Finding Love In Solitude

12 Jan

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”  – bell hooks

This evening I built another fire. A fire with wood that I split alone, stacked alone, and carried inside alone. I found childlike delight in the process, choosing each log individually, brushing off the snow, and positioning it for ideal splitting. Every movement, every motion, was different from the last. No swing of the mull was like another, and yet there was a beautiful repetition and form that I repeated over and over again. The process, which began months ago with a dead tree in the woods, ended in this fire that warms my house and my heart.

My heart, like all hearts, needs warming. And the heart of this winter has brought many challenges: the anniversary of my father’s departure from this world, the end of a long relationship, and my sister’s close call with death just days ago. Behind the simple joy of cutting wood and building fires looms a shadow that I cannot shake. From all outward appearances, the shadow is an utterly frightening place, an abode of deep loss, desolation, loneliness, and immense vulnerability.

When I encounter this place, I want to run. The primitives in my mind – the lone animal in me that sees a predator or stumbles to the edge of a chasm – tell me to move as far away from this place as possible. “Find people, find love, find companionship,” it shouts. “If you stay alone, you will be eaten.” And while this is true in the natural world of packs, clans, herds, and flocks, the spiritual world may demand something else.  So I think about how “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”

When a friend shared the above quote by bell hooks, she had no idea just how pertinent it would be for me in the weeks to come. I had been struggling for months with a decision to end my relationship. It was a decision that I knew would send me into a familiar place of existential fear and grief. And when I finally made that decision, the initial relief and newfound hope gave way to intense memories of companionship and love, which left me feeling deeply empty.

But as another comrade reminded me quite recently, a current loss opens the door to all the losses of our lifetime. As I was working the wood tonight, there was an anomaly. Just as I landed the mull perfectly on the round, some fibrous shrapnel slammed into my forehead, just above my right eye. I involuntarily fell to my knees, and after taking a moment to regain my composure, a flood of sadness followed. The sadness was about my father, whom I lost five years ago. It was about the days that we spent cutting wood together and stoking our wood stove. And it was about my sister, who just a few days ago was rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening emergency. It was about the time she and I spent playing outside, riding horses, and fortifying our beaches on the little creek below the house. When I lean into these memories and the grief surrounding them, I find abundance, warmth, and love.

Without having moments of solitude, I could not know this experience. I would have someone to distract me, to talk away the pain before I find the gold. While friends and companions are important for the soul, I know that I must be aware of when I am using them to escape the grief that is, in fact, my friend. Grief is like the sickly puppy I rescued years ago. She is now a beautiful dog who gives back every ounce of love I gave her. Grief appears empty – feels empty – on the outset. But when you are able to discover its tender underbelly, it transforms into love and light.

My plea to you, the reader: Spend time with friends and loved ones, but also take that long pause. Build a fire, all by yourself.  In lieu of a fire, light a candle and sit with yourself.  To be alone for long periods of time can give you the chance to be comfortable in your own skin, tend to the grief of a lifetime, and emerge with immense love and courage.

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Tibet, 2005: Max sending wind horses into the sky. Photo: Kristin Brudevold

Fear and The Great Mystery

9 Dec

By Max Woodfin

In my last public writing, I mentioned books that corresponded with my thoughts. I will continue to do this occasionally, including here and now: Last night I fell asleep just as I finished the final chapter of Ian Baker’s The Heart of the World. When I awoke, this happened:

This morning, in attempt to create warmth while the outside air dropped to a daunting -10, I brazenly stepped outside with less clothing on than would sustain a typical human for ten minutes. My hands, unarmed, quickly drew in the cold, and my body responded to the signal with a slight sensation of panic. I gathered an armful of wood and made my way back to the door. Despite the knowledge that the warmth of my home was only thirty feet away, something in my body’s core of wisdom told me to be at least mildly afraid of impending death. This experience is very familiar to me because, as I now realize it, I have spent much of my life playing the game of encountering death. And somehow I suspect that I am not the only one.

I have endured many adventures of remote solitude in my short lifetime. When I think back on the first thirty years of my life, I see that I spent almost half of those years journeying into lands that many would consider formidable. I sought solitude in Southeast Asia’s remote forest monasteries; I pursued meaning in the conflict-ridden borderlands of Burma, Kashmir, and Laos; I walked off of roads in eastern Tibet and into mountainscapes that lie between the lands mapped to the outside world.  I have endeavored through numerous retreats, vision quests, and rites of passage in my life; and since my youth I have planned and executed many a solo journey into deserts, mountains, and forests.

