A few weeks ago my mom sent the above photo along with a text: “Your beautiful wedding.”
That was Meadowood in Napa Valley, where our guests stayed when Jason and I got married on June 9, 2012. Among one of the many casualties of the raging fire up North.
In one mood, I could look at this photo and say, “Fucking world is on fire, what’s next, frogs and locusts?” In another I’d say, “See? I knew my marriage was in trouble.” In another I’d say, “Where our union was canonized is no longer standing, but our love is beyond that.” We depend on no structure no building no form no contract, and more, our partnership has evolved both of us in ways we never dreamed.” That would be the most true statement. We are literally literally LITERALLY not the same people we were eight years ago. Those people—I hate to say it, but those people are smoke.
Why pretend otherwise? That it could ever be otherwise? It’s the law of impermanence. “All things go, all things go,” sang Sufjan Stephens. Does anything more need to be said?
Apparently, yes. Because how many of us are really able to let go of the past?
I’m not just talking about buildings with sentimental value. I’m talking about political frameworks. Mental models. Social codes. The very institutions we’ve blindly counted on for centuries to keep us healthy, educated, and safe.
Have they done that? They have served some of us very well, and others not at all.
Covid-19 showed us what we’ve known for some time: that our dragging carcass of a health care system is not resilient enough to be responsive to real-time needs. Our education systems are not preparing our children for challenges, for discomfort, for asking confronting questions—for life. All of these institutions disproportionately hurt the people with the least means and access. Most of us know these things, but we haven’t been prepared to take radical steps to simultaneously disrupt old models (internal and external) and paint a powerful vision for a more harmonious world.
What happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other people of color showed us the degree to which our assumptions and unconscious biases have kept the privileged blind, the less privileged traumatized, and all of us shaken. “I don’t know how to be anymore,” some people say. “I don’t know how to speak. It’s like walking through a matrix of third rails.’’
It surely is. When the underground tunnels of oppression get their lids blown off, the entire cultural framework gets rocked.
Scary. But GOOD.
Fires will burn. Injustices will happen. We could do what we’ve always done: either get aggressive (try to find someone to blame, judge, attack) or get passive (avoid, retreat from conflict, fawn, numb out) and continue the cycle of suffering. Or we could try something new. We could try, for the first time in human history, to make truly seeing one another a priority. To collectivity look down the barrel of one another’s pupils and recognize: We’re all dealing with pain. We’ve all got dreams that get trampled on, that we’re afraid to own. We all long to love and be loved and stumble in our attempts to express it.
By seeing and feeling our common humanity, we can respect differences without fear. And create institutions that honor and promote diversity, rather than try to squash it.
Can you imagine a world where we look into one another’s eyes and see ourselves? I can. Just barely. But if I didn’t believe that was possible, I wouldn’t do what I do. I’d be living in an ashram somewhere. Or I wouldn’t be here at all.
We can’t control what happens. But we can control how we respond to what happens, and therein lies an opportunity. Our agency is in how we interpret what’s right here in front of us. We could say, “I hate this chaos, I can’t live with the unknowns, I want to go back to the way things were.” Or we could say, “The old way will never be again. And thank god. What an incredible opportunity to create a new world—one where no one and nothing is left out of our care.”
To me, any institution, organization, or mental framework that does not recognize and honor the statement, “That which is in you is also in me”—well, maybe it’s time it crumpled under the weight of its own antiquation. So something fresh and beautiful and empowering to ALL beings can come through.
What needs to burn will burn. What rises from the ashes is up to us.
For more on how to make compassion the fuel behind difficult conversations, world-changing projects, and deep inner work, I recommend A Fearless Heart, by Thupten Jinpa.
Let’s make deep listening a priority. And help heal this world.