With the Fourth of July holiday upon us, my friend, Marsha Hankins, suggested a few books by authors who explored their inner freedom even in the midst of physical imprisonment. Viktor E. Frankl, a Nazi holocaust survivor, tells his story in Man’s Search for Meaning. Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan holocaust survivor, writes her story in Left to Tell. Both Frankl and Ilibagiza describe the deprivation of the circumstances they survived in the physical realm. Both authors speak of what they were able to withstand physically because of the transformation within. We can look to these people as role models for finding inner peace and freedom.
Frankl writes, “ When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Ilibagiza, a Rwandan who spent three months in 1994 hiding in a small bathroom with 7 other women states, “I found a place in the bathroom to call my own: a small corner of my heart. I retreated there as soon as I awoke, and stayed there until I slept. It was my sacred garden, where I spoke with God, meditated on His words, and nurtured my spiritual self…I spent hours contemplating the meaning of a single word, such as forgiveness, faith, or hope.”
These are beautiful thoughts and feelings during two of the most violent episodes of the twentieth century. Most people know that 6 million Jews died during World War II, but might not know that 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and 10,000 Batwa died at the hands of their Rwandan countrymen, the Hutus, over the course of three months in 1994.
Besides the underlying fear and hatred that precipitated these genocides, the divisions of the culture into ethnic and religious, as well as other categories, allowed for the identifiable markers to permit such mass action of neighbors against each other. Separating ourselves and others into categories helps dehumanize the “other” from ourselves. It might even allow us to see a different group as the cause for our current problems or potential scapegoat for issues in the future.
The Nineteenth Century Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” Not only does labeling negate who we truly are, but it is the seeds for incivility, discrimination, and ultimately, labeling is what leads to the divisiveness that has allowed hatred between groups and the consequences of violence against each other.
As with the Nazi and Rwandan Holocausts believing that the labeling of a person or a group as a basis for how they should be treated, is a slippery slope to civil wars and conflict all around the world.
What labels are you allowing to guide your thoughts, fears and prejudices currently?
Do you label yourself or others as liberals, conservatives, republicans, democrats, independents, gay, straight, male, female, or other? Do you label yourself and others based on education, religion, union membership, management, haves, have nots, 1%, or 99%? Do you label yourself as the ones with God on your side and the others with evil on its side? And then, do you use those labels to draw battle plans, determine who is right or wrong, demonizing them without discovering the issues or circumstances that make the others feel differently than you feel? Many of us take the label as the short cut for action and belief instead of taking the time to understand the human with the human fears, potential frailties and needs and desires, similar or different from our own.
Depending on which source you read, humans, chimpanzees and bonobos have 95% – 99% similar DNA with each other. If we are so similar to our animal brethren, why do humans label each other with abandoned disregard to the aspects that are similar within our own species? If we want to label ourselves, why not find common ground labeling like: air breathers, water drinkers, earthlings, sun revolvers, universalists, or unique expressions of Source. Aren’t these the qualities that we all are and need to cherish? Would the differences in our approach to policies be minimized if we saw the bigger picture, the “Bigger We” and used language with less rhetoric and hyperbole and more civility? Kierkegaard also stated: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for freedom of thought…”
As we celebrate the birth of our nation, can we still hold the words of the Declaration of Independence to be true, to be self-evident? “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Can we change the trajectory of the slippery slope of demonizing someone else because of cultural, religious, ethnic, political or orientation label? We cannot wait for the “other side” to become civil. We must examine our fears, our lack of feeling safe and secure, and our need for someone outside of us to protect our rights and to heal these issues within ourselves. We need to encourage our internal wisdom, power and strength. Then, as guided, we may take action in the outer world for the issues we believe are for the highest good of all, but we will do it based on inner wisdom, inner power and inner love. We must look, as Frankl and Ilibagiza did, to changing ourselves to recognize who we truly are: Unique Expressions of Source. No labels, no divisions, simply Source.