Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Jungle, and a Life of Meaning

Some of my family worked in the Chicago Stockyards, back around the turn of the last century. They slaughtered the hogs, worked in unsanitary conditions, and one of them died there in a horrible accident.

As a young person, maybe 13, they gave us The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, to read. It characterized what some of my ancestors went through, and was written by an activist, hoping to draw awareness to the conditions. Upton Sinclair became my de facto hero. He opened up a whole world to me, both in terms of understanding where we came from and lived through, and also, where we draw our power...

Here's one of my favorite passages from The Jungle:

"It is very imprudent, it is tragic – but, ah, it is so beautiful! Bit by bit these poor people have given up everything else; but to this they cling with all the power of their souls – they cannot give up the veselija! To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat – and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going. The veselija has come down to them from a far-off time; and the meaning of it was that one might dwell within the cave and gaze upon shadows, provided only that once in his lifetime he could break his chains, and feel his wings, and behold the sun; provided that once in his lifetime he might testify to the fact that life, with all its cares and its terrors, is no such great thing after all, but merely a bubble upon the surface of a river, a thing that one may toss about and play with as a juggler tosses his golden balls, a thing that one may quaff, like a goblet of rare red wine. Thus having known himself for the master of things, a man could go back to his toil and live upon the memory all his days."

I'm looking at that passage now, and thinking of how it might relate to me (or any one of us) today. The Veselija in the passage was a traditional Lithuanian wedding feast, and so Sinclair is talking about celebration and tradition.

If, in our times of greatest oppression or sorrow, we lose our ability to celebrate using our traditions, we have lost it all. He talks of the difference between defeat and acknowledging defeat. We can, on all counts, be defeated, but if we acknowledge it, we may well lose everything. Life being no great thing at all, seems to me to mean more precisely that the struggles we encounter in life are really no great thing at all, despite how we may feel about them.

He speaks of traditions, that allow us to return to the flow of life, having simply lived it through celebration. Rejecting the acknowledgement of defeat, it seems to me is to be taking one's power back.

For example, if you have a terrible situation that you are in, it can create tunnel vision, where all that you can see is the bad that is happening or has happened. Over time, the bad begins to define your experience and perhaps even your life. In doing so, it takes the power from you, the power to be happy, to have a sense of peace, contentment and wholeness about you. Soon, all perspective is lost.

If instead, you turn back to said terrible situation and refused to allow it to define you any longer, refused to acknowledge defeat, you might find yourself celebrating the everyday moments, or even the special traditions of your respective culture.

Not everything has to be a wedding feast - we can find the daily moments, or we can find the special traditions and enact them. Doing this defies the concept of defeat. Cling to this with all the power of your soul! Celebrate using your traditions!

So, I'm going to do the happy dance of being a traditional Cherokee woman, knowing our power, and laughing in the face of such supposed big, scary things that life waves before my face. Not that we actually have a happy dance, but I feel empowered to make one up. Regardless, in my celebration, I am going to embrace what it means to be me, and revel in it with abandon!

How about you? What are YOU going to do?

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