In The Path of Compassion, the Zen monk and peace and environmental activist Thich Nhat Hanh offers a poem. He explains that the poem is about himself, a 12-year-old girl who is a boat person crossing the Gulf of Siam, and a sea pirate who was born into terrible circumstances in a remote village in Thailand. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem recounts his reaction to the fact that the pirate raped the little girl and that then the little girl threw herself into the sea.
“I was very angry, of course,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, but “I realized that if I had been born in his village and lived a similar life—economic, educational, and so on—it is likely that I would now be a sea pirate.”
I’m thinking about this as I react to the fact that NBC, as I write, just fired the Today Show host Matt Lauer for inappropriate sexual behavior and Minnesota Public Radio fired the Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor. This, of course, comes on the heels of revelations about Sen. Al Franken, comedian Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Alabama Republican candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, and on and on and on.
Like Thich Nhat Hanh felt about the girl, I am deeply saddened and angered by what women deal with. I want men to stop. And I want to understand my own part in propagating injustice, both interpersonally and politically, and to stop that. I am not a perfect man, but I am a well-meaning man. I make mistakes—even some I am unaware of—but the most fundamental parts of me give priority to wanting my sisters to live in peace, to feel safe, to have equal access to opportunity and all the things.
Had I grown and lived under the same circumstances as these men, would I have acted similarly?
If that cannot be said for today’s fallen men Garrison Keillor and Matt Lauer, then why not? What could make them, and men like them, so calloused to the suffering they cause? Are they just really bad characters? Are men really just a bad gender? As Thich Nhat Hanh wonders about the sea pirate, I cannot help wondering had I grown and lived under the same circumstances as these men, would I have acted similarly? Perhaps using Thich Nhat Hanh’s empathy model, I can gain some understanding about what feeds the patriarchy.
I wonder if one key difference between me and these men is that the Keillors and the Lauers have enormous power and, more importantly, the lust for it. Is it possible then that power and the lust for it are one of the causes of sexual harassment and abuse?
In seeking to understand these men, I ask myself why might I lust for power? It would be because I wanted the ability to control everything around me in order to keep myself safe. What might make men need control to the extent that these men did? My own desire for control comes when I fear the danger of my circumstances.
What societal things am I so scared of that I might lust for power to try to rise above them?
It is easier to hate while removing from power those who are wrong than to empathize while removing from power.
Flashback to the early 1970s. I remember how bitter I was as a 10-year-old boy about the military draft. All of us boys were basically on a conveyer belt to war, as our fathers and grandfathers had been. It wasn’t just that I was scared to die. I was scared to kill. At only 10, I lay in bed contemplating the moral dilemma of whether I would prefer to kill or let myself be killed.
What my frightened child brain could not comprehend was why my parents—or the other parents in our country—weren’t protecting me and other boys from this fate. Why were we less valuable than girls?
I grew up a sensitive boy steered away from female culture and toward, what was to me, an alien male culture that included bullying and fighting. This and other reasons made me frightened to be a boy and, ultimately, a man. And, yes, I felt out of control and that my circumstances were vastly dangerous.
I have turned to meditation, recovery programs, therapy, spirituality, and service to others to help me overcome the feelings of danger. But what if I had not? If I had grown up like the sea pirate, or like Charlie Rose, might I instead have lusted for power in an attempt to rise above the dangers that frightened me? Might I then, once I had power, think that it gave me the right to turn that power on women?
Thich Nhat Hanh, knowing that he might easily have turned out like the sea pirate, writes, “I could not take sides against the sea pirate. If I could have, it would have been easier, but I couldn’t.”
I understand that. It is easier to hate while removing from power those who are wrong than to empathize while removing from power. It would be easier for me to hate Keillor and Lauer, Rose and Weinstein. It is hard to admit that the world I participate in creates the things I most dislike. It would be so much easier if I could just concentrate on hating the sea pirates.
I don’t want to participate in the idea that pain is some kind of competition.
But, knowing that I could be a Charlie Rose if I lived through his circumstances, allows me to help my brothers. I can cajole them, I can support removing them from power. I can say that their behavior is unacceptable. And I can do all this while feeling compassion for them. Maybe they were deeply frightened, as I was about war or some other aspect of patriarchy. It would be easier just to condemn my fellow men, but I believe I’m better called to understand them, and in this I see a way forward.
I don’t want to participate in the idea that pain is some kind of competition, a zero sum game where understanding men means blaming women, or supporting all women means blaming all men. I don’t want to get lost in an argument about who suffers more. I want to be part of a movement that makes sure everyone suffers less. I don’t want to point fingers and say not me. I want to understand and say not anyone.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his poem:
I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on the small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I can feel solidarity with the girl. But if I really want to help her, I have to compassionately understand the sea pirate, too. What part of my experience as a person and as a man allows me to understand what causes another man to lust for power and then to abuse it? How, then, can I help to remove those causes from the society in which I live?
To understand the error of power, I must first own and proclaim that there is no protection for any one of us without a solution for all of us. As Rose and Franken and Lauer and Keillor are all learning, power alone won’t help. I want to teach myself and my brothers that the lust for power will not help us or insulate us. I want to work together with my brothers and my sisters to remove from this society what frightens us and makes us unsafe and then callous to the pain of others.
That’s hard right now as the system of thinking that goes with patriarchy is now also dividing us—the well-meaning sisters and well-meaning brothers—as we root out the offenders, remove them, and re-educate. But even as we remove them, can we reach for understanding and compassion that might help get at the causes that bring us all so much grief?
Colin Beavan is a writer, speaker, activist, and consultant. He is the author of No Impact Man and the executive director of the No Impact Project. Colin is a YES! contributing editor.