Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Power of Refusal

In all fairness to Lauranna, I can't write this as well as she can, because she's the one who taught me about this. I can say, however, that the more I put her wise teachings into practice, the happier and more liberated I feel.

Lauranna calls it the power of refusal. Gandhi and King called it nonviolent non-cooperation. I call it liberation.

I've become, of late, an enormous fan of the concept and power of refusal. I have spent so much of my life over-spending my energies, sapping my strength trying to change people and institutions. Let me just clarify: I'm a fan of work, and of trying to change institutions for the better (or do away with them altogether). I'm a fan of living one's life in service to others, particularly one's community. I'm a fan of giving one's life for one's community.

I'm not a fan of being used, abused, ignored, disrespected, lied to, lied about, manipulated, dominated or controlled, or having my time and energy wasted on a project which cannot succeed, and which is at best an expression of ego, delusion or fear. When I talk about withdrawing my energies, it is from projects and people who promote the latter behavior, instead of--or, as well as--the former.

I discovered something recently (you know, discovered like Columbus did...something that everyone who was paying attention already knew was there). If you don't like the way you're being treated in a relationship, and you don't see hope for that changing, it's a good idea to leave. It's okay to remove yourself from that relationship. It's also okay, if you decide to stay in the relationship, to decide the terms of your engagement, the how, the when, the why, the where. Lauranna's very good at this. She's a student of the Tao of War, which can also serve one well as a Tao of Love.

Little by little I've been figuring out, mostly because I reach a point where either I end (literally) my life, or I let go of what is killing me, that I not only can but must refuse to participate in relationships that are destructive to my psyche and spirit, and--on a political level--the planet and her people. It's gotten that bad at times. It's gotten that bad a lot.

I've resisted this for years partly because I'm staggeringly co-dependent and keep thinking I can change people. I can't change people. Intellectually I know that, but co-dependency is a hard habit to break. I can be true to myself, speak my truth or live my truth, and others can decide what they want to do in the face of that. But neither through persuasion, manipulation, nor brutalization can I change people at their core. I can hurt them really, really badly. I know that. And that brutalization is certainly a kind of power, but it's not a kind of power I ultimately see producing any good.

When I get to a place of deeper honesty, I realize it's all about power and responsibility. It's truly frightening to me to realize how much of a victim I've let myself believe I am. I am nobody's victim. I'm a smart, powerful woman, who has and can make a difference in the lives of people she touches. I've been loved far more than I wish to admit, and I've hurt people who've loved me far more than I can bear to acknowledge sometimes.

But this truth doesn't jive with my self-image as victim. It requires that I really own how much I've been hurt and how much I've hurt, both give and ask for forgiveness. It requires that I risk and act far more than I do. And it requires, at core, that I change, and heal what is broken in me, what has victimized me and in turn causes me to hurt others.

That's the paradox for me, of why I've resisted the power of refusal. On the one hand, I keep thinking if I just give more energy to a relationship--with a person, an organization, a corporation, the state--I can change them from what they fundamentally are to something else. On the other hand, I refuse to acknowledge how much power I really do have to affect change if I just take responsibility for that power and use it wisely, instead of wasting it and my hope and heart on efforts which I know can't work.

I've resisted refusal precisely because it can work. There is nothing more galling to an oppressive person or institution than being ignored, made irrelevant, redundant.

Why am I wasting all your time with this navel-gazing? I'm trying to understand what we're doing wrong here, in our efforts to improve our lot. There are absolutely times we have no choice but to engage and resist. Prisoners are held captive, tortured, denied their freedom--the state must be engaged to obtain their release. Immigrants are abused, exploited, oppressed. Whatever legal rights can be obtained for them must be fought for and won. The average lifespan for an American Indian man living on a reservation is still under 50 years. That's unacceptable. Suffering must be alleviated; the people can't wait until the revolution is over to eat.

Not having to resist the corporate-state directly in order to survive is a position of tremendous privilege. I know that, and God help the next white male who tries to tell me otherwise. But in addition to our necessary resistance, the power of refusal must be engaged more. Not a refusal to acknowledge state power--a refusal to acknowledge its legitimacy.

I look to the work in our community of Shareef Aleem and Larry Hales, two brave and brilliant African-American activists, who inspire me in this regard. These two men seem to me to very clear, both about what needs to change and can be made to change, and what never will. Rather than begging the state for a police review board, or other form of governmental accountability of a governmental institution, they're working to create civilian review, civilian-controlled accountability. They're not asking the state's permission; they're going to the people, where power is supposed to--and actually does--reside.

The bloggers also do this. By creating an alternative to the so-called journalism of the mainstream newspapers, as accessible to many, they create a public space for truth which cannot be silenced by dollars and threats.

The folks who keep trying to reform the Democratic Party do not do this. I understand the efforts of those trying to stem the bloodshed of their people--a bandage will not stop a hemorrhage, but maybe it will slow it a little? But many who keep betting on that donkey do not do so with any recognition that it's an ass, not a horse. It will never be a horse; don't bet on it to win a horserace. Such folks are engaged in a tragically co-dependent, deluded dance with an institution that was not designed to serve the people, or justice, or the planet. That's not its purpose for being; that isn't what it is. Yes, you can expend all your energy trying to get Daddy to be nice to you today, or pay the rent this month, or keep from beating Mom this afternoon. You may succeed today, and maybe in the short term it's a good thing not to be homeless, or hungry, or in the emergency room. But tomorrow he's still going to be a patriarchal, violent, alcoholic bastard, and Mom's still going to be defending him.

Kick Dad's ass out, buy guns and barricade the windows, or move yourself and your loved ones out of the fucking house. Those, to me, are the options. Take away Dad's power over your life. Organize your siblings to resist him and to build a better house. Liberate Mom if you can; pray for her if you can't.

