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At War -- Essay

Finding life amid death

“We are not afraid. Fear only catalyzes decimation from within. Those of us who as babies lived through the flashes of the first atomic blasts on earth; we who as children lived through the constant threats of instant atomic annihilation broadcast daily over the radio, we who as teenagers lived through the Cuban missile crisis, through the leaching of nuclear materials into our land, through the planting of the Minuteman I, II, and III, and MX Peacekeeper missiles, through the atomic and neutronic and nuclear tests in the desert leaving 5000 year residues of so many dusts, gases, metals and other unimaginable materials inundating our breathing air -- we have learned to no longer fear death, but only fear not living hard enough, deep enough, sweet enough with whatever good we have been given.”

-- Clarissa Pinkola Estés in La Pasionaria: A Manifesto on the Creative Fire


First, the not-so-good news: We live summarily surrounded by a death cult in ever so many ways. We live in a time when we have become startlingly conscious. This forces us to face the fact that palpable evil is loose in the world and that spiritual combat is the order of the day.

Now, the good news: We are the leaders we have been waiting for. And never has there been a group of souls on earth who are more fit, more educated, more able and honorable to lead.

There are several ways to approach spiritual leadership, that is, caring for ourselves and our children and communities. The methods are straightforward and time-tested, and I will list some here. It is true that the fear quotient has risen considerably in America. The counterbalance, in order to evade the sin of acedia, is that each heart be rededicated to life-giving endeavors. That is the requisite act of the faithful to reverse fear. Acedia is the sin of refusing to enjoy the permitted pleasures God placed before us on earth. But first, as you know, in order to proceed to the enjoyment of life, there must be reasonable containment of fear.

Terrorism is a peculiar kind of assault, unlike any other crime. The survivors’ psychological patterns are closest to those found in persons who have been subjected to violent serial and group rape, wherein the perpetrators are still at large and still potentially active. Terrorism is meant to affect millions of people -- all at the same time. Many think terrorists’ main aim is to kill people and destroy installations. But, this is only secondary. The main goal of terrorism is “intentional trauma” to the living. Murder and mayhem are secondary goals. Terrorists understand, if only in their diseased unconscious, that accomplishing such will unleash a communicable “psychic infection,” one greater than any biological or germ warfare could ever hope to achieve -- one that causes innocent persons to be afraid of the future, to put off the living of life dreams, to move in ways that are far smaller, far less ebullient, than previously.

The trials of our times can deprive you of hope, fullest and openly felt hope; can cause limitations to your freedom of spirit -- your living as a complete person, shoulders proud, head up, mind on goodness, and love for all, with pleasures that bring peace and happiness. The effect of living in such a crouch hurts and demeans the human spirit and heart. But there are other ways to live, and lead. Understand that how you react to stressors influences how others around you react. If you model creative life, certainty of soul, self-care, and embracing of others, you will be emulated in much of what you have chosen to do. That is leadership.

1) Limit outside cultural input according to your own and your family’s psychological and spiritual tolerances and needs.

I remember the so-called “Cold War.” Every night in the 1950s at our humble table in the boondocks, the small golden eye of the radio would buzz and radio stations would drift, punctuating our talk at the dinner table. Walter Winchell, Paul Harvey, Gabriel Heater and others used urgent, staccato, oratorical tones to deliver news of the latest imminent peril of atomic bombing that might take place over our tiny house at any moment. My father, in an act of tremendous self-control, regret and mercy -- for we are a family who dearly loves stories, and what once was more the daily storyteller than the evening news? -- my father violently yanked the plug of the radio right out of the wall. “Enough!” he bellowed. There is a saying among our Old World family that what you hear when you eat goes into you as much as the food itself. He could see we were being poisoned at our own table by what we were hearing, that our spirits were panicked and restless.

Do what needs be done to limit the amount of adrenaline-arousing news pouring through the walls into your home. Even the best car with the finest engine cannot bear to be too long taken past the speedometer’s red line without damage. Think of it this way for those who fear it might be a moral duty to listen to all the woes of the world constantly: What good will you be to help others if you are half destroyed by your own hourly worry and anguish about others?

Increase your true ability to assist others by omitting, containing, refusing, limiting anything that rouses you to impotent “flight or fight” responses. You are so needed in this world. Save your strength for the battles that are real and truly within your reach.

2) A sense of safety comes from having resources rather than from knowing everything.

No one can know everything except the omniscient God. Terrorism has always been with us. For many, terror has been occurring down the street, in the barrios, in the ’hood, on the highway, in the woods, in the desert, at the border, in the household -- since forever. We sometimes see that a person in such egregious ongoing circumstances often cannot venture out of the way if and when they might, for they have begun to “normalize” violence. Something misleads them: “There is no use, nothing can be done, this is the way it has always been, you cannot change it.” But we cannot allow ourselves to think this way. That in itself would be a violence against the soul. It would be a sin of sloth.

