Last week, a group of U.S. army veterans knelt before Native American tribal leaders and spoke the following words:
“We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. We took still more, we took your children and then we tried to take your language… We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”
The army vets took a knee and lower themselves to the ground. Wesley Clark Jr, who spoke the above words, wore a U.S. cavalry uniform, the same worn by the mounted infantry of the US Indian Wars over a hundred years ago. Lifted high above ground, cavalry held a tactical advantage in war leading the way for the expulsion of native peoples. Behind Clark, stood women and men in more contemporary uniform; ‘Be all you can be’ era cloth donned by army rangers and military recruits in choppers above the heads of Afghanis and Iraqis.
These veterans who have fought to protect and serve their country bowed down under the gaze of the stern Lakota chief. From the height of the horse and flight of the black hawk they lowered themselves in one of the most courageous acts of our time. Wesley Clark Jr., the son of NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark Sr., placed his head under the Lakota chief’s hand asking for his blessing. The Tao Te Ching says, “it is the lowest point to which water flows. Make yourself low and you fill up.” By lowering himself, Mr. Clark made himself a vessel for the shame of a nation to pour through. Those vets on one knee served as conduits for millions of people to face their shame – a history of genocide, deceit and injustice.
Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” As a nation, there is only so high we can go. Like an overloaded hot air balloon we can only reach the nadir of our ascension if we lighten our load. We are held down by shame, it speaks to us from beneath the earth in the depths of our collective subconscious. Our nation was built on the backs of slaves, natives, exploited workers, incarcerated people, people of color, and immigrants. Until we recognize and empathize with the plight of these people, their spirits will continue to haunt and affect our behavior.
We boast of being the ‘greatest nation on earth’ but practice contradiction. Instead of leading the way for the creation of a global society, which would be expectant of the ‘greatest nation’, we are shrinking our reach. The vote for Trump was a vote to pull in and succeed from global community. Just as Brexit was a succession from inclusivity, our populist movement in the states continues the thread of withdrawal. A republican vote is a conservative gesture, one of protection and security. The election is a shrinking back into our shell, a withdrawal from the world and the countercurrent trend of openness and availability.
Fear is real. It is instinctual. It protects us. It serves us and saves us. No shame should be levied on those who act out of fear. The trend can tell us something. We are not ready to sit at Martin’s mountaintop, for our bags are too heavy. We cannot ascend to the peak where all paths, cultures and traditions converge, for there is a heavy load in our air balloon carriage. The job of the fearless now is to go down – to unhitch the unconscious binds that hold us back from realizing our potential as a nation and as a species.
This going down, in greek katabasis, is the work of Wesley Clark Jr. and his crew. It is the work of taking a knee and humbling oneself. It is the work of returning to earth, humus the latin word from which ‘humility’ derives. We were not ready to do this work after September 11th. We were too outraged, too incensed from being knocked down to feel the earth under our cheek. I remember watching one of my fellow New Yorkers on TV, interviewed in the streets of downtown Manhattan, “We gotta do something about this – fly some planes over there and do something about this.” Our pride and identity was struck down and we got up too quick and too soon. Like the dizzy ninja in the YouTube video who tries to get up after falling on his face, we stumbled through the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We stumbled through housing market collapse and global financial crisis. We stumbled through Bush era politics and neoliberal policies all the while we heard the off camera voice plead, “stay down!”
Examples of social katabasis do exist. In 2008, Australia issued an official apology for the stolen generation, a national policy that tore apart thousands of aboriginal families. This admittance of shame is in addition to their National Sorry Day, which commemorates the mistreatment of Australia’s indigenous population. In his film “Where to Invade Next” Michael Moore visits Germany to document how the country lives with the shame of WWII. The history of the Holocaust is taught in all school and monuments to those who perished proliferate German towns and cities. Because of recognition, concludes Moore, the people of Germany are able to grieve and in so doing increase their capacity to appreciate life. The grief empties out, the lowering of the heads allows the tears to flow into the earth.
There is something in the earth that needs our attention. Until we as a nation can take a knee and bow our head, we will never as a nation be able to take our rightful place at the seat of an advanced civilized earth. It is in bowing one’s head that healing can occur. It is in admitting the wrongdoing, recognizing injustice and owning up to it that one can be free of its load. This flexibility increases range and capacity. One is able to hold more sensation in one’s body on a personal level and collectively in the body politic.