Choosing To Be Free

Woman with sunset or sunrise in the background with arms out and broken chains hanging from her wristsElephant slavery begins when they are small babies. One ancient training practice is to chain the elephant’s leg to a stake in the ground. This limits her ability to freely roam around. As the elephant grows bigger and stronger, she could easily pull up the stake and go foraging for food. She doesn’t. Even with the hawser unconnected and visibly lying on the ground, the feeling of the manacle around her leg is enough to restrain her, as if connected by an unbreakable invisible chain. This highly intelligent creature remembers the feeling of restricted movement and simply stands still whenever the shackle is in place. Bound by invisible chains to habits, behaviors and attitudes we too learned at an early age, how different are we from this elephant in our actual behavior?

In 2002, eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was out riding his bike in his rural Missouri hometown. Shawn was abducted by Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza parlor manager who was generally known as an innocuous, nice enough kind of guy. Devlin abused and tortured Shawn … with a very strange twist, Devlin acted out a fatherly role pretending Shawn was his son. He even gave Shawn the freedom to go outside. This all happened in plain view of his neighbors and only an hour’s drive from where he went missing. Shawn even assumed his abductor’s last name. Shawn made friends, played video games and even used the Internet freely-yet he didn’t attempt to escape. His captivity was finally discovered four years later when Devlin kidnapped another boy, Ben Ownby, who was discovered with Shawn four days later.

This kind of identification with and sympathy for abductors got a name in 1973 during a six day long bank robbery in Stockholm. Those held captive by the robbers started defending them, even after they were let go. What is now referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome has deep roots in our sub-conscious mind. The longer someone is held, the more likely it can happen. Some may remember the heiress Patty Hearst joining up with the Symbionese Liberation Army who had kidnapped her.

Why does this happen? One explanation that makes sense to me arises out of evolutionary theory. If you think back across the enormous span of human development, our ancestors mostly existed in small tribes. What anthropologists have observed, and recorded history confirms, is when neighboring tribes go to war with each other, the winners often enslave the losers, especially the women. Even without war, abductions from neighboring tribes, especially of attractive females, has probably been going on for a very long time. The ones who resisted were likely killed and didn’t leave behind any ancestors to contribute to our contemporary gene pool. But those who were compliant, adapted to their new setting and produced children, contributed genes that selected for that behavior. In this way, some researchers think submission to authority has been baked into who we are, setting up the development of larger scale civilization, and interfering with our yearning for individual freedom.

While being submissive may have value for scaling up civilization, it can be a huge liability in relationships. The attempt by one person to control another can easily degenerate into emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. Mostly it is wives who are abused by husbands. Quite often the women do not leave these situations, sometimes defending their abusers even after suffering bodily injury. From the outside of the relationship, this willingness to stay with an abuser doesn’t make any sense. An explanation may be the evolutionary glue that keeps people together long enough to reproduce and raise children embedded in our tribal development.

And, like slavery, helplessness and hopelessness can stop the process of resisting abuse.

Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography (I have an excerpt at the end to look at)  opened my eyes to the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of captivity. The mind numbing suffering field slaves experienced is captured in these words:

If at any one time of my life more than another,I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of [his harsh] discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished … the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me ; and behold a man transformed into a brute! p.63

Douglass’ servitude was real and unchosen. Yet what broke him was Mr. Covey’s ability to activate his capacity to submit. This willingness to submit rather than resist, to allow invisible chains to hold us and interfere with seeking freedom, also operates in far more subtle and insidious ways in the human mind, Think of compelling habits exhibited in the way many of us consume unhealthful food and unwholesome media to which we submit. What about the prejudices we unconsciously act out with our eyes and our attention. And then there are the life denying and self-limiting beliefs we’ve developed to lock ourselves in the prison of our own design. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that.”

Well, today I declare that we are capable of breaking the bonds of submission. We have the inner power to unlock these invisible manacles and move toward freedom. As Walt Whitman put it:

Great is Liberty! Great is Equality! I am their follower, … Yours is the muscle of life or death – yours the perfect science – in you I have absolute faith.

