“Can goodness win?” “Yes, it does all the time.” “No, it cannot: it loses all the time.” Both true.[…] See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true. You, little mind, actually don’t have to decide. That’s a great place to try to be. And for a fiction writer, that’s the best place to be: you’ve put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you’re just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth is … that opposition.”
George Saunders, in Upstairs at the Strand, in conversation with Deborah Eisenberg
In the aftermath of yet another horrible shooting, the question “Can Goodness win?” must be on your mind. It certainly has been for me. So when I read what George Saunders said, it took hold with me. I remember sitting on my cushion in retreats pondering the duality of things, taking the paradoxical stance that although nothing is permanent we still have a body and a mind that need to make decisions, carve out a life.
Saunders says that in the opposition of goodness winning and losing, hovers the truth. The truth is that a horrible shooting brings people together in their horror and grief, and at the same time destroys people’s faith in institutions that are supposed to protect us, protect our rights. I get it that people end up taking the law in their own hands and express their discontent, their disappointment in how society has treated them, with whatever weapons available to them, be it voice, protest signs, or a gun. We can chime in, we can join in the protest, we can go out and buy a gun to protect ourself and our loved ones, but in the end we cannot change that sometimes goodness wins, sometimes it loses. We can strive toward a peaceable society by regulating, by instating protective agencies, but we cannot control the forces of nature, the good and bad harvests, the greed that drives economic ups and downs.
When a youth signs up to fight a war in a strange country, he or she learns to use powerful death tools skillfully. When that youth comes back disillusioned from a war that cannot be won -no matter what the “Bushes” of our time may say - traumatized from seeing and experiencing too much violence, that person walks around with a mindset that goodness is a fairy tale, that institutions are corrupt. Such a person does not just roll over and accept the unfairnesses society presents. Such a person has the capacity to set things “straight” in a manner he or she perceives as effective. Such a person can be the sniper who shot five policemen in cold blood.
I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist. I sit with the paradox of truth. As I am readying myself for another one of my long hikes, I know that I will experience Nature’s goodness, but I may experience the swift and unforgiving force of destruction as well when Nature lets loose her power. Both are true, both exist. One of the main Bodhisattva Buddhist vows is, “Life is suffering, human beings are innumerable, I vow to save them all.” An impossible task indicating intent. As a human trying to better the world we live in, I’m tasked with anticipating, protecting, strengthening myself and those around me for these opposing forces. To live means facing the force that brings goodness and takes it away. To live means looking that opposition straight in the eye. My heart aches when I look at those left behind in the wake of the shootings. I go out in the early morning and row a narrow skull on the ever moving water, where I must find that elusive perfect balance with each stroke of the oars. In the same way in everyday life, we must practice focusing for the impossible task of creating balance in a sea of opposites.