I want to think of myself as level-headed and compassionate, slow to anger and reasonable, but lately, it has become evident that’s only part of the story. I am also a person who can get lost in feelings of anger, judgment, and disgust. Being forced to contemplate these two sides of my personality has been a struggle. It’s painful to look into the shadows.
Over the last few months, I’ve been depending on my mindfulness practice to bring me back again and again from the brink of despair to a level of equilibrium. As I’ve listened to the rhetoric of division, I’ve found myself bouncing back and forth between two competing storylines; not the ones out in the world, but those that live within my own heart. And, I was reminded of this quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
A Call to Our Better Angels
A couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stepped onto the podium to accept their new roles as President- and Vice President-Elect. Their call for unity, understanding, and the awakening of our better angels sparked a remembrance in me of our common humanity; the deep truth that we all have a dark and light side—and that through it all, we can find common ground.
It is in times like this that I find it helpful to recall the ancient teaching stories that inspire us to awaken our better selves.
This story about a wise Native American elder and his beloved grandson seems particularly relevant. As the young boy and the old man were sitting by the fire on a beautiful starlit night, the grandfather became pensive and said, “As I look back over my life, I realize that I have always had these two wolves fighting inside me; one is dark and angry, full of hate and jealousy, and the other is loving and compassionate, honest and true.” As he quietly gazed into the fire, his grandson waited and then could no longer contain his curiosity and blurted out, “Which wolf will win?” The old chieftain smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”
When I hear this story, I realize that I have those two wolves vying for space in my own mind and heart; that it can feel satisfying to let the wolf of rage, self-justification, and indignation roam free; that I know what is right, and that all those “other people” are wrong.
Mindfulness Helps Us Accept Our Dual Nature
But, when I can look inward with an attitude of mindful non-judgment and acceptance, I can be more compassionate with those difficult parts of myself. I can then get in touch with the part of me that knows we are all part of one human family; that we are more alike than different, we all struggle, and we all get it wrong sometimes. From that place, my heart can open to my brothers and sisters who are struggling in the same way.
Mindfulness has helped me to understand that we don’t have to cut out the unwelcome and disagreeable parts of ourselves (as if it were even possible). We only have to acknowledge this very real part of our human heritage to lessen our vulnerability to its darkness and to become more loving human beings.
When we can look at it squarely in the face without fear or shame, we can choose to feed the parts of us that serve health, wholeness, love, and forgiveness; to call on our better angels and, as Mr. Rogers always reminded us, “to look for the helpers.”
This has been a difficult time for all of us; a time of uncertainty and fear. Doubt is unsettling, and it is all too easy to cling to our entrenched beliefs. It can also be a time to embrace all that is good in ourselves and each other. Please join me on this journey—embracing our imperfect humanity all along the way.