Learning Liberation

I believe there is a very old and shared dream of liberation, a vision for a world which we can imagine but find difficult to create.  To me this vision is defined by the good things which already exist in life, and the possibility that this good can grow.

My own experience of goodness is defined in stories.  As a child I shared my fear of death with my mother and saw tremendous empathy in her eyes that was so beautiful it transcended my fears.  I grew up struggling with wanting support from people that I never seemed to get, but then felt great fulfillment when I was able to give that support to others.  I have had my spirit shattered as I learned of how I benefit from war, poverty, and the systematic oppression of the majority of humanity; then my spirit has been reconfigured into greater wholeness once I committed to a better world.  I have felt true togetherness when crying on someone’s shoulder; and the healing that comes when we cry together. I have been inspired by the risks others have taken to make their behavior consistent with their values; by, for example, fighting global warming, dictatorship, or racial oppression.  I have felt my sense of the human family expand as I marched in solidarity over values of basic worth and dignity. In all this and more I see liberation in a formative state, the dream of what the world can be, struggling to be realized.

“Liberation” was not always the word I used to identify my dream.  As a child I named my desire “peace.”  I saw a lot of beauty as well as ugliness in the world and believed that it was our role as human beings to embrace the beautiful–things like compassion, friendship, and appreciation. In meditation I felt these good things and found a frequent sense of peace, of rightness with the world.  I believed that if we all could just discover this peace for ourselves then the world as a whole would be at peace, and that was what I wanted to live for.

When I was around ten this vision was challenged.  I saw my peers en masse start to say things like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m stupid,” and “I’m ugly.”  To me these statements were heartwrenching because I believed the opposite, and reeled at the idea that the people I loved would hate themselves.

I told my friends that I believed in them; that they were good, smart, worthy, etc.  But time and again I could see that my words were rejected.  Eventually I saw my friends entering new levels of competition over basic recognition and social respect.  To be recognized we had to dominate.  We had to prove who was the smartest; who was the most attractive; who was the strongest.  This competition increasingly involved putdowns and bullying.  I was a target.  I felt so much unnecessary pain and saw that same pain moving throughout the world as children degraded each other.

I had years of nightmares, suicidal thoughts, and trying to avoid the outside world.  But, despite this pain, I could still see the profoundness of life.  For years I had an inner battle between misery and the commitment to resist misery.  Eventually something shifted in me.  I remember a nightmare where I was chased by a monster (as I had been so many times before).  But unlike before I did not wake in a cold sweat, but turned around and killed that monster.  Then I brought it back to life.  Then I made a world of monsters who danced in simple joy.  Though it was all in my head I experienced liberation which went beyond the peace I had experienced before.  This was not just good feelings, but greater clarity over what was worth living for after winning a conflict between the life affirming and the life negating.  I had found some freedom from the weight of depression, and from the ubiquitous hatred that caused my depression.

Yet again it must be stated that this was liberation in a formative state.  It was personal triumph, but only a small change in a world that is much bigger than my head.  Over the years I still saw the same story repeated again and again of people I cared about hating themselves, and most of what I said to counter this had little affect. Eventually I realized that my beliefs held little weight because I was not respected as authority.  Someone with greater authority already told people that they did not measure up; and I began to see clearer who that authority was.

Girls would describe themselves as ugly while looking at fashion magazines.  I had a bully that stabbed me in the leg with pencils in order to “toughen me up” who was abused by his father.  Kids doubted their intelligence while adults told them that their entire future depended on them defeating each other in an endless competition for grades, recognition, and status. So many authorities had a tendency towards dehumanization, stripping us of inherent worth and treating us as tools.

When I learned more about history I could start seeing this even more clearly.  European elites created empires which conquered the world, subjugated its people, took their resources, destroyed their cultures, engulfed the planet in World Wars, and pushed workers into the worst conditions they could stomach in order to maximize the profit of a few.  The world of today has inherited all of this pain.  We have normalized the idea that it is the rightful place of authority to abuse, and the powerful of today continue to reap benefits from inequity.

In my moments of peace I have seen what life can be if we can find freedom from injustice.  But experiencing moments of peace is not enough to create this freedom. My happiness does not change the exploitation of humans.  As such it does not change the exploitation of me as a human, and my momentary peace can be nothing more than momentary.  To truly find greater freedom there must be resistance.  At the same time, I can resist injustice in a way that ultimately provides nothing better.  I can use my hurt as an excuse to hurt others, leading to no net improvements in the state of humanity.

Liberation falls into neither pitfall of resistance without purpose nor self satisfaction without social conscience.  Liberation is instead the simultaneous resistance of injustice and embrace of peace that is both the means and the ends to a world which genuinely serves our needs.  This combined resistance of injustice and embrace of peace is a journey taken by both the individual and the many collectives which define the individual.  Ultimately liberation is a long process which requires both struggle and reflection on the meaning of our struggles.  Liberation must be learned, and learning liberation is the best thing I can think to do with my life.

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2 thoughts on “Learning Liberation

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Are you familiar with Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”? I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it.

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