Our minds, the gift of consciousness, can lift us from being brutes. Reading opened the door to liberation for Douglass. Through reading his awareness grew to help him see his own inherent dignity and the corruption of slavery. Before reading he knew the oppression of slavery in his body. The physical hardships were terrible to him, but he didn’t understand the evil of the institution itself. Reading the abolitionist arguments opened his mind to the moral injury of slavery and hardened his defiance.

That defiance took the form of resisting the inhumane abuse of his master, Mr. Covey by striking back. This could have easily gotten him killed but luckily for him it didn’t. After fighting his master for two hours, finally exhausted Mr. Covey left him. Douglass describes the effect of successfully defending himself from abuse:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force-the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, how ever long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. p. 73

It thrills me to read this to you because in it we see the flowering of the dignity of the human spirit. This is the awareness of freedom that begins to lead us out of bondage.

Yet this moment of fortification of spirit is not enough to secure one’s freedom. The flush of courage can be washed away by the fear of consequences. It can be mighty hard to sustain the drive for freedom. Just a little hunger and thirst in Sinai had the Jews wishing they had stayed in Egypt by the fleshpots over the fire and not followed Moses through the Red Sea to freedom.

Because our courage and new understanding can be tender and easily shaken, we need others who can support and encourage us. Douglass needed a network of abolitionist support to plan his escape. Domestic violence shelters, like Equinox here in Albany, can support the inner growth and fortification of the spirit to stand up for oneself and one’s children and begin to end their abuse. Peer support groups are some of the best ways to deal with substance abuse and addictive behavior patterns. Groups like Weight Watchers have been perfecting the psychological methods and techniques to help people establish healthier eating patterns. Evolution has also selected for group bonding that can be harnessed to seek freedom.

Yet, no matter how well we recognize those invisible chains and how many people are around us supporting us, we still have to choose freedom. And not just once. We need to continue to choose freedom to follow our own inner guidance rather than be compelled by our past conditioning and habit. That takes patience and persistence … and risk.

The safer thing to do for Douglass was to remain a slave and not try to escape. Like the elephant allowing the manacle to bind him, many slaves did a rational analysis and decided it would be safer, not more pleasant by any means but safer, to not run away and risk death or recapture. Recapture could mean being sold to a plantation in the deeper south where they imagined their suffering would be far worse. Better to just stay with the devil you know.

This choice of freedom over security is huge for most of us even with our far more comfortable lives than what slaves endured. The consequences of our choice of freedom are unknowable in the moment the choice is made. And often we are not making it for ourselves alone. Our families and friends will have to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Before he departed for freedom, Douglass wrote about the sadness he felt leaving his friends behind. He writes:

I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore,— friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. p. 106

And sometimes we can do no other than to choose freedom. It was that for Douglass or die trying. Douglass writes about how he felt when he made it to New York City:

It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. p. 107

Choosing freedom is a moment that creates the next moment. There is no final ending choice but one that conditions the next moment of choice. It is a path to be walked every moment of every day. And some days we veer off the path, and later find our way back.

What I can testify to from my own choices to move toward freedom is the inner satisfaction and sense of creating meaning for my life those choices have yielded. And Unitarian Universalism celebrates and prizes those free choices. May we be so emboldened to choose freedom, not just for ourselves but for the good and benefit of all.

Reading

from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ” If you give a negro an inch, he will take [a yard]. A negro should know nothing but to obey his master, to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best negro in the world. Now, said he, “if you teach that negro (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty, to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment,I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. p. 33

I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled ” The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book… I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave…

What I got from [this book] was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. … The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. … As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which [my master] had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. p. 40

Encountering Disconnection

The December holidays feel like a self-examination.  It takes till December, however, for me to discover the status of my holiday spirit. I can’t predict how I’m going to feel. Sometimes I’m really excited and full of anticipation. That was especially true when our son was little. Christmas experienced through a child’s eyes is so magical. This year I’m kind of neutral to slightly positive. Not having any snow and warmer weather makes it less real that we’re approaching the shortest day of the year. And a few times, I’ve gritted my teeth and just plod on through till Christmas morning just wanting to be done with it. Those years felt very uncomfortable as the celebrations cranked up and I wasn’t feeling much connection to the joy and happiness I’m supposed to be feeling.

