love. week twenty four.
city. new york city
I spent the week reading a collection of Gandhi’s writings. I had been led to believe that Gandhi was some kind of great lover. Cuz, you know, his whole non-violence thing. I thought that his message was one of care and devotion. In other words, I thought he was some kind of super liberal.
After reading 300 pages of his thinking (imagine someone reading 300 pages of my thinking. Now that’s a scary thought. Even I’d recommend stopping after the first 10 or so), I’m convinced that Gandhi was a champion of individualism. No, that’s not strong enough. He was an individualist par excellence. It was precisely his break from liberalism in favor of radical individualism that led him to his most striking conclusion. For example, Gandhi believed that violence is never appropriate.
Think about it. Would a liberal condone violence? Sure. A liberal would argue that violence against, say, fascism is not only permissible, but an obligation. We have a duty to protect the vulnerable.
Gandhi thinks not. He thinks that it is never permissible to violently interfere in someone else’s life. Better said: it is never permissible to interfere in someone else’s life period. For him, violence does not only include physical coercion, but even things like lying, shaming, or insulting. Actually, he’d say that moral coercion is worse than physical. Physical coercion only effects your body, while moral coercion gets at your soul.
I’d known that Gandhi’s focus on non-violence was influenced by the American Transcendentalists (he read Thoreau’s famous essay on Civil Disobedience), but I didn’t realize that he also strongly subscribed to their notion of self-reliance. I think that telling people to be self-reliant is a bit rude. It’s something I practice in my own life, but I’ve felt insensitive offering it to others. It’s like saying, “will you please stop complaining and just deal with your own shit.” Gandhi preached self-reliance at the top of his lungs. If it was up to him, India wouldn’t have any government at all, just a loose cooperation between self-sufficient villages comprised of self-sufficient citizens.
“I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress.”
Gandhi preached honest work, not benevolent charity. He argued that charity keeps the poor enslaved, reliant on another’s goodwill; he lobbied for them to be given jobs, not handouts.
Here are his three ‘rules’. (1) Be truthful. (2) Be non-violent. (3) Sew your own clothing.
(Remember those quizzes where you had to pick out the item that didn’t belong?)
By having everyone in India start spinning their own fabric, he wanted to demonstrate that freedom does not need to be granted. It already exists within our own grasp. All you have to do is reach out and take it.
I am free the moment I decide to be free. How can anyone enslave me? They can put me in prison, sure. But I’ll be free in prison. They can beat me. But I’ll be free while they beat me. What they cannot do is rob me of my individuality; that is, until I voluntarily relinquish it to them. In every place at every time, Gandhi asks that we never give up our individuality. This will come with consequences. You may be beaten, jailed, or killed, but the consequences of freedom will never outweigh its benefits. Gandhi tells me that I am stronger than I think. He tells me that I am so strong, that I can handle anything thrown at me. He tells this to me, and then he goes ahead and demonstrates it.
Why not fight back against the British?
Not because Gandhi was such a sensitive guy who was afraid of weapons. But rather because if you fight back against the British, then you’ll have become British. You’ll have allowed the British to shape who you are and how you act. Furthermore, just as the British have no right to force me to behave how they like, I have no right to force the British to behave how I’d like. Gandhi wasn’t just trying to help the British become better people. He was respecting their right (as individuals) to be bad people.
Gandhi wanted each person to be free. And to be free, we have to be truthful, non-violent, and yes, self-reliant. We have to be ready to take responsibility for every facet of our lives, down to and including the clothing on our back.
But maybe that’s what love can be. Love can be my realization that you are just fine the way you are. That there is no need for me to step in, fix, help, correct, protect. You, just as you are, are perfectly fine. Just as I, just as I am, am perfectly okay.
That’s a really tough act. Making myself available to others and offering them what little I have to share, but without ever stepping over that crucial line that traces the border between sharing and interfering.
I think that NYC is the best place to practice this balancing act. What’s a city after all but a place where people are constantly and intimately interacting, while simultaneously minding their own fucking business.
Suburb/town people are really nosy. That’s why they need to live really far away from each other. Otherwise, they’d constantly want to kill each other or themselves. I love how Schopenhauer compares humanity to hedgehogs in the winter. If they move too far from each other, they freeze to death, but if they get too close, they poke each other to death.
But city people aren’t hedge hogs. We live piled right on top of each other. But we can do this safely because we’ve given up our quills. Each of us has implicitly agreed to mind our own business, and allow our neighbors to live exactly the life they enjoy. No one cares what I wear, how I work, who I fuck, where I sleep, how I pray, when I eat, or even if I die. But in this total absence of care, this brutally cold vacuum, blossoms a level of freedom that has never before existed. A place where art, music, trade, knowledge, poetry, poverty, wealth, invention, stupidity, charity, pleasure, sincerity, greed, guilt, highs and lows, channels of water and rivers of pavement, Donald Trump and AOC, Biggie and RBG are all embraced, nourished, and blossom to vertiginous heights.
Where was I? Oh yes, Gandhi.
So yeah, I see Gandhi not as a lover but a respecter. The twist is that ‘respect’ just might turn out to be the same thing as love.
