It was the tail end of summer. I was wearing my half and half black & white acid wash T-shirt and black jeans. Walking the city, I eventually found myself looking at the ornate filigree of the Palace of Westminster and the looming tower of St Stephen, and, in a state of content acceptance, I crossed the road for Parliament Square. Fundamentally, acceptance of the terror of the world requires acceptance of self. I knew myself, black and white, capable of great love and great harm, a human animal with drives that can be destructive and a strong moral sense that can heal, and so I had discovered an equanimity deeper than any I had known before. I located the centre point of the green and sat, back upright, legs crossed, hands resting on my thighs, palms upturned but half closed. Simply comfortable. I saw the crowds of people going to and fro on all sides, past the Abbey, past Parliament, past the Thames, between the cars on the black tarmac running North to South and disappearing in a shimmering haze to the West. I saw everything and everyone coming apart, turning to ash. This is inevitable. The people were burning. The buildings, burning. The statues and cars, burning. I felt compassion as the crowds rushed here and there and, at the same time, saw that there would be a lasting peace for all.
I cultivated these sensations until I fell into a quiet doze. My oblivion may have lasted seconds or many minutes. Whatever, I was refreshed when I awoke. I got up and walked towards the bridge. As I crossed, a passing oriental monk in dark orange robes and sandals acknowledged me with a smile.
I was aware that this equanimity would not last. It was a glimpse, gathered on a warm sunny day when some problems had been resolved and there were few demands on me. The sun would fade, winter would come, and my peace would be disrupted. This benign resignation lasted a couple of weeks. It was physically healthy, no doubt, but I do not miss it. The remote view is only one perspective, lacking in the passion and anger that drives desire for justice and social change. Physics cannot be conquered, but each state is just one thread from the past to the present, and this was no better than any other. Morally, it may even be unforgiveable. Did I see the violence of Cromwell, the cruelty of Christian ancestors, swords hacking flesh, bullets shattering bone, rivers carrying corpses, hospitals bombed, mass graves filled with the skulls of dissidents? I did not. My vision was no more complete than a newly bought colouring book. We have equations that describe, well enough, the evolution of the universe, and to trust in the holiness of my vision would be no less a folly than to mistake an equation for history, or even to love a flag.
The greatest advantage of this state of encompassing benevolent pity is perhaps that it allows greater charity towards the words and actions of others. Bear in mind, however, that I am starting from an illusory state. It is not Amor Fati, the embrace of each moment of one’s life. It is a detachment, an overview from almost nowhere. Furthermore, of how much use is it? The world is complex, not all actions are benign (and certainly not all actors) and charity can dull the reactions. Here then is the conundrum. The most charitable are just as blind as the meaner vessels of hate. The higher mind and the narrow mind intersect.
It is true that the world doesn’t have enough charity, in the sense of which I speak of it. Yet charity is also a luxury. If I will exercise charity it will be towards those who are in most need of it. The powerless. The blithe, polite, and comfortable who carelessly reinforce ‘the order of things’ in a world short on justice are not just. Power and its preservation are often unconscious.
The sadness I have is that they who require the most charitable interpretation of their actions are not always able to reciprocate, and – oppressed and fighting for rights and acceptance, in great want of charity towards myself – I do not have the resources to fight them too.
Interpreting with charity is not simply a matter of intention. This is another sense in which my visionary state was an illusion. Goodheartedness is meaningless without acuity. A simple example should suffice: If I were to say “I will be leaving the house in five to ten minutes but I will phone you from the train station.”, a socially perceptive interpretation might be that no assumptions should be made about which train I am getting until I call from the station. The second piece of information overrides the first, pointing to it as a form of polite reassurance, probably an underestimate. Especially if you already know that it generally takes a little longer for me to leave the house than I estimate. In that most polite (and deferent) of societies, that of Japan, to be told that you will have to wait ten minutes can be meaningless. They do not wish to tell you that you will have to wait longer. Of course, one should be careful to be neither too polite nor vague. The world is hard enough to navigate. Good intentions can thus backfire.
In an unjust world, who deserves charity? A Marxist might develop their thought along class lines, and there is something in this. Yet social class is a fine grained thing, in practice, and class alone is insufficient to encompass the nuances of the injustices of the world.
It is sadly often the case that certain people cannot negotiate through the minefield of social interactions. There are just too many mistakes, too much history, perhaps cultural differences, and not enough resources of charity between them. This is just one reason the people en masse fail to align their interests in bringing about revolutionary change.
I think I would wish to be mindful of my compassionate revelation, to accept my mistakes, to forgive everyone, even as there are some who must be overcome or diminished. We are frequently unjust to one another, but being the most charitable in our reaction is not always for the best if we do not have the advantage. If we have the advantage, then perhaps altruism demands the greatest charity in order to redress the balance. That rather depends on one’s ego not being dependent on having the advantage, and that is much rarer than almost everyone thinks.