Spiritual muscle, courage, and non-compliance

Caitlin Breedlove
Jan 12, 2017 · 6 min read
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Many of us have read articles and studies about how masses of people react when faced with oppressive and dictatorial regimes. Most people start to self-censor and grow self-protective all by themselves before they are even asked (let alone forced) to comply. They anticipate the line, and start to stay far within the realms of it. Of course, some people always refuse to comply and resist. Most of us, when studying history, picture ourselves as the ones who resist. But, how do we actually be those people that are worthy of being remembered as resisters and non-compliers?

All my social justice work has been done in red states, under primarily hostile (racist, homophobic, classist, etc.) state and local governments. In some cases, local elected officials were friendlier to causes we worked around, but even as we ran local campaigns, we knew that conservative state government would seek to dismantle any wins we advanced.

All the courage that organizing has given me comes from seeing and learning courage in action, witnessing courage from others. My own courage has not appeared because I willed it into existence, or because of big speeches I made, or because I told myself I should be brave. The courage that I have now (which fails me sometimes still in moments of doubt) comes from organizing with Black, Latinx and LGBTQ people in red states. It comes from being in deep relationship, and seeing my political fate as tied to people other than myself. That is the courage I recognize when I look at Standing Rock. It is not a courage that came from data or facts. It was not the courage of the ‘late adopters’: those who jump on the bandwagons of campaigns or movements when they seem like a safe bet. It is the courage that leads you to make peace with what side you are on — regardless of outcome.

In the beginning of Trump’s regime, the seduction of cowardice is powerful for those of us with many privileges. Many of us have never been persecuted because of our political beliefs, our religion, our race, our sexual orientation, or our political work. We feel the risk of ‘standing out’ and we are filled with unfamiliar feelings. We are scared. We are ashamed to say we are scared, especially when we know we are not the most at risk. Our muscle for overcoming fear is not strong, because we have not had to use it as much as others in our society. Our egos have a hard time reconciling our reactions with the idea of cowardice. We tell ourselves: “I am not a coward. I am just being reasonable!” It seems harsh to use that word for our behavior. If others were to refer to us that way, we would be defensive. But, what if we look at the word referencing a phenomenon that affects institutions and groups of people? What if we made it less individualistic? What if we also framed ‘courage’ less around individual actions and more around groups?

Cowardice organically appears when people are comfortable and there is an absence of courage around us. Social isolation feeds it. Because it is a sentiment that travels among groups of people (like courage) it becomes easy to accept if we did not express cowardice first, but are just ‘going along with it’. Because courage comes from action and is often contagious, it is not surprising that in its absence we can comfort each other into cowardice. We tell each other: “But, I have a right to be scared! My concerns are real!” Of course they are. There are real things to be afraid of, and not all of us have to take all actions at all times. But, fear can also encourage us to over-state the risk, or trick us into feeling that we are alone in the risk. The reality is that the more of us who are willing to not comply with Trump’s regime, the safer we individually are.

Cowardice comes in many forms. It often starts with sentences such as: “Well, I wish we could help but it is just too risky.” There is a reason that so many of us are talking right now about the fact that Nazi sympathizers and collaborators did not see themselves as such in the moment. Many never came to see themselves as such, though history identifies them that way. Many who have complied with ‘the new normal’ of oppressive regimes over time have done so by keeping their heads down, doing their job, and committing to a daily practice of denial. Millions have told themselves: “I am not the one hurting, killing, or torturing anyone. I am just doing my job.” Sometimes they did so because they knew with a great deal of certainty that to protest meant to be killed. That is not a situation I have faced, and thus don’t have a position on it. Others have faced not a direct threat for speaking out, but more a general fear of how doing so would impact their lives.

Many of these thoughts are not new. However, in this moment, movements around the world (and in indigenous communities right here in the US) are telling us to pay attention to the fact that that US exceptionalism is a powerful drug. US exceptionalism encourages us to not study the history of any place besides our own, in any time but our own. It invites us to think that while our symptoms might very much match those of neo-fascist regimes in other places, our disease could not possibly be the same because, of course, we are the USA.

Compliance is so seductive a response because it involves simply going along with a force already in motion. Compliance does not imply harm or evil started with us. It does not imply that we created it. We simply yielded to it. Non-compliance means we have to reckon with what evils we cannot stomach. It gives us the spiritual opportunity to engage around where we are willing to comply, and where we refuse to do so. Most of the times when I have engaged in heightened (public or visual) non-compliance, I have also had to face all the times that I have complied with what I know as evil in the world. I have not seen myself as a hero in those moments. I have seen myself as someone who has been complacent with many evils, but who has moments of saying: “Not today. For the salvation of my one and only soul, not today.” What I can say is that the more I have sat in the fear and discomfort of non-compliance, the more I have known myself as someone with the spiritual muscles to do so. It is still frightening every time. But, I have never been alone in those fears, or those risks.

These reflections have brought me to a process of committing to asking myself questions in this time of Trump.

A few questions I am reflecting on (in my own words, in line with my own spiritual language):

  • How am I not complying with evil in my time today?
  • Given the times we are in (of spiritual, political, environmental crisis) how am I contending for my own spiritual salvation?
  • Where today have I had the humility to face the moment?
  • How can I move away from trying to ‘save’ others, and towards the salvation of the ‘us’ and the ‘we’?
  • How am I resisting Trumpism’s ‘new normal’ today?
  • How am I centering the goal of ‘harm reduction over heroics’ in my organizing each day?
  • How am I teaching what I know that is most relevant to now?
  • How am I learning what I need to know now?
  • How am I a part of building a deeper constellation in my daily life of those who also are seeking to not comply in this moment?

We have much to fear. We have much to lose. Some of us stand to lose much more than others. But, we also have the responsibility for which feelings we collectively spread. If we spread cowardice, cowardice will be the infection we have. If we spread courage, there will be consequences. We will be in the discomfort (and sometimes pain) of non-compliance. We will lose some things, I think. We will have days where we comply, and feel that was the right choice in the moment. But, we also will get better at it. We will learn better how to not comply in this time. Only by having courage can we invite others into courage. We cannot invite others if we are cowardly and talk about courage. It’s like teaching someone to ride a bike — it is pretty hard to share the skill if you don’t know how to do it yourself.

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