On Saturday night, following a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was taking the subway to a Halloween party when I tried an experiment. I allowed myself for a second to feel the deep sadness I had been pushing away since I woke up to the news that seven people were killed by an anti-Semitic far-right conspiracy theorist (the death toll has since risen to 11, including a 97-year-old woman.)
Throughout the afternoon, I put the news out of my mind in order to complete some work I had to get done. But waiting for the subway on a raised platform in a gentle rain, I had nothing else to do, so drawing on a mindfulness practice, I shifted my attention to the pain that I had pushed aside. I allowed myself to think about the Holocaust, the history of anti-Semitism around the world, and of my sisters and my mom who could have easily been targeted if the shooter had showed up at their temple instead. I thought about how the victims were part of my tribe, a tribe that has spent all of its history searching for a refuge from persecution. I thought about how—despite my more rational understanding of violent crime statistics—I felt a little afraid to leave the house that day.
Then my thoughts drifted to the shooter and the people who encouraged him, either explicitly, by playing into his fears, or by implying they support his actions through their silence.
Quickly, my sadness turned to rage, an experience that everyone is likely familiar with. But for the first time in my life, I watched these emotions as they shifted inside me, using tools for reflection that have only started to develop after a few years of practice. What I saw upon deeper reflection was that the sadness wanted to become anger—because anger was easier. I had to consciously shift my attention back to the suffering or else righteous indignation would take over.
When President Donald Trump responded to the shooting by saying the temple should have had armed guards, when he chose not to cancel his political rally, when he joked about how his hair was messed up because he had to answer reporters’ questions in the rain, when he waited too long to even mention the phrase anti-Semitism, when he took no blame for the years of apologizing for alt-right hate mongers, and when he returned to blaming the violence on the media (often a dog whistle for Jews), I didn’t get angry. I mean, I did, but that was not my first response. Instead, I was scared—because I realized that the most powerful man in the country did not have my back. But of course, that fear became anger, and it happened so fast that I hadn’t even realized that I was afraid—until I slowed down.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting angry sometimes, and no one should be criticized for it. When I first started reading Zen literature, I thought the Buddhist masters were beyond rage. But I soon came to see that the most equanimous people—and perhaps even enlightened beings—still feel anger. The trick of contemplative practice is to close the gap between feeling that anger and letting it go. When the anger arises again, the master feels it, then lets it pass again. But even knowing that I had to let go, I wanted to cling to my anger. Returning to that reflection on the train, it’s easy to see why: anger is a security blanket, protecting me from my fear and from allowing myself to feel the suffering of the people in Pittsburgh.
I don’t think it would be a grand revelation if I were to say that the shooter, if not all people driven by hate, cling to anger to escape fear and suffering. Hatred, I think, is like cancer; it is created by the system it destroys. Just as cell growth is natural, anger is natural. Homicidal hatred is metastasized anger, and it can threaten the whole society in which it was born. So it’s up to everyone to let go of anger to avoid becoming the thing they hate—which can strike me as terribly unfair. When a hate monger goes on a deadly rampage, everyone else is left to do the work of processing. While he gets to be angry, we call upon ourselves to be compassionate.
I don’t want to show the shooter or any of the people who encouraged him any love or forgiveness. Not today, at least.
Yet on that train, I found that the anger wasn’t helping. Every time I turned to the pain, there was something sublime there. I felt human—limited and fragile. That feeling is part of compassion, seeing how my suffering and the suffering of others are linked. So even if I couldn’t muster up a kind word for the killer, I could still turn toward compassion rather than anger for a time.
Then I would, of course, drift back to anger, and I would feel powerful, like I alone could march into the Oval Office, look Trump in the eyes, and say, “Hey, knock it off!” It’s a comforting thought, but not a very useful one. Acknowledging our frail existence, on the other hand, is a very powerful thought; it’s at the heart of all spiritual investigation.
Perhaps, an opportunity to reflect on impermanence and interdependence is a poor consolation for mass murder. But what else can we do? Even if we take up political or social action—which we should—we will still end up spending the majority of our time going about our days. When we come home from voting or attending a protest to eat dinner and unwind for the evening, at those times, all we can do is try to be human, as human as we can be.
Eyes watering as I tried not to cry and make everyone else on the train uncomfortable, I got off at my stop and went to a party. When I showed up, I was a little bit rawer than I wanted to be, but I was met with great kindness and sympathy. One friend told me that he had spent three hours talking about the shooting with a group of people who had met up for another purpose, which they never got around to. He laughed about how it felt unproductive at the time, but in the long run was probably far more important than anything else they could have done.
I wish I could end this with some bold statement about driving out hate through compassion and self-reflection, but I don’t actually think it works that way. Hatred is never going away; it only spreads or shrinks for a time. But this past weekend compassion and self-reflection helped me in a way that I hadn’t expected—by simply allowing me to feel what was going on inside instead of running away from it. That’s all I’ve got. Hope it helps.
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