Tag Archives: tiananmen square

taking a stand: what does it take to make a difference?

tarot: courage and strengthmy last post was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the tiananmen square massacre. in it i was musing about what it takes to stand up against whatever oppression we’re experiencing, be it political or in a smaller social environment.

making that decision

marie reflected: “i guess it’s a matter of deciding what is more important . . . standing up or staying safe . . . ?”

decisions – what does it take to make a decision to stand up? how often are these decisions planned, and how often do they happen in a split second? i wonder what it was like for the tank man at tiananmen square. hard to imagine that that was a deliberate, conscious decision. most likely, he saw the situation and just walked out. perhaps there was not even any self talk; it just happened, almost as in a trance. there is some controversy in the psychological community right now whether slow, rational decisions have a better outcome than “gut” decisions.  i haven’t seen these specific studies but imagine that they probably didn’t look at momentous decisions like the one made by tank man.  if he had made a list of pros and cons whether to stand in front of the tanks he wouldn’t have; he would have decided on safety.  but he did the crazy thing and continues to inspire people all over the world.

past experience and present support

“my guess is that it is a combination of past experience and current support.” – that’s what evan said.

that reminds me of something that happened just yesterday.  i was participating in a workshop that – well, didn’t leave me feeling very positive.  in fact, i felt trapped and disregarded, and it appeared that a few others did so, too.  i asked a question that tried to deal with that, which was answered only superficially, and when i became increasingly frustrated, a got up and left rather than making another comment.  so in terms of standing up it was okay but not exactly stellar (“you don’t have to be a saint, isabella!” said one of the other participants).

what was the past experience?  as many of you know, i grew up in post-nazi germany.  standing up to people who i feel use authority inappropriately is a huge value for me.  i have also stood up in similar situations before and while it is difficult every time, i feel proud and – clean, afterwards.  at the same time, not standing up can fill me with despair and disappointment.

the present support was that i knew myself surrounded – both physically by some of the participants and emotionally by my friends and family –  by people who i knew would accept and support my decision to speak up.  (interestingly enough, i think if i would have thought less about the decision to speak up the second time, i probably would have done it).

education, awareness and community

finally, sandy commented, “we find strength through awareness, education, a shared sense of community, and people in our lives who tell us we are valuable.”  i touched on education and awareness already with what i told you about my post-nazi germany upbringing.  the education and awareness came mostly through the stories i heard from my parents, who were involved with the resistance each in their own modest ways, and through my best friend, whose parents were holocaust survivors.  formal education was just an addition to that.  i think the point here is not so much that education doesn’t work but that there probably needs to be a strong, personally felt emotional impact for it to make a difference.

when i was doing my research on transformative learning, i interviewed a young man who had decided to become a forest ranger.  this decision came after having spent a summer with an older environmental activist who told him stories, explained larger environmental questions to him, and led him on many walks, intimately acquainting the young man with plants, animals, soil and the whole wide world of forests.  an education indeed – but again, a fully rounded education, touching not only the mind but also heart and body.

image by eric schwartz

tiananmen square – standing up

tiananmen square - tank manthe twentieth anniversary of tiananmen square. i sit at the mall in richmond centre as i write this. richmond, we sometimes say, isn’t vancouver – it’s part of china. if you want to get a job here, it really helps if you speak mandarin or cantonese.

so there are a lot of chinese people here in greater vancouver. maybe that’s why the tiananmen square anniversary always feels special to me. or maybe it’s the memory of sitting in my meditation class shortly after i had heard about it, at noon tomorrow 20 years ago, imagining the horror perhaps more vividly had i only seen it on TV.

the storm around tiananmen square was – and we should probably say, “still is” – about many things, some of them probably completely obscured to me. but i know one thing: it is about the human right to choose one’s destiny and to speak our minds.

some of us have our own tiananmen squares. don’t get me wrong; i don’t want to belittle this immensely important and tragic political event; rather, i want to point out that there is a connection between political and personal struggles. is it just because i grew up in an age where the slogan “the personal is political” was rampant? i think it’s more than that, and believe that the slogan has depth to it.

the other day i explained to my 12-year old daughter the roots of greenpeace and how they had their tiny little kayaks square off with huge whaling ships. it’s an old story, really: david versus goliath. the powerless against the powerful or, let’s reword this: the ones that are perceived to be powerless against the ones that are perceived to be powerful.

tank man against the tank. kayaks against huge ships. david against goliath. it is an archetypal story and therefore touches all of us.

and so often it feels like there is nothing that can be done. a 5-year-old boy scared in the face of overbearing adults. a young woman not daring to say anything to her raging partner. a middle-aged employee under the thumb of an uncaring boss.

where do we find the strength to stand up?

because we do. rarely as dramatically as tank man did.  but we do.