Both Sides Now

Recently I took part in a process to settle an ethical matter. I saw how easy it is to see things from one way; how easy it is to objectify and blame someone who makes a harmful mistake; how easy it is to fall into knowing certainty and self-righteousness, how easy to forget to keep an open mind and heart. This is a microcosm of what’s happening across the culture and the world – people are getting so polarized that the sense of balance, nuance and the skill of holding multiple perspectives is being lost. 

Empathy and compassion are needed to understand and not just demonize the other side of a conflict – even when the other side is full of hate. I like the way Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously put it, as he worked for racial justice and change. Primarily known to schoolchildren as a poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was also an active part of the anti-slavery movement in the mid-nineteenth century. He and other members of his extended family were impassioned abolitionists who used their money and influence to build political bridges and unite people in the cause. He said: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each one’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Humans vulnerability is inevitable. From infancy all the way to old age, community connection and support are needed for individuals to flourish. We owe our survival to each other! How to hold the growing tension of hostile opposing views? How to confront and respond wisely to injustice and conflict in human relationships? Mindfulness can hold conflicting feelings like love and hate, sadness and joy, so they can peacefully co-exist. Meditation hones this skill, just as social media and technology can play a divisive role, exploiting human weakness and intensifying conflict. (Watch Netflix’s  “The Social Dilemma” for a comprehensive look at this phenomenon.)

Spiritual maturity asks me to stand up for what I value while holding perfectly imperfect humanity with understanding and compassion. This is the middle way taught by the Buddha. When I can mindfully hold mixed or opposing views in awareness simultaneously, steadily, I open a doorway into the unknown. In this “don’t-know mind”, there is no conflict, just peaceful presence. Mindfulness invites you, too, to pause and be still for a moment. Then it’s easier to let go of the need to “other” and judge. Years ago, Joni Mitchell sang: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now. From win and lose and still somehow…I really don’t know life at all.” Cherishing human dignity, with humility and respect for all we don’t know, you and I can be here, now – and look at both sides with care.