Thursday, April 14, 2011

just say 'no'

Last night, while I was eating dinner, I got a call from a nearby neighbor and longtime activist who said there would be a meeting of those who had and/or still did stand on the peace picket line that gathers on Main Street on Saturdays -- the one I always try to join. The meeting would occur on the same day something (I didn't quite get what) would change about the sanctions in Iraq. There would be discussion of the history of the peace picket over its years and years of existence. Did I have any interest in attending, she asked.

And I said, "No."

I think the directness and simplicity of the response took her by surprise. It took me a bit by surprise as well. No explanations -- just "no." She hastened to wrap up the phone call, which suited me fine since my food was getting cold.

And then I felt the gentle lapping of guilt. There are ways in which I admire those who can convene and organize and put things in motion. But, without putting myself forward as some sort of laureate, I can't help but remember the words of physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman when he was asked what winning the Nobel prize meant to him. He replied, "It means I don't have to go to meetings."

There really are causes I admire and will lend my energies to. However confounding, the peace picket on Saturdays is one of them.

The other day, a friend sent me an online petition to sign as an indication of how I felt about Medicare and Medicaid and (between the lines) how the Republicans hope the screw the more vulnerable ... again. I signed the petition and then rushed back to the initial page of the online effort where there was a way to "unsubscribe" from future notifications.

My guilty feelings about various activist efforts stem from what I perceive as the group-hug enthusiasms of others. Such hugs are valuable -- perhaps invaluable -- to causes. They are warming and ... well, I wish I could find the wherewithal to believe them and throw myself into them. But something in me just plain balks.

I wonder if it is arrogance. I wonder if it is a character flaw. I wonder ... and feel vaguely guilty. The excesses of collective virtue whisper in my mind, as if that might provide an excuse for my balkiness. Am I above or incapable of such excesses? Hardly. Do I find solace in LaRochefoucauld's maxim, "The intelligence of the throng is inversely proportionate to its number?" Not really ... the observation may be true, but carries with it an elevated smugness I dislike. Is my balkiness based on some vast and penetrating experience? I doubt it.

So why then do I hold back from the thunderous and comforting applause that can accompany group efforts that sometimes accomplish quite good things? I really don't know, but seeing the faces and hearing the voices of a collective drive, I sometimes wish I too could be like that ... snuggly and snuggled. It is human and comforting and inspiring and ... well, I just can't do it. I can't do it any more than I can be an astronaut.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, was once asked by a student what he thought of spending some time at a particular monastery. The monastery had some quite negative circumstances in its being and history and Kyudo was aware of them. But he didn't mention those aspects. He just told the student, "If you want to do it, just do it."

Do it or don't do it -- same story, different day. Just don't try to weasel out of things. Make a mistake, correct it. Don't make a mistake, correct it. Just don't weasel and whine as some part of me weasels and whines. Take responsibility.  Arrogant or humble is not so important. Responsibility is important. "If you want to do it, just do it."

I said "no" to the activist who called. The cleanliness of the word surprised me as it probably should not have. It was just "no."

"If you want to do it, just do it."

I was rewarded with a dinner plate that had not grown completely cold.

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