Freedom Amid Challenging Times
Every generation or so, modern society is rocked by upheavals, whether by assassinations, war, political turmoil, or powerful economic and environmental challenges. In uncertain times the political climate can worsen these fears. Early twentieth-century journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken explained: “The whole aim of politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” We are being encouraged to be afraid. When upheavals happen, we can naturally feel angry or frightened. We worry for our future or for the fate of the vulnerable around us. We may see a rise in inequality, racism, environmental destruction, homophobia, sexism, or myriad other injustices. But these challenges are the opportunities humanity has to face to grow. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Only to the degree that people are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
To find freedom amid challenging times, we have to start where we are. How do we manage our own bodies? If our limbic system is activated into fight, flight, or freeze mode, we lose our selves in survival consciousness. The reptilian brain takes charge, and the neocortex is limited to rehashing the past. Tidal waves of worries swamp our thoughts about what lies ahead. In difficult times, these tides of angst and fear can flow back and forth between one group and another. We wonder, are things getting worse or are they simply getting uncovered? And how can we respond?
Start just here. Tune into your heart. That is where love, wisdom, grace, and compassion reside. With loving attention, feel into what matters most to you. Yes, there are anxious thoughts, and there is grief and trauma, but don’t let your heart be colonized by fear. Take time to quiet the mind and tend to the heart. Go out and look at the sky. Breathe in and open yourself to the vastness of space. Sense the seasons turning, the rise and fall of dynasties and eras. Breathe out and dwell in loving awareness. Practice equanimity and steadiness. Learn from the trees. Become the still point in the center of it all.
Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that in uncertain times, our own steadiness can become a sanctuary for others. “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon said, “Don’t be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly now. You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
In these days of shared difficulties, first make your heart a zone of peace. And then, with courage and calm, you can act, you can speak up, help those in need, dialogue with others, register voters, feed the hungry, care for the vulnerable, contribute to the whole. Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching to mend the part that is within our reach.” Together, with compassion for all, let us tie our shoes and walk in the direction of truth.