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Plorking with The Dude and the Zen Master

January 14, 2013
Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman.  Photo from the Library Foundation of LA.

Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman. Photo from the Library Foundation of LA.

When I contemplate the problems of the world, sometimes I feel discouraged, overwhelmed, and useless.  I forward links, share posts, give money, and sign petitions, but how much good does that do?  Maybe a lot, but I don’t get to see it, not personally.  I can’t end the violence in Burma or Tibet.  I can’t stop domestic violence in America. It all seems so discouraging.

Recently, however, I started doing something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  I wasn’t quite sure how to get started, so I searched around on the internet and reached out to the people and groups who were already doing the same kind of work.  Then I waited … and waited.  And that could have been the end of it, but I’m a little more stubborn than that, and I have this blog and some wonderful friends.

I decided to take matters into my own hands, with some financial and logistical support from my friends.  I put out the call for donations and people responded.  One trip to PetSmart and one Amazon order later and I was ready to go.  And now there are two beautiful kittens slowly getting used to living with people.  (And by ‘getting used to,’ I mean hissing and growling every time I pick them up.)  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s been delightful.

I think sometimes we let the big problems of the world discourage us from doing anything for anybody.  We forget that the big problems are just a bunch of smaller problems all lumped together.  All those small problems make things tangled and complex and difficult to solve, but not impossible.

I wrote these words just a day before going to a unique event at the Japanese American Culture and Community Center in Little Tokyo.  There my professor, Danny Fisher, hosted a conversation between Zen Master Bernie Glassman and “The Dude” Jeff Bridges.  Glassman is known for the Zen Peacemakers Order and Bridges, an American actor famous for his stoner characters, founded The End Hunger Network.  The event was brilliant and funny and far too short.  (Who wouldn’t want to hang longer with people who use “grok” in casual conversation?)

Towards the end of the conversation, Glassman and Bridges fielded a question about how to engage in social action without getting discouraged.   Glassman said he’d fielded this question from many people at retreats.  Glassman, 73-years-old, unfolded himself from the chair where he’d been sitting cross-legged for most of the interview, took Bridges by one hand and Danny by the other.

“Jeff,” he said softly, “this is Mary.  She’s 80-years-old and doesn’t get around too well anymore.  I think you’d be good friends.”  He sat back down.  “Then they’d start talking and getting to know each other and Jeff might be able to help Mary with whatever she needs.  See, you don’t have to look very far.  We’re so interconnected.  You don’t have to look very far.  Things will come to you.”

Just like the cats in my backyard.  Since I moved here, I’ve been looking for how to become more involved in service.  Then a bunch of small critters came looking for me.  But what does saving a bunch of feral cat’s really do? It would be better in the long run to address the poverty and devaluation of animals which leads people in my neighborhood to neglect their pets. That would help the cats of the future, but not the cats of the present.  Likewise, people should continue to advocate for changes to harmful policies and practices throughout the world, while simultaneously alleviating the suffering they cause now.

Bridges talked about Bucky Fuller, an American inventor and social activist who had “Call me Trim Tab” inscribed on his tombstone.  A trim tab is a small surface attached to a rudder on a boat or airplane.  Rudders can be large surfaces and hard to move, but people discovered that by adding this smaller rudder onto the bigger one, it would help the whole thing move with only a small adjustment to the trim tab.

“So we’re all trim tabs,” Bridges explained.  “One small shift can change the whole culture.  Changing each person shifts the rudder,” he gestured with his hands.

Catching feral cats is about more than just the animals, who are certainly important themselves.  It serves to cultivate active compassion both in myself and others.  It shows what is possible when we put our minds to it and get our hands dirty.  A generous friend recently wrote “You are an inspiration.  I am so excited to support your animal rescue efforts!  Fight the good fight!”

I’m not in this alone.  That same friend pledge a donation then wrote a check for five times the promised amount.  She shall forevermore be knows as the “Goddess of Understatement” in my mind.  I said I was going to do this, but I never thought I could do it alone.  Many others have stepped forward to help and all it took was asking (and a few cute kitty pics on the internet).  Their willingness and generosity has truly humbled me.

Glassman and Bridges are both right.  We don’t have to go looking.  Opportunities for engagement and social action are as close as our backyards.  And just one person reaching out and starting something activates all these networks of compassion and kindness.

Another topic the two covered in their conversation was the joy of working, what Bridges calls “plorking” or “worlaying” and what Glassman explains using the analogie of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.  The first verse of that well-known ditty (which Bridges encouraged the audience to sing in a round) tells us to row our boat merrily down the stream.  Bridges shared the story of his father, who was also an actor and always seemed to be having so much fun in his work.

The other day I posted a story about the kittens.  The thing that stuck with me from that day was how excited and energized I felt.  I’ve had similar emotions about my work on student government, writing for the newspaper, working on my blog, putting up tents, and trying (in vain) to save the planet from global warming.  I even feel that way about my ‘work’ from time to time, which I consider to be my academic research.  I’m always seeking new ways to “plork,” whether it’s through social action or gainful employment.

May you also plork.  I hope everyone can find something to get excited about, excited enough to overcome the lingering discouragement of contemplating the massive problems of the world.

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