I work in a small local hospital rehab facility. Maine has recently instituted a mandatory COVID vaccination requirement for all healthcare workers.
Here in Maine, school districts are choosing whether or not to enforce masking and social distancing as in-person school begins.
As we go into Fall, these two issues are inescapable, not only here but across the country as businesses, organizations, and individuals make choices about dealing with COVID. Or not.
It’s an unpleasant atmosphere, rife with argument, outrage, broken relationships, blame, and contempt. I frequently drive home in tears, exhausted by the effort to remain calm and professional with our patrons, patients, and some staff members.
Much of the current conversation centers around the issue of freedom of choice, and those are conversations worth having. However, I’ve noticed a key part of that conversation is nearly always missing.
We are not free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.We have never been and never will be free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.
Freedom of choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility, and choices cannot be separated from their effects. Sometimes those effects are logical, and other times they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they’re obvious and immediate, sometimes subtle and long-term. Sometimes the right choice results in heartbreaking consequences, and sometimes the wrong choice doesn’t. None of us can fully foresee where our choices will lead us. Some people are paralyzed by this fact and resist choosing.
Refusing to choose is also a choice, and it creates consequences.
This inescapable part of being human is something we all share and experience. Nothing can shield us from it, not power, not money, not beliefs, not government. Sooner or later, consequences catch up to us and play out.
We are not “losing” our freedom to choose. We’ve never had unlimited choice. We are experiencing the effects of our choices, just as we’ve always done. It’s a process beyond justice or injustice or good or bad. Consequences are often teachers and opportunities.
Choices and consequences are simply what life is. Everyone’s life. Every day.
Sometimes consequences are deadly and tragic, and we never have a chance to make a different choice. Sometimes we have lots of chances to choose again. Most of us are familiar with the I’ve-been-standing-at-this-crossroad-before kind of feeling.
Choices are linked together in our lives in an endless chain. We decide who to believe. We decide what to believe. We make choices reflecting our faith in someone or a source of information. Things happen. We discover our faith was misplaced, or we discover our faith was justified, or, possibly, both.
This is the human condition.
I believe most of us are making the best choices we can in life. Inevitably, we will experience consequences we didn’t expect and don’t want, and we’ll have to manage those as best we can. Sometimes we’ll need help and support to manage the effects of our choices.
At the end of the day, our power resides in making choices for ourselves and accepting the consequences. We can’t make choices for others, and nobody is making choices for others. Rules and mandates regarding the pandemic are going into place, joining countless other rules and mandates we’ve always lived with. As individuals, we will choose whether to resist or comply, and then deal with the consequences of that choice.
Because the globe is so densely populated, our choices, and the effects arising from them, are bound to affect others. We can’t escape from interconnection. Even so, we can only choose for and manage ourselves. Hurling contempt at one another over the choices we make isn’t useful. It doesn’t provide resource, support, or respect. It makes unwanted consequences more difficult to experience and manage for all of us. It doesn’t persuade anyone to make the “right” choice.
It doesn’t change minds or save lives.
We are comparatively free in this country, but freedom is never absolute. None of us have unlimited choice, but all of us have some, and that means all of us will experience consequences generated by ourselves and others. Freedom does not erase the consequences of our choices.
Free. Managing consequences, just like you. My daily crime.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?
I recently read an essay about honoring our past from one of the minimalism blogs I follow. I moved on to other things without saving it, but it continued to echo in my mind and I realized it held a deeper meaning for me than I first recognized. Of course, now I can’t find it again! Still, the blog is well worth exploring.
As I embrace minimalism , I spend time every day consciously assessing not only my internal clutter but also the objects around me. I’ve moved things around, put things away to see how my space or life felt without them, and let go of many objects and ideas.
We carry a lot of our past around with us. One belief I’ve carried all my life is that it’s disloyal and even hateful to change, to grow, to yearn for more or to leave jobs, relationships or places. That belief (Who taught me that? Why do I believe that? Is that true?) has caused a lot of pain in my life. It’s made me fearful, ashamed and inauthentic. It’s encouraged me to be much less than I am.
