Everyday Life: The ethics of politics

In February I sat a Zen retreat up on Whidbey Island near Seattle. The car rental guy asked me why I was in Seattle and when I said “for a Zen retreat” he said, “relaxing, huh?”

Well, no.

Zen retreats are physically rigorous. You don’t move for long periods of time. There is little sleep. Meals are ritualized and highly formal. You don’t talk, and nobody talks to you. Things as basic as going to the bathroom are restricted to specific (and, luckily, reasonably frequent) times.

I think it is exactly because of this that we begin to break through the delusion that we are separate beings. Someone sniffles and maybe we find that disturbing. But we can’t ask them to stop. We can’t leave the room. We just have to put up with it.

And then we begin to realize that we sniffle, too. That we disturb people. We begin to see how anyone’s smallest action affects everyone else. It becomes harder to imagine that we can control our world or shut the rest of the world out.

Which brings me to the ethics of politics. It’s no secret that I lean fairly far to the left. But left and right should not be about ethics. Values, unavoidably; technique, sure. We can disagree about the best way to deliver health care; we can disagree on exactly which health care should be delivered. But I hope we would all agree that a gunshot victim shouldn’t be turned away from the emergency room because she can’t afford it.

I hope this, but these days I doubt it. Too many people are concerned primarily with keeping what they’ve got and keeping what they’ve got away from other people. That just plain doesn’t work.

I remember when my son was a toddler and went over to another kid’s house on a play date. Every time my son would reach for a toy the other kid would grab it and sit on it. Soon the kid was sitting on a really big pile of toys. He had his toys, all right, but he couldn’t play with them. Too many of us are like that kid sitting on his toys.

Consider the people in Arizona, many of them church-going folks, who decided that it should be against the law to give water to someone in the desert. We can reasonably argue over the effects of undocumented immigrants and how to best protect our borders, but to refuse water to someone dying of thirst is unfathomable to me.

Similarly, we can reasonably argue over the best way to help the poor. But the poor are not another species. With rare exceptions (think: Bill Gates) we are all only an illness, a downsizing, a catastrophe away from poverty.

And that’s where an ethical politics begins: with the recognition that we are in this boat together, that no one is immune from misfortune. We’re not making laws about them. We’re making laws about us.