Musical Chairs

Last week I attended a gathering of faith leaders who are seeking creative ways to promote economic justice. We did one exercise in which ten people sat in ten chairs, each person representing 10% of the U.S. population. Then we shuffled seating according to wealth in our country. Half of the population (5 people), clung to one-tenth of one chair, while one person owned five chairs. My first reaction was repulsion and anger at the injustice. Then…to be honest…my feelings shifted to fear. My negative future fantasies began to kick in. I have enough today (a chair of my own), but the future is completely uncertain. Don’t I need another chair, just in case?  Suddenly, I understood the fearful drive to accumulate more and more.

We live in a culture of fear. Bombings. Explosions. Recession. Shootings. Scarcity. Gridlock. War. Financial Chaos…

Let’s be honest. Our country and the world are a mess. Let’s also be honest that this is nothing new. What is new is that we are instantly aware of any trauma,, as it happens, anywhere in the world.  This drumbeat of misery and anxiety surrounds us, inundates us, and overwhelms us. We become numb. We grasp for and cling to what little security we think we have, but no amount of money, guns, foreign wars, or demonizing of others yields lasting peace. In fact, our grasping and clinging generates more trauma and misery.

“Perfect love casts out fear.” “True love has no room for fear.” Those words from John the Apostle remind me that love is more than an emotion. It is a deeply-felt-knowing that I’m connected to you, to Nature, to the suffering and the poor, to Life Itself, to a Presence that flows through us all and yet is more than the sum of our parts.

When caught up in fear and grasping, however, it’s hard for me to access love. To make the shift I remember someone whose memory breaks my heart wide open. I’ll remember my childhood dog Skippy, who was my dearest friend. Focusing on Skippy never fails to move me into love, and the fear dissipates. Who opens you like that? Who is your guide back to compassion?

When I shift from fear back to love, my way of holding life changes. Numbness melts. Overwhelm eases. A hopeful, practical set of questions emerges:

  • I can’t hold the pain of the whole world, but whose hand can I hold today?
  • I can’t guarantee my future financial security, but what one person can I help with the abundance I have today?
  • I can’t fix climate change and save all the endangered species on our planet, but what is one member of one non-human species I can care for today?
  • I can’t resolve global political crises, but what one problem can I address with determined compassion in the community where I live?

This is what love does. Love feels the fear and acts anyway. Love takes responsibility for its own life while opening its heart to all life. Love moves from a myopic “me, myself and I”, to a panoramic “we, ourselves and us”. It even occasionally vacates its own seat so that someone else can sit for a while.

Freedom vs. Safety

"Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin Franklin

Since the founding of our nation, the balance between liberty and safety has been delicate. Our history is rife with examples where liberty was sacrificed for temporary safety. From the Alien and Sedition Act in the late 18th century to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the indiscriminate surveillance of Muslim Americans today based solely on their religion, the perceived threat of potential miscreants and anarchists has led us to sacrifice the very values we were trying to protect.

In the post 9/11 era, our government has declared a war on terror. The irony is that terror has declared war on us. I'm not referring to the legitimate threat of Al-Qaeda, but rather to our own internalized fright. Terror's true victory is not a horrible plot that reaches fruition, but rather a people who cede their liberty and abdicate their commitment to justice for the semblance of safety.

Into this vacuum of fear step political groups and industries looking to profit. For instance, the domestic drone industry is projected to grow to $90 billion in the next decade. The FAA wants to ramp up the licensing of these unmanned surveillance aircraft that fly over U.S. airspace. Drone manufacturers also seek to offer local and state law enforcement officials the ability to add non-lethal weapons to drones, such as tear gas and rubber bullets. While domestic drones could be a valuable tool for public safety officials (e.g., assisting first responders with locating survivors after a natural disaster), the scope and implications of this program are slipping past the radar of most Americans. Will government entities have to obtain a warrant before using a drone to monitor a citizen's actions? Will domestic drones be weaponized? These questions remain unanswered.

Private companies will also be able to receive permits to fly over our residences, schools, parks, places of worship, and anywhere else we go. With over 10,000 drones expected in our domestic airspace by 2020, one has to wonder if these agents of security will erode freedom and privacy and unwittingly make us less safe. Citizens have successfully prodded officials at the local and state level to enact limits on how drones can be used. Legislation and policies are currently being drafted at the federal level as well. Make your voice heard.

Of course, all of this is just one example of the ongoing tension between freedom and safety.  The external debate mirrors our internal struggle in which we seek to balance our biological inclination toward self-preservation with the impulse toward authenticity, free expression of the truth as we experience it, and risk taking for the sake of that truth. Whether the debate is about government surveillance or personal integrity, I hope that we will find a sustainable balance between freedom and safety...and even tip the scales toward freedom.