Last month brought news of the deaths of three long-ago acquaintances. All were intellectuals and activists, about age 70, no spring chickens but also still very active in their work in the world.
I had not spoken to any of these people in many years. When I had, long ago, it had been brief and about nothing personal. They were acquaintances I knew on the Left. One was a local expert on Latin America. One was an east coast media celebrity who had been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. One had founded and funded a small think tank for research against the Right.
Their deaths saddened me in part because they were youngish at a time when average life span is longer than our early 70s.
I think their deaths saddened me also because they brought to mind my complex emotions about the time I spent absorbed within the American Left.
To write my eventual spiritual memoir, I must begin to come to terms with the whys and wherefores of my having spent 20 years as an activist. For about a dozen of those years, I had veered off of a spiritual path.
What were the necessities for learning and growth that motivated me to spend my youth this way?
I tend to not dwell on the distant past, and yet I must.
Death is a reminder of what’s real.
The deaths of these three acquaintances take me back to the feeling tones I carried in the 1980s and 1990s.
There is much to sort out. Writing will enable me to do so, and here’s a start.
Some people come into this life with an innate focus on helping and healing others, perhaps even at their own personal expense. Some people are more outwardly focused, some more inward, and this focus can also shift over a life span.
There’s the stereotype about the zealousness of youth, when the stakes for stirring up trouble are relatively low. But there are countless examples of people who live in a state of consensus with the status quo until they are, later in life, awakened to some of the atrocities of the political-economic world, and they then set out on a path of activism. I don’t think activism is predicted by one’s developmental stage.
For some of us who are the survivors of severe child abuse, we have a score to settle. Note that I mean this as quite the opposite of an urge for revenge. It is instead an urge to make sense of bad things, to redeem our own suffering by repairing the world. If we have been brainwashed into a sense of unworthiness, we may focus on fixing everyone else’s sorrow rather than our own.
I was innately interested in the affairs of the world, and this impetus was then shaped by growing up with parents who were ignorant, psychologically unwell, verbally and sometimes physically violent. The contrast between their behavior and what I was learning at temple and in Hebrew school caused me to develop a sharpened vigilance about hypocrisy, unfairness, stupidity and lack of freedom.
It was way too much for any young child to have to deal with.
To survive it, I had to bury much of my rage and sorrow until I was mature enough to be able to process it.
Before that, though, by my mid-teens I had found refuge in a comforting relationship and had started on the spiritual path. A number of us in the Sufi Order became human rights activists at the suggestion of our teacher. After college, my partner wanted to have an arrangement whereby he worked on his career and earned all the money while I would be the one of us to become a full-time anti-war activist. I didn’t understand that this was textbook co-dependency. It made sense to us as a unit.
It was the beginning of the Reagan era, and there was plenty to fuel our anger and fear. We believed it was highly likely that we would die in a nuclear war. We read daily about the death squads ravaging Central America. A Sufi acquaintance, a Guatemalan man, returned to his country to fight with the guerrillas, and I never saw or heard from him again.
It made sense, by 1982, to detour off my own spiritual path. The world was on fire. I had no idea about balancing the personal with the political. There was no personal. There was no view that my ex and I ought to each have our own sustainable profession. There was little sense about a future, about one day getting old. There was just an urgency about stopping the right-wing juggernaut.
I became “successful” by the standards of the left-wing subculture. I got my articles published in desirable places, got my first book contract at age 29 with the (now-defunct) South End Press. I was in a near-constant state of activity, on the phone interviewing right-wingers on the east coast at sunrise and chewing over the results with two or three fellow researchers on the phone late into the night. We were in a constant state of agitation and excitement, feeling we had power to change things.
We were on a mission to expose the growth of the Christian Right. It was a futile mission to try to galvanize opposition and turn our country from the course it was on. We gave it our full effort, and we failed.
Throughout those years of everything being political, not personal, there were reservoirs filling with hurtful emotions I would later need to work through.
During those years, I had a constant feeling of not being seen. My partner viewed me as the cute and/or bitchy little lady who did all his laundry and cooked all his meals while also fighting fascism every waking moment. He would berate me as “decadent” if I wanted to spend some time reading a novel or soaking in a bubble bath.
The hundreds (or thousands?) of political acquaintances I knew saw me as a font of information they could use for their own ends. I was naïve and over and over, I did not see it coming when putative friends trashed me behind my back.
There were “fans” who would sit mesmerized in the front row at my public talks, following my every word like I was some sort of oracle.
The delusional projections of so many people and my own neglect of my inner life left me drained and furious and without a clear view of who I was. The gap between who everyone else thought I was and who I vaguely remembered myself to be was so wide and painful that I eventually could not stand it anymore.
By Grace, I found my way out of that spiral and onto a long course of healing and repair.
I’m not entirely sure yet what those public persona years were all about for the unfoldment of my soul.
I know I had a genuine wish for the world to be well, as if the only way I could ever really be safe was if the whole rest of the world were safe, too.