By Kellie Schorr
“You have to understand these were tumultuous times.”
Watching a documentary about the national hysteria following the Manson murders, that was the explanation given. It was the time of Vietnam, social unrest between the establishment and the sex-drugs-rock-and-rollers, political corruption, and economic crisis.
As the historian was talking about the challenges of a “crazed age” all I could think was, “Tumultuous times? Lady, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
I walked into a preview showing of Barbie expecting a highly visual, funny fluffy nostalgic experience where a doll enters the real world, has some fish-out-of-water moments and carries the sublime message Barbie has carried for over 60 years—“Girls can do anything.” Halfway through I found myself in deep water, still laughing, while watching a coming-of age treatise on sexism, personal identity, societal expectations, the innocence of little girls and the sadness moms feel when their girl isn’t little anymore.
At the center of the movie is a scene unrelated to the main plot. Barbie, fresh out of Barbieland, is having her first sensory experiences of the real world—water that is wet, trees that shimmer in the wind, vehicles that make noise—overwhelmed, she turns to see an elderly woman reading on a bench and openly stares at her.
Barbie has never seen an old person before. Barbie will never grow old.
The doll who had never encountered aging or agism blurts out with wonder, “You’re so beautiful!” To her credit, the lady smiles back and says, “I know.”
At that moment, all I wanted for the rest of my time in this physical world was to have those eyes that can see people without filters. No more sorting them by who they are, what they believe, how they look, or who I think they should be. Just openness to every person in front of me, willing to see their beauty or what we in Buddhism call “basic goodness.” It was a wonderful moment.
Then, I walked out of the theater.
In my real world:
- People are blowing up cans of Bud Light beer because they featured a transgender person in a commercial.
- A grown man literally set fire to Barbie dolls because—well, I don’t really understand but something in that movie triggered him.
- Conservatives are posting on every article stating how much Barbie made at the box office, “SOUND OF FREEDOM made money!” Which is so weird. I don’t go around posting on book reviews of other books “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was a bestseller!”
- A country singer with a song containing a subtext of violence as a virtue in small towns feels censored because there are others who say lynching is a terrible thing and shouldn’t be promoted in a video. The people who are screaming about censorship are the same ones pulling books out of libraries because they don’t like the content.
- A run-of-the-mill Department of Defense appropriation bill has been riddled with amendments wanting to deny medical care to people they don’t “agree with” because of some weird fear about “men in women’s bathrooms” which is statistically backwards. Transgender people are way more at risk for harm than anyone in any bathroom.
It’s enough to make me want to fly straight back to Barbieland. But what can I say? These are tumultuous times.
The Hungry Ghosts
It’s very easy, too easy, to simply make fun of the situation and laugh at the people wailing about beer, dolls and country songs. The reactions are so extreme, the volume is amped up to 10 (maybe 11), and the issues are so ludicrously tangential (boycott Target because of swimsuits?).
The harder path, the better path, is to use their misspent outrage as seeds for the practice of fierce compassion.
One of the six realms in Tibetan Buddhism is called the “Hungry Ghost Realm.” The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are described as beings with tiny mouths and thin, scrawny necks, emaciated starving bodies and huge, bloated, empty bellies. They hunger every second of the day but even when they get food, their mouths are so small they can’t eat enough to be filled.
Instead of being angry, dismissive, or ridiculing those who seem to be feasting on the fear, anger and unrest around us, we can feel compassion for them. The things these people rail against are so small and the things they embrace are so limited. They miss out on the wider world they could heal or cherish.
Russia and Ukraine are at war with countless on both sides starving, grieving and dying. Food scarcity and lack of clean water challenge us globally. Climate related disasters (heat, drought, hurricane, flood, tornado) are ravaging this country. The suicide rate for adolescents has doubled in the last 10 years. Violence against women, men, children and animals permeates our existence.
There are larger concerns than beer commercials and Ken’s dancing.
There are amazing scientific discoveries, outstanding feats of human endurance and generosity, the uplifting energy of helping someone else, simple joys like smell of freshly baked bread, and the warmth of love—new love, old love, puppy (and kitty) love, treasured and transformational love. There are certainly better things to champion than country songs, bombastic politicians, and a news channel.
When you encounter that guy or woman blaring out their judgement, stances and outrage—intentionally try to see more than “Uncle Bill who always ruins Thanksgiving” or “My crazy neighbor lady who can’t shut up.” See them as they are—the hungriest of ghosts. They suffer.
- Suffering people get red-faced, spit-flying, loud because they feel unheard.
- Suffering people interject something they are passionate about over the top of other conversations because they don’t feel seen or valued.
- Suffering people inflate danger because they believe no one will treat their real fears with respect.
- Suffering people devalue others as “less than” “disgusting” “them” because without some group beneath them—they don’t feel like they are good enough.
- Suffering people try to take power from others because they feel powerless on their own.
- Suffering people distance themselves with aggressive slogans, yard signs, and crude bumper stickers because being in open conversation with others who differ is terrifying. It feels much safer to attract only people who think the same.
When you encounter cringe-worthy behavior that makes you uncomfortable and defensive (or just shut down and apathetic) take a breath, open your heart-mind, and realize at the core of it is suffering. The only balm for that is compassion.
It should be noted that in most Buddhist lineages we are taught, “Compassion is not nice. It is fierce.” Fierce compassion does not engage in toxic positivity, enabling or harm. It doesn’t mean you have to say something is “okay” or that you should pretend to agree with things you clearly don’t see the same way. You can still stand up for and support your own ideas and interests.
Compassion doesn’t make excuses. It does, however, make space for explanations.
Compassion does not let someone drive drunk because they think they are able to drive. It takes the keys away, as gently and with as much kindness as the situation makes possible. It gives them a ride home. Fierce compassion does not let someone eat rotten or poisonous food because it is “all they know.” It gives that person a choice of other, healthy food, in a way that does not shame them, and works for a world where access to good food is available to all.
Compassion for someone in a culture war rage may be as simple as walking away, quietly knowing that person is going through something, or as forward as saying, “the louder/ruder you are, the less I can hear you…but if you want to discuss this rationally, I promise I will listen.”
That does not mean agree. It means listen.
Ultimately, the key to dealing with people who are tearing everything apart is to remember that we are all in this together. Approaching these issues with compassion, rather than mocking, aggression, or escalation, may not change the rage, but it will change you.
When compassion is your go-to, every hungry ghost rant is simply a seed giving you another chance to grow the tree of life.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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