Thursday, September 4, 2008

He meant well

Tonight I saw a film that made me think about what the road to hell is paved with. Up the Yangtze is a beautifully detached documentary that follows two teenagers from peasant families displaced by the massive Three Gorges dam project. (Photo above is from the film.) The film is worth seeing if only for the astonishing slow images at the end, which make the point in a way no argument can.

A statue of Mao is shown only once, but he is certainly present in spirit in this characteristically massive attempt to fix things. As so many political leaders are, Mao was willing to sacrifice the individual for the good of all. Here, this does not seem so much dangerous as sad. And it is clear that the old way of life in which many worked small patches of land, were illiterate, lived without the electricity the dam would create, was a hard life deprived of opportunity. Certainly not idyllic. But is working for tips on a cruise ship an improvement?

There is a scene in another film, Kundun, in which Mao (in black shoes) says to the teen-age Dalai Lama (in gold brocade slippers) "We are going to liberate you." His Holiness replies, "Only I can liberate myself." Mao means liberation from a feudal theocracy, a peasant life, poverty, into the modern world. HH has something more important in mind.

I am reminded of a bumper sticker: We are America. Be good to us or we'll give you democracy.

More and more I realize the danger of tampering with lives. Somewhere I have read Suzuki Roshi's comments when his students got fired up to build a Zen Center. He says something like, "A great many bad things will come out of it, but maybe something good will happen, too."

It's about the trickiness, the unpredictability of the effects that will flow from any well-meant action. A mother supports a grown son who can't hold a job. A father lets a daughter refuse to go onstage in the grade-school talent show because she's scared. A politician crusades for censorship in the public library (gosh, back to Sarah Palin again.) What will the outcomes of these actions be? Are the intentions entirely benevolent and respectful, or are they self-serving? Do we take the trouble to examine our intentions?

I am not advocating doing nothing. But maybe we should do less, more slowly and carefully. I do like a saying in Pidgin English gleaned from some old novel about the British Raj: "Softly, softly catchee monkey."

1 comment:

  1. Love this. The question always is, Whose intention is this, anyway? (And the other question is, What are you going to do with that monkey once you catch it?)