Opening to Fear and Learning from History

[I wrote this op-ed eight months ago (March 2016) to ring a bell of warning about the danger Trump represents. I share it now because nothing has changed–except that the worst-case scenario has come to pass. The two coins in Trump’s purse–fear and lies–have now been joined with a third–power. The response will require building resilience; deepening community and connection; and strengthening resistance. I will take up our response in another post.] 

Eight decades ago when authoritarian leaders had come to power in Europe, there were voices here calling for a strongman to solve America’s deep social and economic problems. One of the debates of the time, not a purely abstract one, was about the form that fascism might take if it came to America.

We know well now that the people and institutions of American democracy were sound enough to withstand those forces and voices—even while the country was still mired in the Depression. But in the world of the late 1930s it was far from a foregone conclusion. And still tens of millions died before the world was rid of the main demagogic dictatorships of Europe and Asia.

For me and many others, what is happening in America this election season is far from business as usual.

My father, John Byrne, was living in London in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. As an Irishman, he was not obliged to serve, but he chose to join the Royal Air Force, flying many missions as a tail-gunner and seeing many of his comrades fall. His plane was badly hit on a mission in Europe in 1944 and limped back across the Channel. He was badly wounded, but survived, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

My parents met in London in the late 1940s and raised nine of us kids. One strong memory that has stayed with me over sixty years is of asking my dad if I could touch the lump of shrapnel embedded in his temple. He let us touch his physical wounds but died in 1977 without letting us get close to the psychic scars from those years of war.

We have a picture today of what an authoritarian movement and government in America might look like. It could be led by a celebrity-TV mogul, who twists the real fears of millions of Americans and asks them to buy into a story that everything will be great again if we just get rid of ‘the Mexicans’, ‘the Muslims’… fill in the next target group. Our world has been here before.

How do we resist a movement led by a self-obsessed demagogue?

As the Republican contest has shown, it is difficult to shame a man who has no shame. But I believe there are three essential steps—to transform our fears by opening to them instead of blaming others; to vote massively for hope, justice, and inclusion in November; and to build a new civil rights movement to peacefully resist the wave of intolerance and support equity and justice for all.

First, we must consciously choose not to fight fear with fear, but to open to our fears—for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, and our world. Fear is an emotion that has wisdom in it—if we allow ourselves to experience it. It tells us where danger is.

If we have the courage to open to our fears, with compassion and kindness, they can arise and pass through us like a strong weather system. But when we habitually cover up our fear, turning it outward on others, and blaming them for our pain, it becomes a source of endless suffering … We know this.

The great French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, put it clearly: “We all carry with us our places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.”

There are wise practices of meditation, mindfulness, and prayer that can help us hold our own fear without imposing it on others and the world. We can then respond wisely, powerfully, and compassionately to the challenges we face.

Second, we must be active and not turn away from the political process in fear, and vote massively and democratically for candidates—of whatever party—who offer hope, possibility, and a vision of an inclusive, compassionate and pluralistic nation.

And finally, we must take action together with compassion—fierce and uncompromising love. We don’t have to look far into our history for a movement that represents the best of American democracy and spirit—the best of what we are.

The movement for civil rights, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., brought together millions of courageous women and men who were willing to risk their lives to build a nation where all men and women might live in freedom and justice. We can remember Dr. King’s words in this new moment of history: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Though many who led that movement, like Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Dr. King himself, have passed on, we are fortunate to have with us some of the great leaders of that movement—Rep. John Lewis and many others. They continue to lead and inspire us in the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge of today. And their children and grandchildren are continuing the struggle in their footsteps. They showed the way. May we walk across this bridge with courage and hope in our hearts.

Author: Hugh Byrne has a PhD in political science from UCLA. He is a naturalized American, who has lived here for almost forty years, working for much of that time on human rights and social justice. He is now a guiding teacher with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) and the author of The Here-and-Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits Once and for All (New Harbinger Publications, 2016).

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