But despite everywhere I have been and all the experience of survival I have endured, I am still utterly frightened of silence and space.  The more I lean into my fear, the more I understand what it is about. Death. And the more I understand that it is about death, the less I understand what it is really about. I am holding two seemingly irreconcilable motives. I seem to be cradling the child who seeks the comfort of the womb, and I am encouraging the child who first stood in the woods behind his home and uttered the words, “I am me.”

You might say that my experience of silence, space, and solitude is dualistic.  On one hand, my natural tendency toward introversion guides me away from what I perceive as superficial chatter and into the quiet and pure lands of solo being. I wander through silent forests, relish in boating on North America’s western rivers, and find the divine in waking up alone to the morning sun. It has only been 16 hours since I last looked upon another human, but these 16 hours have been a gift. In this very moment my world feels wide open, and I know it is because I have finally stepped away from society’s frenetic chatter.

On the other hand, my tendency as a social creature is to feel some discomfort and loneliness when I encounter silence, space, and solitude.  When I walked outside on this cold morning, my sense of panic was not just simply that I could die out there while gathering wood; it was actually a deep sense of loneliness – that my journey toward the great divine might ultimately entail a severance from what I perceive as connection. That I could die alone.

I have no hard beliefs, but rather have amassed some clues that death itself, or experience with death, is a doorway to some manifestation of ultimate reality. But the initial experience of death is harsh to our habituated comforts. When we lose someone we love, it is a drastic, traumatizing severance. The trauma lives on in the body long after we have found some sort of intellectual reconciliation. Every ensuing encounter with death provokes this trauma. My encounter with the cold; any time I climb mountains and feel the fear of impending, spacious falling; swimming in cold water; the moment a car skids out in front of me on an icy patch: These are the moments that kick in those feelings of severance and remind me that I have a bigger journey in front of me. Bigger than my career, bigger than building my social network, bigger than raising a family, and bigger than recounting my past successes. Yet all of these “accomplishments” are important worldly attempts to begin this passage into the unknown.

As I see it, we fill up our lives with events, materials, and other indications of outward importance as a way of avoiding our impending encounters with death. Death is with us always, and most of my heroes – perhaps most of your heroes – are those who have learned ways to accept our impending passage fully. As we remember those who fought to make our lives fuller, we might remember that they accepted death. Consider the contemporary likes of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. And then consider their historical predecessors: Christ, Buddha, Mohammed. Death was on their tongue, and so was life. The most dead I feel is when I indulge in the mundane material. The most alive I feel is when I walk in from the fearsome cold with an armful of wood and begin to build a fire. Life slowly warms back into my body, and I once again feel myself perched on the edge of some sort of deeper knowing.

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“Death is a Force that Gives us Meaning”

21 Aug

Deep in the high desert of southwestern Tibet sits the lone peak of Mount Kailash. Along the footpath that pilgrims walk around the base of Kailash lies the ritual death ground of Siwastal. Pilgrims come to Siwastal to contemplate and enact death before completing their journey around the mountain. On my first walk around Kailash in 2004, I was mildly intrigued by the piles of clothing left behind by pilgrims who had slept on the rocks and shed their worldly possessions. On my second walk in 2006, I was a bit more intrigued by the fact that this 17,000 foot high, living graveyard was still being used. I noticed other things like bones and shoes and the stark gray of rock and ice that seemed to say, “You too will pass.”

Little did I know then. It was five years later that I would encounter death in a way that would rip me open to fears and terrors that were previously tucked away. And how little do I know now, which is why exploring death is so important to me.

In his book, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes that “Even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” When I saw him speak back in 2002, this former war journalist had a cold, almost resigned air to him. And although I had difficulty connecting with him because of this, I understood his message to us – it was a message cloaked in shadow and obscured by the icy entrails of the more destructive side of our nature. Death lurks around every corner of our conscious and unconscious minds, and our encounters with it have the power to help us fulfill our human potential. But our society does little to support us in our encounters with death. In fact, our tendency to suppress death, nominate it to distant war zones, or otherwise box it into funerals and graveyards forces us to live with the low hum of impending nonexistence.

