Discovering “The Opposite of Terrorism”

My journey began two weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as Marti and I sat at a window table of the Vietnam Georgetown Restaurant. Through the window we watched people walking down M. Street, which turns into Pennsylvania Avenue. The people on the sidewalk could be passing the White House in ten or fifteen minutes, if they walked quickly and if the soldiers manning the barricades across Pennsylvania Avenue let them through.  Thinking back to those days it is somewhat amazing that Marti and I had gotten together to see a movie, have dinner, and talk.  Because if you recall, two weeks after 911 we were still expecting follow-up attacks, and if they were going to come anywhere they were coming to DC.  The smart thing to do was to buy cases of bottled water and rolls of duct tape, and stay at home cowering in front of the cable news stations. So perhaps going to see a French film that begins with a man pretending to be gay in order to keep his job and ends with the man and his co-workers discovering their common humanity was not the smartest thing to do. But perhaps that movie was the seed of “The Opposite of Terrorism.” That sentence might not make sense to you now, but soon it will.

As we ate our conversation revolved around our families and friends in response to 911.  Neither of us had lost anybody, but we both had people in New York and DC we worried about. Marti and I knew each other through the Shambhala Meditation Center, and our group had been holding regular evening meditation/prayer sessions since the attacks. I had donated blood to the Red Cross and we both had given money to various relief efforts.

Towards the end of dinner Marti said she wasn’t satisfied.  She felt we needed to be doing more. George Bush was preparing to launch his “crusade” against the evil-doers, and to some of us he sounded more like an angry teenager than the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.  So we were worried not only by actions Al Quida might take.  We were worried by the actions our government might take, and by the language they were using to frame the situation. That frame included defining the situations in terms of us versus them, with them “hating us for our freedoms.” It also included presenting reality in a dualistic fashion, with us being the innocent victims of attacks by the evil-doers, and them being the not quite full human “evil-doers.” And since those evil-doers were out to get us, the government was out to destroy them by whatever means necessary. As you will see in a moment, those views are the epitome of terrorism. We were becoming the people we were afraid of.

There was a real fear of a major war breaking out, a physical fear we felt in our bodies, and could see in the faces of those we saw at work, at prayer, and at home.  And there was a fear that even if we were not attacked again, the administration’s military response would mean more death and destruction for innocent civilians all over the world.

“What can we do” Marti asked.  I didn’t really understand her question.

“What can we do to change the atmosphere?  To make a difference?”

I’m Marti’s meditation instructor, which means I’ve been practicing Buddhism longer than she has, and which implies that when she has questions, I should have at least some answers.  Sometimes I have answers.  Sometimes I don’t.

I didn’t have an answer to her question.  What could we do that would make any difference anywhere?  What could we do to deal with the fear, hatred and divisiveness that lay thick in the atmosphere around us?  What could we do to help those attacked by terrorists, and those whose suffering was at least part of the motivation for the terrorist acts?  What could we do to slow down the escalating spiral of belligerent rhetoric that was coming from the administration and the cable news stations?  What could we do to help the small non-profits whose funding was drying up because all the money was flowing to the Red Cross?

I didn’t have an answer, so I did what my meditation instructor had told me to do in situations like this. I waited.

Soon a thought came to me.  What I find weird is that it really felt like the thought “came to me,” much more than it felt like I “had the thought.”  In any case the thought that came was;

“We could do the opposite of terrorism.”

“What?” Marti asked.

I didn’t know what, it wasn’t my idea.  It just came to me.  But I was her meditation instructor, and I was supposed to have answers for her questions. So I said,  “What if we were to think about what lays at the heart of terrorism, and do something that is the opposite of that.”  It sounded good, but I still didn’t know what it meant.

“Like what?”

“Well, terrorists try to scare people, and try to hurt people, and seem to be looking out for their own.  They don’t care who they hurt.  So what if we did something that made people happy and …..”  Another thought came.

“What if we had a party to raise money for one of the non-profits that need money? And we did it for something that wasn’t part of the Shambhala community?”

“A fund-raising party?”  She seemed to think it was a good idea, which surprised me. So I nodded.

“Great,” she said.  “I could have it at my house, and I could make Iranian rice and some side dishes.  And it could be for Miriam’s Kitchen.”

Miriam’s Kitchen is a place in the basement of at Presbyterian Church that serves breakfast to homeless men.  Jonathon, one of our mutual friends, was a social worker there.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“Of course.” She replied.

I was surprised, because to me it had just been an idea.  But Marti was going to make it real.  “We should give it a name,” I suggested.  “We can have these once a month, and maybe the idea will grow.  We can call them ‘First Friday’ parties.  We’ll have them on the first Friday of each month.”

And if it hadn’t been that there were already a couple of other events called “First Friday” and that nobody had a First Friday open to host or come to a party, that would have been it.  So we decided to find another name for them.

That happened rather by accident, when I was emailing Jonathon, to see if it was ok with the powers that be at Miriam’s Kitchen for us to have a party.  I got tired of writing “the opposite of terrorism party,” and said we’ll have a T.O.O.T. party.  (T.O.O.T. being The Opposite Of Terrorism.)  Jonathon liked the name and it stuck. One of the neat things about calling them T.O.O.T. parties is that it was kind of funny, and if there was one thing we needed in those days, it was a sense of humor.

We scheduled the party at Marti’s house, about 30 folks showed up, and we raised enough money to buy food for two day’s of breakfast for 150 homeless men. Then we had a party in the garden apartment I lived in. Almost everybody in my apartment building pitched in as if it were a block party. A friend hosted a party at her house for City at Peace—a multiracial, multicultural group of teenagers using drama to tell the stories of and improve the skills for dealing with conflict in their lives. My mother and father (a career Army officer) hosted one in their house. Each party spawned another, and the last one was held in a large techno-bar-restaurant and raised almost 40,000 for suicide prevention.

My strongest memory from any of these parties is sitting on a couch with Marti at my folk’s house, as the guests started arriving.  We looked at each other, smiled, and said “This is really good.” The basic feeling that marked each of these parties was that something good was going on.  I think it was the combination of the good intentions of the host, the good intentions of the non-profit that was going to receive the donations, the good intentions of the guests who are donating money, and the general sense of celebration. They almost had the feeling of a graduation party, or wedding reception, or bar mitzvah.

These parties were the most obvious result of asking the question “What is the opposite of terrorism?”  But there were other, more subtle results. Click here to see what happened when we started asking “What is the opposite of terrorism?

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