Reflections on Mother’s Day

My mother and me on a camel in Egypt before she got sick.

Mother’s Day has been a tough holiday for me for a long time. My mother died in January of 2007. But she had been dying for nearly twenty years by that point. Her death was at least a relief from the suffering she’d been through for many years.

Yesterday was a particularly difficult Mother’s Day for me. My girlfriend and her family took her mom out for a day up in Santa Barbara. I was invited, but a film director who sometimes comes to the Angel City Zen Center was shooting a scene for a movie that day and wanted me to appear in it.

As some of you know, I’ve been in a few films. But this director was someone I had never worked with before. It was not the guy who made the documentary about me or the zombie movie I was in. It was not even someone from Tsuburaya Productions. I live in a city full of movie makers. With this new director, I had no real idea what to expect.

It was an all-improvised film, so I didn’t even have a script to go by. But he really wanted me to be in his movie and he came to our center, so I expressed my regrets to my girlfriend and her mom and committed myself to doing his film.

When I got to where we were filming, the director’s whole family was there. His mom, his dad, and his sister had all came out from the wilds of Wisconsin. I assume they were there for Mother’s Day and not just to be in a movie.

Seeing the director’s family together reminded me that my family was never going to spend another Mother’s Day together. I envied him for being able to be with his family and wondered why he’d chosen to subject them to being in a movie after they’d come all that way to be with him. They must really love him. Movie shoots aren’t that much fun, especially super low-budget movie shoots. For the set for this film the director had rented a nail salon in Glendale that was closed for the day. So much for Hollywood glamour.

The director of the film was what the kids these days call a “p.o.c.” — a person of color. It turned out that the point of the scene I was to be in was for him to confront me on camera in front of his family and the crew about my supposed “white privilege.”

Friends, I am here today to tell you I did not take it well. After about twenty minutes of being grilled on the matter of my race, I pulled off the microphone that was clipped to my shirt and stormed out.

As I walked several miles home — I was too steamed to get into a ride-share car — I fumed about what I’d just been subjected to. Where was my mother’s “white privilege” when she spent decades dying of a disease that I recently saw described as “like having Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease all at once”? It’s a hereditary condition that both I and my sister have a 50% chance of dying from. Was that a “white privilege” we inherited from our white mother?

What about this director’s privilege of having a living mother that he was alternately ignoring and bossing around? Why do so many of us take the real privileges we have for granted while we fume over the fantasy that there are people who don’t suffer at all because they were born with the right color skin?

In the Summer of 1991, I and two friends were attacked on Chalker Street in Akron, Ohio near the intersection of East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue by two “people of color” who were intent on killing me and my male friend and raping my female friend because of our skin color. I have no doubt that this was their motivation because they shouted it at us as they were beating the shit out of us. Where was my “white privilege” that night?

If you want to send me emails explaining how I was privileged anyway, go ahead. They’ll go straight to the trash folder.

Because the absurdities surrounding the notion of “white privilege” weren’t really what I was upset about. I was upset because I had thought this director was my friend. He clearly was not. I was upset because I’d given up a Mother’s Day outing with my girlfriend and her family — “people of color” all, by the way — to help a guy out with his movie for no compensation. Fuming about “white privilege” was just something my brain had latched onto in order to avoid the more painful feelings of having been betrayed and played for a fool.

I don’t really know if there’s “white privilege” in any generalized way. I’m certain that it exists in some forms. But when you’re angry and hurt, your feelings don’t make much sense. At least I’ve learned enough that I never believe my own opinions about anything.

The Buddha said, “All life is suffering.”

This doesn’t mean that your entire life is always spent in pain. Obviously not. We all have times in our lives when we’re happy. Our entire lives are not constant misery.

No. What the Buddha meant was that all of us are suffering. Every single person you see is having a tough time just getting through life. No matter how rich they are or how much supposed “privilege” they have. The Buddha was a wealthy man from one of the most privileged races and classes of his time. He gave up his wealth and privilege because it didn’t do anything to relieve his suffering.

There is a poisonous notion gripping much of the United States these days that there are people in our midst who never suffer. Holding such ideas is a way of dehumanizing others; it’s a way of allowing ourselves an excuse for hate and providing an easy target to take out our frustrations on. It’s a bad idea. And the saddest thing of all is to see so many Buddhist centers in our country embracing this awful idea and promoting it.

We are all suffering. There is no measurement for suffering. There are no ranks for suffering. It affects every single one of us.

And yes, those in the supposedly “privileged” classes should not use their power and what few privileges some of us have in this painful world to cause suffering to others. Obviously. D’uh!

Of course this is true.

Of course!

It’s an important lesson.

Some people really do use their power and privilege in ways that cause others to suffer. And that needs to stop.

But I feel like our society these days is obsessed with this one part of the story. And the way our society too often treats this important lesson lately is out of balance. It obscures the other part of the story, which is that suffering is not the exclusive property of those who the media has designated as worthy of our pity. Suffering affects us all. The Buddhist message is that all life is suffering.

Women suffer. Men suffer. The poor suffer. The rich suffer. This disabled suffer. The able-bodied suffer. Gay people suffer. Trans people suffer. Straight cis-gendered people suffer. Homeless people suffer. People in beautiful homes suffer. Black people suffer. Latinos suffer. Middle Eastern people, Native Americans, and Asians suffer. White people suffer.  

We are all lonely and sad and confused and frustrated. We are all afraid to die. No one is exempt.

The idea that some suffer while others don’t is false and damaging. The idea that some forms of suffering are important while other forms of suffering don’t really matter is ugly and wrong. It gives those in the supposedly “privileged” classes the notion that they are not suffering — which is at odds with their real, lived experience. It often makes the supposedly “privileged” more likely to cause suffering. And it gives others the notion that if only they had the supposed privileges accorded to those other people that they too would no longer suffer. It makes for needless jealousy and envy and greed. It’s a rotten idea that stands in the way of getting at the real root of suffering. It is a lie.

So that was my Mother’s Day. I hope your Mother’s Day was a lot happier than mine.

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