North American society appears to lack a conscious confrontation of death. And it is no secret that we avoid speaking about death, let alone confronting it in ourselves. Often, when we speak of or witness death, we do so in the sensation of news reports and courtroom drama, or in war. The sub-populations that come closest to confronting death ritualistically – the men and women who serve in the armed forces – confront death in an absurdity of modern warfare, often returning home not with palpable wisdom and a message about death, but with an internal chaos and non-integrated knowledge of ultimate demise.

Mary Pipher, a renowned clinical psychologist who has recently written about our conscious evasion of environmental disaster in The Green Boat, speaks to people about humanity’s grief over loss; in this case, she is speaking about loss of a healthy world ecology. I look deeply into this grief. Like Chris Hedges, she is speaking to something deeper in our society, the tendency to avoid not just negative feelings, but the ultimate fear of collective and individual death. Through the voice of our media and political infrastructure, we have developed an unrivaled institutional avoidance of death. And as our avoidance of death and all the fears surrounding death may lead us to experience it through unhealthy rituals of war and evening news violence, so does our institutional avoidance of death promote the clamoring fervor of material wealth to the detriment of our world’s ecological equilibrium.

When we avoid death, our flailing and costly attempts to live grow out of control. And we suffer. I know this personally. Since the death of my father, I have flailed and spurted, searching externally for the feeling of walking on solid ground. I have crashed and burned and taken people with me. And every once in a while, I have faced his death head on. And in his death I see my own. In those moments of clarity, of tears and honesty, I have felt more alive, more centered, more real. In those moments, I have seen the suffering of others, especially those close to me, and I have loved them even more and hurt them less.

Death needs a reinvigoration movement. There is nothing more life-giving than an honest, face-to-face conversation with death – a conversation in which we listen carefully to the silence and stillness that death gives us. In this conversation we will meet with terror and demons, mostly our own. But the outcome of this conversation is our ultimate triumph, our evolution as a species. Just think of what might happen if the fathers of war all meditated on their own demise, or if investors in natural resource extraction had a conversation with their own death and the collective death of us all. Perhaps there would be peace in the knowledge that we will ultimately die, but also an invigorated effort to live a balanced life. Life and death are impossible without each other; one reminds us that the other is sacred.

This all starts with you and me. I encourage you to meditate upon death – yours and others’.  This is a necessary part of our effort to confront all the material and nonmaterial problems of our world – environmental, political, and spiritual. It is an ancient covenant shared across traditions by pilgrims to Kailash, Mecca, and Jerusalem. It is a covenant that we should take comfort in.  Our conversation with death releases us into life, allowing that we may all say we are fully living.  In the next few days, I encourage you to watch the way death manifests in your environment. Notice what stirs inside you, and move toward that stirring. I assure you that I will be doing the same, and am perennially curious to know what your conversations with death may bring.

-Max Woodfin

http://www.maxwoodfin.com

Our Wandering Youth as Society’s Heroes

23 May

For the past year I have been considering our society’s movement toward more gap years, summers abroad, wilderness explorations, and adventure education programs. Of course I had thought about these programs a lot in the past because I worked as an experiential educator for ten years. But after five years in the field of psychology, I began looking at them from a different, more sociological angle. Ultimately, the arrows all pointed back to my own experience.

For years I wandered. First to France when I was sixteen to live with my great uncle, then to Thailand for a year as an exchange student. And then on to Laos, China, India, Tibet, and many other lands in between. I did this wandering for fifteen years. Often I held a job that either took me to these places or helped me stay in them. And sometimes I just walked from town to town through forests or mountains, exploring people and their lands.

And I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Journals stacked into storage, electronic files went onto hard drives, and random notes scratched onto looseleaf ended up in boxes. I wanted to tell my story, but who was my audience? My parents for the most part. In 1998, in a dingy old classroom in south-central Thailand, I typed dozens of letters on an old typewriter and posted them from the town post office. And my parents read those letters, sometimes responding with their own thoughts on my observations. And now I realize just how important their thoughts were to me. Someone was listening and helping me integrate my experience, even if they had no idea what things were really like.

But for a moment, I want to back up and give some more rationale for what I want to share with you. It begins with the fact that humans are migratory creatures, evolved to wander in search of new spaces and lands in hopes of improving our lot, gaining security, and finding resources. It is an essential trait of our existence – exploration – that has led to our indulgence in wealth, stockpiling, hoarding, monopolizing. But the tempered side of this trait is our ability to nest, make use of our innate frugal nature, build small but quality homes, and share thoughtfully with each other.