That sense of disconnection can be even larger if there has been a major loss in the past year. The death of a loved one weighs heavily on the heart as others are making merry. There are so many little reminders of that person’s absence that come up unexpectedly. Then a wave of grief hits, tears flow and an inner ache pulls one out of the present into memory, and into an intense longing for what can no longer be.

There are other losses that gnaw at the heart this time of year. Those who are new in this area and not able to return to be with friends and family may be lamenting the separation. For some this may be the first year after a relationship break-up. There may be family members newly moved away who will be celebrating the holidays alone or with others. Children may not be coming home for the holidays. There is a significant emotional price we pay for our transient and mobile lifestyles.

Some may be struggling with employment or lack of employment. Money may be tighter making the gifts we’d like to give unaffordable. It doesn’t feel very good to cut back this time of year when the impulse is to splurge.

Unbidden, we find ourselves stuck in an emotional trough of disconnection.

Others of us may have an ongoing experience of disconnection that troubles our lives. I was listening to a podcast recently describing the challenges children have when their parents have unhappy marriages and go through bitter divorces. When these children grow up, frequently they struggle in forming intimate relationships, often with significant trust and abandonment issues. If they marry at all, it is often much later in life, postponing their child bearing years.

Another common source of disconnection in families are the taboo dinner table conversation topics at Thanksgiving: politics and religion. I’m amazed at how quickly I can want to disconnect from someone I’ve recently met when we start disagreeing about politics and religion. I’ve had those conversations on airplanes. The fellow sitting next to me will ask what I do for a living. If I mention I’m a minister, he’ll ask what denomination. Then he’ll ask me what Unitarian Universalists believe. I’ll do a credible job explaining our faith and its value as a religious path. The other person will nod and and smile. When I finish, he will ask, “Well all that is interesting, but is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” And I’ll know that this conversation isn’t going anywhere. The disconnect happens when I hear the word “savior” because I know he is on a way different religious journey than I’m on.

But as bad as disconnecting around religion and politics is, the hostile feelings that come up around money are deep sources of disconnection. Loving families can be ripped apart by ill will generated by how an inheritance is distributed when a parent or grandparent dies. Friendships can end quickly when money is loaned and not repaid. It is one reason I never loan people money. I give money away when I can and it is asked for. If they want to give me some back that would be very pleasant. Pleasant but not expected.

The feeling of disconnection can also happen in small ways. Small ways that can still feel disproportionate to the situation. That happened to me recently and I’d like to describe the situation.

Last January I attended a Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Convocation in Florida. The focus for my fifteen hours of class time was a presentation by the co-minister at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, the Rev. Scott Tayler. The theme for his presentation was “Doing More with Less.” Tayler is an organizational genius. He has studied all the successful church models and distilled their ideas, with his own innovations added, into some great programs in that congregation. I’ve translated one of them into a new program for our congregation called Meaning Matters that is going very well so far this year.

As the class ended, several of the participants informally started talking about meeting to follow up on what we had learned and brainstorm implementation strategies. One of the ministers offered his cabin in the Adirondacks as a place to gather, so six of us agreed to meet there in June. We had a wonderful meeting for a couple of days, did a lot of talking and came up with some grand plans.

The way we realized we could “do more with less” effort was through sharing materials with each other. What makes sermons and adult programs great are the materials and resources we have from which to prepare them. This is some of the hardest work of my week, searching for that great illustration or story that will inspire you and motivate you. If we could share with each other our great finds by focusing our efforts on a shared theme for the month, we would all benefit. We chose themes and set up resource sharing locations in the cloud with excitement and anticipation.

