Open Letter To Cindy Sheehan
By Emily Spence
01 June, 2007
Others and I can certainly understand your reluctance to continue in
fostering the peace movement. It is easy to want to walk or run away.
Ironically, the first day that I joined the peace moment was the same
one that I most desperately wanted to run away. I, literally, wanted
to flee with every part of my being, but somehow managed to sit still
At the time, I was five years old. I was sitting on a bench at a Quaker
Meeting. I remember the drop dead silence surrounding the deeply inward-dwelling
people all around me. I remember the contrast that the occasional trilling
bird in the shrubbery outside the window made and the merry splash of
intermittent sunshine on the floor opposed to the overall dimness of
the room. Then I heard the room's door open followed by a muted shuffle
Curious, I glanced upward and saw a struggling parade of frail outlines
shaped like humans -- faltering spectral forms wrapped in gauze from
head to toe like mummies in a B-grade horror flick. Meanwhile each person
in the group slowly and torturously drew ahead on unsteady feet -- a
movement forward so difficult to execute that one could palpably feel
the duress and had to resist the impulse to grab hold of the ones with
the worst gait so as to steady and help. Indeed, it appeared as if a
tremendous and excruciating effort was required for each footfall to
follow the next one.
One, also, had to resist a contrary impulse. That one was simply to
avoid the alarming sight altogether. As such, I, simultaneously, felt
like jumping to my feet to assist the bunch and moving past them right
out the door. Their struggle was that stark and striking to behold.
Instead of either choice, I simply gripped my father's hand and began
to wonder about whatever these people could have done to deserve such
a horrific fate. What could any person ever have done so terribly wrong
to receive such utter damage done unto them in return?
(I'd been told in advance of attending Meeting that a group of women,
ones called Hiroshima Maidens from a far away land, would be joining
us as Friendly families were hosting them while they received medical
aid at a local hospital for grave damages caused by a bomb released
during a war. Yet, what did I know of bombs and wars at age five? All
I knew was that these women looked plainly dreadful -- far more dreadful
than any fanciful nightmare that my young mind could dreg up during
sleep. I, likewise, knew that they didn't seem as if they, or anyone
else for that matter, could ever have done anything so awful so as to
to deserve the ravage that they, so pitifully, expressed. In short,
they were heart wrenching in the extreme.)
Although my childhood was fairly normal in most respects, I never did
get over the searing image that these drastically broken women created
in mind. At the same time, I'd fairly quickly figured out that, if something
such as happened to them (seemingly innocent people) could occur once,
then it could hypothetically take place again and to everyone who I
loved, including myself. This afterthought did greatly alarm.
So, you can imagine my pronounced glee when my third grade class had
its first mock air raid drill. Oh, it was such a thoroughly happy moment
when I crouched under my desk in a ball while covering the back of my
neck and lower head with my hands. How exciting! (What pathos underlies
That day, I could hardly wait for the school bus to bring me home. I
flew from its steps and down the street. I raced into the house while
breathlessly yelling for my mother to come watch me. Then I got under
the dining table while commanding something like, "See? See? This
is all we need to do. Do it like this. Now we can all be safe. Tell
everyone who you know.You must RIGHT AWAY!" Then I explained about
the manner in which this hiding under tables in a specific pose could
save us all from bombs, the type of bombs that hurt those poor mangled
In response, my mother gently drew me up into her lap and asked me whether
I truly thought that a flimsy wooden cover could sufficiently protect
anyone from the severe type of breakage that bombs can render. With
such a revelatory question, all my hopes were dashed in an instant.
Shocked, I, quietly, asked about what could work instead to which my
mother replied that one action and one action only could help. And this
is to work for peace, and to spread the word about its value while resisting,
at all costs, any activities that promote contrary aims. We, then, discussed
the various ways that people can bring about this outcome.
Of course, her comments were delivered many wars ago. Since then, I
have watched many people come back from their peace efforts renewed,
refreshed and enlivened. These have included our family dentist, who
periodically would close his practice to Freedom Ride; family members
and friends who proudly strolled in the first protest march against
the Vietnam war; US citizens, who hid pacifist Cambodian students during
the Vietnam War so that their mandatory inscription for which execution
was the alternative could be avoided, and many others, who acted with
unrelenting courage of conviction.
Simultaneously, I have watched grave harm occur to people deliberately
choosing to buck the status quo. My being spit on by racists while collecting
Green Stamps to paste into books that I donated to a group that could
exchange them for cheap bus rides from the Northeast to Selma during
the Civil Rights contention is nothing compared to War Tax resisters
being jailed and losing their homes... is nothing compared to being
under permanent house arrest as is Aung San Suu Kyi... is nothing compared
to being brutally beaten and shot at during protests... is nothing compared
to being muzzled after spending years in solitary confinement (Vanunu)...
is nothing compared to losing your life in sadistic torture (captured
resistance operatives in WW ll, slain Civil Rights workers and countless
others going as far back as human history).
Yet conscience and ethos often compel one forward such that no other
course of action than the one taken is possible regardless of outcome.
