Watching and reading about the extensive damage from hurricane Ian on the southwest coast of Florida, I admire the compassionate people selflessly helping the residents recover. I also can’t help remembering an incident in 2020 when wisdom gained from Dhamma helped me while on vacation on the very pleasant Sanibel Island.
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As I turned the corner to enter the hotel’s grounds, suddenly a man confronted me and started screaming in my face. I was shocked and disoriented. I was minding my own business, plainly dressed and quiet, returning from an enjoyable sunset beach walk, in a family-friendly vacation locale with my young kids and dog at my side. I didn’t have any political conversations. No hot takes. I wasn’t even sure his wrath was aimed at me.
As the verbal attacks escalated and threatened to become physical, the woman who accompanied the man tried to steer him away from me. He threw her to the ground, onto a bed of rocks. She got up and scurried away out of sight.
He threatened to kill me. Over and over. He threatened to kill my kids. He told me he was going to send me to meet God that night. My kids were crying. My wife, who wasn’t with us at first, heard the commotion, came out, and was able to get our kids away without him noticing. He was focused on me. I didn’t know why. I still don’t.
For the next 15 minutes, I stayed cool. I stayed calm. I stayed peaceful. I asked him what he wanted. I smiled at him. I felt trained for this sort of thing, but until your feet are in those shoes you never know. I had no idea where it would go or how it would end.
When it was clear to him that I had a native’s command of English and wasn’t from wherever he thought I was from, he told me that my mother birthed me here and I didn’t belong in this country. He asked me whom I was voting for. I explained that I’m an independent person and rarely talk to anyone about politics. He asserted that if I wasn’t voting for his candidate then I didn’t love his country.
Unbeknownst to me, my daughter told my wife to call 911. Eventually the police arrived. They separated us. They asked what happened. They were cordial and professional. We quickly took our belongings out of the hotel room and left the island four hours after checking in for our first getaway since the COVID lockdown. The man was charged with battery and spent the night in jail.
I learned that I could keep my shoes out of the mud in the moment, but still ended up getting sullied after the dust had settled. I stayed there for a few days. It was all too raw. I lost respect for all his candidate's followers. I could feel both hatred and aversion setting in. But I managed to exit the mud relatively quickly and I feel better for it.
I’m not addicted to a person’s name. I don’t want to be a member of what has turned into two sects: for and against. Both sides are stuck putting him into their pipes and smoking him. Shooting him into their veins. Cloudy minds full of thoughtless reactions, pettiness and animosity. We need to break this endless addiction.
Yet, it’s easy for me to remove myself from the mud, right? I’m a white guy. I don’t feel the urgency — it’s true. My attack was intense but short. I don’t know what it would feel like if it had been obvious to me why I was getting attacked, whether harmlessly being myself made me susceptible to more attacks.
Metta is kindness for all, not just for those who agree with you. Not just for those who you think are good people. We are all suffering. We all want to be content. We are the first recipients when we generate kindness regardless of where it goes. The inverse is also true: when we are nasty, we harm ourselves.
There are times for strong action. If the man would have physically attacked my children, I would not have stood there smiling, like a limp vegetable. You can stand up for yourself and others. But in most cases in daily life, it is best to allow yourself to observe a breath or two and, with a clearer mind, choose the action of kindness. Turn in your Karma Police badge. You don’t need it. We all deserve and benefit from giving and receiving kindness.
Kindness doesn’t equal agreement. Kindness isn’t complicity. True kindness requires strength. Life isn’t fair and bullies can win in the short run. But bullies are miserable. Don’t let their misery infect you. Don’t become a bully too.
Einstein wrote it much better than me:
human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part
limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and
feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical
delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few
persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this
prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living
creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to
achieve this completely, but striving for such achievement is in itself a
part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."
You probably just nodded your head in agreement. But remember that Einstein said all living creatures, not just the ones you agree with. Metta is for everyone. Free yourself from your sect, your prison.
I’m more of a wannabe than an actual kind person. I fail every day. Many times. But setting that intention and using it as a compass is, as Einstein said, helpful in and of itself. I’m talking to myself right now as much as I’m talking to you. Be kind.