So when September came, I was distressed that the contributions and material didn’t appear the way I had expected. I put up what I was working on but the response was lack luster. Two of our group didn’t post anything at all that first month.

Now, I know how hard ministry is, how many distractions there are. I know how best laid plans do not come to fruition as a memorial service or a congregational crisis intervene. Yet, the absence of any emails from those two bothered me. I was afraid I’d be going to the extra effort of sharing all my material and getting little I could use back. The urge to withdraw, reject and disconnect came up.

This is a familiar experience, I might add, in congregational life too. The mismatch of expectations and results creates a lot of stress. We are all working together to create this community and sometimes people don’t follow through on their commitments. They are less friendly and kind than we’d like. Events don’t turn out to be as satisfying or enjoyable as we’d hoped. Each Wednesday, Matt, Leah and I review the previous Sunday services looking for ways to improve what we do. Your hard working staff troubleshoots all the unexpected problems that come up so your expectations are met as often as we can.

And still there are moments of disconnect, many that we have no control over.

I listened to a very interesting sermon recently by a British minister named Stephen Matthew describing those kinds of disconnections that happen in his church. He pointed out that people sometimes get disaffected from his congregation and its programs. I was interested to hear how he understood what was going on and what his solution was. He saw the movement away from his church as people participating in sin. If his members were disaffected and hadn’t talked to him or his staff, if they got critical and judgmental, they were moving away from God. They were allowing themselves to become alienated.

I enjoy listening to these kind of traditional religious messages because sometimes they have practical value that is independent of their theological perspective. I think he has a part of the truth when he points to our participation in the process of disconnection and alienation. And we know it emotionally.

When we participate in disconnection and alienation, it leads to unhappiness, inner turmoil, and unrest and can lead to meaninglessness and dehumanization. But when we participate in connection and experience unity, it leads to happiness, calm, and peace, and can lead to meaning, a greater sense of humanity and fulfillment. One direction feels good, the other bad.

Whether by recognition or by feeling, becoming aware of the disconnection and sense of alienation moves us out of reactivity. In Buddhism, this is called a moment of mindfulness. There is a recognition of the mental and emotional processes that are happening inside us. It is the difference between being absorbed in an experience and stepping outside it and seeing it as a mental and emotional process. It is like the moment in a movie theater when someone coughs and you are jerked out of the trance and recognize that you are in the audience and not part of the movie.

When we are in this mindful state, we have the freedom to evaluate the situation and make a choice. In the recognition of being disconnected, there is space in the mind to know that what we are doing may not be healthy or wholesome. The choice is ours to remain disconnected and alienated or to renounce that path and choose another one to reconnect and seek unity. Choose a path that potentially leads toward reconciliation.

That moment of mindfulness happened for me first when one of the missing participants in our group sent an email apologizing for not posting because of the overwhelming success he had had signing up people for his small groups. He had been struggling to train more facilitators and keep up with that success. Then the second missing person posted an email to the group apologizing as well. He had been leading an international trip and all of his time and attention had gone into that project. Both reiterated their commitment to our common experiment.

Reading those emails, I became mindful of my resentful feelings just below the surface of my awareness. I regretted that I’d allowed those feelings to take root in me and not checking with them to see what was going on. I rejoiced to renounce that resentful attitude and reconnect with both of them. This joint project may sink or swim in the future, but I don’t want that success or failure to disconnect me from these beloved colleagues.

As Anne Lamott puts it, in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Alone we are doomed. Yes, people are impossible, often damaged, prickly and set in their ways. It may be comfortable to be invisible, disconnected, and intoxicated with our superior thoughts but it isn’t where we discover hope. Only together do we come through unsurvivable loss.

So as we approach the Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year, may we use these holidays as a wake-up moment to take our emotional temperature and see how we are doing. If we are sensing a feeling of disconnection, to pause and explore it, then decide whether you want to do anything about it. My hope is you will seek a way to reconnect with the sources of value in your life, including the opportunities we offer here.

There is much love in this place already.
There is always room for more.
It comes into being when we choose to make connections.