 2005

COMPASSION

Despite its wealth, the United States, as a percentage of its population, has the smallest middle class and the greatest gap between rich and poor of any industrial nation. As more and more Americans fall through the cracks into privation and poverty, they also fall prey to the predatory economic institutions that Howard Karger examines so thoroughly and powerfully in his book"Shortchanged". Like such classics as "Nickel and Dimed", this book is a wakeup call for action to redirect our economy towards fairness and ethics.

What is fundamentally right about the above statement and so precariously wrong? Well, if we take a hard look at the underbelly of America we might not like what we see. A nation priding itself as a land of great opportunity and wealth. A land where immigrants came and staked their claim to the American dream. All things are possible in America, just start a business and it will be followed by enourmous wealth. That was the poster. An inviting scenario....Jim Jones said..."Drink the Kool Aid and you'll reach Nirvana". Somebody lied!

I remember 40 years ago when I graduated from the University of Montana, my Uncle Leon who lived in Philadelphia asked me a pretty direct question. Are you going to stay in the U.S. or go back to Canada? I said I hadn't made up my mind yet. His response was equally vocal and demonstrative. "How could you possibly think of returning to Canada". You will not have the same opportunities to get rich as you can in the good ole USA. Also, Canada is so backward and America is blessed with so much more of everything. He left out the part about having more "poverty" in America than Canada, and a health system that helps you get better as opposed to a system that enables the rich to get well and the poor to get sicker, and the middle class to go bankrupt. But hey, more incentive to make more money...right? Wrong What price glory?


My Uncle and his family and for that matter all my American relatives equated a high degree of success in life to the acquisition of wealth and personal fortune. Becoming a successful lawyer and doctor or owning a multi milliion dollar company with the accompanying "nice" Jewish girl and split level mansion in the burbs was the ultimate goal and deserving of bragging rights with the rest of the family. God forbid you should be a truck driver or shoe salesman. Much pity would befall your parents for producing such a social misfit.

It's the "Goodbye Columbus" syndrome of Jewish dating with Richard Benjamin and Ali Macgraw. A Jewish man and a jewish woman meet and while attracted to each other find that their worlds are very different. She is the archetypical Jewish-American-Princess, very emotionally involved with her parents world and the world they have created for her while he is much less dependent on his family. They begin an affair which brings more differences to the surface.

Neil Klugman works in the public library and lives in New York with his Jewish aunt rather than in Arizona with his parents. College-girl Brenda Patimkin very much lives with her well-to-do Jewish family. Even so, the two are attracted and start seeing each. As the relationship gets more serious, Brenda's mother gets increasingly hostile to Neil, thinking her daughter would end up marrying beneath her.

There was a great joke circulating the Katskills in the 50's by that famous Jewish comedian, Mickey Katz, better known as the Borscht Jester. "Two elderly Jewish women were walking with their granchildren on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and each one turned to the other and said, what beautiful grandchildren they had. Then, Mrs Goldstein asked Mrs. Rabinovitch how old they were? To which Mrs. Rabinovitch replied, "Well the doctor is three and the lawyer is two. "

There is a certain degree of logic and rationale to this syndrome. After all most Jewish immigrants that came to the States had escaped the unspeakable horrors of the Nazis in concentration camps, and so they were holocaust survivors. My belief is that they wanted a life for their kids thst was totally opposite to what they had experienced. So they went a little overboard, and wanted their kids to have EVERYTHING.

Also, there was a belief that the only way a Jew could escape anti-semitism was to work for themselves. I took that belief wth me into society and became paranoid every time I had a gentile boss. Would he find out I was Jewish and then find a reason to fire me. The best decision I ever made was to go away to an American college with a population on campus of 10 Jewish students and 3,200 gentiles. My first roomate was Tom Gillon from Chester, Montana who never heard of a Jew and my second was George Paige, a black football player from Portland, whose father was a judge. When I tried out for the basketball team, I met Ray Lucien, the only black guy on the team. Ray was from Baton Rouge and his was a poverty striken family. The only jacket Ray had, was the letterman jacket he got for being a jock.

How wonderful those days were...no color blinders...George and Ray and I having dinner together talking about our futures. We obviously took different paths, but I believe we had one thing in common, a geuine compassion for each other and our trust and love for one another. In that moment in time I could not understand the resentment my realtives had for the blacks in South Philadelphia and a view of them being no more than second class citizens. I would say to them, how can you persecute them, when we have been the persectued ones from generation to generation. Their answer was a subtle form of racism...."You don't know how they live because your'e not around them".

