My friend the poet Lisa Breger is one of the most peaceful people I know. In our two decades of friendship, I’ve never known her to raise her voice or argue. Lately, Lisa has either witnessed or bore the brunt of four road rage incidents in her small Massachusetts town. “And there isn’t even a lot of traffic in our town,” she says.
Road rage is part of a metastasizing pattern. Hate crimes have spiked. Airlines report increased incidents involving unruly passengers, including one in which a group of teenagers was removed for cursing, failing to wear face masks, and refusing to follow flight crew directions. This year is also shaping up to be another of the deadliest in decades for shooting deaths.
Meanwhile, our politics, communities, even our churches, seem hopelessly divided. It’s as if a genie of discontent has been released into the air we breathe, provoking us to behave badly.
There are no doubt multiple causes. Many are experiencing post-traumatic stress from pent-up anger and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. One can point also to the name-calling, bullying, obfuscation and outright lying modeled during the Trump years (still practiced by many)that seemed to give us permission to become our worst selves.
As Tolstoy famously asked, “What then can be done?”
As a nation, we perhaps need to draw in a long collective breath and release our angers and frustrations with a deep and calming sigh. I’m grateful to my meditation teacher, Lama Tsering Yodsampa, who taught me to focus on breathing when anxiety and anger threaten to overwhelm. I imagine that I am breathing in peace, breathing out compassion.
I’m grateful too to my friend, Dianne Clemmons, a cancer survivor, who reminds me to look up at the trees, feel the wind on my cheeks, and give thanks for every walk or drive, every trip to the grocery store or encounter with a friend.
In his Rule for monastic living, St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, lays down essential guidelines for peaceful iving. “You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge,” he writes. “Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love … Speak the truth with heart and tongue.”
How differently the pandemic experience might have been if we had considered it our duty to fight the disease, not each another. Instead, as one commentator observed, “Patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another.”
St. Benedict reminds us that our words and actions evoke a ripple effect. “Try to be the first to show respect to the other,” he says elsewhere in his Rule. “Let no one pursue what he judges best for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.”
Tough advice in these strained times, to be sure, but possibly our best hope for a kinder world.
My wonderful yoga instructor, Melissa Rusk, shares the following meditation:
Whatever our hands touch
we leave fingerprints:
on walls, on furniture,
on doorknobs, dishes, books.
There’s no escape.
As we touch we leave our identity.
Wherever I go today
help me to leave heartprints —
heartprints of compassion,
of understanding and love.
Heartprints of kindness
And genuine concern …
Can we strive in our corner of the world to break the destructive cycle of division and rage?
Can we breathe in peace, breathe out compassion?
Wherever we go this week, can we leave heartprints “of kindness and genuine concern?”