Throughout our lifetime, we all need to wander and explore. It is a rite, a movement to ultimate self-identity and to understand our place in the world. This is why, in the twenty-first century, adventure programs and other facilitated experiences are becoming not for the rare, self-motivated outliers, but a requisite experience for the middle and upper classes of our society (and hence the need for more scholarships and nonprofit outfits that open this opportunity for those who cannot afford them). There is no clearer sign in our modern world that our youth are needing a greater global context to their existence.

And this brings me to what I think is direly important for us to consider as a society: The more we embrace this movement for our youth to explore the world, the more we need to help them integrate those experiences into their lives, and our own lives. They are like journalists for us, equipped with not just journals and a keen sense of observation, but also an exploratory energy that many of us have long lost. We need to learn from them and ask both simple and deep questions of them. They are heroes embarking on the journeys that we have yet to endeavor ourselves. The question, “How was it?” is not sufficient – not for our own learning, nor for their processing. Nor is it sufficient for us to tell them what they will find (even if we have explored the world ourselves, we do not know what beautiful discoveries they will make with their mind as the pilot).

To ask our youth questions about their experiences, we need to get detailed and we need to be authentically curious. Many times, a traveler will give clues to her experience through emails or phone calls. Listen for the key words – the places they name, the people they meet, the things they see – and then ask. Ask them about the specifics. Let them tell their story in all its darkness and light. Travel and exploring involves encountering our own inner difficulties and sorrows, as well as our own ability to live fully. For a youthful wandering to become a truly integrated benefit to all of us, we need to embrace its intricate fabric.

As we continue this modern movement of walkabouts, we need to find ways to integrate them into our social fabric. We need to hold them as sacred and give our youth the tools to move through them safely and with integrity. And to give them tools, we need tools. We need these experiences ourselves or we need to learn deeply about how they affect our (and our youth’s) psyche. So if you have not wandered, wander. Even if it is only for a week or a day, find the space and time to explore with as little structure as possible. And then understand that this is a part of what our youth need to do in order to break into adulthood.

My journeys as a young adult brought me many revelations, most of which were small but helpful. The big “aha” moments are few and far between, but the cumulative experiences often leads to a “changed” view of the world, hopefully a wider and more compassionate view. For me, the support of my family helped me integrate my experiences into my life’s work; I wish the same support for the travelers who are now setting out into the world.

– Max Woodfin

A Semi-Urban Guide to Resistance and Acceptance

8 Nov

To the north lies a limestone mountain called Changchong, its round and bald peak quietly looking down on the burgeoning population of southwest China’s fastest growing city. The city itself stretches around the mountain to the east and west, and almost crawls up its flanks. But at some point the mountain holds steady and the people yield.

I, too, must yield to the world around me when I seek tranquility on my bicycle in this booming metropolis. And there are times when I wish I did not have to yield. Today, for example, I rode west and north from my home, seeking a new way out of town and into the mountains. I skipped the two roads I already knew, hoping to discover a faster way into the forests and meadows. But as one dead-end followed another, and as more and more people shook their heads dispassionately when I asked them to help me get out of the city, I grew weary. The roads I did find all led to tunnels that I, the cyclist, was not allowed to enter. I suddenly felt claustrophobic, stuck behind the walls of the mountains in this oppressive and cold urban landscape. Although I knew I had other ways out, I became angry with the shackles we have put on ourselves. And the more trucks that rolled by and the more dead-ends I found, the louder my internal noise grew: “Oh, so if I want to find a rural sanctuary, I have to be in a car to go through the tunnels. I get it. We have created a world for ourselves where nature is something to find, not to be.”

But anger lasts only for so long before we have to look at what lies behind it.

We must resist that which turns us away from each other, that which dehumanizes us: Urban landscapes designed for vehicles, not people; marketplaces designed for material wealth, not nurturing collective needs; disparities that leave the privileged craving more and the less privileged craving what others have. So we must resist this; we must look for change.

Yet resistance is the very thing that erodes our inner peace. Resistance to natural cycles is the impetus behind our massive drive to build misguided infrastructure and collect wealth. And acceptance is the antidote to dehumanizing behaviors. In our modern psyche, two such concepts cannot exist in the same sphere of thought. As we perceive it, thought itself is linear, not circular, and because language and thought are  fundamental to our lives, we feel perplexed and unhappy when the linear way is disrupted.  How can we mount our resistance to dehumanization while accepting our condition as it is?

