Choosing not to live in fear

My feet were numb. It was the night of January 27, 2017, and I was standing outside O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with hundreds of supporters of Muslims.The number of Muslims, immigrants, allies and politicos surged to 1,000 in a few short hours. Many travelers arriving at O’Hare decided to forgo their itineraries and join us as we stood in opposition to President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Standing in the cold, a knot began to form in my gut.

President Trump’s executive order banning travel from several Muslim countries to the United States was just the start of many intense times of terror for me. I was working as a media liaison for an immigrant-rights organization. Trump threatened and attacked Welcoming Cities with disparaging rhetoric and legislation, kept young immigrants with DACA-work permits in permanent limbo and fear of deportation, ended Temporary Protected Status for several countries and more. However, Trump has also put into the spotlight an infrastructure that has long existed in the U.S. to imprison immigrants and people of color. His shock-doctrine was a wake-up call.

Each attack on the freedom of the people I worked with drove a knife into my guts. Every time a reporter called me, my chest would tighten, Adrenaline rushed through my body. My phone, constantly blowing up with reporters and my co-workers, threatened my ability to relax. I pined for weekends and evenings free of my mobile device. There was never time to detach.

Since the first whispers in 2015 that Donald Trump could be a legitimate contender for president, I’ve been thinking and reading about people who have lived in oppressive countries throughout history and how they dealt with really scary regimes. Often, I think of repression during the soviet rule of Eastern Europe and the stories I’ve heard about people quietly getting by in the midst of authoritarianism and surveillance.

Of course, the U.S. has been terrorizing people of color, subjugating women and waging war on the world for a long time, but what really changed in 2017, I think, is white folks’ ability to ignore it.

I spent a lot of 2017 really pushing hard against the system, in the media and otherwise, and living in a constant cycle of panic and reaction. I think much of it was due to the workaholic environment I was in, but it was also because I was so consumed in fear and locked into a narrative of us vs. them. Each crisis felt like an emergency. People around me carried a messiah-complex leadership and lacked a way of looking at the world from a historic, spiritual dimension. That work climate fed off Trump’s fear and the media’s flurry of speculation, and without proper reflection, we ingested the terror.

I was worried about how so many social justice and political organizations function, and began to seek out a job and lifestyle that were more balanced. I needed space for reflection so that I could regain my courage and face the reality of our world.

“We needed poetry, in some ways, more than we needed bread.”

This phrase really sticks with me. In a world that seems dead set on destruction, the human spirit is strengthened with art. We need art to transform fear. We need art to be human.

When I was 100 percent absorbed in immigration work, it was extremely difficult for me to find space for self-reflection and spiritual growth. I could barely find strength in art, something that has always fed my soul. Instead, I was stuck in a cycle of fear and putting out one fire after another.

deck-woman-mountains-sunrise

Watching the sunrise from a mountaintop in Cuba (image by Sophie Vodvarka)

A few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Cuba. One pre-dawn morning, we hiked up a star-lit mountain with a local guide who laughed and joked with us as we trudged through mud. On the top of the mountain we watched the sunrise. That moment, among so many others, were joyful, though heavy.

Because we spent so much of our time with Cuban people, we learned about the reality of life on the island. Most Cubans can only earn around $40 a month working for the communist state. Although they are highly educated, they have nearly no opportunities outside of government employment except for the new tourism industry. It’s nearly impossible for most Cubans to travel, due to lack of funds. Many people are afraid to talk to their neighbors about the government, because a KGB-esqe secret police keeps the population in check. On an architecture tour, we learned about the housing crisis in Cuba and how difficult it is for young people there to marry and create families of their own. In the evenings, we witnessed people standing in line for bread. We also saw U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton on television, threatening a new embargo on Cuba. We heard people say that they were not looking forward to using ration cards again.

Although these people lacked many freedoms, they shared with us their beauty and humanity.

We danced, swam, hiked, rode horseback and enjoyed awesome music. We drove through Havana and the countryside in 1950s American cars. We were privileged to spend nearly all of our time chatting with Cubans in Spanish and in English. A conversation with one Cuban we met really stuck with me. As they told us about their reality, I asked them how it felt to risk speaking openly.

“I just decided not to live in fear.”

