In the first days of the war, it is hard to defend oneself against ugliness.
posted May 20, 2004On the TV screen, the pronouncements of military leaders and embedded journalists have a flat quality, whether from indifference to suffering, or indifference to truth, one cannot say. Only that as the blithe dispatch of continual contradictions, lies, and hypocrisies morphs into chillingly banal accounts of cruelty, an ugly state of mind prevails. Even the anger one feels in response feels corrosive. A corrosion that aligns itself to fear of all kinds. One fears the use of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons by either side. One fears everything and anything from the start of World War III to a fierce new wave of terrorist attacks, economic collapse, one's own demise, the loss of all one loves.
How can I write about fearlessness in such a time? Before March 8 of this year, when I willingly committed an act of civil disobedience against the war, I would not have imagined choosing this subject. The very notion of lacking fear has always distressed me. I associate this state of mind with ignorance and foolhardiness, not courage. Seasoned warriors apparently agree. Describing the psychology of combat, Glenn Grey has written that experienced soldiers learn to distrust whoever among them knows no fear. Grey sees such fearlessness and eagerness for battle as a symptom of psychosis. Those without fear are distrusted by other soldiers because their behavior is not only suicidal but dangerous to their compatriots.
Yet as I have come to understand only recently, there is more than one kind of fearlessness. Just before the start of the war, on International Women's Day, after speaking at a Code Pink for Peace rally against the war, and then marching through Washington, DC, to the police barricades formed around the public park that skirts the White House, for a few blessed hours, I encountered the other side of fearlessness.
A landscape of beauty
I do not think of myself as particularly brave. Ordinarily I worry about more safety and health issues than can be listed, including whether I will get enough sleep on a given night or if I will have enough to eat or money to pay my bills. I am not drawn to challenging sports such as downhill skiing. I like to swim in calm waters and enjoy a comfortable hotel.
I was grateful to have a chance to speak at the rally. Though some consider speaking out to be courageous, for me, since it is as natural as breathing, I do not feel particularly brave when I speak. I am simply propelled by the force of what I want to say.
In a speech crafted from shards of phrases and ideas that would not let me sleep one night until I recorded them in the journal beside my bed, I spoke of civilian deaths. The thought of these deaths had troubled my sleep. Dreams are a door through which many poems come to me. From some region beyond my daily knowledge come siren songs with a force that is at times seductive, other times compelling, and this time filled with an undeniable anguish, carrying the tone of a cry for help and a warning all at once.
For months, as with most of my friends, I would be seized at night or early in the morning with weeping, thinking about the course my country was taking and the suffering war would cause. But if throughout this day, tears welled up in my eyes, these were not just tears of sorrow.
We are all familiar with the words from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh.” One might add to this register of emotions that there are also many different kinds of tears, appropriate to different times. Though it came originally from a midnight sorrow and alarm, when I read my speech at the rally—just as when later I readied myself with 25 others to break the law—it was another kind of tears that came to me, another emotion I felt, one kindred to both sorrow and joy, but in the territory of emotions a landscape unto itself. The word that comes to mind here is beauty.
A beautiful landscape, though if I am thinking more of the beauty of music now, it is because as Alice Walker and I, who had come together to Washington, DC, were brought into the capital, we saw the Washington and Lincoln monuments light up against the night sky just as we chanced to hear the voice of Mahalia Jackson on the radio. And when I think of the landscape of feelings we were just beginning to enter that night, the beauty that comes to mind reminds me of the music sung in sanctuaries of all kinds, and even of the beauty of these structures, built to serve the resonance of congregations, places whose walls echo and thereby intensify the collective sound of choirs, chants, and choruses.
Together with the brilliant activists Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans, who planned this event, those of us who had come that day to protest the war found ourselves creating a similar architecture, resonant with our very presence. Whether because of the profound commitment to nonviolence we shared or because of our respect for the more tender emotional realms usually assigned to women, or for the same mysterious reasons that some recipes work and others do not, miraculously this ethereal structure seemed to be holding, if even for a short time, the full dimensionality of the terrible song that had in myriad ways been keeping us all awake at night. Yet now all our nervous voices of harrying worries, our muffled sounds of doubt, the ragged shrieks of nightmare and horror that hounded us, mixed and mutated into something beautiful. That is one of the reasons why tears kept coming into my eyes.
