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.

Again

I tense up slightly as I see my daughter toddling over to me holding the telltale green and blue box, replete with several cartoon dinosaurs staring up at me. “Me want to do dinosaur puzzle,” she says.

“Please,” I entreat. “Not the dinosaur puzzle. We’ve done the dinosaur puzzle six times today.” I can’t take the dinosaur puzzle again. I could put the Iguanadon and his friends together in my sleep. “Please, pick something else.”

Her eyes and chin start to do her trademark wobble, indicating that the begging is about to begin. “But, me want to do dinosaur puzzle with you,” she implores. I quickly scan the room and realize that my options of finding a better activity are, in all honestly, very slim. Even if I could convince her to do something else, what would it be? Pony coloring back? 3 times today. Dress up tea party? 4 times today. Give a stuffed animal a doctor check-up? 8 times today. She is in the age of learning by repetition, and dinosaur puzzle or not, I am being called to sit and watch her do something slowly that I have already sat and watched her do slowly several times today. “Fine,” I sigh. “Dinosaur puzzle.” “Yeah!” She squeals, and she upends its 48 large pieces onto the kitchen floor and ponderously begins unraveling its mysteries once again.

I sit next to her and bear witness to the saga as it unfolds. I’m not allowed to help, she can do it “all by meself;” I am merely supposed to confirm and encourage, and perhaps offer the occasionally helpful “oh, that doesn’t look quite right.”. At moments like this I am often tempted to retreat into a distraction. I pull out my phone and scan the news. I stand up and start to peruse the mail. But I can’t do this long before I get a small scowly face and a chiding, “Daddy, you not watching.” She knows when I’m not paying attention to her, or am only pretending to do so. “Sorry honey. Ok, I’m watching. Oh, look, you got another piece in.”

In my youth I always dreamed of having the chance to suffer mightily on behalf of others. I imagined I would be a missionary, braving cold, hunger, and every deprivation. I have rarely encountered such trials. However, one cross that I have frequently and fruitfully born is that of boredom.

Boredom is a hardship we don’t often think about because it’s so terribly unromantic. In fact, in our distracted, stimulation obsessed age boredom of any intensity, of any length of time, is seen as a vice. We flee from ourselves and our own thoughts, sometimes to the point of preferring pain just so we can have something to focus on.

In our collective flight from boredom, we frequently commit grave sin against ourselves and others. We ignore our children, because their tedious games bore us. We ignore our parents and the elderly, because we’ve already heard the stories they are going to tell. We ignore the dull or those less educated than ourselves, because their uninteresting conversation wastes our valuable time. Recently I had several parishioners tell me how tired they are of hearing about disaster relief and social justice protests – are we still talking about those things? Underlying all of these is the same subtle lie that is embedded in every sin – I am more important than you. My time is more important than your time. What I want is more important than what you need.

But perhaps the person I wound most gravely when I refuse to endure boredom is myself. For isn’t there something really sad and broken about someone, about all of us, when we stop seeing things for what they are? Every person I meet is a gift from God, is a son or daughter of the almighty. My boredom is caused by my blindness. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… there are no ordinary people. (The Weight of Glory).

Even boring tasks are frequently a chance to converse with God, and to remind oneself of the raw glory and wonder of mere existence. When I too quickly dismiss boredom with an external panacea, I miss the chance to fight through to the other side, where God renews my sight and becomes my vision.

courtesy of Steven Cottam

So I turn my attention back to the dinosaur puzzle… which is coming together, slowly but surely. The apatosaurus is half done now. My daughter’s toddling, repetitious play is just a phase, and the truth is I will sorely miss it when it has passed. My attention is my gift to her, and her reminder of what matters is her gift to me. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I will give it to as many as I can, and I will try to do so gladly. When it is hard I will merely ask God that, like all sacrifices made out of love, it might bear much fruit.

 

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.