It’s been nearly eight months since I last posted anything here. My blog has never really been about putting content out there to get more readers. It’s been more of a public journal of mine, reflecting on some of the things I have been learning and thinking about, especially with regards to spirituality and God. But ethics, or my responsibility to the other as one author defines it, invariably bubbles to the surface when thinking about more ethereal issues. More on that in a bit.
I have now lived in Canada for six years and some months–full-time since September 2008. (Most Americans believe Canada to be not much different from the U.S. But under the surface similarities, there are night-and-day differences. At least this is what I observe.) Since I came to Canada six months after I turned 18, I have spent most of the American elections (of various sorts) up here and often unable to vote because by the time I return to my parents house in the States, the election has passed, and my absentee ballot sits unopened in my ‘mailbox.’ Other times, I have been unable to vote because I simply haven’t taken the time to re-register as an American living overseas; I never meet the 30 day residential requirement for voters in my home state.
At risk of sounding rather Ernest-Hemingway-like and therefore a bit like a Bohemian, I am what they call an expatriate. Someone who lives outside their country of citizenship. I am also an ex-patriot. At risk of sounding pretentious, my exposure to different people and their unique perspectives on the world made it impossible for me to be a patriot of any country, namely the one I have my citizenship with. I remember in 2004, many Democrats planning their escapes to Canada if Bush were re-elected. He was given another term, as we know, and a few of the liberal persuasion took their plans seriously and resettled in ‘The Great White North.’ I recall proudly degrading these ‘people’ (as I didn’t personally know them) with my youthful arrogance of politics and life in general, saying “Well, be my guest, move to Canada. We don’t want you here.” Oh how life has a tendency to become rather ironic. Here I am today, an expatriate applying for permanent residency in a foreign country. I can’t help but laugh. Life is a comedy sometimes.
Currently I am reading a biography of four different mid-twentieth century authors–Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day are among them–and I can’t help but notice their substantial insights into how we might live out a public life of our own that is just, merciful, kind, compassionate, and built on common humanity and grace. In other words, a public life built on the very things that are not the current grounding for public life in most nation-states.
What is most striking to me with regards to Merton and Day’s vision of public life is that it is first and foremost rooted in a self/other distinction that is held together together by the radical act of hospitality. I am myself. There are others all around me. We are joined by our common humanity, and in the Christian tradition, by our having been made in the image of God. We are icons of God. Our icon-ness is unifying similarity that transcends all of our difference. This all entails that we bear a certain responsibility to one another to engage other icons of God, to love other icons of God, to protect other icons of God, to intensify and enrich other icons of God. No one icon of God is superior to another icon. As such, our proper attitude toward other icons of God is the gift of ourselves. Moreover, because we find the the image of God in others, we also find ourselves in a certain way in the other. I find myself in another. I learn about myself with the help of others. I come to a deeper understanding of myself as an icon by acknowledging the image of God in the other.
How is this related to me being an ex-patriot/patriate and election day? Very simply, I choose not to vote because the current society and the direction it is going, politically, in the U.S. is inherently de-personalizing. I will not vote until I have figured out how to no longer de-personalize others by participating in the system. I am not referring here to one specific direction that any particular political persuasion is taking the country (or is at least hoping to take the country). The American political climate as a whole is problematic. In fact, it seems to me that Merton, Day, and others thought the same thing many decades ago.
Merton’s Cold War Letter 11 is written to Dorothy Day. In it the Trappist responds to Day’s disagreement with him regarding the question of ‘Shelter Ethics.’ Some Americans, fearing a nuclear onslaught, built fallout shelters in their backyards. Inevitably, an ethical challenge came about: ‘What would you do if your neighbour wanted you to take he and his whole family into your fallout shelter during a nuclear attack?’ One priest had argued in another magazine that the Christian had every right to keep others out of his fallout shelter with the use of force (i.e. guns). Merton wrote his own article on ‘shelter ethics.’ But my interest in Merton and Day’s vision for public life is not so much concerned with the ‘shelter ethics’ issue, but rather Merton’s response to Day; Day thought Merton was being antithetical to the nonviolent cause that she and Merton did agree on. So Merton set out to explain his position a bit more; and it is his explanation that I think shows us some interesting points for us to consider in the realm of politics.
From Cold War Letter 11:
Example: if I am in a fallout shelter and trying to save my life, I must see that the neighbor who wants to come in to the shelter also wants to save his life as I do. I must experience his need and his fear as if it were my need and my fear….If then I experience my neighbour’s need as my own, I will act accordingly, and if I am strong enough to act out of love, I will cede my place in the shelter to him. This I think is possible, at least theoretically, even on the basis of natural love. In fact, I am personally sure it is. But at the same time there is the plentiful grace of God to enable us to do this.
The bolded words are what really struck me. It suggests a public life grounded in empathy and compassion and the sharing of oneself with one another and the receiving of the other as oneself. If there is one thing lacking from public life it is the ability to listen to the other, to hear what it is that the other is concerned about, and to make the good of the other one’s own good. All too often we de-personalize the other and forget that he or she has real fears, real anxieties, real needs, and real hopes, that are as real as our own (sometimes, perhaps even more real!).
A public life rooted in empathy and compassion is not easy, and the cynic inside of me also thinks it isn’t possible. When I think about my teenage years when I naively immersed myself in a Republican political ideology, there was more joy and fulfillment found in being aggressive towards people of the liberal political persuasion. And I don’t believe that the aggressiveness is only a conservative problem; it’s also a liberal problem. That’s because aggression, hatred, anger, and destructive language and attitudes, and the total lack of respect is a human problem. Just look at any political system, anywhere, and you’ll see the same pattern.
It is a scary thing to empathize and feel even the slightest degree of compassion towards someone other than myself. That’s because my hatred and distrust is revealed for what it is, and I am exposed as the aggressor, not the other. It also means that I must change myself to express respect towards the other, rather than reducing the other to simply being ignorant, uneducated, lacking in their humanity, or having some other deficiency. It also seems impossible, sometimes, to experience and practise empathy and compassion towards someone different myself. Personal beliefs are embedded deep within myself; some take a lot more effort to uproot and renewal than others. It is also difficult because my aggression is all too often the result of fear: fear of something strange. Fear of another ethnicity. Fear of another political ideology. Fear of another religion. Fear is the root of the attitudes that create an intolerable public life.
Just some musings for tonight as I watch the massive election animal breath heavily and deeply. Hopefully it will go to sleep again–until 2016.