By Kellie Schorr
One of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen in my life was at the El Paso Holocaust Museum where a member of the German Air Force (who trains at Fort Bliss) was sitting on a bench speaking in German and sobbing.
On one side was a Spanish speaking tourist from Mexico and on the other was the son of a Holocaust survivor who gave the tours. Both were hugging him and in their own languages trying to comfort him. I remember thinking, “this is so El Paso.”
I arrived in El Paso, Texas the summer before 8th grade. My father worked for a defense contractor and we moved every two years. At 12 years old I was “the little girl from nowhere.” That changed when we hit El Paso. I was a Dowell Owl, a Terrace Hills Trojan, and an Andress Golden Eagle. I left El Paso for some education and necessary life experiences, then returned and stayed there until my partner and I moved to Virginia 12 years ago. It’s not unusual for people to return to El Paso. It’s the kind of city you never really leave.
El Paso, and her sister city, Juarez, Mexico, exist in sprawling ease. I’ve always described El Paso as “a US Army base sitting on top of an enchanted Mexican Catholic village that just happens to be in the middle of nowhere.” Between Fort Bliss, the border, and the six to eight hours of open desert before you reach another large city, El Paso is a valley unto itself where people from all over the world work, laugh, pray, and share food (so much food).
It is a city thriving with acceptance, generosity and good will.
One day I was working when a woman came in with plate of tamales from a festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I said, “Oh, I’m not Catholic.” She responded, “Ay, mija, I don’t care. It’s tamales!” You have to love a city that has a reason, almost every day, to give people tamales.
Folks in El Paso don’t ask if you’re a citizen, or inquire about your race, education, religion, or politics. The only questions you get are if you remembered to put a towel over your steering wheel so it doesn’t burn your hands, and “did you get enough to eat?” Pretty much every ethnicity and culture has a presence there but within 20 minutes they are all El Pasoans.
The Sun City not a paradise. It has the same problems most large cities in the desert southwest have—gang issues, car theft, wind storms, excessive heat and mulberry trees. When it comes to diversity, acceptance, and community El Paso is a city that gets it right. Then hate came to town.
On August 3, 2019 a 21 year-old white male drove 10 hours to El Paso, posted a hate-filled manifesto, and killed 22 people, injured 26, in a Walmart using an AK-47 he purchased legally.
To see such violence in a city that is so oddly safe and calm there’s a prevailing theory about lithium in the water supply was heart shattering. There’s a part of me, and of that city, that will never stop hurting over it.
Immediately the discussions started and the blame game began. Guns? Mental illness? A President who uses racist statements to rally up his base? A culture of white supremacy fed by internet conspiracies? Disaffected young males? Video Games? Media? Navigating the flood of ideas is like taking on a tsunami in a rubber life raft. As a Buddhist, what do I say? What do I think? What do I do?
I Take the Five Precepts.
There’s a lot of diversity in Buddhism. Forms, ideas, practices all depend on a person’s lens and understanding. When someone formally becomes a Buddhist there are two things we have in common. We vow to take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the dharma (the teachings) and the sangha (the taught). We take the five precepts.
It is in those precepts where I have placed my search for the Buddha’s “middle way” in the face of the horror of mass shootings.
1. Avoid killing other beings.
As important as it is that the US develop a policy which deals with 21st century weaponry that can kill nine people in 30 seconds (Dayton, Ohio, 2019) and a centuries-old constitution, there is more to do. Killing doesn’t start with a gun.
Killing starts when you tell yourself you have the power to kill, you have the right to kill, and you have the reason to kill. It starts when you believe other beings are unworthy of life, or subject to your power. Killing starts the minute you place anyone in the “Less Than” category. Killing starts when a person of influence teaches that the “other” is less than someone else.
The middle way is understanding there is no less or more in beings. There are no such things as “illegals”—there are men, women, and children. There are no worthless—there are confused or hurting people. There are no helpless—there are people who still need help.
2. Avoid taking what has not been given.
This means more than not stealing. It means not depriving others of opportunity, joy, food, safety, or dreams. It means creating systems of equity and fairness. It means listening, not talking over. It means generosity is more important than entitlement. It means not taking someone’s dignity, rights or life because they are judged as different than you.
The middle way is to educate ourselves, relate to others, and open ourselves to diversity. To find the racist ideas that have been embedded in us by a system we didn’t realize was operating, and change them. To create and demand equity.
3. Avoid Sexual Misconduct
This seems to be the only precept the murderer in El Paso didn’t break, and yet I’ve seen it broken on almost every thread and thought about him. “He can be some big guy’s girlfriend in prison.” “They need to leave him in gen pop and he’ll get what he deserves right up the…”
All of these comments—born of anger and its thirst for revenge—have one message: that rape and sexual assault is sometimes okay if it serves as just punishment.
The middle way is to avoid prescribing rape as a solution to anything for any reason. It is not okay for a young woman who drank too much at a party to be raped. It is not okay for a male prisoner to be raped. All that does is feed the rape culture already tearing our world to shreds.
4. Avoid false speech
Beyond lying, false speech involves any manipulative, delusional, racist, sexist, phobic or neurotic view. It’s about the way we talk to each other, and the way we talk about each other. It can even be about the way we talk about ourselves. The hate-fueled rampage in El Paso started with lies about race and people, and was fed through sources both in the dark spaces of the internet and bright lights of a political rally.
The middle way is to speak truthfully, factually, and with kindness. Right speech prevents harm, not inspires it, and encourages our best natures, not our most destructive tendencies.
5. Avoid the loss of awareness (often translated as “Avoid taking intoxicants that lead to carelessness”).
For monastics this means no alcohol or drugs other than necessary medication. For yogis and householders, it tends to mean, “you can choose to drink but don’t get drunk.” For all groups it also means to practice sobriety of the mind, and do not lose your awareness through delusions—be they a drug or a concept. Don’t let your mind get addicted to false and harmful thinking.
The middle way is to not let ourselves be controlled by fear. We are drunk on fear so much of the time, and events like mass shootings only add more to the mix. Don’t let fear cloud your mind. Don’t let it tell you how to vote. Don’t let it tell you how to act. Don’t let it distort the reality in front of you. Renounce anyone who attempts to lead you, save you, or lift you by pouring fear down your throat.
Besides the Army base, what turned El Paso, Texas from being a sleepy little desert town into a huge community? It was when doctors on the East Coast in the late 1800’s began sending people with respiratory problems there for the sunny, arid climate. They came in droves, bringing those damn mulberry trees, and they stayed, because it turned out El Paso was a good place to heal.
I’m willing to bet it still is.
I think El Paso will overcome this terrible trauma, and in doing so teach the rest of us that you can live without division or fear if you have enough generosity, acceptance, and tamales. It’s natural for me to think that. I haven’t been the “little girl from nowhere” for a long, long time.
I’m from El Paso.
Photo: E. Witzke
Editor: Dana Gornall
Were you moved by this post? You might also want to read:
- The Lighthouse: What to do When Your Compassion Isn’t Welcome - January 28, 2021
- What Do You Get for the Year that has Everything? A Promise for 2021 - December 31, 2020
- Bodhi Trees and Reindeer Paws: Walking the Path of Light - December 24, 2020