One passage that has long stayed with me in terms of understanding ethics is from one of Slavoj Zizek's books, where he mentions the Egyptians being swallowed up by the Red Sea as they trail the escaping Israelites. According to Jewish tradition he writes, when the Israelites celebrate the death of their long-time enemies, God chastises them. He tells them, how dare they celebrate that which he created. Who are they to celebrate the destruction of something that comes from God. Even if they were opposed in the drama of life on earth, they come from the same source and they have right to celebrate something which is equal to them in its origin. This type of repositioning is the basis for many types of ethical engagement. The idea that there is always some deeper level, some deeper intersection of humanity that we can and should appeal to in order to create something that is more just and more moral. But we can become so comfortable in our identities, so stuck in them, that it can be very difficult to cast them aside or even check to see how they fit on us. Some philosophers have said that it is the first gesture of human self-consciousness to define oneself against another, and the process of establishing a relationship with the other, there is always a tension, a pressure to not simply define against, across from another, but to define yourself against, above of the other. This leads to violence and the arguments in favor of violence, that naturalize and justify it, but it also can lead us back to the idea of the self and the other sharing something, that will radically redefine the hierarchy and the oppositional identities that they currently wear.
At the conference that I'm attending in South Korea this weekend, one of the organizers read the poem below by Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous monk and peace activist from Vietnam. He writes about stories he had heard about pirates raping young women who were feeling Vietnam as refugees, and how instinctively we may be drawn to hate the pirate, but asks us to reflect deeper. He wrote a poem meant to illustrate his thoughts, I've posted them below.
Please call me by my true names
Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh
After the Vietnam War, many people wrote to us in Plum Village. We received hundreds of letters each week from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It was very painful to read them, but we had to be in contact. We tried our best to help, but the suffering was enormous, and sometimes we were discouraged. It is said that half the boat people fleeing Vietnam died in the ocean; only half arrived at the shores of Southeast Asia.
There are many young girls, boat people, who were raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries tried to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continued to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day, we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate.
She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.
When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we can't do that. In my meditation, I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I would now be the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I can't condemn myself so easily. In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is "Please Call Me by My True Names," because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, "Yes."
"Please call me by my true names"
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow— even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am also the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open,the door of compassion.