I was impressed by this openness. Fear is so sneaky, and it affects people in such different ways. But if not addressed, fear always leads us to live only in its proscriptive box, outside of the spiritual world where empathy, vulnerability and courage reside.

Our friend in Cuba decided not to let the cages of a repressive communist state control them. And they gave us a great gift of vulnerability in the process, allowing us to understand, a little more, what their life and the lives of the people whose country we were visiting are really like.

Looking back to when Trump was first inaugurated, to the immigration battles, to being overworked and to when I was consumed with fear, I realize that I was unable to see a third way to live — both taking care of my soul and addressing systemic issues in our country and world. I had given in to fear.

As I feel more like a whole person again, I am focusing on a different path forwardbuilding up peace and looking at the historical strategies people have employed to fight oppressive regimes throughout the world. As I do, I am learning that one surefire way to succeed is to tend to our souls, to the beauty of art and freedom. No matter what comes, if we focus on our physical and spiritual well-being, we can identify fear and stop if from consuming our hearts.

We can’t control the world, but we can choose how to respond to it. I choose not to live in fear.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

franciscan-sisters-sophie-vodvarka
Sophie Vodvarka

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

Outsiders help the church grow

The 2015 movie Spotlight shows the painful and vital role of the outsider in exposing the systemic sex abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout Boston, and the U.S. Key outsiders, including the Jewish editor of the Boston Globe, the Armenian attorney representing survivors of abuse, and, most importantly, the survivors themselves, unlocked this horrific cover-up.

One of the most telling scenes in the film is when abuse survivor Phil Saviano tells his story of abuse to the Spotlight reporters at the Boston Globe. One of the reporters notes that he seems eccentric, too passionate and perhaps unstable.

Of course he was. He was abused, traumatized by a priest. He understands the church in a way an insider, who benefits from the system, never will.

The implication in Spotlight, is that Phil may be an unreliable source because his demeanor is not that of a slick communications professional or soft-spoken pastor. And more importantly, his story went against the dominant narrative of the church in Boston. It is just so easy to dismiss someone who has no power, who goes against the grain of an institution from which so many not only personally benefit, but identify with on a core level.

This week, Pope Francis will convene a 4-day summit with bishops from throughout the world on the sex abuse crisis that continues to traumatize Catholics.

On matters of official church teaching, the all-male hierarchy has the final say. This suggests a power imbalance. And as with all power imbalances, the question of whose voice is legitimized in dialogue should be raised. Who do we believe, in the church and in society? Whose voices matter? And why?

Throughout church history, it is often an outsider whose voice is most genuine and prophetic, and who sparks change. This is because outsiders often hold little to no power, and can truly understand corrupt and unequal structures. Outsiders, due to their vantage point, are a gift, and should be embraced by all who want a more just church and world.

I recently wrote a piece about Roy Bourgeois in the Patheo’s blog Sick Pilgrim, which I hope creates dialogue about the roles of outsiders and women in the church. Roy was a founder of SOA Watch, an incredible movement for demilitarization and anti-imperialism, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement was widely supported by many Catholics. Then, after 40 years of practicing as a priest, Roy was excommunicated from the church because he refused to recant his support for women’s ordination.

author interviews Roy Bourgeois
The author, Sophie Vodvarka, interviewing Roy Bourgeois at the SOA Watch 2016 Encuentro in Nogales AZ/Mexico.

Remarkably, Roy became an outsider due to following his conscience before he was excommunicated, but, as I write in this article, his understanding of the church became much clearer after being emphatically pushed out.

Roy was silenced. His voice was not welcome because it threatened the power of the all-male clergy, challenged the dominant narrative, and suggested that women could help heal the church. And for many of his previous supporters, this was enough to ignore him. The Vatican legitimized his ostracism, and if you personally benefit from the institutional church, then it removed the burden of having to bother with women’s inequality anymore.

I think it is nearly impossible for most people to understand the full picture of an institution from which they benefit, whether it is their job, their social life or their vows. This is why outsiders are a vital asset to all groups and societies. History always shows us that it is outsiders who bravely step into the public sphere, shine light on the truth and guide our way forward.

