Sunday, August 26, 2012

Praying for Paul Ryan

I was surprised Thursday night to realize how grateful I was for the prospect of sitting on a bus for two and a half hours the next morning. I'm almost never as aware of my own need for down time as would be good for me. Over and over, I notice, as though it were dawning on me for the first time, that I'll be happier, in the face of an overloaded agenda, if I slow down rather than speed up. Nothing on my list will get done. But I'll feel very different about the list when I go back to it: I won't feel like it owns me.

On my way to the bus, I saw an especially beautiful Rose of Sharon in bloom and wanted to take it in. Just breathe, I told myself. Breathe into the perfection of this one moment that's slipping away as quickly as it's coming into being. And then found myself reaching for the mala in my bag, thinking that if a few breaths were good, 108 breaths counted out with the beads would be even better. And soon slid into breathing for the people waiting with me for the bus. For the driver of the SUV inching by in the slow August traffic. For the couple I was rude and dismissive to last week in a disagreement over a much-coveted parking space, on which all our lives desperately depended. And then for people I've known better and longer.

The five people I know who currently have cancer.

The friend now living in chronic care after an incapacitating cerebral hemorrhage.

The men in my ritual circle.

The friends I'll say goodbye to over the next few days until next summer.

The friend who had a difficult meeting with his employers at work that morning.

And here's the kicker: the delegates to the Republican National Convention.

The delegates to the Republican National Convention???

Please don't misunderstand me here. It's not that I think Republicans are nice, well-intentioned folks just like the rest of us and deserve my respect because, hey, there's only you and me and we just disagree. Republicans in 2012 are, at best, willfully blind in their elevation of greed and selfishness to the status of national virtues. At worst, they're self-aware liars about the real nature of their agenda. They won't be satsified until the last poor person of color is disqualified from the voting roles; until the last option women have for control of their own bodies is criminalized; until sexual minorities are forced back into the closet; until schoolchildren are given standardized tests twenty times a year and their teachers blamed for weak results; until the health care system in this country is run like a commodities market; until every ten-year-old is presented with an attack rifle and told to exercise his right to keep and bear arms; until the last unspoiled place on earth gets its own oil well.

Take Paul Ryan as a case in point. There's virtually no distinction between his position on abortion rights and that of Todd Akin, the Republican Senatorial candidate in Missouri who notoriously opined last week that in cases of "legitimate rape" women are unlikely to conceive. Like Akin, Ryan in his support for a ban on abortion doesn't even endorse exceptions for rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother, though he defers on these points to the position of his lack-lustre, flip-flopping, off-I-go-to-the-highest-bidder running mate.

Ryan is the poster version of the self-made man, the guy who, when he lost his father at sixteen, rolled up his sleeves and supported his family; became a hunting enthusiast who butchered his own kills and made his own sausage; who read the ponderous, self-important screeds of Ayn Rand and found himself on every page. He's the man who wants to slash Medicare but has the duplicitous gall to level precisely that charge at Barack Obama.

Friday morning, Paul Ryan felt like a good person to breathe for, to pray for. Wrapped inside all that rhetoric of the self-made man is still the sixteen-year-old who defended himself against the pain of bereavement by telling himself to buck up and get past the loss. The strategy worked so well for him--he pushed the grief and pain down so effectively--that now he can tell himself that if he could surmount his own obstacles, then so can everyone else: like him, they should all stop whining and stand on their own two feet. Any softness of heart that comes of staying in touch with our own experience of suffering, loss, and need, any chance of connecting through that experience with others, gets buried like rich topsoil under asphalt.

That rich topsoil is what Buddhist teachers like Ani Pema Chödrön call bodhichitta: the noble and enlightened heart. And they remind us that we all have it. Even Paul Ryan; even delegates to the Republican National Convention.

If there's hope for me, it's the same hope that's there for the likes of Paul Ryan: that something will lead us to break through the asphalt we've laid down and find rich, soft soil underneath. That we'll find what's soft in our hearts, despite execrable politics, or fights over parking spaces, or whatever else we use to defend ourselves against a more basic and life-giving truth: that we are vulnerable; that we are mortal; that we need one another as seedlings that have found their way through a crack in the pavement need water and light.

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