“In times of uncertainty there is no greater certainty, no greater possibility than with an invincible hero. And on this night, the hero is dead.” -unknown
Political turmoil was still widespread in the early 1990’s in Guatemala, and in 1992 I was twenty-two and living in a town called Xela. Xela was an important center for intellectuals committed to the pursuit of democracy and, as was the norm in those days, it was also a place where state-supported violence was very real. I vividly remember the day that one of my teachers, a leader within the opposition newspaper La Prensa, was returning home from a demonstration when a group of parimilitares walked onto the bus and calmly shot him in the belly.
After two months in Guatemala I was ready to go to a country around which I had created a vivid ideal – Nicaragua. Nicaragua was a place that inspired me, a place where people had chosen to dream big. And in this dream the people of this small and dusty country imagined a society built upon principles vastly different from the economic paradigm imposed upon them for hundreds of years.
My friend and I were hitchhiking, and I got the maps all wrong. We were meant to cross at the northern border and instead found ourselves after a day of supremely hot traveling at the southern border. Heavy with our packs (equipped insanely with mountaineering equipment that we planned to use scaling peaks in the cordilleras of Ecuador and Chile), and heavy with my own anger for misreading the maps, we plodded to the place where folks on foot crossed.
Suddenly, the most amazing thing happened. Picking my head up from my boots I stared right into the eyes of a group of Sandinista soldiers. There I was with a group of men that had made history, a group of men I had only known in my imagination. They literally walked us across. It was like they saw a kinship in the two of us, and I know I felt a kinship with them that I am hard pressed to say I have felt since. And after two months in Guatemala looking into the eyes of some of the most brutal soldier-killers I had ever seen, I felt like I was flying.
Today, as I reflect upon the at times stunning, cross-cultural and cross-class foundational rejection of the American economic project that unfolded in our midst in 2011 taking the simple “Occupy” name I find my imagination going back to Nicaragua. Then, as now, ordinary people grew tired of a predatory economic system.
In Nicaragua, a small group of young men and women, seldom numbering more than 1000, occupied first the mountains, then small villages, then major cities and then the entire government. In the United States a small group representing in the words of Matt Taibbi, “a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward,” occupied our public spaces through much of late 2011.
The difference is that in Nicaragua there was an entire edifice of intellectual and symbolic ideas hundreds of years old that guided and informed the Sandanista movement. Today in the United States there are no such symbols, narratives, and models emerging to lay down a vision for the future. In 2011, as Taibbi observes, we say “no” to one reality and face nothing but an abyss on the other side of this negation:
“We’re all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire. Everything from our pop culture to our economy to our politics feels oppressive and unresponsive….”
This feeling, a kind of invisible despair that emerges when imagination has been killed, lives in the bones and in the cells of a rapidly growing number of Americans.
It inhabits us in strange ways. We have come to believe that we have to win, or earn, or take our freedom with power or “success.” In our speech and thoughts we create and recreate distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad. At the most fundamental and decisive of levels, we are wed to engaging opposition everywhere, and thus it shows up for us everywhere.
And where it really shows up is in our dreaming. We cannot imagine any other way to be. It is like a long time ago in a place we have now forgotten we hid our capacity to dream.
Now the beautiful thing that is beginning to emerge here, like Latin America in the second half of the 20th Century, is that some of us want it back. We are less and less satisfied with imagination expressed simply in technological terms, or political terms, or economic terms. We want to discover, or perhaps rediscover, a way to imagine an entirely new field of possibilities for our world and ourselves.
The Occupy movement stated very clearly that every concept, every category of meaningfulness that once made sense to many of us as Americans is rapidly dissolving. The solidity that we once took for granted in our lives – sometimes referred to as “The American Dream” – is melting into air, giving way to an empty space that shows up for us as a giant abyss.
When faced with such a predicament human beings have historically confronted two sets of choices: stare down the abyss or jump straight in. The rational prescription, the course of action always overwhelmingly supported by every member of the cultural orthodoxy, is to subtly reinforce the status quo and shut down in the face of possibilities that just do not make sense to them in any way.
Its kind of like that part of us that stares at our car after we just rammed it into a tree, transfixed by the very strange and very compelling hope that if we stare at the side panel long enough it will smooth itself out. This choice always leads to a kind of frozen immobility.
The non-rational and scary prescription is to acknowledge that one way of life is passing and giving way to something new. This choice always invites in a feeling of spaciousness and mobility.
This is true because in the abyss lives a potent and realistic possibility for a collective liberation, and in our case we are talking about a liberation from the current predatory economic style of thinking and creating that is collapsing all around us. By throwing us into exile from the familiar and the known, the abyss forces a reckoning of sorts, a reckoning with the world we have participated in creating that is now dissolving. And if we are skilled, determined or just plain fortunate, from this place of reckoning we may discover new thoughts, new ideas, new visions and new ways of living.
I think that what people are really waking up to here in America is something the people of Nicaragua I met also woke up to – that the economic consciousness we live in like fish to water holds hostage our ability to dream and dream freely. It is in the very nature of this consciousness to so confuse and bewilder people that they willingly give away their creative and imaginative potential. They trade in their dreaming for mortgage payments, social status, college loans, jobs they do not love or for the “good” of their family, friends, or country.
It is not only the people of Nicaragua that reclaimed their right to dream and create a new world for themselves. We can find models for this kind of activity in many spaces once we know what we are looking for.
Plenty Coups, the Crow chief that led his people at a time when every conceivable meaningful element of their culture was disappearing, displayed a remarkable ability to lead into this abyss in a way that did not sacrifice his dreaming and imagination. He faced up to reality, resisted the urge to fall into despair, and allowed himself to be guided by a deeper knowing and a deeper vision.
The founding fathers of this country saw it necessary to leave one world in order to imagine and build another. Albeit imperfect, it is precisely because of their vision born of the enlightenment that we now find ourselves empowered to take action at this crossroads moment in our history. Their dream brought us here.
Madame Bacholet, recent two-term president of Chile, experienced first hand the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship and fled the country at an early age. She returned to Chile at a time that Pinochet still held power, became Minister of Defense and then of Health. As president she was able to lead a collective reimagining of the kind of world Chile wanted to live into, one that was able to balance the demands of economic growth with the principles of reconciliation and the care of women and children. She imagined and helped build a new form of democratic governance that has left Chile in a profound position of strength at a time when the United States and Europe are in decay.
If Taibbi is right, and I think he is, that, “People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world,” than they will have to get to the bottom of all those parts of themselves in silent, tacit agreement with the way things currently are. This means no more bad guys, no more hero worship of idols like Buffet, Gates and Jobs, no more consoling illusions like I am a victim here or if I just can get my cash all will be well.
It means accepting our world exactly the way it is. One reality constructed upon the fiendish play between plantation and freedom, democracy and economic growth, cowboy and Indian, maximum efficiency and total exhaustion, negotiation and collaboration is departing. Another is arriving. In the space between – this abyss many of us are feeling – we face down the unknown. Courage, then, is learning to live into this unknown with a spring in our step and triumph in our eyes.
It is about saying no to one set of agreements and a world dissolving while saying yes to the possibility that we can, and are right now, dreaming a new one.