Another November, another election. As always, the general mood depends on where you live. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, where I live, the mood is rather buoyant with the mid-term elections returning control of Congress to the Democrats. Two years ago it was very much the opposite: the disappointment with George W. Bush’s re-election—along with anger, outrage, and the whole gamut of other emotions—hung over the city like a dark cloud. I imagine that something similar is now happening in the Republican regions of our country.
People find all sorts of outlets for their frustrations. Back in 2004, a staunchly liberal acquaintance of mine expressed her feelings through defiant poetry. “Do not marry yourself to this,” she wrote. “Do not marry yourself to...”—she offered a list: the slaughter of Iraqi civilians, voter disenfranchisement, environmental destruction, injustices to children, political corruption, popular opinion, media manipulation, and the results of the election.
“This is a time,” she continued, “for distance,” “for the spirit of independence to rise up”—but definitely not, she emphasized, a time for union. “We are a divided nation,” concluded the piece, “Concede nothing. Let freedom, justice, liberty, and life stand alone.”
Yes, a powerful statement of defiance if there ever was one, aptly reflecting the feelings shared by many in this city and elsewhere in the country.
With these mid-term elections, I imagine that similar sentiments are now ringing across other parts of the nation. Do not marry yourself, they are probably saying, to the slaughter of unborn children, the reign of suicidal terrorists, the destruction of values and property rights, disenfranchisement of taxpayers, political corruption, popular opinion, media manipulations, and, of course, the results of the election.
What I find most striking about these sentiments (along with the usual radio talk-show verbiage), is the sheer degree of negation they contain. Our political diet, if you will, is generally an endless buffet of do-not’s, will-not’s, don’t want’s, and so forth. Yet it shouldn’t be so surprising: it’s far easier to react against something that you oppose than to embrace something you love. Reactive opposition also awakens very strong emotions, and such excitation seems to give one power, often expressed through anger, outrage, and violence.
Yet as powerful as all this negating might appear, it provides no answers. Defiant statements like those in my acquaintance’s poem only offer plenty of things not to do, lots of things not to agree with, and plenty of things not to accept...leaving us with nothing, really. For the best you can ever achieve by negating negatives is a big ZERO.
This seeming powerful negating is neither constructive nor empowering. In fact, the poem struck me as a clear example of how we allow the outcome of elections—and, more generally, the decisions of others—to disempower us. What is accomplished by simply saying “NO” to everything? The only thing you can create this way is a vacuum.
To be empowered means to say “YES.” It means knowing what you want, rather than just what you don’t. It means knowing what to positively embrace, not just what to reject.
This is an approach that is absolutely essential to living with any meaning or consequence. Without the clarity of knowing what you’re trying to accomplish, achievement is merely accidental. With clarity and focus, you direct your energies to a real goal instead of scattering them ineffectively to the wind.
Going back to the poem, I see only two possible exceptions to its general negativity: the line about “the spirit of independence” and the phrase about “freedom, justice, liberty, and life.” These are, of course, offered as potential solutions or antidotes to the stated problems—just as they’ve been offered by those on the other side of the aisle for their issues. (When in doubt, throw in a few constitutional buzzwords!)
Yet what do these words really mean? What is this independence, freedom, and justice we claim to cherish? What is the life and liberty that we are so intent on defending? What do these things look like?
Liberty and freedom mean much more than the ability to defy: they guarantee that each one of us has the opportunity to pursue our most important priorities, whatever they may be and whether or not they agree with others’ priorities. We have the freedom to choose how we invest our energies; we have the freedom to choose what the Life we seek to protect means for us, personally.
For myself, I’d certainly like a life that’s full of positives, not simply devoid of negatives. True peace, for example, is much more than the mere absence of conflict; true joy is much more than the mere absence of pain.
What, then, I ask, should the world look like? As much as I get the poem’s message of what not to marry myself to and what not to accept, what, then, should I marry? What, exactly, should I accept? Where, precisely, should I invest my energies?
In asking these questions I saw that within each statement of negation lies a seed of positive vision. That vision only needs to be brought out by rewriting the poem in positive terms, dropping the “do not’s” and inverting the details:
Marry yourself to the power you have
to make the world a better place.
Marry yourself to empowering others
to make a difference also,
if even only in their own lives.
Marry yourself to unbending honesty and integrity
in every thought and every action.
Marry yourself to peace and kindness
that you never allow any difficulties
to grow into open conflict.
Marry yourself to sharing peace with others,
that there will be ever-growing communities
where anger, violence, and conflict are
never again invoked as a solution.
Marry yourself to ever-greater simplicity,
claiming fewer and fewer resources for yourself.
Marry yourself to sharing
even those resources with others.
Marry yourself to cleanliness,
first in yourself, your relationships,
your immediate environment,
then let that harmony extend itself
in ever-widening circles.
Marry yourself to seeing the best in everyone,
regardless of their attitudes and actions.
Marry yourself to seeing the wonderful potential
of every man, woman, and child
to live in love, joy, and harmony,
a inherent worth that needs no measure.
Marry yourself to creating the conditions
in which that potential can be realized by all.
Marry yourself to Truth despite both popular
and personal opinion alike,
ever willing to sacrifice
even your own first principles
when a deeper understanding is revealed.
Marry yourself to the humble realization
that you are but part of a greater reality.
Marry yourself to the joy of being
a humble channel for that greater reality
to manifest itself in the world.
This is a time for distance, yes,
not from each other,
not from those with whom we disagree,
but from the complexities of confusion
and from the bottomless pit of negativity.
And yes, this is a time for the spirit
of independence to rise up!
Be independent of opinion,
be independent of pride,
be independent of despair,
be independent of sloth,
be independent of selfishness,
be independent of anger,
be independent of hatred,
be independent of fear.
If there is a nation divided,
it is that nation that exists within each one of us.
Marry yourself first to inner unity;
let that unity radiate from your heart.
Rededicate yourself to Truth, to openness;
Rededicate yourself to faith, to positive action,
to self-offering and selfless service;
Rededicate yourself to the power
of compassion and understanding.
Marry yourself to
the real power of love,
to the capacity for healing,
to the capacity of forgiveness,
to the capacity to pray even for your enemies
and especially for yourself.
Concede not this love,
concede your bitterness.
Concede not your power,
concede your resentment.
Concede not your freedom,
concede your hesitation to use it.
Claim your power
to focus your energies,
to focus your resources,
on manifesting the best you can imagine
for our world.
Be the justice.
Be the freedom.
Be the liberty.
Be the love.
Are these not virtues upon all might actually agree?