Janet C. Phelan
When I was in grade school, the alarms would begin and, whether we were in instruction or at lunch or recess, we knew what those sirens meant. We would put down whatever was in our hands — pencils, forks, a softball — and file into the auditorium. There we would put our heads between our knees, cover our little necks with our forearms and wait for either doomsday or the all clear.
Some little girls would always begin to sob. We never knew whether it was a drill or not until the all clear sounded.
Unlike so many of my classmates, I was never worried. A small voice inside me told me there was no real danger from Soviet missiles and, bolstered by this, I remained aloof, calm.
But the small still voice told me something else. Later, it told me. The danger will come later.
We are no longer children, those of us who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Red Threat. We have accumulated layers of knowledge, wisdom and, unlike seven year olds unable to quite stifle their terror, we have learned methods to deal with a sense of imminent threat.
Or have we?
That fear is still ostensibly at the core of what drives our most personal and political of actions. This fear could also be called the “survival instinct,” “fight or flight” and forms a substantial tributary into how we form our lives. Do we speak out when we see someone being hurt? Do we first take stock of the personal ramifications for so doing? Do we post anonymously on the Internet, attacking or supporting others under a comfortable veil of hidden identity? Do we give of our time and energies when there is no ostensible personal gain attached? Does our work take us into realms of information access that would be safer for us to not acknowledge having?
The human heart has always been divided in its desire to protect itself, set against its desire to expand, to embrace and identify with others — to be of use. The list of those whose lives were dictated by the latter mandate reads like a list of the crucified — Martin Luther King and Gandhi may be two of the most distinguished modern day martyrs — but the actual list of names casts back to the beginnings of history and many of the names of those martyred for love — and isn’t that what we are talking about? — love vs. self obsession — have been buried in the wake of their extreme acts of goodness — a goodness which has always been perilous to possess.
But the stakes are higher now. Joan d’Arc went up in flames because she obeyed the voice of God and angered the British. Her crimes of heresy and insubordination echo both backwards and forwards through history. Karen Silkwood took on a chemical Goliath and paid for it with her very breath—once again, defying the powerful in acts of both heresy and disrespect for authority. Random acts of rebellion seem less random and garner more attention because the world is smaller now. The density and focus of accumulated power gives every gesture of goodness, every act of self transcendence a concomitant greater potential for tipping the balance.
In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the degree and extent to which the U.S has constructed a Stasi like surveillance society, we can see again how the two competing desires of the human heart — self protection and self expansion — are duking it out. Some individuals will want to retract even further, given the shocking knowledge that what they thought were private and secure communications may have lit up the NSA computers like a pinball arcade. Others may react as if a gauntlet has been thrown down. You are listening to WHAT? You are keeping files on me for WHAT? — and as a result only multiply efforts to establish connections and reach out to others, defying the watchers.
The most revolutionary act has always been an act of self transcendence. There is no upheaval, no paradigm shift attached to bean counting, whether in monetary transactions or in how we relate energetically to others. To activate one’s knowledge, one’s potential for making the leap from “ME” to ”NOT ME” may be one of the most radical acts possible, given the pervasiveness of the politics of fear and self protection.
We live in exceptional times. We are faced with exceptional opportunities — to change the course of history, which is tunneling deeper and deeper towards global totalitarianism This challenge is being delivered to each and every one of us. We can shut ourselves down and hope we have escaped attention, all too understandable in light of the human propensity for self protection. This decision will only ensure the success of the global lockdown being thrust upon us.
Or, we can take another route. This other route is bathed in the incandescence of something we have been taught to scoff at — a moral absolute. It is both thrilling and sobering to realize that one is participating in the resistance against something so enormous, baffling in its complexity and shadowy reach. This other road defines in the most fundamental sense what it means to be human. It also redefines a symbol — the crossroads — which we have been taught to accept as the sign of the death and resurrection of God.
The crossroads, however, is also a symbol of the intersection between earth and sky, the juncture at which what is flesh connects with that which is greater and more enduring. This is the opportunity that has been afforded us — to participate in the future of our world in ways that provide the possibility that there will be a future.
The crossroads is also a symbol of choice. This other road — the road of fearlessness and love — invites us to live largely. It does not ensure our personal safety and security. It only offers us something far greater than that.
Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist whose articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The San Bernardino County Sentinel, The Santa Monica Daily Press, The Long Beach Press Telegram, Oui Magazine and other regional and national publications. Janet specializes in issues pertaining to legal corruption and addresses the heated subject of adult conservatorship, revealing shocking information about the relationships between courts and shady financial consultants. She also covers issues relating to international bioweapons treaties. Her poetry has been published in Gambit, Libera, Applezaba Review, Nausea One and other magazines. Her first book, The Hitler Poems, was published in 2005. She currently resides abroad. You may browse through her articles (and poetry) at janetphelan.com