In 1969, after graduating from college, I served in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Sierra Leone. I taught English and sometimes math or health. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.
As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions. They were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty.
As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business in his country and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a reality but a necessity because the political and economic conditions in his country were undermining the quality of people’s lives. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”
He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different from changing the position of a raindrop. So, no change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.
Both of our perspectives had value. His pushed mine to a new place. By allowing myself to take in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. I learned a valuable lesson about how to think with a deeper and wider perspective. I think such a perspective is an important element of thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking.
A Zen Master from the 13th Century Japan, named Daito Kokuji, wrote:
No umbrella, getting soaked,
I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.
I don’t think I fully understand or can put into words exactly what this means, but I feel the rightness of it. Instead of huddling to get away from the rain, the cold and the miserable feeling of being soaked, I can allow myself to feel the cold and the raindrops as me, too. And then I am no longer a skin wrapped soaking package. I am something much more.
In the same way, we all can feel our self-judgments, our pains, as something to learn from and let go, as a raincoat, not our identity.