The essay I read proposes almost the opposite idea. The author expresses deep gratitude for her past experience and the people who influenced her, and she honors them by going forward into the future.
What a disconcerting idea! At the same time I recognize some kind of truth in it, a truth I don’t discern in my own beliefs about honoring the past.
As a mother, I want to see both my sons being bigger than I am. That doesn’t mean I want to see them with more to have and to do. I want them to have more to be.
I want them to fly free, the memory of our time together and the strength of my love and our connection the wind beneath their wings that takes them onward and upward.
Yet I don’t give myself the same permission. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a big step forward in my own growth, health and understanding without feeling it’s at the expense of someone else’s happiness and well-being. It always seems wrong — a betrayal, an abandonment or a rejection.
It comes down to a choice between my own needs and the needs and demands of others. I never seem to be able to accommodate both myself and those around me. Until very recently, I’ve inevitably chosen to meet the needs of others rather than my own.
Today is built on all our yesterdays. If I lived in an empty room with nothing in it, my past would still have shaped today. I’d still remember my personal history, my family, my children, old friends and places, beloved animals, old activities and interests. Past loves and influences wouldn’t disappear from my life without my things. Forgotten or remembered, my past would still be with me and within me.
I can’t live in the past, though, any more than I can in the future. I can only live now.
I love this attic workspace, but one day I’ll leave it, as I left my beloved little home in Colorado four and a half years ago. It’s not the lack of love, respect or gratitude that moves me into the future. It’s the ebb and flow of my life, the call of possibility, the itch of curiosity. My future self calls out to me, holding out her hands in encouragement, and I must answer the call.
Maybe our cultural obsession with things is about fear, or greed, or numbness or nostalgia. Maybe it’s about all those and others, too. I don’t know. But the idea that the best way to honor the past is to be fully in the present and consent to move ahead into the future seems blessedly simple, uncomplicated and unencumbered.
I’ve always longed for security. I’ve longed for relationships that don’t change, love and tenderness I can count on, the ability to give and receive promises and vows that never break.
I’ve also longed to be wild and free, to live a life that feels real and true, to be with others who both give and receive unconditional love and don’t seek power over those around them.
Objects will give me neither security nor freedom. Today I have a few favorite things that I wear, use or live with. Some are new favorites and some are old favorites, handed down from my family.
Everything else is just stuff that’s here. I don’t really notice it unless I think about it, but I don’t need all these things and they’re weighing me down. A year from now my current favorites might no longer serve and I’ll let them go in turn.
As I write about it, this process sounds healthy, normal and natural. As I do it, guilt and shame tear at me. It seems to me that even growing up was hurtful; a deliberate betrayal and abandonment of my family. The least I can do is hang on to all the objects inherited or gifted by earlier generations.
But why? Does hanging on to such things really demonstrate love, respect or gratitude? Would my great-great grandmother expect me to cherish and care for something that belonged to her but has no meaning for me? If she did expect it, are her expectations more important than my wants and desires? Would she want me to make my life a shrine to her memory or go forward into my own life and follow my own path? What honors the memory of our ancestors the best?
Honoring the past by moving toward the future. Could it be that clean and easy? Could it be that elegant? If I live a life of meaning and purpose that does not include reverence for every object, tradition and idea I was brought up with or exposed to, are the ghosts of my past pleased or will they turn away and disown me?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. I know what I need to do.
Making my way forward in order to honor my past. My daily crime.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.
Last night we danced. I’m patiently and persistently attempting to root a dance group into this community. It’s taking time, but I hope in the end to have a healthy core of four or five women to share this sacred practice with.
As I danced, I remembered an old friend with whom I danced in Colorado. She used to often say, at the end, as we sat in a circle holding hands, “It’s so good to be in the body.”
Not in the head, where family and other relationships, financial and political complexities, expectations, rules, to-do lists and all our internal voices reside, but in the body, right now.
