A reporter sent to do a story about the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem sat and observed for a week. She noticed one man who came rain or shine three times a day, each time praying for an hour without stopping. She finally approached him and asked how long he had been practicing these devoted prayers.
“40 years, “ he answered.
“And what do you pray for?”
“That children will respect their parents, that parents will love and nurture their children. That women and men be granted equal rights and every one is free to follow their talent as long as it does no obvious harm to others. That Jews and Arabs will learn to co-exist peacefully and that love and compassion will triumph over hatred and ignorance.”
“Wow! Those are beautiful prayers. After 40 years, how do you feel?”
“ Like I’m talking to a freakin’ wall!!”
I’ve told this joke before, but it seems more relevant and somehow, less funny, now. I’ve always been a believer in human progress and have collected lots of data to prove it. Some 2500 years ago, Buddha broke through the caste system and taught that all of us were equally endowed with Buddha nature that we could realize through our dedicated efforts and the support of a community. Some 500 years later in another part of the world, another radical named Jesus suggested that it was time for people to stop smiting each other, turn the other cheek, become as little children and love their neighbor as themselves. Since that time, whole cultures moved from tyrant kings and suffering peasants to democracies, women rose to equal partners in work, life and love, children moved from being beaten in school to being nurtured in school, hate-mongering racists moved from trumpeting unashamed their vitriol on the airwaves to making public apologies, laws shifted from prohibiting whole groups from voting and living where they chose and marrying whom they chose to being granted their inalienable rights. From one point of view, human culture is slowly rising to its full possibility of freedom, fulfillment, compassion and enjoyment of the brief time allotted to us.
For over three years in this Blog, I’ve been trying to bear witness to a vision of hope, health and happiness, from the beauty of Positano to the glory of international folks meeting to make music in Salzburg to the dynamic culture I witnessed in Ghana to countless classes inspired by the children I teach. Many moments in many days that feed my belief that we are gradually becoming so much better than we have been.
And then I read the news. Nigerian girls are abducted, civilians are shot down over the Ukraine, more bombings in Israel and on the Gaza strip, more kids killed in a school shooting. What is going on here? Innocents slaughtered senselessly, children brought up to hate the other, arms dealers investing their profits in comfy retirement programs while the epidemic of violence with guns, bombs and missiles continues, people sitting in lawn chairs cheering the distant bombs like it’s the 4th of July. Have we gone totally mad?!!
And in places where we are mercifully free from daily violence, we sell video games to the kids and make movie after movie feeding sensational violence as the norm. In places where kids could be making beautiful music, reading and writing profound poetry, investigating with their minds and senses the miracles of the natural world, we narrow them down to paper-test standards and grade and judge them.
People, didn’t you get the Memo?! We’ve been moving steadily towards justice, compassion, understanding and yet we seem to be stepping backwards. Back to ethnic in-fighting, religious persecution, mongol hordes invading, women’s rights reduced, children narrowed to test numbers, blind fanatic faith trumping questioning and intelligence, greed everywhere. What’s going on?!
In the face of it, it’s tempting to set down this vision of human health and happiness as naïve New Age pablum and join the cynics, get with the “real world.” But I refuse. I—and the countless like-minded folks I meet—may be just talking to a freakin’ wall, but it just may be that such acts are what is holding it all together. And what other choice is there really? Nothing to do but keep sending out the memo and hope that it will finally be delivered to those who need it.
Which is all of us.