Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reason #2—As Americans, Freedom is Our Charge

Arguably our nation’s first great woman of letters, Phillis Wheatley got it. Doubly denied her freedom for her gender and her race, she wrote as if she had no such boundaries and suffered the highest costs when her freedom was bought and she was cast into a hostile system that gave her no place to go. Still, she recognized the promise of America that Martin Luther King Jr would die fighting for 200 years later. A country in which even those enslaved by immigrants fleeing political, economic and religious repression, America’s dream is powerful, and that dream depends entirely on the idea of freedom as a matter of social responsibility.

When I first started writing about why we need to read Marx, back in 2000 in the final days of that romanticized Clinton administration (the one that blamed rap music over poverty and police brutality for inner city unrest, the one that made Americans comfortable with bombing other countries on a regular basis, the one that slashed welfare in half based on the evil notion that poverty is caused by the poor, the one that paved the way for George W), the first 5000 words spilled out in one day long screed called “2 B an American.”

Though I received some very favorable response from those who read it, it tackled too much to be as convincing as it needed to be, and today, in the wake of the Iraq War, the Michigan water wars and Katrina, and with all of the poverty statistics and the gap between rich and poor only growing worse, much of the illustration for my points seems quaint. But I think I got the opening right.

I started by writing about my daughter and what I wanted for her. If she was going to grow up in the sort of anything like a free and open-hearted world, it was our charge as a society to learn the other side of the dialogue about our system. We had to return to the conversation Marx started, and we had to reckon with it as a society. In this era of never-ending war, I’ve never believed it more.

Here’s a piece of what I wrote then—

2B an American

Like most parents, if asked to recall the single most significant moment in my life, I think of the birth of my child. It was a C-section, and I was standing by her mother’s shoulders as the doctors yanked violently behind a green sheet, yanked my wife’s body off of the table, repeatedly, to bring my daughter into this world. It was a horrible violence to watch the woman I loved and the child I couldn’t wait to meet being handled so roughly.

I suspect the importance of this memory starts right here. I was utterly helpless in the face of the fate of my loved ones. Whether it was consciously thought or not, that truth made my own existence unimportant, even frustratingly useless. Ending that horror, I heard my daughter’s first cry. Like a voice from another world, she called me straight out of my body.

I see myself now holding her as her purple body is weighed and her feet are stamped with dark blue ink. I am looking over my own shoulder as I contemplate this mystery in my hands. Hours later, in the waiting room on the phone to a friend, I feel myself re-enter my body, but I am not the same person I was before. Now, I am a father, and the most important person in the world to me is screaming her lungs out in a big casserole dish down the hall.

When my soul left my body (I know no other way to describe it), it discarded baggage that had been weighing me down for a very long time. I was no longer worried about being behind grading papers at work, and I was no longer worried about topping my last writing job. My self-centered ambitions were driven out like demons, and all I cared about was making sure that this little girl was safe, healthy and that she could look forward to the best of what life had to offer in the future. For what seems like the first time in my life, I was genuinely secondary to others--my wife and my daughter.

Of course, this is a visionary experience that passes. I would be wrapped up in the relative trivialities of my own concerns again in no time. But I never forgot that perspective, a spiritual manifestation of the glory of something so simple as my biological imperative, a clarification of my greatest priority in life. Of course, your wife and child cannot be your only priorities if you are going to continue to live a healthy and productive life, and, in fact, my marriage would dissolve seven years later, but even that decision stemmed from concerns over what kind of a relationship we were modeling for our daughter. And I always think of that moment when I am prioritizing my life.

From here on out, my own existence must be measured in terms of its effect on others, in particular, my daughter. If I do something so simple as refuse to wear a seatbelt, I have to consider jeopardizing my own fate as jeopardizing the shape of my daughter’s future as well. What I write I want her to be proud to read. I want my actions to inspire her to make the most of her life. I want to be there for her whenever appropriate. My own existence is not diminished or shackled by these considerations; it is enhanced.

I have come to the (not unique but personalized) conclusion that, yes, human beings are to some extent motivated by their own self interest, but even that self interest only finds completion as we recognize our connection to others. The lesson of my daughter’s birth has been generalized to how I relate to everyone around me. We are all responsible to one another, and only with that perspective can we ever find our own needs met.

If any one quality makes the United States of America potentially great, it is that the country is founded on precisely this compassionate principle. The Preamble to the Constitution calls for a “more perfect Union” based upon justice, security, freedom for everyone and everyone’s descendents.

And, yet, this concrete vision of compassion is exactly what our society discourages in its race for competitive, individualistic fulfillment. Our schools (despite individually heroic teachers) train us from an early age to compete with one another for rewards rather than to work together for the sake of learning. Our workplaces talk about team work and dialogue but our individual, competitive efforts are what bring the greatest rewards and ensure our individual job security. Our political system is based upon personality-driven fundraising and dog-gut-dog competition. Even most of our religious traditions, often sprung from the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples, have a tendency to emphasize the deliverence of the individual soul over that soul’s crucial connection to the suffering of others.

For me, it was parenthood, but I would guess everyone, parent or not, has just such a revelation regarding compassion at some point in his or her life. The trick is, how do you hang onto it when you live in a society that’s growing less compassionate year after year?

…..If I am to have a dream for my daughter’s future in this increasingly mean-spirited world, I have to dream of a world where that vision of compassion, that vision she handed me at her birth, is spread far and wide and eventually becomes the guiding principle in our society….

[Yeah, I still believe in that bit or why would I bother writing?]

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