When I first arrived on Okinawa more than fifty years ago almost everyone told me that I would not want to leave at the end of my tour of duty. They were right. Okinawa’s white sand beaches and turquoise waters were breathtakingly beautiful. Lush green covered the island, and I slowly discovered how much I liked it. I was mostly surrounded by Americans. I saw only Americans where I lived, ate, and shopped. Even the beaches were filled with Americans.
The largest Air Force base abutted the downtown area of the largest city. It was busy and noisy, as was the other Air Base. Okinawans disliked all the American installations on their island. They disliked the Japanese, also, for putting them there.
I was in our barracks when an order came for personnel to participate in “crowd control.” A large protest had begun outside the downtown Air Base. All my enlisted men were conscripted. They had no training for this – we were guerrilla warfare experts – but they did their best to follow their orders. I discovered later that most of them generally felt neither hostility nor sympathy for the demonstrators. They merely did the best they could without preparation, experience, or knowledge of the situation.
The North Dakota highway patrolmen, small town police officers, sheriffs, and their counterparts from neighboring rural states are in the same position. Most have little, if any, experience of this type. They are dressed for battle, and they are prepared to do battle on the frozen plains of North Dakota, but with whom? Shivering, defenseless, non-violent people?
This is inherently confusing. The nobility of their profession has been betrayed. Frightened parts of every personality refuse to accept possibilities such as this, much less allow emotional experiences of them. It took me decades to realize that the nobility I assumed my Green Beret would give me never existed, except in the distorted perceptions of the parts of my personality that originate in fear, not in love.
The courageous law enforcement officers who risked their jobs and reputations by refusing to return to Standing Rock are much more aware of themselves, their values, and the world than I was on Okinawa. How can we judge their colleagues who are less aware without expecting others to judge us when we also do the best we can? (Jesus asked us this question).
We can instead hold everyone at Standing Rock in our hearts and pray for their health and safety – police officers, pipeline workers, water protectors, veterans, reporters, and guests. We can be compassionate with all of them. Compassion is the medicine that we give to ourselves at the same time that we give it to others. When we become compassionate with others, we become compassionate with ourselves too. The Standing Rock gathering, like every experience in the Earth school, offers us opportunities to give and receive this medicine.