Monday, September 27, 2010

My Long-Crushed Spirit

"My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact."

- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an Americn Slave

* * *

I heard Ingrid Betancourt on the radio the other day talking about her six years of imprisonment at the hands of the FARC, a Columbian rebel group. I had been dimly aware of her story over the years - a Columbian presidential candidate had been abducted and held in the jungle - but, please, it was such a small tragedy in the endless onslaught of tragedies we inflict on one another. When ever word came of some attempt to free her I thought, "Oh, yeah, she's that one who's been held in the jungle..."

She was rescued in February of 2009. She was on the radio to promote her book about the ordeal. I went that night to purchase it.

So much of what catches my eye, so much of what I want to read, what I re-read are stories of imprisonment and exile. At 17 I read In Search of Identity, Anwar el-Sadat's autobiography and still remember the passages about his time in prison and how it radicalized him, changed him. From that book through today I read and find solace in the stories of those, fictional or historical, who were trapped, held, forced out and managed to find their way home, managed to overcome their imprisonment, out last it, defeat it.

It seems the whole of literature is about one thing: overcoming (or failing to overcome) circumstance.

This is the story we want told, this is the story we tell. Joseph Campbell articulated the great common story of the Hero's Journey and that strikes me as the same thing. We are imprisoned - sometimes in fact, sometimes in our mind - and we either die in chains or die trying to escape them. A few manage to live to tell the tale: Ishmael, Ulysses, Frankl, Douglass, Betancourt, St. Paul, Wiesel, Graves. Others reach us from the grave: Anne Frank, Miklos Radnoti...

These stories are all about lives that have been fucked by circumstance, by choice, by no choice and all of them describe the unmitigated hell of such a life, and all point to a life unfucked by circumstance.

What is it with our modern lives, our helplessly bourgeois lives that we, who are blessed with material comfort, are fucked in the head? Does comfort fuck us? Does the guilt over our endless gifts fuck us? Must we only find examples in slavery and murder and mayhem to identify those few noble spirits who overcame their very real, very physical fucking and wrote it down so others would know such a spirit once existed?

What the fuck is wrong with us?

What the fuck is wrong with you? with me? Must we wait for calamity to wake up? And what use would that be? Having never practiced courage what reservoir will we draw from on that horrific day?

No, these tales, these stories of those who endured imprisonment, who wandered in the desert, are not told as heroic achievements, but rather as markers pointing the way: if I/we/they overcame this, this unimaginable grief, then you can unfuck yourself and get on the good foot.

* * *

I was once a slave to fear. I made terrible choices because of it and was imprisoned by those choices. I became free a few years ago and the world unrolled itself before me, or rather I unrolled myself and the world welcomed me. I was home.

Except I wasn't.

The desert is dotted with oasises, and thirsty as I was for this wandering to be done I called that patch of green home and rest and love and peace. But I have been drawn out again, there is more to do, again, there is fear yet to be tamed, again and the despair that swoops down after tasting a bit of freedom is worse than never having known any of it.

I am hungry for my freedom, hungry for my love. The journey has been naturally difficult, as it is for each of us stumbling to find our way, and I have made it more so by misjudging its end. Fear, the very chain of servitude, is self-made and has no place in a life that would be free.

Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see you a slave was made a man."

All deserts end. The trick is to out live Moses.


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