Elephant 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.
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