The Breath

As I observe the turning of the year, November and December become an in-between time, a liminal space; everything has died and the days are getting darker and colder. First there is the absence of breath, as though we are all afraid for a moment that this night will last forever. And then we choose to fill it with the very late harvest feast of Thanksgiving, and the lights, songs, and generosity of the Christmas season. Just before Christmas, the days begin, imperceptibly, to get longer again. Though we will face another few months of cold surrounded by crumpled brown leaves and the bare trees that shed them, the sun’s light increases and we are assured that spring will come again.

In ancient Greece and Rome there were a number of mystery cults. Since they were mysteries, we don’t know much about them today, but the paintings left on the walls of certain places where they were observed tell us a few things. Mostly, we can be pretty sure that they involved a ritual of symbolic death and rebirth and encompassed things about life such as the connection between human fertility and fertility of the soil. Some believe that the apostle Paul (or even Jesus himself) may have been an initiate into such a cult, or was at least aware of them, and that this consciousness helped shape early Christianity. It is at least a curious parallel, that Christian doctrine came to encompass at its core the very thing that lay at the core of so many other ancient stories and rituals. Perhaps, as Jung postulated, it’s just a function of the collective unconscious.  Or perhaps, as we are beings that do live and die, it really is the central story of how the world works, discovered over and over again in various guises by mystics, artists, and theologians.

In certain climates the earth itself walks us all through the mystery of life, death, and rebirth every year. If only we are conscious enough to pay attention, the planet on which we live will teach us the mysteries that our forebears once knew.

On Friday, November 13th of this year, two things happened. Since it is November, I had already been thinking about the period of momentary death that the earth passes through on its way to rebirth. Then, in the morning, my nephew was born. I went to visit him the next day and he was so small and perfect and being in a room with him meant that everything else was of no real importance. This tiny life somehow became a new center of gravity.

But later on the same day that he was born, several men carried out a terrorist attack in Paris, and the news became nothing but wall-to-wall coverage of the event (although they had not offered the same attention to the recent bombings in Beirut and Baghdad; that didn’t fit the narrative. In our Western world some peoples’ trauma matters to us more than others). It was a one-two punch: one, the initial violence, two, the immediate response which urged more violence and xenophobia and fear and hate. The response frightens me more than the initial act.

9/11 happened when I was eleven years old. I only knew what I was told and I was being told that we should go to war and that all Muslims are bad. I’m infinitely ashamed of my reaction. Of course the reaction of a single eleven year old child would have changed nothing one way or the other, but I am ashamed of the person I was, and that there were so many others thinking in the same way, and that we as a nation chomped at the bit to go to war first in Afghanistan and then, later, in Iraq. You might say, but you were only eleven, how would you know any better? But I was old enough to choose an opinion, and I chose the wrong one. I’m ashamed that I supported the actions which led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of civilians who never did me or any American any wrong. I am ashamed that I believed war was ever any kind of real answer.

As one of my professors in college used to say, hear me rightly. I am not telling you what your individual emotions should be in the wake of tragedy. You may feel pain and grief and yes even fear and anger. The problem is not how do we feel, but who do we aim our negative feelings toward, and how do we choose to respond. Do we aim our anger toward everyone who is brown-skinned and has a different religious system than ours? Or do we aim it toward the violence and those who continue to propagate it? Are we afraid of people different than us or are we afraid of the forces which stoke those differences into animosity? And do we respond out of our most negative, dark emotions or do we respond out of all of the best potential we each hold inside us?

Do we choose to create our world out of the darkness of gunfire and bombs or do we choose to create a future where the tiny, precious people born today will never have to fear such things?