Of course, you, more than most people, know this is so. There is a gritty
surety in one's direction no matter the degree that the task ahead is
daunting, risky and seemingly impossible. Regardless of anticipated
results, the choice is totally clear and the sides are definitively
You, also, know that wars are very difficult to dismantle. As Scott
Schaeffer-Duffy, a Catholic Worker, once explained to me -- the violence
is like pressurized magma just waiting to erupt. Once you tamp it down
in one place on the planet, it will rise up on another. There seems
no end to it.
Yes, there seems no end to it. If it's not happening in Iraq, it is
in Afghanistan and Darfur. If it is not in these hot spots, it is in
Haiti, Burma, and countless other locations where the seething threat
is barely below the surface. Then, too, there are all the less visible,
although equally brutal, wars that are taking place along side of these
more graphically pronounced ones.
For example, there are the wars against the poverty stricken and other
maligned, marginalized masses -- wars in which they are used for cheap
expendable labor by the managers of transnational companies whose parasitic
owners and stock holders are reaping billions upon billions of dollars
while not paying living wages to their employees (~ eleven cents an
hour to Caribbean laborers who make Disney products, ~ $1.50 a day as
a WalMart garment worker's salary in Nicaragua, ~ eight cents a pound
for Starbucks coffee growers, etc.).
At the same time, the ignorance of people, who see oppressive clashing
forces as a simple case of us (the good guys) against them (desperate
migrants or stereotyped sub-human terrorists) is certainly myopic. In
short, they fail to see that many of the migrants want to patriotically
support new countries in whatever ways that they can while some of the
terrorists deeply revere 1700's American Revolutionaries, a ragtag motley
collection of individuals just as grimly determined to protect their
lands from overseas invaders as are they, themselves.
Meanwhile, many of the gung-ho flag waving patriots, whose troops aggress,
ponder on the reason that it takes so long to quell and render subservient
those who resist their countries being plundered. That is, they do if
they bother to think about anything else much beyond the upcoming shopping
spree at the nearest mega-mall, the choices in upcoming sitcoms, the
relative merits of various anti-wrinkle creams, the lineup for professional
sports teams, one's own latest golf score, etc.
When considering the sheer magnitude of it all, one easily can get discouraged.
As such, I imagine that most of the others with the same goals as yours
do and sometimes when I, personally, do -- I recall this ensuing account.
(It helps me regain my strength of purpose when everything starts looking
too bleak for me to carry on.)
It is one shared with me by my parents, who knew the featured, young
American during the 1940's. As an aside, he was nineteen years old at
the time of his return to the US...
After having lived at Gandhi's ashram and shortly before his departure
back to the US, a young man requested an exit interview with Gandhi
(who brought his Hindi interpreter along). Upon meeting for this final
time, the eager young man asked, “How can I ensure that your message
of peace and universal brotherhood can be made a successful realization
in America? What can I do to make certain that this WILL happen?”
In response, Gandhi shakily rose to leave and answered the query in
Hindi (despite that he could speak in perfect King’s Standard
English as he had been trained as a lawyer in Great Britain). Meanwhile,
the interpreter translated into English, “Interview is ended.”
The young man pleaded, “But why? What is wrong? I do not understand.”
Gandhi, turning back from leaving the room, replied, “It is because
we are not speaking the same language. You see, you speak of success
and think of failure. Your vision and your words are wrong… Instead,
you must think of yourself and all of us as birth attendants upon the
world. We will and must try to do our utmost to bring about a good delivery
as it is our responsibility. However, we, absolutely, cannot think in
terms of success and failure. We simply must do all we can in the best
way that we know to help the world irrespective of any presumed outcome.
Our effort, in and by itself, must be our whole focus.”
In a similar vein, we know where personally isolating ourselves from
personal and global difficulties, while doing nothing to try to address
them, leads. We, also, know where indulging in various forms of self-advancement,
at the exclusion of others, does. What we do not know, though, is how
intentional changes in some life choices can make a difference. Nonetheless,
we have to try out these alternatives. After all, it is the only viable
way to proceed toward our world's future!
Sometimes, I wonder what Gandhi might think if he were to see the world
as it is today. Would he be gloomy?
At times, it staggers the imagination to consider the depths of depravity
into which people, individually and collectively, can sink in a self-serving,
greedy desires to control, destroy and/or own all. At the same time,
it greatly amazes that this orientation can exist along side of unrestrained
expressions of extreme self-sacrifice, unbreakable compassion even in
the most dire circumstances and extraordinary outpourings of tenderly
rendered care. How contradictory the two directions are!
In the end, it is up to each
and every one of us to decide the type of world we want to help create.
What version of the future do we want?
I do know yours and need the hopeful vision that it creates. It helps
makes life worthwhile and serves to propels me onward.
So, thank you for it and for the time you dedicated to improving our
collective condition. Both have brought us a world of goodness. In the
end, this goodness can never be destroyed.
Emily Spence lives in MA and deeply cares about the future of the world.
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