Old spiritual traditions teach us much about our dualistic nature. In Taoist thought, the way of nature lies within the undulation of seemingly opposing forces; such cooperative opposition is the fundamental energy of life. Considering my deep desire to see our humanity evolve, I choose to accept my resistance to the alienating world of development while finding ways to be content within and without its structure. This is easier to practice knowing that we will change and we will ultimately evolve toward compassionate coexistence. We have no choice.

In my short journey today, I found peace with my world without dismissing the desire for change. As I began circling the city back towards my home in the north, I found a pathway to freedom. Instead of resisting the (literal) obstacles in my path, I made like water around rocks, swift in my own current and letting the world around me shape my speed. And although I did notice that every road seemed to turn me toward the barren center of the city, I found small rivulets that cut back toward other channels leading me home.  In this journey, I found small pieces of humanity: The bike lanes allowed me to roll past rush hour traffic; at a traffic light a wide-eyed infant pounded her tiny fist on her mother’s shoulder as the two coo’d in unison; a side road revealed to me a neighborhood of kids playing games with their shoes and neighbors gossiping about the day. I only wished for more of this.

I dream of urban landscapes that turn one human to another and open the natural cycles of the earth to its people: neighborhoods built for humans, not commuting workers; shops built for interaction, not faceless bartering; roadways built for everyone, not for the few. But I will not let these deep desires for humanity in the face of inhuman trends drive me to misanthropy. Instead, I wish to turn toward the things that are good for humanity: laughing with strangers, infusing humor and love into even the hardest of interactions. It is a cold world sometimes, and we can do our part to make it warmer. We can resist the inhuman by moving toward each other, a task I am working hard to practice in my own life.

Resist. Accept resistance. And accept everything we have without resisting. This is the paradox I am trying to accept. For now, I nimbly break the traffic rules in solidarity with the trucks, tractors, horse carts, motor-wagons, and BMW’s, finding my fluid weave through the City of Eternal Spring under the watchful eyes of Changchong Mountain.

The River’s Revolutionary Ways

17 Jan

Though I am gone from it – having left in a torrent of meetings, encounters, and last-minute trips to coasts and borders – it still runs deeply through my body. When I sit awake, late in the cold night, my mind drifts back to the slow churning of the broad and muddy river and its creative energy.  I sit awake because I am considering how I left the river, how I seemed to forget the Mekong in my haste to project myself through the throes of social complexities. What began as my project to sink deeply into the ways of a river ended with me casting my boat aside and throwing myself down a torrent of unpredictable waters.  Where I thought I was seeking stability, I was actually seeking chaos.  But like a good parent, the river let me go.  It let me wander away or into its turbulence without protest, yet it had already instilled in me a deep sense of calm, a deep sense that no matter where I go and what I put myself through, the river still runs through my body.

It was very late in the game when I wound up on the Thai-Cambodian border. Time was running out and I had already left the Mekong to rekindle relationships with my host family in Thailand. But something called me back to Cambodia and the products of its chaotic history and shady governance. I remember when someone in Phnom Penh asked me for money so that he could eat. In the moments after I turned down the request, I gazed down the street.  Trash was everywhere and potholes slowed down a few SUV’s as they bounced through the neighborhood.  One of these cars, a black Lexus with tinted windows, stopped in the middle of the road for a few minutes, blocking all traffic so its passenger could engage in some roadside business.  When no one complained, I asked why.  My friend, Soriya, pointed at the license plates, “See? Government. You try to tell them, they beat you. Maybe you die later.” I looked back at the young man who asked me for money and a sense of hopelessness fell over me.

Somehow, though, I still believe freedom is attainable.  When I step back from the chaos and deprivation, from witnessing the powerful intimidate the powerless, and from my own forays into the fringes of this society, I feel the river again – the deep, magnificent flow of water that carves canyons with its mass, fertilizes valleys with its mud, and builds islands with its sediment. The creative power of the river arrives back in me. And then I realize how freedom from fear, from poverty, from sadness can be attained: creatively.

I left the river in my own chaos – something that I needed and, deep down, wanted. I watched men and women navigate the chaos that I had moved into.  And I watched some of them navigate it with ease, like the skilled paddler who finds her line before the descent.  They were the ones who had found creative ways to develop a skill against the odds. And in some cases, someone else had found a creative way to help them.  Creativity cannot come in a state of crisis, but it can come from the inner calm amid the crisis, and this is revolutionary.  As I journey forward through the chaos that I have now chosen as part of my life path (a path reflected in some of the events I describe here), I can thank the river for giving me the bold creativity to depart from its safe confines. I can thank it for how it runs through me, deep and alive.

