Awakening to Feel Our Freedom

A story from the streets of New York

| January/February 2002

Last Friday, my friend Marcela had a gathering to commemorate the Day of the Dead. She had food left over, so on Saturday she and I invited a group of women to come over, sit in a circle, and talk about what we’ve been feeling since September 11. To our surprise, most of the people we called came, even if they had prior plans. For the 13 of us who gathered, it was a huge relief to acknowledge aloud how surreal it is to be going through the normal motions of our lives, as if 9/11 hadn’t really changed anything. As one woman
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said, 'In my heart, I know that the change surrounds us so completely, like water we swim in, that we can’t begin to comprehend it.'

For me, the genesis of the gathering was the fear I felt in the pit of my stomach when I realized that my babies are draft age. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what is worth fighting for, about what freedom and independence mean to me, about how powerless most of us feel to live our lives and our convictions fully. I know that many of the luxuries I take for granted are predicated on economic injustice and the plundering of non-renewable resources—and the changes I manage to make in my way of life are minuscule and incremental.

If you throw a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump out, I’ve heard, but if you put it in tepid water and heat the water gradually, the frog will boil to death. The analogy is obvious, but none of us seems to know where the fulcrum for change is, so we just lie back, enveloped by that soothing warmth.

Marcela, who is Chilean, reminded me that September 11 was also the date when Chile’s longtime democracy was overthrown by a military coup orchestrated in part by the CIA. The year was 1973. The coup was followed by waves of terror, by curfews, greatly restricted freedom of expression, and the death or disappearance of 3,000 people. According to Marcela, the dictatorship’s grip was cemented by government policy that effectively stupefied the population: an edict forbidding groups from gathering coupled with a steady diet of televised sports and entertainment in lieu of public discourse.

The dictators’ ban on groups made perfect sense. As Margaret Mead said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.'

What became apparent to those of us who gathered last week was that we had no answers—nor, for that matter, did we even have clear questions. But there was a strong and shared longing to awaken. As one participant said, 'I know I have a warrior in me and she wants to become active.' So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Here are some things my friends are doing: creating a bibliography of novels and memoirs about the Middle East; volunteering in a soup kitchen; joining the local volunteer fire department; studying the history and culture of Afghanistan; donating money; fasting and praying.

As I write this, the fast of Ramadan is about to begin—an occasion for all of us to reflect. Virginia Coyle, who has led vision fasts for hundreds of people, says the purpose of fasting, across religions and through time, is to remove the familiar and disrupt our habits so that our attention is freed for deeper questions: What is our common good? Who will stand up? What do I really care about? What am I here to do?

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