Our bodies contain a childlike innocence and a wisdom beyond words. They communicate to us the truth about how things are with us via feeling and sensation. Patiently, they carry us through our lives, our most loyal and faithful companions. Persistently, we neglect, abandon and abuse them.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve learned to reject, be ashamed of and hate our physical being and experience. Now we’re to the point where bodily functions tied to being biologically female are a matter of political incorrectness and a hate crime. Social pressure is increasing to eradicate the very words that define female physical experience.
But dance is for everybody in every body, and the spiritual practice of dance has taught me to honor, protect and care for my physical self in new ways. There are no labels in dance, no gaslighting, no power-over that seeks to diminish or limit my physical history or expression. Dance is wordless, so there are no language police. Dance is the freedom to belch, to fart, to wiggle, to jiggle, to giggle, to cry, to shout, to play and to sweat.
Allowing my body to be and joyfully inhabiting it has been a powerful act of self-love. It means allowing my hair to grow as it will, where it will, in the color it is. It means moving with dignity and pride. It means gratitude, for my life is a journey that maps itself onto my flesh. Every mole, freckle, stretch mark, scar, lump, bump, line, wrinkle and vein holds part of my story, and I honor story.
Being in my body is a powerful act of surrender, not to what the culture says I must be or not be, not to what I think I should embody or not embody, but to what I am. Simply that. The unique, miraculous complex system of genetic material, living tissue, viruses, bacteria and chemical processes that I am.
Allowing my body to be is a peace treaty. My body is not for the pleasure or evaluation of others. It’s not for sale. My body and I owe nothing to anyone, not explanation, apology, conformity, obedience and especially not shame. I refuse to go to war over gender, sexuality or political correctness ideology. I decline to support or participate in self-hatred or hatred of other bodies. The power of my body transcends the judgements, criticisms and opinions of others.
The deepest language I know is of the body. Words are inadequate to my passion, to my love, to my creativity. Spoken and written language fails to convey the richness of my body’s capabilities.
The tick crawling high on the nape of my neck along my hairline, the feel of its tiny claws stirring each hair as it seeks a good place to fasten on, gives me a physical experience so vivid and visceral it cannot possibly be conveyed in words. My skin shrinks, telling me what the sensation is before I examine the cause with my eyes. Undisturbed hair around its path rises, quite automatically, in response to the small but ominous trespass. It feels solid and smooth as an apple-seed between my thumb and finger as I pinch it off. It hurries up and down a bookmark, chestnut colored, as I transport it down the stairs, almost as though it knows it’s been seen, recognized and a death sentence passed.
We come out of our favorite restaurant after a meal on a hot, humid day and find a snake clothed in brown and green, voluptuously twined around our right front tire. My partner stoops and grasps it and it curls and writhes as it dangles from his hand, twisting between the newly-laid black tar and the heavy sky, glaring with sun, humid as a steam bath. My partner takes it into a nearby field and as he comes back he holds out his hand with a rueful expression, showing me beads of bright red blood, dazzling as rubies, on his finger, and two parallel shallow cuts that sting, he says, like paper cuts.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
I danced with the tick, the snake, the rasp on my knee from falling on the front cement steps, their uneveness hidden by the encroaching hostas, blooming now on thick, fleshy stems, their lavender flowers plundered all day by bumblebees.
I danced with the rattling air conditioner lodged into a window of the recreation center activity room. As usual, we traded the rise in heat and humidity in the room with the lower and quieter fan setting.
I danced with a dead fly on the wood floor, trying to avoid stepping on it with my bare foot. I danced with a living large black ant, bewildered, crawling across what must have seemed like acres of flat, featureless terrain, also not wishing to step on it, but too involved in the flow of the music to stop and take it outside.
I danced with my breasts and belly and thighs, with my feet and elbows and wild hair. I danced with trickles of sweat and a wet upper lip. I danced with my tattoo and swaying earrings and sliding silver bangles. I let myself go. I let myself be. I let myself sink into my body as though sinking into a lover’s arms, for I am its lover, and it is mine.
I danced, and remembered again how good it is to be in the body.