Witnessing Genocide, Delayed.

23 Nov

Today, I walked the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime. There on the grounds of mass graves where bones, skulls, and teeth still lie, I felt the weight of my own ignorance come down upon me.  Shreds of cloth from children’s clothing remained untouched as tree roots grew down around them.  In all the time it took for those roots to entangle clothing that was ripped from children’s bodies, I knew little to nothing of the travesty suffered by the Khmer people during the regime of “Democratic Kampuchea.”  Whatever I may have felt, I could not name it, and in some cases had trouble feeling it.  But if there is any grace in witnesses like me arriving too late, it is this:

Today, hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the atrocities suffered by the Khmer people over three decades ago. Some walked the Killing Fields like me, some heard stories from survivors around Cambodia and the world, and some watched the beginning of the UN-backed tribunals of three of the Khmer Rouge’s most powerful leaders. I was one of these hundreds of thousands. Together, in one day, we were witnesses to events that traumatized a nation, a trauma that still echoes in survivors and their family’s minds and bodies. This was today, and unfortunately for the Khmer people, this witnessing was many days too late.

The word witness plays a special significance here. During the four years of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (“Democratic Kampuchea,” 1975-1979), direct witnesses were primarily Khmer people. The borders of the country were shut down; foreigners were deported; non-Khmer ethnics were arrested and imprisoned; and diplomats were restricted to the confines of an abandoned capital city. To make matters worse, for many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the UN recognized its government as the only legitimate government of Cambodia. Some have suggested that perhaps the UN and its supporters (including the US) can be partially forgiven, for they too were restricted in their access to Cambodia. The debate of responsibility can continue, and in the end we might realize that all of humanity is responsible for such a travesty, which is why I use the word witness with special emphasis.

As I silently moved around the mass graves of the Killing Fields in the heat of the midday sun, I realized that the suffering in my life might pale in comparison to the suffering of someone who watched his family burn around him, knowing that he, too, will burn, hang, bleed, starve, or be bludgeoned to death. But knowing my own suffering, as seemingly insignificant as it is, clarified for me how desperately I wish to avoid living through something like genocide. This is absolutely selfish, but it is this common selfishness that allows all of us to have compassion, to realize our common humanity. If we felt unscathed through suffering, with what motivation would we struggle against those who oppress others? What would drive us to protect each other from future atrocity?

Unfortunately, this was not the last genocide we have witnessed. There have been more since, and the suffering in Cambodia occurred well after the entire world witnessed the genocidal practices of the Nazi regime. Knowing all this could easily dissuade someone from making any effort to protect her fellow humans from a future act of violence against a population.

The excuses still abound. Today in Phnom Penh, Noun Chea, a major propagandist and powerful leader in the Khmer Rouge, stated that everything he did was for the benefit of his country – to protect Cambodia against any foreigners who wanted to destroy it, to help the Cambodian people become self-sufficient, to help the people build strength and power from within. As he put it, “to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the thieves who wish to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the Earth.” Despite the rhetoric, we can easily see that his cause, liberating a nation from greed, was worthy in theory. But the resulting action of a worthy cause was that 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, and execution at the hands of Noun Chea’s revolutionary organization.  A worthy cause is no excuse, and nor is ignorance.

Even though I was not alive at the time, I am a part of this. We are each a part of the system that allows for atrocities to continually occur, and so the question remains: How do we become agents of change, even if we are unwilling to give up our day-to-day lives of comfort? I realized something in the Killing Fields today. The Cambodian people have given us a gift. Today, anyone with the means can visit Phnom Penh and visit the Killing Fields as well as sites like Tuol Sleng Prison. Much money and many resources have gone into these sites to expose the depths of Cambodia’s tragedy and educate the world in order to prevent something like this from happening somewhere else.

From today, we will watch the Khmer Rouge tribunals here in Phnom Penh progress.  While the truth may remain murky, we will continue to deepen our understanding of what happened. I encourage anyone who is reading this to take a moment and read about the tribunals. A simple search in Google News for “Khmer Rouge Tribunals” will give you the latest updates on the historic process we are witnessing today.  Let us all bear witness so that the future has at least some hope of freedom from fear.

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