Awareness

I subscribe to the Guardian Weekly, sharing the subscription with a friend who lives nearby. It comes to me, I read it, and then pass it on to him. I find it very valuable, with far more solid international news in one issue than a week’s worth of Globe and Mails put together.

In a recent issue, I read a review of a book about Mao Tse-Tung, from which I learned that between 1958 and 1962, during one of the crazy programs he imposed on the Chinese people, this one related to farming, 36 million people died, most of them of starvation.

When I read this, I asked myself what I had been doing during those years. What was I doing, what were others doing, that occupied our time and energy to the exclusion of this dreadful event? Between 1958 and 1960, I was in third and fourth year arts at the University of British Columbia; and between 1960 and 1962 I was at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, West Yorkshire, in the UK, doing the first two years of my theological degree. I don’t remember seeing or hearing a single word about this tragedy during those years. There was in spite of the high level of consciousness at Mirfield about international affairs, much higher than at UBC, perhaps because of its location on the edge of Europe, and perhaps because of the strong connection between the Community of the Resurrection, the Anglican religious community of men who ran the college, and South Africa, where the community had worked for many years. I remember clearly the principal announcing with real satisfaction the ejection of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961; but of China, and its 36 million dead, not a word.

Reading this, I began to ask myself how my awareness had expanded as the years went on. One memorable moment occurred while I was at Cambridge, in the fall of 1967. One of my fellow students, who had been president of the Swiss Student Federation, asked my opinion of the presence of the US in Vietnam. I told him that I was grateful that the US was there defending democracy [sic!]. His response I will never forget: “Do you have 15 minutes right now?” We sat down; he gave me what I now understand to be the truth about that situation; and, like Paul, after his experience on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes (cf. Acts 9:18). I mark this moment as the real beginning of my political awareness.

In a more general sense, reaching in 1989 the end of my marriage, and recognizing that a new chapter had opened in my life, I found that my awareness of the wider world increased exponentially. I was, as Primo Levi says, for some months, perhaps a couple of years, in a state of “exalted receptivity.” Journalist Gail Sheehy says that the average North American male doesn’t wake up until his first (!) divorce; and this was confirmed for me by my own experience of the brave new world that the separated and divorced must explore. I see that time as a time of something greater than simple awareness, something I am ready, in fact, to call a spiritual awakening.

Another steep rise in awareness occurred when a student in my Holocaust class at Simon Fraser University, the last time I taught that course, brought me a book called The Holocaust Industry, by Norman Finkelstein. From that book I learned how the Israeli government played on the memory of the Holocaust to justify its brutal occupation of Palestine. I soon came to regard this as a trivialization of the Holocaust, and an insult both to the memory of those who died in it, and to the survivors. There is a direct line between my reading of this book and my current deep involvement in what is often called the Palestinian solidarity movement, a term which I don’t contest, although I prefer to see what I and others are doing as ultimately benefiting the Israelis and the other peoples of the Middle East, as well as the Palestinians.

These reflections, particularly concerning my learning about the Chinese tragedy (can we call it genocide if it is perpetrated by the government of one’s own country?), have moved me to ask myself what is happening right now of which I am not aware, a question which I invite you to consider for yourself.  I am no longer surprised to encounter people who are largely ignorant of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but I am finding it harder and harder, for example, to accept the lack of awareness among so many about climate change, at least if judged by their lack of involvement in any movement to counter that ominous reality. And what else that is happening right now will we look back on in a few years, shaking our heads at our own lack of awareness as we do so?

One of the many dimensions of the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, as recounted in Buddhist scripture, has to do with awareness. As the Buddha, on the final day of his sojourn under the bo tree, entered into the experience of enlightenment, his awareness, we are told, expanded to include all time and all space. We need not take this literally; but the meaning it carries is unmistakeable. Spiritual realization carries with it the opportunity, indeed the necessity of an ongoing expansion of our own awareness.

Such are the thoughts that have come to me after reading the Guardian Weekly, thoughts which have spurred me to take stock, in a new way,  of my own awareness of our sacred earth and its concerns, and my need to keep my awareness alive and growing.

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