Wednesday, December 12, 2012


How does one refuse to accept humiliation, while taking responsibility? The two look contradictory, but actually they are deeply congruent and mutually supporting. Both take the war to the enemy. And both depend on understanding oneself as vulnerable, contingent, unpredictable, and even dangerous.

This requires, I dare say, some exegesis. It may surprise some people to hear me speaking of “the enemy”: it sounds perhaps un-Buddhist. But in fact, they are out to get you. Your fellow human beings. Robert Sapolsky, an authority on baboons, once said something like, “if a baboon is unhappy, it's because some other baboon is making its life a misery.” It's true of all hierarchical primates, including human beings. The energy we have left over after supplying our basic wants we devote to establishing and defending our places in various social groups. Each of these has dominant members, and defines itself by excluding some people and humiliating others.

Modern society is complicated, of course, and there are many indirections to all this, but the upshot is that there are people working all the time to humiliate you, to make you anxious and doubtful. Some do it with malice, because they enjoy bullying. Most do it because they are themselves anxious and doubtful. But living a human life, or maybe I should say a sacred life, means shaking free of this. Don't let them drive you into shame and dread. There's no time for that. We have better things to do.

At the same time our enemies are, as the Buddha insisted, our best teachers. They find our weaknesses. They tell us the truths our friends will not. We need them. And ultimately we have to take ownership of our weaknesses. When I find myself boiling with anger at someone, I am doing what we baboon-style primates naturally do: I am accepting the terms of domination and submission, and I look – fiercely or miserably – for a way to reverse the relations, to bring my enemy down somehow, to build an alliance to defy and humiliate him. This also is a waste of time, and this also is letting the enemy choose the ground. And that's why I spoke of taking the war to the enemy. Our job is reject, once and for all, that what we are here for is humiliation, whether ours or theirs.

Once and for all? Well, no. Over and over. As often as it takes. We don't need to be baboons. We can do better than that.


Zhoen said...

This is exactly how I am dealing with my current work-bully. I see her as my own chattering monkey demon, and I have to learn the lesson, keep practicing keeping my own chatter and blame away.

I get some comfort in realizing I probably embody her silent demon, and she has no idea how to deal with that.

Nimble said...

I want to tell my children this. I wonder if it would mean anything to them...

Dale said...

You never know. You just say lots of stuff to your kids and hope some of it sticks :-)

Thanks for stopping by, and commenting!

Dale said...

@Zhoen, sorry you're having to deal with that! xo Sounds like you're doing it well though --