Teaching World Religion in the Dumpster Fire

2016, the year Minneapolis reporter Jennifer Brooks (@stribrooks) made a viral meme out of felt.

Like many Americans, I went to sleep in tears in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, November 9, after having drunk way too much bourbon. I had waited up, commiserating on social media all the while, in the impossible hope that a woman-groping, dog-whistling ignoramus would not be our next president. When I woke up a few hours later, the news was the same. The unreal had become real—or perhaps more accurately, the real had finally become real to me.

Life had to go on, so I dressed in my best mourning clothes and went through the motions to get to my 8:30 a.m. World Religions class. (Yes, I know “World Religions” is terribly out of fashion now, but cut me some slack. It’s still a topic worth exploring, and in a college full of pre-professional majors it is my best-selling general education course, so I will not apologize for trying to complicate the views of future business people, health care professionals and public school teachers.) I struggled, as I suppose most teachers did on that day, to figure out what I would say to my students—some of whom would be triumphant, others grieving, all of them sleep-deprived.

In truth, I did not trust myself to broach the topic of the election in front of 30 undergraduates, because I wasn’t certain I (also grieving, sleep-deprived, and prone to shooting off at the mouth) could rise above it just then. I was certain, however, that none of these impressionable young people deserved to see their professor come undone. As it happened, World Religions came to my rescue that day: we were just beginning our Buddhism unit (because, you know, a week or two to cover a millennia-old tradition is totally sufficient). Being at a loss for timely words of wisdom, I decided just to teach as planned.

The introductory lecture on Buddhism must include the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s coddled life and subsequent awakening; his rejection of extreme asceticism in favor of a middle way; his enlightenment under the bodhi tree; his four noble truths. It must also include an explanation of terms: suffering, emptiness, impermanence, no self, non-grasping, extinction, equanimity. It was equanimity—the quality of remaining balanced and composed, regardless of external conditions—that rang especially true that morning. I had anticipated feeling elation and relief when my candidate won the election, and yet given what we know of American (and human) history, would that really have been wise? Now I was feeling shocked and devastated by the election results, and yet what was the use of that? The reminder to see clearly whatever conditions one is facing and accept them without judgment as one’s task, if not one’s destiny, could not have been more timely. My grief or elation, my wanting or not wanting the election results, was not as important as clearly seeing the situation before me so as to discern what my role was.

This was a strangely energizing moment. That day my role was simply to introduce Buddhism—the tradition that, in my experience, is the most difficult for American undergraduates to comprehend, because it is so “weird” and “depressing” and radically different from familiar monotheisms. The basic lesson that not everyone in the world thinks like white Protestant America is an important lesson indeed, with or without my personal political commentary. How different might this election cycle have been had more voters been willing to be curious about, understand, accept, or even embrace a pluralist nation, rather than panic in the face of “the other”? (For the record, I do not see fear of the other distributed equally among the electorate, nor falsely equate liberal echo chambers with white supremacist rallies.)

I want to be clear that it didn’t have to be Buddhism that day. Equanimity holds an important place in lots of traditions—think Perpetua upon her martyrdom, Zhuangzi at his wife’s grave, Arjuna on the battlefield. And meanwhile no human tradition, however apparently groovy, should be overly romanticized (thanks, Wirathu). I also want to acknowledge that equanimity is a luxury not everyone can afford. It’s much more difficult to stay calm when one is living in a war zone, or one’s child is starving, or one’s body is wracked with pain. While the dumpster fire is certainly upsetting to me, I imagine it is utterly terrifying to those who are facing imminent hate crimes, deportation, and serious medical conditions without health coverage.

But to my fellow professors let me say this: our students do not need our hysteria. They do not need our self-righteousness. Even our just outrage won’t be constructive if it makes us hopeless and bitter. While it is unpopular in some religious studies circles to admit that one cares more about helping humankind than about debating definitions of “religion,” I have always been clear that in my job I am on a mission to plant seeds that might eventually help a few young adults in the Midwest be a little more self-reflective about their assumptions, a little more critical of media messages, a little less credible about Western supremacy, a little less Islamophobic. In other words, yes, I do want to indoctrinate students.

I certainly wouldn’t want to overplay the importance of religion in whatever ails humankind, nor do I have delusions of grandeur about the ability of a religion professor to change the course of history. But the way I see it, any reduction in fear (at least about anything other than climate change) is a net gain for the world. Maintaining some level of equanimity, inside the classroom and out, is the best way to be present for the students we actually have, for whatever short time we have them.