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When Things Fall Apart

Anne Stanton - March 15th, 2007
I was at an Interlochen Pathfinder School ice skating party recently when my eye caught the name of a book left on a folding chair: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun.
As it turns out the book belonged to a woman who formed a “Chodron” book study group with two other women. One of the moms at the skating party asked if
she could join the group. I was tempted to ask, too.
That’s because the title really hit me. Things really are falling apart, I thought, in the big world and my own little one.
In the larger world, glaciers are sliding into the ocean, yet some still argue whether
global warming even exists. Men are rotting in the Guantánamo Bay prison, without hope of seeing the inside of a courtroom. Iraq is obviously in chaos, Afghanistan is sliding back into chaos, and war is looming with Iran.
Then I’m hearing more firsthand stories of our country losing its footing at home.
Just recently I talked with Dr. Don Willman, a Traverse City physician who works in hospital emergency rooms around the country. He told me of a patient he saw a couple of years ago in the emergency room of a Sault Ste. Marie hospital. He was a 21-year-old college student (of Middle Eastern descent) who had crossed over from the Canadian side of town to join his schoolmates for a drink. He ended up in a county jail because he wasn’t carrying the proper paperwork.
He sat in jail for several days and was refused permission to call his parents or friends to let them know where he was. He ended up in the emergency room because he didn’t have his prescription drugs for an intestinal problem.
Dr. Willman talked to the deputy and then the young man. He quickly grasped that this clean-cut young man was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Willman asked the deputy, if he “got a lot of these type of people.” The deputy said in a frustrated voice, “Yes, and they’re filling up our jail.” In fact, he had been temporarily pulled out of retirement to help out.
The good doctor feared that he would get in trouble if he helped out the student, so he looked at the deputy for tacit approval while he handed the student a telephone to call his folks for the name of his medications. Willman also knew it would give him a chance to let his parents know where he was.
What kind of country have we become, Dr. Willman asked, when we don’t allow an arrestee the benefit of making a phone call? When we incarcerate people indefinitely without charges of wrongdoing or the opportunity to see a lawyer?
(A Chippewa County jail administrator said that inmates, even foreigners, are allowed to use a pay phone and seek out an attorney, and didn’t know what happened in this case.)

Everyday it seems to be something different, like laws getting passed in the dead of night when no one’s looking.
Did you catch the New York Times editorial, “Making Martial Law Easier.” The editor wrote that tucked into the massive defense budget bill was permission to use military troops as a domestic police force to respond to a “natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any other condition.”
“…these new presidential powers were slipped into the law without hearings or public debate,” the editor wrote.

On a more personal level, things aren’t really falling apart. But about a month ago, a Record-Eagle editor called my husband to ask him about Interlochen’s decision to close the Pathfinder School.
We were stunned. I couldn’t believe it. I emailed the Record-Eagle editor and
told him he was wrong (after all, no one had yet told the parents). He sent back
an e-mail: “Who stole your reporter’s keyboard?” Ouch.
School was abruptly canceled for the next two days, during which an Interlochen security guard came onto campus and a beloved employee was escorted off. This was not the Interlochen that my husband, an alumnus, knew
and loved.
Like the other kids at school, my daughter cried her eyes out that night. And then, amazingly, a group of parents stepped forward and announced that they would do everything in their power to save Pathfinder. They have worked marathon hours, opened an office, put up a website, and convinced scores of parents to enroll their kids next year. It’s looking good.
Yet my friend works at Pathfinder school and everyday is buffeted by grief and rumors. She was having trouble sleeping, suffered heart palpitations, and found herself riding an emotional tidal wave, getting swept this way and that.

Chodron discusses the different ways people typically deal with stress, not all healthy--drinking, drugs, avoidance and panic.
She says things will go better if you approach intense, painful emotions with an open mind. She calls it the middle way, which means relaxing with the painful feelings of loneliness, boredom and anxiety.
“Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a non-threatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”
My friend said that Chodron’s advice is particularly relevant for her.
“If my emotions are in chaos, I’m in chaos. She (Chodron) helped me figure out how not to be engaged in these emotions. I had to learn how to be present, but not to get caught up in what anyone said on either side.
“With all that’s been going on at work, I had to decide that I was going to practice peace—not to be part of the war that was going on in my world. Instead of ignoring or compartmentalizing it, I could simply accept what’s going on and acknowledge that I don’t have a lot of control over things. But I do have control over how I react toward others and my children.”
She now lets rumors whirl, waiting for them to prove themselves as facts.
The nice thing about a study group, she said, is that it provides a safe place to speak honestly. Her friends validate that pain is pretty much part of being alive. They also say what needs to be said. “There’s no gaming. I need to have people like that, and to be called on my behavior. Otherwise I’ll do other things, put in another load of laundry, and try not to think about it.”
The beauty of Chodron, said my friend, is that she is a mother of two and
a former teacher. Unlike some of the popular Buddhist authors, Chodron writes from a more accessible, Western perspective and relates to the challenges of everyday living.

Chodron talks a lot about the interior work you can do, but also offers suggestions on relating to the outside world. One is to stop hating the people who disagree with you. Instead, gather facts to bolster your case and communicate them in an intelligent and non-threatening way.
The other is to cultivate compassionate, energetic social action.
Doing just that is a loose-knit group calling itself the Traverse Area Peace and Justice Community. They recently hand-delivered letters to our U.S. senators and representatives, asking them to call for immediate troop withdrawal and to deny the additional money President Bush wants for the troop increase (the Congressional Budget Office just estimated that it will cost $27 billion for a year-long stay).
So far, none of the politicians have agreed to the letter’s requests.
Next step: office sit-ins.
Also planned is a week of nonviolent anti-war activities in March to mark the war’s fourth anniversary.
“I am so against this war—it’s so ridiculous and such a waste of human life that I have to use my own voice, even if it doesn’t do squat,” said Lisa Franseen, who delivered a letter to Senator Levin’s office. “I am doing this for my own good conscience. One of the points I make in my work as a therapist and workshop facilitator, is why do things at all? A lot of times it’s more for your own health and well-being than the results you’ll get—and that’s okay.”
The group will likely find that their representative leaders don’t agree with them—at least how to achieve stability in Iraq. So what? At least they have spoken their minds. As Franseen said, well-intentioned action is healing and constructive.
Chodron advises that the action must be delivered with a peaceful heart and an open mind.
No matter what your religious persuasion, much of Chodron’s advice in this tiny tome will likely hit home. “Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.”
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