Thursday, April 9, 2015

After 150 Years Are We Still At War?

Weeping sad and lonely
Hopes and fears, how vain.
When this cruel war is over,
Pray that we meet again.

             Charles Carroll Sawyer

150 years ago today 2 men met in a Virginia living room
 One wore grey and the other blue.

Photo by National Museum of American History  //CC by

The one was a lifelong failure who achieved success only in war time.  The other one of the great men of his time, its greatest general, but this was his moment of defeat.

The man in grey had dressed himself carefully, in his best uniform, as he believed he would soon be a prisoner.  The other had travelled far ahead of his baggage and borrowed a shirt for the occasion.

The man in blue had no intention of taking prisoners.  He wanted the war over and done, and said the rebels could all go home, once they agreed to not make war on their country again. A poor man himself, who had struggled to farm in peacetime, he said the soldiers could keep their horse, because it was April and planting season.  He ordered rations to be issued to the starving troops, enemies no longer.  And he forbade any celebrations by his own troops, saying that we were all to be one country again.The man in grey got on his horse and went back to his men, told them to go home and be as good civilians as they had been soldiers.

And it was over.  There was still some mopping up to be done with other rebel groups, but when Robert E Lee accepted Ulysses S Grant's surrender terms that Palm Sunday morning at Appomattox Courthouse, the Civil War was effectively over.

The shooting stopped, but did the War really end?
150 years later, are we still fighting the Civil War? What have we done with that "New Birth of Freedom" that Lincoln spoke of so eloquently.

Today our country often seems as much at war with itself as it was then.  The areas of division, marked red and blue on the map, may not be as solidly regional as they once were, but in many ways we seem to be even more divided than we were in 1865. The rhetoric even seems the same, as religion is used to justify positions on both sides, and individual states claim exemption from obligation to follow federal authority: the precise matter we went to war over in 1865.

In one way, at least, I think we are far behind the Americans who fought 150 years ago.  They respected each other, even as they fought each other.  They understood each other's point of view, even when they opposed it.  Today we are more likely to treat our opponents with contempt, to refuse to even consider the perspective of the other side, or even to imply that those with whom we disagree are somehow not real Americans.

This afternoon bells will ring across the country to mark the meeting of two men at Appomattox.  It is a good time to ask ourselves if we have truly learned the lessons of our Civil War.

The cannons have fallen silent-- but has the war ever ended?

Friday, February 20, 2015

To Hear the Cries of All the World (1000 Voices for Compassion)

Some years ago, a friend gave me this statue.  She is  Kwan Yin (or Guanyin), who represents  compassion and mercy in many Buddhist traditions.  She is a Bodhisattva, one who has been freed from the cycle of reincarnation, yet chooses to return to help mankind.  Known as "She who hears the cries of all the world" she is a protector of children as well. I have heard her spoken of as a goddess of last resort, whom one appeals to when all seems lost.

It was the idea of Kwan Yin as "She who hears  the cries of all the world" that came first to my mind when I  heard of the 1000 Voices for Compassion. After all, isn't that what compassion is all about? If we pick and choose the people and causes we feel compassionate towards, we are kind of missing the point.  Compassion means considering the points of view we don't share, the persons we don't understand.  This doesn't mean agreeing with everything they say or do. It doesn't mean we must condone their actions, and indeed we are sometimes called to oppose or even condemn.  But it does mean trying to see their point of view, understand how their experiences lead them to where they are.

One of the reasons discourse has become so toxic lately is, I believe, because we have forgotten to look at things from other people's point of view. We expose ourselves only to our own beliefs on politics, religion, and society.   We all stand on opposite sides of a great divide, and there is no way to build a bridge across when we refuse to even acknowledge that there are people on the other side. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle, you can fall into the chasm of despair.

Last fall, during all the debate over several police related shootings I found myself in a quandary.  I work in law enforcement, and have great respect and sympathy for police officers and the work they do.  And yet as a mother I identified with the devastation inflicted on the families and friends of the shooting victims as well.  I found this to be a rare position however, as the public discourse around me quickly divided into those supporting law enforcement no matter what their actions, and those who condemned anyone who wore a badge and carried a gun.  There seemed to be no nuance, no middle of the road.  There seemed to be no place for someone like me. I was so disheartened by this toxic division that I found myself without inspiration, unable to write, for publication at least, for some weeks.

The famous words of Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout,  "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” is a perfect summary of what compassion should be.  Atticus doesn't approve of the actions and beliefs of many of his fellow citizens. But he still respects them as persons, understands how they arrived at where they stand, considers many to be his friends; even while trying to thwart the things they would do which he believes to be wrong.

Considering the point of view of others not only helps us understand them, it helps us understand ourselves as well.  When we test our beliefs against beliefs of others we will find either enlightenment and a broader viewpoint or a firmer and more secure sense of why we stand where we do.

And this brings me back to Kwan Yin. She is represented as hearing the cries of all the world, not just those who are doing the right things, not just those who practice compassion,  not even just those who believe in her.  She hears the cries of all the world.

It is of course, like many divine ideals, an unattainable thing.  But it is also, like many divine ideals, a thing to strive for. We may fail, but we can get closer to understanding each other, and maybe understand ourselves a little better as well.

If only we could all hear the cries of all the world.

This is post is part of 1000 Voices for Compassion, a link up of bloggers all over the world posting today, February 20, 2015.   To read more go to or search #1000Speak on Twitter.