Instead, try this: List your emotional, psychological and spiritual resources, some of which might be speaking truth to lies, standing up, preserving one’s energy for where it really counts, and so on, each according to their own. You have the resources. Rely on them. Store them away if not needed. Use them when they are. There are times when each soul must say something like this: “I know as much as is useful, I have as many resources to fall back on as I can muster, and I will not forget that God has prepared me for these times, and I am not walking alone.” And then go on.

Hypervigilance that wears you out is different from mindful vigilance that gathers necessary information and moves on with the most impeccable intention and faith. Know the difference and you are made stronger.

3) When the time is apt, consider suffering might have underlying meaning rather than being a solely heart-crushing experience.

We as Catholics have a concept: that the place in which we are wounded is also thereby the place where we are called to minister -- once we are healed and informed enough to do so. Consider this idea when speaking to your loved ones about their fears. Ask, “Who might you help once you master your own wounds and fears? How are you being shaped and prepared to assist other souls by learning first-person in these difficult ways now?”

I know truly that no one wishes to learn in such hard ways. But there is the clear idea that God has given us the world as an orb of learning, as much to “be in” as to “see through” like a lens. This means we’ve been given the whole world, all its aches and pains and all its beauties and pleasures to use to see deeply. Let this be the learning when it seems there is no learning to be had.

4) Let the children be children, let the adults reveal their hidden gifts.

Children emulate the behaviors, words and emotional cues they receive from those nearest them. When children are very small, though their hearts be wider than galaxies, avoid exposing them to all your anxieties and outbursts. Let the children have a childhood. Their reactions cannot be the same as an adult’s. They have much less experience in what can go wrong in the world than you do with all your battle scars --the ones you carry if you have even halfway lived to the fullest by sticking your neck out about the important matter of life and love.

Remember too, that at every new stage of life as we learn to lead, we are inclined to say, “No, wait, wait, I am not ready yet.” As a grandmother, I want to tell you that leadership of the family and community is not based on being ready. It is based on being willing -- to do the best you can while massively funded by the Holy Spirit.

5) Check in on how others are doing, but do not dwell only on trauma or anxiety.

You can turn a child (and others) into the equivalent of the little old person chronically complaining about their lumbago if you only focus on, “How are you doing? What are you really feeling? Do you feel depressed yet? How is your anxiety going?”

Know that the psyche has natural hygienic patterns of cleansing itself of fear, sadness, anger and bitterness. It may need some spiritual guidance and support along the way. While we do not want a soul to be inexpressive, neither do we want to force what ought be background into becoming unnatural foreground. To balance this, be watchful too, for signs of real organic and/or situational depression and anxiety, such as sustained changes in eating patterns (wanting to eat far more or far less than is normal and healthy), disturbances in sleep patterns, regressive behavior in children regarding tidiness, skill areas, toilet training. Regression can happen in adults also, like backward shifts such as overindulging in poor habits, falling back into previously mastered addictions, and so on. In the latter situation, these are organic states wherein the body itself may be misfiring brain chemicals and/or hormones, and may need medical assistance. There is no shame or failure in this; instead, you need to get effective intervention so you can live nearer the happiness of life you so deeply deserve.

6) Fear not living life far more than fearing death.

No one has ever known what is going to occur next. People whose health seems to flicker like a candle about to go out often live to be 100 years old. Babies in seemingly perfect health die as they are being born. One person fears to take the airplane and is killed on the train instead.

The story “The Road to Samara” is about a king who tells his son to hurry and ride to Samara by night so as to escape Death whom the king has seen standing outside his boy’s window. The son saddles up and speeds out of the gate in the middle of the night. The king says to Death, “See! There! I have saved my son from you, and I can see you are surprised.” “Ah,” says Death, “I was only surprised to see your son still here, since I am scheduled to meet him tonight at Samara.” This story is counterbalanced in our family by a belief that “even bullets cannot kill you if it is not your time to die.” The impetus of the two motifs was used to demonstrate that one’s time for leave-taking is God’s business, and our work is not to try to second-guess, but to wrest free and live every moment of life.

People who work in post-trauma recovery as I do have to develop a philosophy that will see them through the wreckages of human mind, spirit and body they witness. I would just share a bit of mine with you here. It is that no sparrow is taken out of the sky without motive and without God’s notice, and until that time when we are taken in mid-wing, we are all, like the Bible’s King David, to travel onward and to lead the procession of joy, just as he did. We are, with everything in us, to show God how much God is left in us. Thus we make as joyous, funny, beautiful and stupendous a noise as we can. We were born to live out loud. It is no small coincidence that in the holy writings throughout the world, demons are banished by light, by fire, by fierce awareness and words, and by striving toward joy.

Let this be our prayer, for we are the leaders we have been waiting for.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés has served as a post-trauma specialist to Columbine High School and community since the massacre in 1999. She is director of La Sociedad de Guadalupe.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003