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Raising Questions (or, Stopping Trains 2)


“A touching piece about an important question – the question Mario Savio posed, standing on top of a police car on the UC Berkeley in December 2, 1964: when is it that you’ve finally had enough, and throw yourself into the gears, and make the machine stop, because business as usual is completely intolerable and insane, and nothing matters but stopping it, not comfort, or security, or sanity, or even life – it’s just got to stop, and you just can’t let it go on anymore, you just can’t watch it anymore?”

Sometimes there is no right answer. Sometimes, no matter what our actions are, there is no way to say, “Yes, this choice, this action, will bring the change we need.” Sometimes, we simply need to find as much strength, love, and compassion as possible and act anyway. Sometimes we find this with our brothers and sisters, sometimes we find the strength within, and sometimes we really need to ask for help.

I was thinking about that at the soup kitchen today as I gave a long time guest a hug. He’s someone who has been up and down over the years, sometimes able to find odd jobs, other times staying with family, other times in jail or back on the streets. He told me today that he knew he wasn’t doing well and was trying to stop drinking. I asked if he had help with that, if he was going to meetings or anything. He said he had been, but was still drinking, so he quit. And now he’s back on the crack. He said he was trying. I said, “But it’s hard to do it without help.” He said, “But I have to do it myself. No one can do it for me.” True. And yet sometimes we really do need assistance. Looking at him, I knew there simply was no help I could offer besides listening, some kindness, and some food.

One hour later, in walked Michael, the guy in the orange shirt who was on the train tracks last Sunday. Thinking back to that day, one of the things he said was that he had graduated from Juilliard. Someone asked where his guitar was and he had replied, “I don’t have one. But I do play.” It came to me: I used to see him busking about town some years ago. What had happened to him? What was his story? Why was he on the tracks in desperation, and the other side of the counter? He is obviously highly intelligent and educated. Why had his life turned out so differently than mine? Was it lack of will, chemical imbalance, or something else?

I asked how he was, saying I’d seen him on Sunday and it seemed the police had tackled him pretty hard. Showing me his hospital wrist band he said, “I just got out of General. They cracked some of my ribs.”

Five police officers just trying to do their job tackled him hard enough to crack ribs. This is the situation we all find ourselves in. What was the right answer in that moment, for the police, for him, and for any of us? Michael’s heart, in its manic moment, needed to take a stand against injustice. The police, in that moment, felt a need to keep him from harming himself or others, and to get the trains running again. Those of us on the platform needed to bear witness to it all. None of us had the “right” answer. All of us needed help. But where could we turn?

One of the teachings from my spiritual tradition comes from Victor Anderson who enjoined us to neither coddle nor punish weakness. I want to help myself, friends, students, and clients toward strength so we can become our best selves, and help to shift the balance of the world toward beauty and wholeness. However, I consistently encounter people who seem barely able to care for themselves, through some combination of circumstance and chemistry. How do we best help? When do we need to be hard, and when soft? And when do we seek out assistance?

Some days I have answers to my questions. Today, I have none. I simply hold them in my mind and heart. I gaze at them as I do the guests coming for salad, conversation, and a place to rest after a long day looking for work, or a long night on cold concrete. Then I ride my bicycle home, gaze upon the apple blossoms, lettuces, and chard and I give thanks for the power of life renewed. I give thanks for the cycles of beauty and pain, the gifts in each encounter, ideas carried on birdsong, for the washing of the pots and the serving of the soup. I know that even when I don’t know the right answer, I can follow the course back to love.

What gives you hope? What keeps you strong? When do you ask someone for help? When do you offer the same?

What gets you through these times?

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