I really liked how Gandhi always took the blame. When the British acted cruelly, he would ask himself what India had done to inspire cruelty in the British. Sure, the British are responsible for their cruelty, but is there something that we’ve also done wrong that would make us an easy target? Indeed, India was at the time fostering its own blend of cruelty (in their behavior toward ‘untouchables’ and between Hindus and Muslims), sickness (in their terrible sanitary and health conditions), and greed (many Indians cooperated with the British and became fabulously wealthy). For every sentence that Gandhi wrote condemning the British behavior, he wrote twice as much condemning the behavior of the Indians. Why? I noticed three reasons.
We are ultimately only responsible for our own actions.
We only have control over our own actions.
We can only pass judgement over our own actions.
I posted something to Facebook for the first time in a year. It’s some excerpts from Gandhi. Here it is:
Be most careful about accusing the opponent of wickedness. Those whom we regard as wicked, as a rule return the compliment. Let us honor our opponents for the same honesty of purpose and patriotic motive that we claim for ourselves. I believe in trusting. Trust begets trust. Suspicion is fetid and only stinks. He who trusts has never yet lost in the world. A suspicious man is lost to himself and the world. Suspicion is the brood of violence. Non-violence cannot but trust.
It is true that I have often been let down. Many have deceived me and many have been found wanting. But I do not repent of my association with them. The most practical, the most dignified way of going on in the world is to take people at their word, when you have no positive reason to the contrary.
The golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and that we shall always see Truth in fragment and from different angles. Conscience is not the same thing for all. While, therefore, it is a good guide for individual conduct, imposition of that conduct upon all will be an insufferable interference with everybody else’s freedom of conscience. We must measure people with their own measure and see how far they come up to it.
We must not resort to social boycott of our opponents. It amounts to coercion. Claiming the right of free opinion and free action as we do, we must extend the same to others. The rule of majority, when it becomes coercive, is as intolerable as that of a brutal minority. We must patiently try to bring round the minority to our view by gentle persuasion and argument.
We must refrain from crying “shame, shame” to anybody, we must not use any coercion to persuade our people to adopt our way. We must guarantee to them the same freedom we claim for ourselves. It is our exclusiveness and the easy self-satisfaction that have certainly kept many a waverer away from us. We must therefore be ever courteous and patient with those who do not see eye to eye with us. We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies of the country.
While we may attack measures and systems we may not, must not, attack men and women. Imperfect ourselves, we must be tender toward others and be slow to impute motives.
I was scrolling through the news this morning on the subway and came across this gorgeous headline comparing Biden’s immigration policy to Jeffery Epstein. I mean, whoever wrote that clearly knew it was ludicrous. But they also knew it would get clicks.
Right now, each political party (and their corresponding news outlets) spends 90% of their time criticizing the other party. But guess what? Neither party has any control over the other. So what does this lead to? Absolutely nothing. That is, if you don’t count the mutual animosity and distrust that it steadily breads. Each side just piles up reasons to hate each other and to cling ever more fervently to their own beliefs and powers.
But what if every news outlet and politician was only allowed to criticize their own positions? What would happen? There would be a whole lot less criticism, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t have media outlets comparing Biden to Epstein, or Trump to Hitler. Probably, Biden would just be compared to Biden, and Trump to Trump.
At the moment, each side can clearly see the faults in the other, but lacks any ability to actually correct them. The trick then is to see the faults in yourself; after all, those are the only ones you stand any chance of correcting.
So, I’ll end this post with two experiments.
I’ve noticed just how much time I spend criticizing others. Not so much to their face, but in my mind. Oh, the many peaceful mornings spent rehearsing all of the sins that my partner is guilty of. While I shower, I review in exquisite detail just how stupid their position was in our argument last night. While I brush my teeth, I formulate a truly inspired monologue the likes of which would impress Tarantino. Finally, while getting dressed, I decide that, alas, I will shoulder the holy burden of excellence, and solemnly forgive them for their ignorant and pitiful wrongdoings. With that out of the way, I offer them a bright ‘good morning’ and ask if they’d like some milk in their coffee.
How terribly exhausting.
From this moment on, I will try my very best to stop criticizing others. If I don’t like the way something is, then it’s up to me to fix it. If I can’t fix it, then I will focus on more pleasant things. If I can fix it, well then, I ought to direct any criticism at myself. At least this way, something will actually get done.
Since the lockdown last March, I’ve been considering going vegetarian. My more recent experiments with drugs and fish tanks have further deepened my care for and connection to other living beings. I know that this is something that will be particularly difficult for me, so I will start slow. I will begin by being vegetarian on Saturdays. At the same time, I do not want my partial vegetarianism to be a burden on others, so when I’m home for shabbat or at a dinner party or whatever, I’ll shift my vegetarian day to another day.
"The pathway of love is the ordeal of fire,
the shrinkers turn away from it.
The pathway of ahimsa, that is, of love,
one has often to tread all alone.
Love is the strongest force the world possesses
and yet it is the humblest imaginable."
- Mahatma Gandhi