Nine years ago, at the start of the Obama/McCain election, Eric and I began the process of filing for permanent residency in Canada. After almost eight years of a Bush presidency, we wanted another option if McCain came into office. We’d been active in our demonstrations against the Iraq war; we were convinced that declaring an “axis of evil” was not a path to peace, but instead a path to more violence; we worried about a possible war with Iran; and we didn’t want to raise our children in a country at war. In the election season we spent many weekends in New Hampshire campaigning for Obama. The week Obama was elected president, our permanent residency papers arrived.Now eight years later, our permanent residency has run out. Because we didn’t use it, we lost it. Today, I’m starting to hear people talk about moving if Trump becomes president. I can understand the sentiment, but eight years later, I’m in a different place in my life. And our kids are at a different place in theirs.
When I said offhandedly it’s too bad we let our permanent residency run out, Gabriel, our sixteen year old, looked at me askance: “you can’t walk away”, he said, “you need to stay to support and defend what you believe in.”
I was proud of him for his quick response to my offhand remark–proud of his sense of home, of belonging, of responsibility.
This fall, I’m going to be going to New Hampshire again to canvass for the democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and I plan to do everything I can to keep Trump out of power.
But that’s not really what I want to write about here—though I do urge and encourage everyone reading this to step up this election season and do what you can to keep Trump out of power for peace at home and abroad; for the environment; for race issues; for the supreme court and for so many other reasons.
What I really want to reflect on is my own fight or flight instinct, and the alternative that mindfulness has taught me.
Eight years ago, I understood both fight and flight. I understood that there is a time for each and value in each. That is true. But somehow those alternatives were in a state of high duality, and very charged.
Mindfulness taught me not only to look outward to the danger, and to possible actions, but also to look inward to my mental and emotional responses to danger. And in doing so I realized that while I can stand up for what I believe in strongly and fight for my values, and while I can also flee or move to look for a better way of life and for new opportunities, I can also cultivate my own capacity for acceptance and for internal peace, whatever the external circumstances.
I don’t mean to suggest that I have arrived at a state of constant inner peace. Far from it. But I do believe that in looking for internal peace and equanimity and a sense of safety in our own lives, we must start with ourselves: fighting and fleeing is not going to be enough to feel at peace. And I also believe that finding peace and safety in our own lives will help create peace and safety in the world.
Sitting with my fight or flight reactions—my strong desire to stand up for peace and what I believe in; my strong desire to protect my children and myself—I realized that I am never only responding to the present moment. I am also responding to the times I felt scared and paralyzed as a child. I am responding to generations of anti-semitism, the fear of pogroms and repression, that my ancestors lived under. And I am responding to hundreds of years, thousands of years, of culture and responses and reactions.
But when I meditate, or just simply remember to come back to my breath, I cultivate a larger perspective. I can zoom way out and see the countless tragedies of history: the wars and injustices, the disasters that were not, despite people’s very best efforts, averted. Long before I was born, innocent children were needlessly killed and nothing I can do now can change that. And the world went on. Other children were born and smiled and laughed and experienced very great joy and accomplished beautiful things and loved well and fiercely and made the world a better place. And some of those children had children who died innocently. And some did not. This happened in the past. And it happens now in the present. And will happen, too, in the future.
For me, being mindful is coming into acceptance; it is coming into the present moment just as it is, and it is being here, now, with all the world’s largeness and smallness at once.
In this election, I will do what I can to spread love and understanding and to resist hate and violence. I will work for Hillary and continue to support a progressive agenda and vision of greater equality, greater sustainability. And I will try at the same time to cultivate peace and appreciation for the moments that we do have, for the chance to act in accordance with our beliefs—to work for change, though we never know what the future holds.
I know that there will be times of fighting and of fleeing again in my life—on the large or small scale. But I also believe that even as we fight and even as we flee looking for a better life, we can still hold some equanimity and stillness within us—or some memory of what it is like to know deep peace and know others who have known deep peace. This deep peace and belief in peacefulness can be another legacy that we carry within us, wherever we go, and whatever the future may hold.