And there was another reason. This beauty made of realistic fears, hard truths, anger, resistance, uncensored speech, compassion, good will (and even the playful, erotic, irreverent use of the color pink) reached into a quiet within me as deep as any I have ever known. I was calm. And because one thing leads to another, that in turn is probably why, despite my hunger and fatigue and the fact that I could no longer bend my 60-year-old arthritic knees, all during our arrest and the three hours it took to get us paddy wagons, according to the friends who witnessed me, I had such a fearless expression on my face.
Though in truth there were other reasons too for my fearlessness. I felt joyous. The sun was out and we were all in good humor. Maxine Hong Kingston's face was radiant. Alice Walker was smiling in a famously whimsical way, as if the air itself had just whispered a delightful secret to her. Nina Utne's eyes were glistening. When Terry Tempest Williams started to leave, she lingered, had trouble tearing herself away, and then stayed. We were enjoying each other.
Fearlessness—the ground of peace
And then, besides the good mood we created, the day had comic aspects of its own. When we were chosen by the march organizers to pass the barricades and enter the park, we were asked if we were willing to risk arrest. All of us were, so after we assembled on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, when asked by a police officer to leave, we did not. A flurry of police activity followed. Brigades appeared; uniformed men stood in columns, feet apart, shoulders back. The officer returned to give us a five-minute warning. Still we did not move except back and forth, swaying as we sang, “Give peace a chance,” helped in our harmonies by the writer and singer Rachel Bagby's glorious voice.
Because many of us were feeling in a greater state of peacefulness than we had during the many prior months of near war, we smiled as we waited to be arrested. Smiled and sang, as we waited. And waited, and waited five minutes, 10, 20, 40 minutes. Until finally we realized there were no more columns; in fact there were hardly any police there at all.
But by now, because we were not only willing but resolved to be arrested, very slowly we began to move past the yellow tape that cordoned off Pennsylvania Avenue from the sidewalk in front of the White House. Once on the sidewalk, the whole program was repeated, warnings and columns, this time with police in different, slightly more menacing regalia, warning again, and then another five-minute deadline that stretched out to more than 40 minutes, and finally, the police had once again dispersed.
It was only after we moved still further, right in front of the fence, to the zone that has been illegal since 9-11, that without fanfare and with the greatest politeness and consideration, the arrests finally began.
In the annals of resistance, we were not especially heroic. We were not mistreated. There was of course discomfort. It was 6 p.m. We had spoken and given interviews and marched two miles, and we were all tired. The sun was going down. Alice had left her coat with someone and was cold. Being on California time, neither of us had had more than two or three bites of food to eat, or anything to drink since early in the morning. Beginning to suffer the symptoms of a chronic illness I have had for years, my hands and face were turning numb. Nevertheless we were happy and, it is true, we were fearless.
What I learned that day was that the other side of fearlessness does not come from any concept, no matter how noble. Yes, we believed that we are all connected, that the world is one, that peace and compassion are better than war and hatred. But what made me fearless that day was that for a few hours I was living in a state of peace. And thus a protest I had joined to express my opinions brought me to a deeper understanding than I ever expected to have, the knowledge that fearlessness of this kind is not exclusive, belongs to neither heroes nor saints alone but to all of us. It is a mood, a cast of mind, that can be created in any assembly. It is a mood of which all the world is capable. Fearlessness is the ground of peace. A mood, a species of beauty, and perhaps also a birthright.
Is it grandiose to conclude from this brief experience that the ugliness that dogs our days is not inevitable? Or does the grandiosity lie elsewhere—in plans designed to force others toward a world order we claim will be peaceful? Is it far-fetched to think beauty belongs to us still, just as it did in the 11th century, when Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu wrote,
Watching the moon,
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.
The war starts. The activist Jodie Evans, my friend, writes to me, “My heart is broken and there is so much to do.” The violence continues. Children, soldiers just barely grown, start to die, while so much beauty waits within us.
Susan Griffin is author of "Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War and other works of prose and poems". Translation of Shikibu by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani as published in Women in Praise of the Sacred, ed. Jane Hirshfield (Harper Collins, 1994).
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