How do we remain open when we witness incredible suffering without being overwhelmed with despair? If we close ourselves off, we deactivate our conscience, hide out in denial and ignorance, reduce our sense of intimacy with all life, and let our heart atrophy. How do we walk the middle path that is neither denial nor despair? It’s possible, although it’s not easy.
One: Allow the Awfulness to Be
First, we have to allow the awful stuff to be. That is, we have to give up the relative comfort of denial. We can’t wait to face what’s going on until we have a complete solution. We have to open our eyes, ears, and minds, and – for the moment – just perceive. This may be scary. It may hurt. But it’s a necessary part of the process of becoming a full human being and doing our part to benefit the world.
We naturally want to protect ourselves from the pain of facing suffering, whether it is our own suffering or the suffering of others for which we bear some responsibility. We keep ourselves busy, entertained, or numb. We create stories of shame or blame to give us an illusion of control over the suffering. We’ll ordinarily do anything but just “allow” it to be true (as if we can make it untrue simply by wishing it). This is why Buddhists meditate – it helps us get to know our minds, and to use our faculty of awareness without dependence on all of our reactions and commentary.
Two: Embrace Not-Knowing
Second, we have to embrace not-knowing. We can think all kinds of things about what’s going on – who’s to blame, what should be done, how horrible the future might be – but then forget that, actually, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what the next moment is going to bring, let alone the next year or decade.
This is not the same as saying as willful ignorance, like, “We are running toward a cliff, but who knows? Maybe once we hit the edge, we’ll be able to fly!” Embracing not-knowing is realistic, not optimistic. The most important aspect of it is, “My thoughts are just my thoughts, not reality itself. I can’t control the world with my mind.“
Three: Cultivate Determination to Save the World
Third, we have to cultivate determination to save the world. You won’t do it singlehandedly, but you don’t have to. We may not know exactly how we’re going to do it, but we know human beings are immensely resourceful when they finally get their acts together. Our determination to save the world can’t be based on how likely we believe we are to succeed. There’s no other option. And in order for me to save the world I need others, so convincing you to get on board is all part of the process. It’s not about moral superiority or inferiority, it’s about advocating for an inspiring cause: Let’s save our planet and the wondrous creatures that inhabit it!
This is another area where meditation can help. Over time, you can develop greater facility in using your mind instead of letting it use you. You can turn it, like a horse being turned with reins, toward a healthy, fruitful path (such as loving determination) and away from a negative, dangerous path that leads to ruin (such as despair). You don’t make a choice like that based on “objective” facts. You don’t become determined to help save the world because you become convinced that the “save the world” side is winning. You just change your mind. It’s not easy, but it is that simple.
Four: Do Whatever We Can within the Context of Our Own Lives
Fourth and finally, we have to help however we can and stop comparing ourselves to others. Activists aren’t just those with the time and inclination to attend protest rallies.
At the same time, we don’t have to keep on with business as usual just because everyone else seems to be. There are no rules limiting your generosity with respect to the world. In fact, revered spiritual teachers throughout human history have sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. A legend about Shakyamuni Buddha tells of how, in a previous life, he jumped off a cliff in order to offer his body to a starving tigress and her cubs. Stories like this may seem extreme, but they remind us of what’s possible, and of the depth of the connection between ourselves and all living beings.
If you’re unwilling to abandon your comfort and pleasure in order to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others (and few of us are!), at least own that fact for what it is and don’t take refuge in justifications. Even as you decide what to do within the context of your own life, remain open to new possibilities and keep witnessing. You don’t have to be perfect to care, and you don’t have to have the solution in order for your empathy and sense of responsibility to matter in the world.
If you sincerely practice the first three steps of this process, a way forward will open for you – a middle way between despair and denial. A way for you to help save the world.