So now, when I see an all too familiar hype-up to a descent into more violence, I am indeed terrified. The inevitability of the war/terror hate/fear cycle, how quickly people lock-step into their assigned roles to feed the machine, feels like a black hole sucking me in. Another center of gravity, one of needless death. The enormous backlash against refugees horrifies me; this is exactly what Daesh (referred to in the US as ISIS) wants. It is the terrorist playbook: get the Western world to amp up hatred against refugees, civilians, and all Muslims so that more of them might choose to take up arms themselves. When the people who are supposed to be the champions of freedom (although have we ever really championed freedom for more than a select few?) are the ones bombing your neighbors and refusing sanctuary to your family who is fleeing this exact violence in their home country, your choices rapidly narrow. The assumption that the United States military always makes the right decisions and never commits war crimes (how quickly we forget that we just bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, and then our allies, Saudi Arabia, did the same thing shortly thereafter), that our bombs and our drones never strike civilian targets either by accident or on purpose, that when we arm one side or another in a conflict we’re not part of we always choose the good guys, blinds us to the fact that we are the perpetrators of massive violence which Daesh and Al Qaeda can only dream of.

Whether we are panicking about imaginary hordes of extremists infiltrating among the desperate refugees, or panicking about the Western response which is being formulated in the immediate aftermath of a deeply emotional crisis, we are not thinking straight. We need to back up and take a breath. We need to sit with our emotions, which are very real, process them, and then we need to begin thinking deeply about the situation we find ourselves in. We need to remember that there are a very few such violent people on this planet (some of them are leaders of our own United States). We need to remember that somewhere in what we consider “enemy territory”, there are tiny babies newly born, and that their mothers too wish they could grow up in a world without war and fear and violence. We need to remember that all of us ordinary people, those of us who are not the small handful bent on feeding the war/terror machine, those of us who would rather that the hate and fear went away, those of us who are on the losing end (and isn’t that nearly every person on the planet?), are in this together. If we can have solidarity for the people of Paris, whom we have never met, can we not also have solidarity for the people of the Islamic world who never asked to be part of this terrible thing that has been created by a few? Do they not also deserve healing, and peace, and a world without bombs?

In this space, just before we get sucked into the seemingly inevitable march off to yet another war, we have to take a breath.

Remember the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth.  If all around us is death, we must remember that this too is a cycle, and that if we take the reins rather than being ruled by hate and fear and violence, we can turn it into something better. The end is not inevitable.

If we are surrounded by death, we must remember what comes next: rebirth. But what shall be reborn?

We live now in a liminal space, the holding of breath when all around us seems dead, and dark, and cold. Already we hear the drums of war, beating, unaware of the sacredness of this moment. Yet there is still time.

At the end of every year, we here in America have a choice (as we are reminded by every classic Christmas movie). We can succumb to the commercial, be swept away in a frenzy of hyper-consumption stoked by advertisers; the harvest-time of the capitalists. Or we can hold up the values of light, peace, love, generosity, caring for the poor, coming together to fill the darkness with song and to feast in the teeth of the fearsome cold of winter. And what will we do with this period of history we live in? Will we be swept away by hatred manufactured against our fellow humans? Will we make a fat feast for the guns and bombs? Or will we choose the same values we desire to hold onto at Christmas, solidarity with our fellow humans, the belief that generosity and love will defeat the dark and the cold and all our fears of scarcity? Will we, however fearsomely the winds of destruction may howl, kindle light and song in the dark to call forth the sun to a brighter day? Will we respond to guns with flowers?

We are in the space now where we can choose what will die and what will be reborn. And yes, there are things, like terror and warfare, which have to die and stay dead. The way of love and rebirth is not an easy way strewn with warm feelings and continual happiness. Transformation is painful, and it happens in the dark. But this period of uncertainty is exactly the place where we need to be. This is the quantum moment, when anything could happen, when our choices and our will, if we join together and refuse to lock-step with the narrative of continuing mindless violence, of continuing retaliation over and over until not one of us is left alive, can change the outcome.  We can choose what will die and remain dead and what will be reborn. This is the time to intentionally, consciously, build something together which will be better than what is crumbling around us.

It is only natural to feel fear in the face of death. To fear the pain we must go through (and yes, one must always go through, and not around) in order to bring forth something new and better. But we are in this together. And how much more do we fear what will come if we do not change anything? If we go on like this? We are at the point of time where we are discovering that we cannot go on like this. That is the moment of greatest power. The moment of courage. The moment where we need solidarity, love, and a commitment that we will. It is not easy to choose these things in a moment fraught with pain, but what good are such things if we only pay lip-service to them in times when things are going pretty well?

Now is the time, because now is always the time. We enter the womb of rebirth. What will you choose?


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