Dec. 30 — I have traveled around this country on book tours fully five times in the past five months. Each of these trips came to seem like a concentric spiraling of the one before, like being caught in a body of water rippling outward and outward without ceasing. The people who came to hear me speak in August seemed somewhat stunned, contemplating lost pensions and re-evaluating what tomorrow might look like for their families, as they absorbed the stock market woes and corporate scandals. I described it as “a tour of the economic downturn of America.” By year’s end, it felt more like “a tour of the inspirational downturn of America.”
We’d had, behind us, a seeming “jobless recovery,” a series of sniper shootings in the nation’s capital raising the specter of random death, and Congress’ dispiriting vote on a war resolution. Ahead of us there was the definite possibility of a brutal war, with a front right here. An awful lot of people seemed just beaten down — withdrawing from their communities, the political process, their lives — as though declaring that nothing they could do would make a difference anyway. As though deciding that imagination and daring belonged only to peaceful and prosperous times. As though fearing that, individually and collectively, we aren’t able to reach beyond our circumstance and find a vibrant, creative, impactful way to move forward.
So how does a peace-loving person find the inspiration to face the future?
I am inspired by the firefighter who came to a meditation class I was teaching in New York City late in September, 2001. At the end of the class he came up to me, and quietly said, “I’m a fireman.” In that moment in time, in that town, we all knew just what that statement implied. After a moment he went on, “Basically the towers collapsed on top of me. I escaped, though many of my friends did not.” As we stood there he concluded, “I don’t want my life to end here, I want to find a way to go on.”
He was a perfect embodiment of the new sense of faith I have been trying to convey: not necessarily an allegiance to dogma or a particular religious belief, but a reaching beyond the flat, uncontoured land of despair, where no change seems possible, toward a bigger picture of life itself, where change seems inevitable, and where we find love and support in one another. Coming close, opening, connecting, participating — these are all the activities of faith.
I am inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democracy movement in Burma (now Myanmar), recipient of the 1991 Noble Peace Prize, which was awarded while she was under house arrest. She is a mother who could not raise her children because she was working for democracy, a wife who could not say goodbye to her dying husband because the military dictatorship of Burma would not grant him a visa. Talking about patience, steadfastness, the capacity we each have to overcome incredible obstacles, she said, “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Aung San Suu Kyi reminds me that a great deal of life is mysterious, and that when we do what seems to be just a little bit of good, the temporary result we see in front of us isn’t necessarily the end of the story. We can have faith that the small action we’ve just taken may influence someone else, which may lead to something else again — we should never discount our efforts.
I am inspired by Larry Brilliant, who, as a young doctor in India in the 1970’s, was a significant figure in the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. Larry tended more than 5,000 smallpox patients, lurked at temples to the smallpox goddess to find unreported outbreaks, trekked to jungle villages in 120-degree heat, painted public health notices on elephants and rickshaws, and vaccinated thousands.
When the World Health Organization declared the world free of the disease in 1980, Larry sent his friends an unforgettable postcard: a devastating picture of the last victim on one side, a blessing from his spiritual teacher on the other. It sang out a glorious hallelujah that echoed round the world.
Recently I was walking in New York City, my head filled with news of terror, impending war, and the appalling possibility of smallpox returning, born again to the world through hatred, fear and malevolence. Suddenly I thought of that postcard, of Larry, of the likely despair one would feel on seeing the most loving and effective work of one’s lifetime threatened, maybe destroyed. When I reached him, I found that, though filled with grief at the thought of terrorists bringing back an extinct disease, his amazing spirit was undaunted. “We eradicated it once,” he said. “We can do it again.”
What we need to do right here and right now is work to retain our faith. We can do this, no matter what our religious orientation, or lack of one, by remembering that everything is changing all of the time. Daily reflection or meditation will remind us that if we look closely at any painful emotion or difficult situation it is bound to change — it is not as solid and inert as it might have seemed. The fear we feel in the morning may not be present in the afternoon. Hopelessness may be replaced by calm, or even a little bit less hopelessness. Even while a challenging situation is happening it is shifting, varied, alive. Once we see the inherent change in our experience, we see that we are not trapped, that we can have options. Then faith can arise.
Faith is the quality that allows us to find a way to go on, to feel empowered, to, no matter what, keep on trying. This is not a sentimental faith that everything will be just fine, according to our wishes or our timetable. Rather, it is an awakened faith that gives us the courage to go into the unknown, the remembrance that nothing is fixed, and the understanding that as long as we are alive, possibility is alive. It is a power of faith that inspires us to step forward into the center of our lives — to participate, to link up, to reach out to others and let others reach out to us, to work for a better world. And it is a vitality of faith that tells us, however easy it is to forget or be afraid, that the time for communicating, for loving, for risking, for trying, has got to be now.
(Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher who has studied with Buddhist masters in India, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, a center devoted to meditation training. Her most recent book is “Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience” (Riverhead Books).