I have this vexing personal trait, one I’m not proud of, and it’s this: I tend to think highly of myself. This isn’t quite vanity, it’s too much a qualité douce—but certainly I’m unintimidated most of the time. There are variants of course—one minute I’m a bit of a prick, the next I’m sulking since I think I’m the most interesting person in the room and my wits are being sucked straight out of my eyes by people blabbing moist gossip and so I take many trips to the WC just so I can properly hold my head in my hands. King George V said: “always go to the bathroom when you have a chance,” but I suspect he meant it differently than I do. It’s the only place when you’re in a restaurant trapped with people having sub-Cartesian table talk.
Now boredom is an interesting topic since it gets at morality. As Bertrand Russell said: “Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” I think highly of myself, dislike plodding speech, feel the itch of the damned when facing commonplace assumptions. If you want to be an activist you should know something about restiveness and irrationality. Otherwise you really are a prick. Thinking highly of yourself poses several dilemmas but this is the perhaps the most notable. God help us! The ordinary bugs me! Compassion fails! I want to jump out the window! But at least I know it. And I know what it means in ethical terms. I make choices and principle among them is the decision to not detest people. In a boring meeting? Work on your favorite chess problem. Recite to yourself a psalm or sonnet. Name all the players on the 1969 New York Mets. Just don’t do what I’ve done when my spirit has failed—don’t tell the poor sods what cattle they are—and trust me, as a crippled activist you’ll face colluders, quislings, prevaricators, and worse, and I’m merely saying, don’t let your outrage with the boring quotidian be your first move. I tell you I’ve made that mistake. As a blind child I was told I didn’t belong so often, so routinely, by so many boors that my half-sainted skin is pocked with the scars of custom and you better believe this is why I think highly of myself, for as of today I’ve never hit anyone, never kicked a dog, though I’ve slobbered and spit when confronted by meagre conventions and the unwritten rules of ableism. Yes! Think highly of yourself! Try like hell not to hate the unpleasant and despicable apparatchiks. When all else fails, tell them off. But don’t do it just because you’re stupefied.
Here concludes the sermon. Except for this. Disabled lives are in peril all over the world. Anger beats boredom but it seldom promotes effective change. Wits do. Crawling up the Capitol’s steps will do it. Standing up for those who don’t have voices or opportunities will always do it. But never contempt. Please don’t be like me when I’m weak and in a state of high offense. And then, stay unintimidated.
Will you forgive me if I end with a poem? This is by Sam Hamill, one of America’s finest poets and translators. The poem is really a sutra, not in the sense of summary, but something from the heart of Buddhist tradition. It speaks as all great poems do straight from the soul:
Half broken on that smoky night,
hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,
nearly fifty years ago,
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks
who stopped the traffic on a downtown
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas
and kerosene, and he struck a match
and burst into flame.
That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.
The master did not move, did not squirm,
he did not scream
in pain as his body was consumed.
Neither child nor yet a man,
I wondered to my Okinawan friend,
what can it possibly mean
to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
How can any man endure such pain
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc
had achieved true peace.”
And I knew that night true peace
for me would never come.
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.
Half a century later, I think
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,
revered as a bodhisattva now—his lifetime
building temples, teaching peace,
and of his death and the statement that it made.
Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,
even when they burned his ashes once again
in the crematorium—his generous heart
turned magically to stone.
What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine’s the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.
Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I’ve learned?