Next week is Passover, celebrating the liberation from slavery in Egypt described in the biblical book of Exodus. Like all Jewish holidays, it is a reminder. As we remove the chametz (leavened bread and similar foods not eaten during the holiday season) from our homes, we also search our souls, digging out whatever is puffed-up with ego, whatever clogs our energy. As we take part in the ritual meal of the seder, recounting our ancestors’ journey from slavery to freedom, we consider how humans are enslaved today and how they may be freed. We find the narrow places in our lives and spirits, dedicating ourselves to opening them to receive light.
I just returned from visiting with some wonderful friends who live in the country north of here. I am the only Jew, but without consciously intending it, we found ourselves talking about the themes of this season: the long, narrow passage of our country from under the yoke of Pharaoh Bush to a hoped-for time when the air is not clotted with fear and despair at what this nation has become.
My friends are lifelong activists. They know what we are up against. Every day, more and more people know what we are up against. Kind readers regularly send me interesting news, often masterful compilations of the crimes and misdemeanors of the Bushies, animated by the hopeful certainty that shortly they will be made to account for their misdeeds. For instance, the middle section of Bill Moyers’ recent speech at Wake Forest contains the best account I’ve read of the Tom DeLay/Jack Abramoff saga of piety in the service of profit.
But sometimes it seems the whole debate can be reduced to the language of the playground: “Did not!” “Did too!” Talking with my friends, we had all been noticing how fatiguing it is to keep up with such news and how little it seems to help. One way or another, each of us has been coming to the same conclusion: that we should focus our energy and attention on what we wish to help bring about, not what we want to defeat.
At this season, the narrow passage trapping America is bounded and defined by the actions and rationalizations of the powerful, which then shape the responses of their counterparts in opposition. As I drove back to the Bay Area through the greenest, juiciest, soggiest spring in living memory, the radio seemed to be noticing the same things. I listened on KPFA to Native American writer and musician John Trudell, another lifelong activist, say in his unique way that we need to leave that tight spot behind:
I look around right now and I just see a level of incoherency…. I look at the right and the left as extremist, emotionally chaotic extremists locked into the mindsets of their beliefs. I mean no offense, but they have these beliefs and they’re not really thinking things out…. I want to see us use our intelligence and our coherence to evolve meaningful change that’s going to be beneficial to the value of life. So I’m not trying to overthrow anybody, because if somebody did do that, whoever would replace them is going to be as emotionally distorted and chaotic. They may say and believe things that are more agreeable, but until the emotional chaotic thing is resolved, until the coherency comes….
The practical reality is that we’re in the situation we’re in now, it didn’t happen in just one day. We were evolved into this situation and we’re part of an evolutionary reality. So the solution we’re looking for is not overthrow tomorrow, but an evolved coherent answer to the problem. If we individually use our intelligence as clearly and coherently as we can as often as we can, we will accelerate the rate of that evolution and this can happen in relatively reasonable periods of time, because the change must come. But this is about coherency, this about something that must change inside of us. If something doesn’t change inside of us, it doesn’t matter who overthrows who, because it’s all going to be a lie based upon emotional beliefs, not clarity, coherency and spirit.
One of my friends turned me onto a writer whose focus is education in the very largest sense. Parker Palmer is interested in the ways people coalesce to accomplish things that are simply impossible according to the rules of existing social institutions. He writes that the “genius of movements is paradoxical: They abandon the logic of organizations in order to gather the power necessary to rewrite the logic of organizations.” He lays out three steps leading to a movement:
• Isolated individuals decide to stop leading “divided lives.”
• These people discover each other and form groups for mutual support.
• Empowered by community, they learn to translate “private problems” into public issues.
Palmer writes that a divided life is this: “Inwardly we feel one sort of imperative for our lives, but outwardly we respond to quite another.” Crossing that divide is what legions of students are doing here in California and across the nation in protesting immigration policies; it is what French students are doing in asserting their demands for an economic future. It is what my friends in the country are doing as they organize, despite the inaction of local powers-that-be, to take control of their own community’s development. But collective action is the second stage. As Palmer writes (echoing Trudell’s exhortation to use our individual intelligence), “The decision to stop leading a divided life, made by enough people over a period of time, may eventually have political impact. But at the outset, it is a deeply personal decision, taken for the sake of personal integrity and wholeness.”
The KPFA interviewer asked John Trudell how he persisted in his social message despite so many obstacles, even a suspicious 1979 fire that took the lives of his family, perceived as retaliation for his activism with the American Indian Movement. “What keeps you talking?” the interviewer asked. “What keeps you going?” Here is Trudell’s answer:
Why would I want to stop? It isn’t about what keeps me talking, it’s why would I stop? I’m a living human being. I have living consciousness and it’s my nature to express. It would diminish the prices that were paid if I just quietly went away.
At this season, in memory of the freed slaves and those yet to be freed, in recognition of the price paid for the freedom some of us enjoy today, may we honor our ancestors by using our big brains to emerge from the narrow places into clarity, coherency and spirit.