As the discussion of systemic abuse continues this week at the Vatican, let’s pray for outsiders, for whom we are all indebted. It is through their courageous lives and the grace of God that institutional culture changes. Let’s pray for their strength to turn pain and betrayal into action. For it is only through action that they, too, can be free.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

franciscan-sisters-sophie-vodvarka
Sophie Vodvarka

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice

The present era of misinformation and manipulation in the media and politics calls us to seek out truth amid the noise, and to discover the prophetic voices that can help us follow the spirit through our complex realities.

One the most powerful voices to guide our understanding is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author, ordained Presbyterian minister and lover of the arts. His work speaks prophetically against the evils of absolute corporate power and our plutocratic war-hungry society so loudly that he has been relegated to places like RT America, Truthdig and, formerly, TeleSur English.

Mostar, Bosnia, a city heavily bombed during during the war in Yugoslavia covered by Chris Hedges while he was a war correspondent (photo by Sophie Vodvarka)

Hedges exiled himself to his current places in journalism after following his conscious and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq. His truth-telling in television as well as in numerous articles and books covers wide-ranging current affairs including war, the rise of Christianized fascism, the plight of the working class, the prison industrial complex, the demise of a legitimate liberal class, environmental issues and climate change, to name a few.

Through these topics and many others, Hedges speaks directly, historically, spiritually and analytically about the United States empire and how our system of unfettered corporate capitalism has infiltrated our institutions and our hearts. He has written extensively about how today’s terror of President Trump is a direct result of a decaying society and how we ought to understand his presidency, including in his recent piece The Cult of Trump.

I’ve been consuming Hedges’ vast library of work for three years now and have observed that it takes a lot of caring for my own well-being, spiritual growth and time for me to be able to digest his incredible analysis of our society. Hedges does not pull any punches. He speaks directly about the fact that our democracy is what Sheldon Wolin (one of his favorite thinkers) refers to as a state of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Let’s be real: his work is tough to consume. It is tough because it makes you realize how much propaganda and misinformation we consume daily through our airwaves and how delicate our democracy, and institutions, really are.

I’ve found that when I am not in a place where I can live a healthy life and take time to care for my soul, I can easily be overwhelmed by Hedges’ work. We all deserve to have enough time to think complexly about the world, though many are not afforded this privilege. I am grateful to have the choice to give myself more time to consider ideas that are much more extreme because of their lack of saturation into the mainstream conscious, while partaking in sustained self-care and personal growth.

The complex reality of our times requires us to love ourselves as God loves us; to provide the space we need to hold darkness without being driven into despair or maniacal messiah-complexes. Of equal importance is gaining strength and holding the light while caring for ourselves so that we may cultivate and sustain our spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the midst of these difficult times.

This non-dual thinking creates spaces for some incredibly interesting, albeit difficult, work. Here are just a few reasons why becoming familiar with Hedges’ work is absolutely crucial for any truth-seeking human right now:

1. Hedges believes in the power of love to keep us human despite all horrors, and that living a virtuous life is the highest good we can all achieve. He writes holistically and speaks against the evils of careerism, materialism and the degradation of our shared world and environment. He is a passionate lover of the arts, reminding us of the power of creative living and that the good attracts the good.

2. His work helps build bridges. He is so unbelievably knowledgeable of history, and his personal experience living abroad has contributed to a really interesting perspective I don’t see many other places. (I appreciate this particularly after having also lived in a number of countries besides the U.S.) This perspective is so decidedly non-partisan that I gave his first book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (which I loved) to my Republican father, whose politics are usually opposite of mine. He loved it too. This gives me hope.

3. Hedges helps me think critically in the same way that a good liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. Why? Because what Hedges reports is so far out of what the mainstream media is covering right now that, despite the factual evidence of his work, it sometimes feels hard to believe what he is saying. In addition to this, I also sometimes struggle with his impassioned speeches about the very real possibility that our society is near collapse. Hedges has covered numerous wars, rebellions and many other catastrophic events across the world. He is used to high drama, and awareness of this has helped me stay centered while being informed.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice has been profoundly influential in the way I view the world. His work aims to affirm the dignity of all living things, shine light on illusions and carry the glow of love through unimaginable terror. His well-informed voice ought to be the most powerful in the land but, like most prophets and truth-tellers in their times, he is pushed to the margins, relegated to speak where he is able.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sophie Vodvarka

Photo courtesy Sophie Vodvarka

 

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.