A Buddhist would have no trouble with this

17 Jan

Chinese labor camps

It could be argued that all experiences are good ones.

Philosophically, we could say that if God is good and great then all our burdens are worthwhile and purposeful. We can even learn to like what we hated.

Last week in a bar I told a story of one of the worse nights of my life. I told the story with verve, delight and nostalgia. I got laughs. I was glad to tell it; glad it happened; glad to learn from it. For the first time I realized I was glad to have this piece of film on my reel.

It is too personal to tell here, so I won’t. Its importance is not in the sharing but in reminding me that the misery of each moment carries within it a miraculous value.

It was more than the bar story that forced this revelation. There was also a news story about China. The report said China might dismantle its system of labor camps.

I have no idea what a modern Chinese labor camp is like, but I’m familiar with the tradition of locking up political prisoners and trying to “re-educate” them. I’ve known many people who were victimized by this system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Some were driven to suicide or to the brink of it.

During this period, all schools were shut and an entire generation of young people was sent to the countryside to labor on farms. Some were considered “red,” or part of the revolution. Others were labeled “black,” or counter-revolutionary. For them it was harsher. They were watched closely and always under suspicion.

While all worked together, the “blacks” were more like prisoners and the “reds” more like guards.

From a first-hand witness I heard a story of a young woman – a “black” – who was laboring in mud. To keep the dampness out of her cloth shoes she put in newspapers. When everyone returned to their rundown barracks, a “red” youth noticed the newspaper inside this woman’s shoe contained a picture of Mao Zedong.

For that show of disrespect she was beaten.

But like myself in the bar story, this was a time of youth. The times contained moments of ultimate value.  Lasting friendships (even between blacks and reds) were forged. These “sent-down” youth, in some respects were very free. They grew up and learned about themselves and others. There is joy in that.

Which is why many Chinese from that generation – those living both in China and in the United States – visit these former labor camps while on vacation. It’s a for-real trend, and they visit with fondness and to share old times with comrades. They take smiling photos of themselves standing near the squalor they thought would be a permanent part of their lives. (Modernization hasn’t changed everything.)

What they went through is far, far, far from my so-called worse night. Yet they have reacted as I did. Their moments carried something and will occupy a peaceful part of their memories.

I don’t claim to truly understand this, and the exceptions must be legion. Even so, there clearly is something to this idea that all experience is good. And so my new goal is not to wait 30 years for warm nostalgia but to live fully and happily in the present.

To accomplish that in even a small measure would be exquisite.

By Lanny Morgnanesi





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