Our world is burning up from within. We need action – now – to lower the earth’s temperature, to stop mass incarceration , child abuse, and human trafficking. And what about self-harm and self-hate? Why does our own spirit twist against us so violently?
Searching for more answers – or at least some deeper insights – I turned to the lives of three people burned by hate, and burning with love. The first is Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh.
I first wrote to Dr. King on June 1, 1965, explaining to him why some of us in Vietnam had immolated ourselves in protest against the war. I explained that it was not an act of suicide, or of despair; it was an act of love. — Thich Nhat Hanh
A year after writing this letter, on June 1, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh met for the first time, in Chicago.
We had tea together in his room, and then we went down for a press conference. In the press conference, Dr. King spoke out for the first time against the Vietnam War. That was the day we combined our efforts to work for peace in Vietnam and to fight for civil rights in the US. We agreed that the true enemy of man is not man. Our enemy is not outside of us. Our true enemy is the anger, hatred, and discrimination that is found in the hearts and minds of man.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Exactly 31 years after that meeting, on June 1, 1997, Betty Shabazz, the advocate and educator, wife and widow of Malcolm X, was set on fire.
On June 1, 1997, young grandson Malcolm set a fire in Shabazz’s apartment. Shabazz suffered burns over 80 percent of her body, and remained intensive care for three weeks…Shabazz died of her injuries on June 23, 1997. — Wikipedia
The death of Betty Shabazz haunts me – another woman burned alive. And why?
Shabazz devoted her life to furthering the cause of civil rights – primarily through education, public awareness, and mentoring women and students. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of another Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers, describes Shabazz as:
A “free spirit, in the best sense of the word. When she laughed, she had this beauty; when she smiled, it lit up the whole room.”
The sacred flame danced inside Shabazz and powered her actions. Betty, or Bahiyyih (to use the name she was given on pilgrimage to Mecca) burned with the love of service, justice, and faith. The fire that killed her was rage and pain – the inner suffering of her own grandson twisted to devour the woman who loved him.
It doesn’t take much to see the deadly domino effect.
In 1960s America, the Civil Rights movement was ignited by leaders like MLK and Malcolm X, Betty’s husband, who was murdered in 1965. Their daughter, Qubilah, was arrested for allegedly plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, implicated in her father’s death. Qubilah’s son, Malcolm Jr., suffered from his mother’s frequent absences, and was taken in by Betty. In 1997, he set fire to her house, unintentionally causing her death. He was just twelve years old. Malcolm Jr. was also murdered, in 2013.
Asked if the boy had ever apologized…Malcolm [Jr.] says, “I loved Mama Betty, and Mama Betty loved me.” – Baltimore Sun
We know now about intergenerational trauma – how inherited pain can have epigenetic effects and be passed down through our DNA. This is true of slavery, racism and oppression in every form. Fortunately, I see so many people who are speaking with their actions and saying “This destructive legacy ends with me.”
In the life of Thich Nhat Hanh too, we come into direct contact with the fires of hate and love. His own brother was killed during the Vietnam War. His country was destroyed, burned alive. Napalm was used during the Vietnam War by American troops. This chemical weapon burned down forests in efforts to drive out and destroy guerrilla forces. At the time, five Vietnamese monks set themselves on fire – and five Americans did too – in acts of raging love and solidarity.
I am not advocating self-immolation in this literal sense. But some immolation of self and ego is needed to purify our actions and kindle our own sacred flame. Fire can be deadly – or when rightly used, it can be regenerative. The fire of love is the only force strong enough to burn through the lies and ignorance that divide us from each other – and blind us to ourselves.
In order to heal and create peace, we must learn how to convert our deadly inner fires into sacred flames. Inside each of us, we hold the grandson of Betty Shabazz, the little boy who lost his mother, set fire to his grandmother, and was killed by a world of crime and violence that grows from the bones of injustice and unmercy.
We must mourn these burned bodies…women set on fire… monks who self-immolate… teenagers who self-harm or blow themselves up…and the husbands, aunts, and children who happen to be riding a bus or airplane, on the wrong day.
As we wash and perfume these charred bodies, who exist inside us all, we begin to release the pain, fear, loss, and grief we’ve pushed aside or buried for too long.
And we can draw strength from humans like Shabazz and Hahn. The night he received news of his brother’s death, Hahn was in Nyack, New York, with a friend, Jim Forest:
I remember it was snowing… and he stood at the window looking out at the snow…The silence was long and deep. He looked at me and he said ‘Nothing is wasted. Nothing is wasted.’
- Sacred Fires: Betty Shabazz, MLK and Thich Nhat Hanh – by Andréana Lefton - February 10, 2020
- Healing the Trails of Tears – by Andréana Lefton - June 19, 2019