I love my extended Philadelphia family, but I don't have to like their beliefs. The scary part is that I honestly believe they represent a lot of thinking of mainstream white Americans in large urban cities. They moved three times from their South Philly home, and each time it was to an all white suburban neighbourhood. When Overbrook Park became inhabited by blacks they moved to Overbrook Hills and then finally to an all- white gated retirement comunity in Florida.

I began to become less paranoid and more accepting of the equalty in us all. Having grown up entirely in a protective "Jewish only" environment, I began to assimilate with the rest of the world. Thus begun my ascent into having "compassion" for all beings. Not an easy task for a "brain washed" only child who believed everything his mother and father told him. This is not to say I did not experience my own share of bullying and anti-semitism as a child. I did, but my Dad , God Bless him, always told me to not fight back and just walk away and feel sorry for the attackers. It was in that moment that I became more passive than aggressive in the resolution of conflict. That's not to say that I was a classic "wimp", but more judicious in my understanding of people, their motivation to anger and the price to pay for fighting and war.

Buddha says; "To feel true compassion for all beings, we must remove any partiality from our attitude toward them." Our normal view of others is dominated by fluctuating and discriminating emotions. We feel a sense of closeness toward loved ones. Toward strangers or acquaintencances we feel distant. And then for those indiviudals who we perceive as hostile, unfriendly, or alloof, we feel aversion or contempt.

The criterion for our classifying people as friends or enemies seems straightforward If a person has caused us difficuty or harm, he or she is a foe. Mixed with our fondness for our loved ones are emotions such as attachment and desire that inspires passionate intimacy. Similarly, we view those whom we dislike with negative emotions such as anger and hatred. Consequesntly, our compassion toward others is limited, partial, prejudicial, and condiitoned by whether we feel close to them Genuine compassion must be unconditional. Now I'm sure, if you are reading this on the New York subway, it's pretty difficult to adopt this concept and attempt to view the stranger sitting next to you with compassion.

However , if we are to begin this journey towards enlightenment and follow the eight fold path of Buddha, compassion is high on the list. From personal experience, I can tell you that once you become aware of this it really does open your eyes to the way we are used to interacting with all beings. Every conversation I have now, every busines meeting, every discussion with whomever; my interaction with the grocery clerk at the check out, the guy filling my tank, the pharmasict and the postal clerk. I catch myslef only partially listening to their answers, as I am alerady moving ahead with my agenda. Now I pay particular attention to what they are saying, who they are, what they have to say about their business and their life. I have discovered you can connect with people at a deeper more compassionate level, without becoming their therapist. And you can be free to just LISTEN!

There is one last consideration, and it comes from the Dalai Lama; "As human beings, our well-being very much depends upon that of others, and our very survival is a result of contributions made by inumerabe fellow human beings. Whether directly or indirectly, countless others are involved in our survival---not to mention our happiness".

If we extend this line of reasoning beyond the confines of a single lifetime, we can imagne that throughout our previous lives---in fact, since time without beginnng---countless others have made inumerable contributions to our welfare. We conclude, "What grounds have I to discriminate? How can I be close to some and hostile toward others? I must rise above all feelings of partiality and discrimination , I must be of benefit to all, equally!"

How do we train our minds to perceive the essential quality of all living beings It is best to cultivate the feeling of equanimity by first focusing on relative strangers or acquaintances, those for whom you have no strong feeling one way or the other. From there you should meditate impartially, moving on to friends and then enemies. Upon achieving an impartial attitude toward all conscious beings, the Dalai Lama encourages us "to meditate on love, the wish that they find the happiness they seek". What a concept, to actually want someone else to achieve happiness before you do. Another equally challenging task for the selfish, only child, narssistic author of this prose. A huge awakening, but the seed has been planted in me.

And what I have learned is that the seed of compassion will grow as the Dalai Lama says; "If you plant it in fertile soil, a consciousness moistened with love." "When you have watered your mind with love, you can begin to meditate upon compassion. Compassion, here is simply the wish that all conscious beings be free of suffering."

Buddha says; "Not to be helpful to others, not to give to those in need, this is the fruit of samsara. better than this is to renounce the idea of self".

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