“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
As a child, my favorite part of going to the tall white church a block away from my house was singing along with everyone else in attendance and watching the thin woman with big curly eighties hair press notes on the organ. I never really understood what was going on, the readings and preachings, the breaking of bread that I wasn’t allowed to receive until my first communion in second grade, the forbidden cup of wine, the kneeling and standing and sitting on command. But the singing, the singing made it all worthwhile.
My favorite song was “Hosanna in the Highest.” There was something in the cadence, the natural rise of voices with each repetition that drew me in. I liked it so much that I decided I would sing it every time the congregation broke into musical interlude. No one would know, I thought, as my voice blended with the drawn out notes of the organ.
“Tell daddy what your favorite song is,” my mother said when we got home from church one day. I froze. What did she mean? With a laugh in her tone she explained to my father how I had sung the same song for the entire service. I had been discovered.
After receiving first communion in my special white dress and baby’s breath head wreath, I discontinued Sunday school and my church-going began to wane. I went with my mother on Christmas Eve and joined the ranks of holiday-only gatherers who crammed in beside the regulars, packing every pew from pulpit to holy water. Eventually even our yearly appearances ceased.
In high school and college I declared myself an atheist. Religion, I decided, was just something people clung to to ease their fear of death. I thought the end was the end, blackness, nothingness, infinite emptiness to which there was no awareness.
One of my former husband’s closest friends was shot while they were deployed in Iraq. The bullet somehow slipped past his flak vest, his body armor, in through his layers of clothing and gear, and landed directly against the small metal cross he always wore around his neck. The impact left a red mark on the center of his chest. The bullet did not even break the skin. Long after the deployment when he attempted to turn my husband and I religious, I was ready to give it an honest effort.
I started reading the Bible at the beginning. I grew weary of all the names and dates of the Old Testament and decided to skip ahead to the end– the Book of Revelations. The same friend who was shot was also convinced that the end of days was near, the signs in the Book of Revelations had already begun to happen. I read through the section in one sitting, curled up on the couch in our living room. Finished, I stepped outside to what I thought might be the beginnings of the Apocalypse– black clouds covered the sky, the tornado warning blared in the distance, thunder clapped along with the distant sound of mortar. I waved at our neighbor, standing in her front yard, cradling her newborn in her arms. She stared back, stone faced.
The storm came and went as quickly as my days of Bible reading.
Years later, back in Massachusetts and working at a local car dealership, a customer spent hours talking to me about Jesus and the Bible while he waited for his car to be repaired. He carried himself with the ease, the all-knowing certainty that I’d learned to recognize in the deeply religious that I regarded with a combination of curiosity and envy. He encouraged me to join his Bible study group. I decided instead to study the Bible on my own.
I spent a summer of eight hour Saturday shifts reading the Bible wanting desperately to believe, to have faith, to attain the calm that I saw in the customer and that I had seen in others. I was entertained by the stories, but they did not form me into a believer. At the end of the summer I started a new full-time job and left the dealership and my Bible study behind. Two months later I wandered into my first yoga class hoping to de-stress. Weeks after I began studying Buddhism and finally felt I could understand and relate to a religion, really a philosophy, a way of life.
The following Easter Sunday I rolled out my yoga mat in my living room. After a physically exhausting practice I lay in the final resting pose and allowed my mind to turn off. In the end, I sat up and brought my hands to my heart, the traditional way to finish class. From deep within I felt something swelling, pulsing, and radiating forth from my heart and out through my body. In an instant I knew, I felt it, this was true faith– this light within me at my core that had always been there, the same light that exists in all others. That is God or whatever name you give to it and it is in us all.
Buddhists believe that we all have a “buddha nature”– we are all capable of being kind, loving, compassionate, just beings. It’s easy enough in modern society to lose sight of this core, to allow it to be buried beneath layers of injustice, trauma, acts of hatred, and atrocity. When someone has committed an act of malice against us or someone or something we care about, it can be natural to react with an act equally as hateful, hurtful. What a difference though to respond instead with love.
For years I was a daily newspaper reader and kept up with current events; however, I’ve begun to shut myself off from what is happening in the world. I could no longer hold the hurt of things beyond my control. Still, I’m exposed to glimpses of news articles and stories. For days I kept getting pieces of articles from the recent Charlie Hebdo attack. Eventually, I decided to read a single article about the event. Though obviously not an expert on what happened, I can assume that the act of violence was carried out in response to years of culturally insensitive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Even after the attack, the newspaper published another cartoon featuring Muhammad. Many would argue about the importance of freedom of speech. This is a right I am grateful to have. However, it is not right to use our freedom for hate speech or at the expense of others. This does not excuse the crimes committed against the journalists who were responsible for the cartoons, but it offers an understanding for what might drive someone to commit such an act.
Imagine a world where we all operated from the place of goodness that exists deep within us, regardless of what religion or faith we follow. What if we just had mutual respect, empathy, and compassion for others? What if instead of reacting to hatred with retaliation, we responded with acts of love that promote understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness?
Though spoken half a century ago in a different context, I quote words from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” as they seem particularly relevant, even today:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will one day be free.
May we all arise as stones of hope in a world of despair. May we promise ourselves to act with compassion to self and others, offering assistance and understanding when we are able to. May we learn to understand each other and with this understanding may we begin to break down our differences, to see that within us all there exists infinite goodness, that there is no separation between self and other. May the ‘jangling discords’ of the world be transformed into a ‘symphony of brotherhood’ one note at a time.