I spent Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) with my Jewish Renewal community, a cohort that prizes creative liturgy, ecstatic chant, guided meditation and socially conscious sermons—just my style. Because one intention of the holiday is to turn toward life and away from whatever embitters it, many of the leaders talked about the terrible suffering of our world. One need only list the place names to understand: Darfur, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, New Orleans…. The speakers’ intentions were the highest: to speak truth, to bring healing energy to the hurt places. Yet as the message was repeated that not only these places but the planet itself is ailing, I found myself worrying not just about the problems brought to our attention, but about the effect of stressing them.
In my spiritual tradition, as in so many others, when something is repeated, it is magnified. The energy committed to it attracts like energy, multiplying and amplifying itself. I am worried because I see Americans as a whole (not just my little community) as terrifying ourselves with the repetition of what is broken, until it buries what is beautiful, magnificent and good.
When my attention is so strongly focused on the power of those I oppose and the evidence of their misdeeds, that fragment of reality blots out all the other things that are true at the same time: the ocean of kindness, the great river of compassion that flows through our communities and our hearts, the awesome beauty and grace of which human beings are capable.
Part of my personal t’shuvah this year—my reorientation—has been to atone for the times I allowed the veil of fear to cover my eyes. Fear leads us to fight or flee, as every student of biology knows, to make ourselves small and invisible or to focus our attention on opposing a threat. Fear occupies the mind screen, pushing out everything else. Fear is a gift when we are being chased by a bear or an automatic rifle. But when threat takes up permanent residence in our minds, it buys up real estate like a land rush. On the campaign trail this week, President Bush’s theme, endlessly repeated, is that the world is a dangerous place filled with enemies and we must turn to him as our protector. The hope is that voters will give him the absolute power he desires (despite the fact that his exercise of power thus far has made things infinitely more dangerous). I will never pledge my fealty to Mr. Bush, but in a state of fear, I offer him the next best thing: my trembling mind magnifying his power, cowering and compliant.
I don’t deny the terrible suffering of the world and the dangers around us. But I absolutely refute the use our culture is making of this information. One thing that shrinks my fear is to remember history. Ours is by no means the first generation to terrorize ourselves into believing it will fall to us to witness the terrible end of humanity. We can’t know the future, but we do know that life is incredibly resilient. Based on the past, the great likelihood is that our real challenge will be not to witness the end, but to go on living in a way that honors our lives.
When the burden of the headlines gets too heavy—when I notice myself collaborating in the project of terrorizing the populace—I ask myself this: how would I live, what would I do, if I were not so scared? After a few seconds of imagining myself freed of that burden, I breathe more deeply, my step lightens, I lift my head and notice the world in all its amazing glory. Suddenly, I have access to a great reservoir of social and personal creativity. Ideas start tumbling into awareness, excitement replaces terror. I can think about solutions instead of scratching at problems until they bleed. I can remember the pleasure of life.
Here’s what I think: the more of us who are able to imagine this personal redemption becoming general and widespread, the more we reclaim our power from those who cultivate our fear. That great liturgical poem of love and longing, the Song or Songs, says “Love is as fierce as death”—as strong as the ultimate leveler of both bullies and the weak, of us all. I know from personal experience that love is stronger than fear. If we invest in love the attention that has been hijacked by fear, we can do anything that is humanly possible.
This is my mantra; I give it to you. Try it out next time the monsters in your head make it hard to see what else this glorious world has to offer. Love is stronger than fear.