By: Stuart Zitin
Every time I step into the shower, I am grateful for hot and cold running water, even though 35 years have elapsed since I lived, for a year, in a Mexican mountain village without water.
Back then, bathing was a once-a-week affair that consisted of heating collected rainwater in a washbasin and then rocking back and forth to pump water through a tube connected to a plastic shower head hanging from a rafter. I stayed dirty most of the time. When I went into Mexico City, a three-hour dusty bus ride, I relished those hot showers at La Casa de Los Amigos. I cherish that delicious memory.
These days, I need all the gratitude I can muster, what with our country on the skids and early spring acting like summer.
What a worthwhile practice, paying attention to life’s gifts and thus feeling more hopeful, more connected! Here in the United States, we have plenty to be thankful for. And I don’t mean in the American Exceptionalism sense of “They hate us for our freedoms.” or “How can those people live like that?” Yes, life is good here compared to many places.
Oxfam demonstrates the stratification of the world’s population with a Hunger Banquet with participants drawing straws for one of three groups: 50 percent subsisting on less than $912 a year, 35 percent surviving on $912-$9,075 a year, and 15 percent, whose average income is more than $9,076 a year. The first group, by far the largest, sits on dirt floors eating very little rice, maybe with potable water; the second group sits at a table for a simple meal of rice, beans, and water. The third group eats a nutritious meal of tacos with lettuce, rice, beans, and cheese, perhaps with apple juice. That top 15 percent virtually includes everyone in this country; a person earning less than $10,890 yearly, below poverty level, receives government assistance—at least for now.
That’s how too many Americans, particularly children, exist; tragic and totally unjust. Homelessness is terrible, but there are not (yet) thousands starving to death everyday here. So, if we live an easier life, why are we on thin ice more and more? How can we remain compassionate witnesses to the suffering of self and others and still profess faith and gratitude? We all suffer to varying degrees, and all of us have had our faith tested. We plumb the depths, we choose to endure, and we may emerge feeling blessed, a simple yet effective practice.
Determining what is unjust is not difficult and, therefore, hard to ignore. Every single day that I enjoy at least a few delightful moments is a good day. If not, I’d better practice more gratitude.
When I was young, I read with the radio playing Motown; as good as life gets. As I grew up, listening to certain songs made me feel better—particularly those I played loudly. Other non-dancers dance to a favorite beat now and again, particularly while ecstatically preparing food in the kitchen. I am ever-so-grateful for music which puts me right. Realizing that I still know the words to an old song gives me a lift, despite calling immediate family members by the wrong names and forgetting last week.
So yes, maintaining a good attitude is a spot o’ bother; you must have a sense of humor. I hope I continue to enjoy a moment or two every day.
I value my family: very hip mama Ellie; two fun-to-be-around children (whose three gratefuls were in lieu of bedtime prayers when they were younger); a loving 30-year marriage with Maureen; and a chill, enigmatic dog. My parents raised my older sisters and me in a stimulating environment, introducing us to the world’s diversity and injustice when we were very young. When I was twelve, they took us to an illegal, anti-war/pro-jobs demonstration in center city Philadelphia. As the police surrounded us, my older sister led my other sister and me by the hand through the advancing police line to my parents, waiting just beyond. I felt survivors’ guilt for our friends who were arrested. Mom dragged us to the Mount Airy Unitarian Universalist Church whenever someone spoke against war, racism, poverty, imperialism—any injustice. My parents nurtured my sisters and me in the Unitarian Universalist’s principle of respecting the dignity and worth in every human being.
That’s hard sometimes, isn’t it? I cannot feel the same compassion for George Zimmerman as I do for Trayvon Martin’s family. What a lovely and lofty Buddhist goal!
Sometimes I see the silver lining hidden in the cloud. Although I felt deep pain and loss when my father died in 2003, he had blessed me with his integrity and love; we left nothing unspoken between us. After years of participating in men’s circles, I realized how crucial that was: forgiving his father after he’s passed away is much harder for men.
The trick is to find and welcome the hidden, fragrant flowers in the proverbial bucket of caca. Some of us succumb to the dominant paradigm, remaining silent because we do not know how we would feel standing up and declaring, “NO!”
Others learn that silence is consent; most of us are probably somewhere in between. I thank my privileged, white, suburban upbringing for my fearlessness to “Stand Against Racism” (an initiative of the YWCA in the spring) and to chair the board of the non-profit Building Bridges of Asheville (buildingbridges-ashevillenc.org), in our twentieth year of hosting dialogues about racism in two nine-week sessions a year .
Becoming aware of my white privilege compelled me to recognize the importance of eliminating racism. Some longer-term, maybe macro, thinkers see racism becoming a non-issue as globalization and increasing numbers of mixed race offspring, the world over, eventually eradicate racism. But racism is in my present where all happiness is, so I am gratified to be an ally to people of color as they struggle to gain full equality in education, housing, jobs, criminal justice, healthcare, and so on.
While I must also be present to my mom’s health problems as she ages, I am so, so grateful to Maureen for her loving kindness for my mother. And to my two sisters, living in California, for their trust and support. Not all siblings agree on elder care, and I greatly appreciate my family’s willingness to discuss difficult issues, including death and dying. My own suffering is easier to endure than a loved one’s pain. Compassion for self must precede compassion for others, and then for ALL living things. Creation Spirituality hopes that one day we humans will feel the same physical discomfort about defiling nature as easily as we feel compassion for the suffering of other humans. Being closet Buddhists, my late friend Jim and I described death as a release from a life of suffering; detachment is the cure.
I cannot easily ignore the suffering of others. At ten, I cried when we drove past a state prison and saw the men, faces pressed against the bars in their open windows, on a hot summer’s day. Recently, I sobbed as I watched a documentary about the life and suicide of songwriter/activist Phil Ochs. That there are 24 vacant homes for every homeless person in the United States is tragic. However, the Occupy Movement has given me great hope, spreading quickly, like the Arab Spring, and addressing injustices hurting people: all 99 percent of us.
Proposing to fight the rich and powerful to achieve socio-economic justice is revolutionary and, I think, here to stay.
We are here to stay—until we’re not. Despite the relentless political discourse from the pundits, we must inform each other of the people’s history.
Because of the Internet, so much happens so rapidly. Who would have thought that news of a man’s tragic self-immolation in Tunisia would transmit, by Smart Phone video, all over the world in nanoseconds to provoke the Arab Spring and that Adbusters would then start #Occupy? The people are energized, and, I hope for my lovely children’s sake, their energy takes root.
As long as I have a grip on the ledge, I’ll hold on. Every day when I shower, I remind myself to give thanks for hot and cold running water.
Stuart Zitin is the proud father of Rachel and Ari, husband of Maureen, son of Ellie, and brother of Nura and Sarah. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Building Bridges of Asheville and volunteer coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville’s jail ministry at the Buncombe County Detention Center. He is a licensed general contractor specializing in healthy, eco-friendly renovations and new homes. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.