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.

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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

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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.

An American Dream

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.” 

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

 

Graphic courtesy of PBS.org
All documented mass shootings in America in 2015: graphic courtesy of PBS.org

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons. It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders. Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.

There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.

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Witness Against Torture activists participating in a Thanksgiving Day Fast near Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com / Witness Against Torture.

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

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An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:

I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba: