Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday evening after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the Second Training, True Happiness. The original training from the time of the Buddha was very straightforward: "I undertake the rule of training to refrain from taking what is not given." Thich Nhat Hanh, in rewriting the training for our time, emphasizes the linkage between true happiness and a whole-hearted commitment to generosity:
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.
Fully embodying this training is a challenge. While we can comprehend concretely how to be kind to our family and friends, and maybe neighbors or colleagues in need, addressing the vast suffering caused by “exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression” feels overwhelming.
One area of injustice that has deservedly received much attention this past year is the inequality and brutality of American criminal justice, especially as it applies to minorities. A few statistics offered by the Sentencing Project highlight where we are as a nation:
- “The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase.”
- The Lifetime Likelihood of Imprisonment is 1 in 9 for All Men, 1 in 17 for White Men, 1 in 3 for Black Men, and 1 in 6 for Latino Men.
- The Lifetime Likelihood of Imprisonment is 1 in 56 for All Women, 1 in 111 for White Women, 1 in 18 for Black Women, and 1 in 46 for Latino Women.
In Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer, offers insights into these statistics. Stevenson has worked for thirty years, mainly in Alabama, litigating on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison, and others whose trials were marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. The miscarriages of justice he describes are shocking. The meaness and small-mindedness of the Alabama police, prosecutors, and judges seem reminiscent of the 1940s, not what many of us expect from a post civil rights movement America.
Just Mercy also tells the story of how Stevenson’s work has transformed him. In the paragraphs below he writes about Jimmy Dill, a young man who shot another man in a drug dispute. Stevenson and his non-profit staff exhausted themselves in a failed effort to prevent his execution. The courts refused to stay the execution, refused to recognize the lack of intent (required in a capital murder charge), ineffective legal representation, procedural peculiarities, and mitigating circumstances including severe mental retardation and a history of sexual and physical abuse.
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.
I thought of the guards strapping Jimmy Dill to the gurney that very hour. I thought of the people who would cheer his death and see it as some kind of victory. I realized they were broken people, too, even if they would never admit it. So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible.
But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations—over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years.
I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
All of sudden, I felt stronger. I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized. I had a notion that if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation and our recitation, we will share about whole-hearted generosity, despair, brokenness, and hope. You are invited to join us.
You are also invited to join the Still Water community this Saturday, for Beginner’s Mind: Meeting the Present Moment with Joyful Awareness — A Day of Practice at Blueberry Gardens, in Ashton, Maryland.