Our institutions are not going to solve this; they (and the unwisdom of crowds) are often the problem. As the wise Franciscan priest Richard Rohr points out, the only thing more dangerous than individual ego is group ego. That’s one reason I, driving around blue-state Santa Barbara, Calif., try to listen to Fox News — I can get plenty of the other side from my friends. It’s also why I, though not a Christian, seek out the clarity of Richard Rohr. We’re caught up in an addiction to simplifications for which the only medicine lies within. We need to be reminded that not to be right doesn’t always mean you’re wrong. And that to be terribly wronged does not mean you’re innocent. The world deals in black-or-whites no more than a hurricane or a virus does.
It’s hardly surprising that so many citizens, unable to find wisdom in the political sphere (which, almost by definition, thrives on either/ors), look to religious figures for a more inclusive vision. Pope Francis, in Wim Wenders’s glorious documentary “A Man of His Word,” stresses the importance of not imposing our views on others and never thinking in terms of simplistic us-versus-thems: Would God, Francis asks, love Gandhi any less than he does a priest or a nun simply because the Mahatma wasn’t a Christian? The Dalai Lama, for his part, points out that to be pro-Tibetan is not to be anti-Chinese, not least because Tibet and China will always be neighbors; the welfare of either depends on the other. He begins his days by praying for the health of his “Chinese brothers and sisters.”
Traveling across Japan with the Dalai Lama a year before the pandemic, I heard him say often that after watching the planet up close as a leader of his people for what was then 79 years, he felt the world was suffering through an “emotional crisis.” The cure, he said, was “emotional disarmament.” What he meant by the striking phrase was that we can see beyond panic and rage and confusion only by using our minds, and that part of the mind that doesn’t deal in binaries. Emotional disarmament might prove even more feasible than the nuclear type, insofar as most of us can reform our minds more easily than we can move a huge and intractable government. By opening our minds, we begin to change the world.
Religion itself, of course, can be as sectarian as the enmities it deplores, which is why the Dalai Lama, one of the world’s most visible religious figures, published a book titled “Beyond Religion.” It’s why he puts much of his faith in science, whose laws and discoveries lie beyond human divisions and apply equally to believer and nonbeliever, Muslim and Jew. Yet the same wisdom was apparent to me in 16 students who seemed ready to look beyond convenient dogma and dehumanizing abstraction.
One of them, a sunny and very personable gay athlete, was an unabashed supporter of Donald Trump (whatever, he asserted, the president might say about gay rights). When I handed out an excerpt from Barack Obama’s “Dreams From my Father” for our group to read and discuss, I was properly apprehensive.