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LCC Stories


A Parable of Compassion and Peace


This email was sent to all faculty and staff on May 20th, 2015. The normal bargaining process between the college administration and the union had grown unusually heated. People from both sides were speaking angrily, including some harsh name-calling and accusations.

Mary Spilde (the college president) and Jim Salt (the Lane Community College Education Association president) were sincerely trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability. But neither was hired for having rhetorical skill, and their efforts to calm people down were not working. So I wrote an e-mail.

Although I work in Mathematics, I am putting on my storyteller hat for a moment.

This is merely a very general observation about process. It lacks details connecting it to current events. Yet I hope it might provide timely encouragement to folks who have not seen LCC politics for as many years...

Long ago, in a far away fictional empire, two monks—a Garzhun master martial artist, and a Tzati master meditator—were arguing in a quiet yet stubborn manner whether or not war could ever be condoned.

The Garzhun monk quoted Orwell, "Those who abjure violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf."

The Tzati monk quoted an anonymous source: "If war is the answer, we are asking the wrong question."

A few minutes earlier, the two monks had agreed that the word *peace* meant three things. There is a type of peace called shalom that was about wholeness and balance: the restful contentment of feeling complete and not wanting more. There is a type of peace sometimes named by salaam or the pax of Pax Romana, in which people enjoy safety and contentment because society firmly enforces laws and uniformity. There is a type of peace used in secular vocabulary that refers to the absence of vicious conflict.

The Tzati monk complained, "How can you claim to prioritize peace, when your order trains for war?"

The Garzhun monk answered by putting the Tzati monk in a standing arm bar. "Ah," he said. "Now peace has increased!"

"What?" protested the Tzati monk, bent forward and feeling the pressure threatening his shoulder socket. "You attacked me! This is not peace!"

"Consider," answered the Garzhun monk. "My wholeness is restored. Before you were draining my time and energy as I carefully considered my words, and you were putting demands on my space because I could not politely leave our discussion. Now my harmony is secure because I can move or speak as much or little as I desire. Also, our safety and uniformity are restored. Before there was the risk caused by our differing cultures that one of us would accidentally and deeply insult the other or say something that was grievously misunderstood. Now I need not fear that outcome, because we are both experiencing a lesson in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Also, our conflict has vanished. Before we were aruging. Now I am enforcing my dominance without anger and without causing harm. There is no conflict unless you reintroduce conflict by resisting my dominance."

"There is still conflict!" groaned the Tzati monk. "All your peace talk is only about you. Perhaps you feel more wholeness, security, cultural uniformity, and lack of conflict. But not me!"

The Garzhun monk said,"When we were arguing neither of us had peace. Now one of us does. Is that not an improvement?"

"No." said the Tzati monk, more quietly now that his adrenaline rush had faded. "You have taken from me. You have increased your freedom, but only by reducing mine. You have made your voice dominant, but only by silencing mine."

"Ah," agreed the Garzhun monk. "Your voice is not heard. Yes. I am showing you no compassion. Sometimes, when disagreements are deep and unresolvable, peace and compassion are incompatible. My order, although it values compassion tremendously, is willing to sacrifice compassion for peace when needed."

He released the Tzati monk, who stood up and looked into his eyes for a while.

Finally the Tzati monk spoke. "Perhaps if you meditated as I do, you would understand compassion more and not be willing to sacrifice it."

The Garzhun monk nodded. "Certainly. That is why I train my body with martial arts instead of practicing Tzati meditation."

The Tzati monk considered. "Most people cannot increase in compassion unless they have a foundation of some peace. It is difficult to meditate while crops burn and villages evacuate."

Both monks bowed, and departed.

At yesterday's Faculty Recognition Gala, someone commented to me about the recent e-mails involving the Administration and the Association, "I feel like a little kid whose divorced parents are shouting at each other while forgetting I am in the room!" I understand. To some extent I feel that way too. I would much rather live in a world full of compassion, that had no need to ever sacrifice compassion for peace.

But I am also a mathematician. I realize that not only is it possible to lie with statistics, it is often unavoidable. As Frank Nilon often said, "Physics is the study of frictionless elephants whose masses can be ignored." Real life has too much complexity and too many unknowns for accurate modeling. When money is on the line there will always be argument. Even the experts debate which assumptions are best approximations, which trends will continue for the next decade, and which factors are included or applied erroneously.

Most of use who work at LCC will say we value peace, but we really value compassion. Everyone's voice must be heard! Everyone's job must be respected! Everyone has worth, especially because they are here!

Compassion would be nice.

But the Administration and the Association must both strive for peace. The college must be financially secure. Employees must have job security. The college must rebalance in wholeness and harmony as its income decreases. Employees must feel more-or-less complete, not worried about how to provide for family or what to do when sick or injured. Heated conflict must find resolution. Student success must happen, unhindered by the college's internal conflicts and financial struggles.

I admire both Jim and Mary (and their many hard-working team members). They create the peace we know as LCC employees. The both do their jobs well. Despite several severe storms, Mary has steered the college with little damage to its sails and only cosmetic damage to its hull. Compared to other Oregonian community colleges, Jim's efforts give us very nice paychecks and benefits.

Sometimes they have to sacrifice compassion to get their job done.

Sometimes we have to let them.

Nothing surprising, or disturbing, or wrong about that. Time after time peace gets established, the adrenaline fades away, then those fluent in compassion again step in to spread their grace.

A rooster crows. The lasting echo fades,
Of metal upon metal. Settling dust
Reveals new borders, safe and peaceful aids
In which can work compassion, hope, and trust
To fill new peace with health and growth lifelong.
A songbird watches me begin my day,
to judge if I do yet deserve its song.
I'm not concerned about its notes today.
I know my work. My children very soon
Will hear and sing the songbird's joyous tune.

Sorry, I leave to teach in a few minutes. Someone else can finish the sonnet.

May the Administration and the Association have wisdom regarding when to let the dust settle, so the compassionate ones can take their turn. May they fight for our peace enough, but not too much.

May we enjoy and appreciate all the peace and compassion we experience today.

-David Van Slyke, Mathematics