Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Doing good. Something to think about!

Recently a friend posted a video of a news report about a couple of fellows who work as baristas, who reached out – literally, from the drive-through – to a woman who was grieving. As a gesture of comfort, they grasped her hand and prayed with her. My friend asked, in the context of “political correctness” if such behavior would be viewed as an act of kindness, or of pushing their beliefs off on someone.

Huh. Seems like a simple enough question. But after thinking about it, admittedly, from a “Buddhist” perspective, here are some thoughts.

I don’t see this so much as a question of political correctness as it is a question of morally correct behavior in a culturally diverse society. And we are, here is the U.S., very much a culturally diverse society. And will probably become more so. Just as an example, at an all-day meditation event last Saturday, there was a Zen Buddhist, a Nepali Hindu, a couple of “lapsed Catholics,” and a couple of other world-views. Cultural diversity in a small, Laotian, Theravadin temple located just outside of a small town in Nebraska. 

So, diverse we are.

But back to the topic of the behavior of the baristas. I think it is more accurately framed as whether the morally correct act of giving comfort was done in a culturally sensitive way. 

Huh. Seems like a simple enough question. But after thinking about it, it seems to be more complex than one would guess from a first glance. For example, what is “the culturally correct” way to give comfort? Well, what might be correct in a rural village in Cambodia might well be offensive to sixth generation European-Americans. And the other way around. A problem is that we can’t “read” the culture of a person by just looking at them. We need to get to know them on a more personal level. We need “Right Knowledge” about them and their cultural mores. Even with the best of intentions, we might choose the wrong words (think about Right Speech), and come off as rude and offensive. (Been there. Done that.)

We can NOT assume that other people share our culture, our values and our ways of expression. We are not a culturally homogeneous society. It seems to me that it is morally wrong to try to impose our culture, our values, and our ways of expression with complete disregard to the cultural artifacts of others. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. 

On the other hand, we have a moral obligation to respect the culture we are visiting or into which we have moved. We need to make the effort (Right Effort) to understand that culture, and to adjust our thinking and acting as best we can. So, again Right Knowledge comes into play. 

But there is also “indigenous” diversity among the cultures of the U.S. Some 50 years ago I lived in the Deep South. I lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and worked in the hangers and on the flight line at the municipal airport. I washed airplanes, pumped fuel, and ran errands for visiting pilots and passengers. Pretty menial, low-status work. There were only two other “white” (read that “European-extraction”) employees out of about 30, and both of them were supervisors: the Maintenance Chief and the Line Chief. The rest were “black” (read that African-extraction). And there was a very distinct and unique “black” culture in the 1960s South. Probably in the rest of the country too. Having come of age in the West and Midwest, I violated cultural norms in both camps, and was made painfully aware of my transgressions.

I also lived among the Navajo, the Apache, and the Cherokee. Three separate cultures. 

And I lived in places where there was a prominent “gang” culture.

The point of all of this is that my friend’s question about the acceptability of two young men reaching out to a grieving women in the best way they knew how is not so easy to answer. We all need to spend some time thinking about people we know who are “different;” individuals and perhaps groups of people who are culturally dissimilar. Maybe we should reach out to them with mettā (good-will), karunā (compassion) muditā (altruistic joy) and upekkhā (equanimity within ourselves) and try to understand how THEY would answer my friend’s question.