The question is 2500 years old: “Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” It is perhaps the most famous question attributed to Lao Tzu (604-531 BC), considered to be the founder of Taoism — a philosophy, if not a religion, that continues to prod the human soul.
Nearly three millennia later, in a society whose communication vehicles and technical advances now move at warp speed, the answer to Lazo Tzu’s question is No. We don’t have the patience. To be unmoving is to risk being declared a cultural misfit.
As hard as it often is to have the patience to let the mud settle, it can be even more challenging to reflect on what creates the mud in the first place. Certainly the many crises of the world roil the water, not to mention the tensions unique to our own lives. But there is another mud generator that we tend to ignore, and resist identifying, and renders the emotional landscape even more ugly: our prejudice.
Twenty-five years ago, I eagerly participated in one of the first anti-racism dialogues designed by leaders of the Episcopal Church, which has been my lifetime spiritual home. The content of the course did not come from lectures, readings, or a set curriculum. It came from each other. From our stories; moments when we experienced prejudice from someone else, or incidents when our bias made our actions less right. It was on one of the Saturdays of the three-week course that I learned where I first heard prejudice: from my paternal grandfather, whose passion and anger against religious and racial groups was something that seeped into my seven-year-old mind. I also learned – from the interracial participants in the class, that each person had a similar story: that they absorbed prejudice either from a family member, on the playground, in the neighborhood – or from the religious community they were a part of. From somewhere.
What I learned from that course – and in the years since, that the mud of prejudice can’t be shoveled out or dried up. Prejudice will always be there. Acknowledging its presence, how it works in one’s life, and when it confuses action or vision, can minimize its power — and is critical to one’s health. Being aware enough – and patient long enough, can enable the mud of prejudice to be relegated to the edges of the pond of one’s soul, so the rest of the water is clear. Letting go of patience enables the mud to take over.
Over the years, what had been a gentle invitation to explore one’s own history, and the prejudices and biases that we experienced and learned, has evolved into a mandated curriculum. Many see critical race theory and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) as weaponized prejudice, an indoctrination firehose. What is disappointing, if not tragic, about all of this, is that in the last fifteen to twenty years we have added political prejudice to the common list of prejudices that had been largely limited to race, religion, gender, and economic status; and the invitation to explore the roots of our biases has fallen by the wayside. The vehemence and vitriol being spewed between some Republicans and Democrats is prejudice at its worst. And fewer people are willing or able to acknowledge it.
Much has been about the appearance of the Presidents of MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania before a Congressional Committee. To my mind, patience was not in evidence. Instead, what I saw was political disdain and prejudice on full display. Representative Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, has long been critical of Harvard’s elitism and, to her mind (and many others) of Harvard having a double standard regarding the First Amendment call to protect free speech. She went after Drs. Sally Kornbluth, Claudine Gay and Elizabeth Magill. What I heard from the three presidents were misguided attempts to obfuscate the fact that prejudice exists on their respective campuses. Of course it does. How best to deal with prejudice requires some remaining still and discerning what the most effective strategy might be to respond.
The Presidents were widely denounced for their inability to condemn genocide. (Dr. Magill has since resigned; the respective tenures of Dr. Gay and Dr. Kornbluth are under enormous pressure. I can’t help but think of there is some gender prejudice in play; would such a grilling and vicious response be directed at three men?)
The issue before the committee was the escalating tension between free speech and condemning terrorism. But it ended up being framed as the issue of whose side are you on – Israel or Hamas? In many ways it was a set up. The stories emerging from that cauldron of violence wounds the heart and roils the waters. There are moments when my sympathy lies with Israelis, and others where it lies with Palestinians. I can’t predict on a certain day where my sympathy will be; it largely depends on the stories I read, but particularly what I see and hear. The suffering really has no boundaries. Yet acknowledging suffering often leads to a false accusation of prejudice. And the rage which often follows from various exchanges renders listening and understanding nigh unto impossible. There are some who are clear where their sympathy lies. That their water is clear.
It isn’t. The water is filled with mud – of hurt, anger, fear, ignorance and prejudice.
Patience is called for. Reflection on the source of our individual and collective mud needs to be engaged. We need moments of unmoving, so that the right actions may better arise. Rather than being overwhelmed, we should take the time to find our way through the mud, the invisible, the subtle. And to keep asking ourselves, “what are we seeing? What are we learning?”