You know how you know when an alcoholic's lying? Their lips are moving.

Refuse to believe them. Refuse to listen to them. Refuse to take care of them, and clean up their messes. Refuse to make it okay for them to keep lying to themselves and others. Refuse to support them in their abusive behavior. Don't give them your time and energy, even in critique. Refuse to give them your power, and soon they will have no power at all.

Personal Imperialism: Sometimes It's Not All About You

There's this disease perfected in the last five centuries by white males called imperialism which has seeped into the groundwater we all drink, and now unfortunately affects far too many white women, and even sometimes people of color as well. Imperialism is both a personal and political pathology. It's a pathology which I for one am really over being victimized by; unfortunately I'm sure I still have a long way to go with regard to my victimization of others.

We all know what political imperialism looks like. But personal?

Not being a personal imperialist basically means approaching relationships with other people thus:

"This is my stuff. That's your stuff. I keep my stuff on my side of the relationship, you keep your stuff on your side of the relationship. You do not expect me or order me to carry your stuff, and you don't offer to carry mine. Ever. Under any circumstances."

The thing that the most die-hard codependents like myself refuse to acknowledge is that no one can liberate another person from their stuff. It's not the way the game of life is played. You can try to get other people to carry your stuff, and you can offer to carry other people's stuff. You can succeed on this front. You can impose your stuff on others, and you can drag their stuff along with yours. What you can't do, however, is lessen the amount of one's own stuff in the process. In the end, only the person who owns the stuff can do that.

No matter much you spew your shit in all directions, when you open up your rucksack at the end of the day, all your shit is still going to be there. It's a very weird physical law which pertains only to psychological/emotional stuff, but it pertains absolutely.

So, knowing that, it's very important that you neither offer to take, nor allow to have sneaked into your rucksack, anyone else's shit. It does no one any good. No one is helped by this, but the over-burdened carrier is hurt, which then hurts her/his relationship with the person whose shit they're pointlessly carrying. Pretty soon everyone's pissed off and suffering. Al-Anon 101.

Why is this imperialist? Because it's about taking up more space--in a room, relationship, country, planet--than you are entitled to. Spreading out in all directions, colonizing other people, taking their spiritual or material resources back to you--the father country. My rucksack is not a piece of real estate to which you are entitled. Neither is my mind, my body, my spirit, or my back. My rucksack is full to overflowing with my stuff. I don't have room for yours, and the previous stuff of others that was piled into to my rucksack has been breaking my back (and spirit) for years.

So what does this have to do with my title, "Sometimes, It's Not All About You"? Have you ever had the experience of someone walking into a room, conversation, life, and trying very hard to make it all about them? That's emotional imperialism.

There are those people who literally cannot stand the notion that people can have relationships, social engagements, conversations, dates with other people, even internal dialogues, and not include them. Such encounters represent a liberated zone, a space this person has not yet been able to colonize, control and dominate. It is part of the white male disease that they go mental at the thought of such a space existing in the universe. "There is no place I cannot be!!" This is the white male mantra, which far too much of the rest of the planet now chants.

Other forms of emotional and psychological imperialism:

1. Triangulation. This is, tragically, a favorite of women, particularly mothers. Many mothers cannot stand the idea of their children having relationships with each other which do not go through them. So they triangulate, they pit siblings and friends against each other, to keep themselves in the dead center of power. It's a very negative power, and doesn't usually serve to make their situation any better. Nevertheless it's very common. These people literally can't stand the fact that it's not all about them.

2. Passive-aggression. Why communicate directly what you're feeling when you can be totally dishonest and still punish the person you're mad at by stuffing their rucksack while they're not looking?

3. Drama Kings & Queens. Oh, I'm so over this one. "The world is not the world. The world is my personal stage, I am the star and director, and the rest of you are but bit players and scenery."

These folks can't bear the thought that there could be a drama (or god-forbid comedy or romance) in which they do not have the starring (and directing) role. To prevent this from happening, they keep churning out schlock dramas, dominating and controlling the theatre, sets, costumes, and make-up for years. Unfortunately, this also tends to totally occupy most of the actors, who--like desperate out-of-work actors everywhere--think this is the only game in town and they'd better get in on it. "Oh, there's a play going on. I've been given a role and this is such a nice theatre. How marvelous. Guess I'd better get into make-up," instead of "Who the fuck wrote this lousy play? I hate this fucking role--I've played it all my life and it was bad when times were good. Whaddya say we get the hell out of here and do Twelfth Night in the parking lot, audience and revenue be damned?!"

4. Occupation of Space and Belongings. You create a little space in your shared home for yourself. It's might be a desk, a chair, an altar, a closet. In various direct and indirect ways, you say, "it's mine. My little piece of the world, my refuge." The imperialist invades it, sometimes not even consciously. Because there cannot be any place the imperialist cannot be.

I write this as a recovering and repentant drama queen, passive-aggressive, co-dependent, triangulating imperialist. I am truly sorry. The world and all my relations deserved, and continues to deserve, better.

Sometimes, it's just not all about me, or you--can you grasp that? And sometimes, people need to have a space which one cannot and does not violate by entering.

Women need a space you cannot violate by entering--not physically, not intellectually, not spiritually. We need this like breathing. Trans/Queer folk need it. Indians need it. Black folks need it. Immigrants need it. Teenagers need it. God knows, the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans need it. Every writer I know needs it. Every person I know needs it.

If you don't like war, stop invading other people's space, taking what doesn't belong to you, and packing other people's rucksacks with your shit. Liberation begins at home. Begin now.