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In-Between Time

by Fran Peavey

This article is excerpted from an August 1988 talk, and from a later article based on that talk. Fran's message originated in a time when many activists' attention was shifting from the cataclysmic implications of nuclear war to the cataclysmic implications of environmental degradation. It has a fascinating appropriateness for those of us facing the cataclysmic implications of Y2K. In her talk, Fran addressed what it is like to live in times of great threat and uncertainty -- and how to nurture a life-affirming spirit of active, attentive waiting through which we can become more human.

There is an old myth from India which speaks very much to our condition today. It is about the huma bird, a magical creature that lives in the remotest reaches of the stratosphere and which, from birth to death, never touches ground or tree. It eats, sleeps, hunts and mates in flight, and from the loftiest heights the mother lays her egg in the air. The egg starts falling -- and if there were any observers in that mythical realm, they would certainly shudder in fear to see that helpless newborn plummeting toward certain death. The egg plunges faster and faster toward earth -- but as it falls, the embryo inside is rapidly taking form: its little body is developing, its feet, and head, and wings; and as its beak becomes hard, it starts to peck away at the inside of the shell. Suddenly the shell bursts open and the baby chick emerges into the world to find itself hurtling like a meteor towards disaster. But as the ground looms ever larger and closer in its sight, it feels its little wings unfolding, and its feathers growing and drying out. Just in the split second before it crashes to the ground -- to instant annihilation -- it flaps its tiny new wings, and flies up, up, up into the sky to join its mother in the highest heavens, far above the clouds.

Many of us feel like the huma bird these days. How are we going to break the shell of our despair, our addiction to comfort, and our spiritual immaturity? For some of us our beaks are not hardened, others wonder if their wings will dry quickly enough to fly back to safety -- together and individually. Humanity is right in the middle of that period when we can see that the old is dead. We do not yet see what is being born. We are trying to see from inside the egg the bird that we will be.

Many people are seeing the planet's need and moving to meet it. People are learning to define themselves by their vulnerability and their ability to overcome that vulnerability and to rise above their woundedness. We are looking for ways to live beyond self-interest and monotony. We struggle on a new axis to define security and heroism and to find ourselves. We cannot be unaffected by the situation that exists in our lives, in the space between us and in the society all around us. We can either deny it or go through it together. Every day my task is to say that I am prepared to go through this with you -- not to pull away and hide. I have a choice to make, as do you, with the people in your world who suffer from the modern age. We are not exempt from what is happening in our world. It is kind of arrogant to think that the earth's condition wouldn't touch us personally.

New heroes are emerging who are learning how to relate in a non-dominator, open, and flexible manner. They are lernaing how to live with change, with ambiguity and complexity.

When I visited South Africa, I sensed some part of their philosophy of life -- the way they carry hope and hopelessness -- that is important for our times. Waiting is a spiritual task. How can we learn to wait -- to be with each other with the devastating information we now know? We ask ourselves what time is it in individual lives and in the life of our species. And we realize that we don't know. We tell ourselves stories, we lose ourselves in the swirl of everyday activities, we pretend that we are indifferent about the waiting and the toll it takes on us, we rehearse its arrival, we affirm our faith in a transcendent power, we pray for higher spirits to intercede for us in the molding of the future. We invent magic and rituals to help us explore the meaning of the waiting.

We learn from our waiting. We become disciplined, tough, hardened, and stoical. And yet we learn to touch in an intimate and loving reality rarely reached in ordinary life, We really understand interconnectedness in operational terms, and find an intense joy often as we find and stand in a shard of light. Whatever we face, we face together.

I decided in the very early days that I would ask myself every day the strategic question, "What can I do to help the world survive?" I was willing to give the life force an opportunity to create answers and the will inside of me by first walking answerless into the void. I was prepared to do that for ten years without an answer. To be willing to ask strategic questions to which there are no known answers, and to wait is one of the most difficult and heroic tasks we can do now. To continue to ask and consult that universal life force to direct us is, I believe, one of the most valuable beak-hardening and spiritually maturing tasks we can do in our time.

We also must be willing to do whatever the life force from within suggests. Often it is only a small thing that comes in the morning. I think it is important to carry out those small ideas in order to develop my "doing" muscles -- to prove to myself and to the earth that I am standing ready. At the same time, when the big jobs come, I work on my shyness and small concept of myself to say, "I'm ready." I wait, standing ready, asking every day for direction from the life force planted inside of my being -- and inside all beings -- that can make a great difference in this crucial time. Each of us can only do a very little to help the whole situation -- but each small piece is an important piece in creating the whole shift.

It is important how we carry this waiting. Start paying attention to how you wait. Find a way to smile on that waiting. I very much appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh's suggestion that we learn to smile on our own and others' suffering -- not smiling derisively, but smiling as a way of joining ourselves to the suffering. It is very important that we keep laughing in the midst of our waiting, in the midst of our fears and morbidity. Whatever we are dying of individually and collectively, it is a key spiritual posture to smile upon our human condition. This, of course, does not preclude crying for the grief in the death, trembling with fear or raging in anger.

How can we allow the life force to inform and inspire us? We learn to wait. We can look at each other in our meetings and on the street. We can recognize each other. We are surrounded by people who are working to develop the muscle to do what has to be done -- moving individually and collectively to meet the need. The old is dead, the new is not yet ready to be born. We are in the in-between time -- and so we wait.

Fran Peavey -- an inventive, resolute and funny woman whose life is an adventure in progressive social change -- is the author of Heart Politics, By Life's Grace and other books. She is a co-founder of Interhelp, a network of social activists who focus on the spiritual, psychological and political dimensions of change.