My quiet suburban neighborhood, chosen decades ago for its excellent school system, has recently become a mecca for builders who in taking advantage of the new lenient zoning laws have bought the three lots abutting my house, and are erecting condos with enough square footage to house three families. The noise and dust are close to intolerable, but even more disturbing is the fact that they insist on using every square foot of property and each building- three stories high- comes within feet of my property line. Outraged, I attempted a protest that went nowhere. They were within their legal rights. Yes, I tried to argue, but legal rights are not everything. Does human decency have any voice in the decisions? Apparently not, and the houses are being constructed as I write this article. I am subject to the grating sound buzz saws, hammers and the incessant, irritating beeps of trucks. The confluence of perceived violation and impotency evokes countless fantasies of revenge.
This would hardly be noteworthy among human problems plaguing this planet. It is simply my way of personally understanding the outrage and impotence of many people whose territory has been impinged on either legally or by brute force. Sometimes it is more than territory that is taken. It is dignity, pride, and lives that are more often taken.
What hubris we human beings have to make the victims of territorial expansion into the ‘enemy’, into one that is now a threat to what we think we have the right to take for ourselves because they are not so willing to capitulate.
I am an American and we all know what American history taught us about the great freedom fighters who gave us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of America, was excruciatingly hard to read because it revealed very inconvenient truths. Not only did our ancestors claim land that was not theirs to claim but even worse, they murdered and often tortured the original inhabitants of the land. This was of course true for every country in the world whose culture was decimated by European colonization, but here, our myth of freedom and greatness, a veneer covering the atrocities committed, leaves me wondering how little we understand about the shadows of human nature and the lies we tell ourselves to candy coat greed, arrogance and ego-centricity. We justify it by making the ‘other’ less intelligent, less human, less evolved, and therefore less worthy of being treated with respect and dignity.
The protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where a tiny treaty- protected Sioux reservation is being potential violated by an oil company insisting on bringing a potentially hazardous oil pipeline through the water source and ancestral burial grounds, is a breathtaking example of greed and insensitivity to the rights of others. The others who are ‘not us’, the others who we intentionally make non-existent or whose existence is seen merely as an obstacle to the desired outcome.
How can such people live with themselves, I wonder, and yet I can understand it from the ways that I am also insensitive. Despite my desire to be vegetarian, my body does much better being carnivorous. My tendency has been to deal with the discrepancy in my own values by depersonalizing the chicken filet sitting all sauced up on my plate. While living in the country I often went to dinner at the house of a local farmer. Before digging into the sumptuous meal one of the children would also let us know the name of the cow or pig or chicken we were about to eat. They would tell us stories of each animal and in doing so they would honor them and the sacrifice of their lives for the nourishment of our bodies.
The laws of life and physical reality means we are inevitably faced with decisions that negatively and positively impact others. Are we willing to be awake to, and fully conscious of the implication of our choices? It does not mean incessantly flagellating ourselves, but it does mean recognizing that other life forms feel, that people of different ethnicities, skin color, religions, cultures, sexual orientations all universally suffer in the same way and over the same things.
We still have to make difficult choices that end up hurting others or being hurt by them. But we lose our humanity when we close our hearts, shut down what and how we perceive the world in order to desensitize ourselves, in order to justify our actions. An open heart is an empathic heart, a compassionate heart, an inclusive heart.
I look out my window now and the noise and dust are still annoying. Someone will make a fine profit from this, and yes, could have been far more sensitive to me, but I also acknowledge his rights, and the hard working crew working through the wintry weather, and the families who will inhabit those houses and enjoy the fine amenities of this town. I will welcome the new neighbors when they arrive and who knows, maybe a few of them will end up as friends.
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