Action from the Light
By Jerry Eagan
Ernest Hemingway influenced me, from an early age, to experience life directly. Retrospectively, I see now how much direct life experience has meant everything to me, even if I couldn't articulate the meaning at the time. Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, of course, was published after his death. A Moveable Feast was about writing, but Hemingway also wrote about war, and I was determined to experience war directly. I'd been raised around WWII veterans, and, from early childhood, obsessed about fighting in my own war.
Taking that ambition to the furthest extent possible, I went to Vietnam as an infantryman, in August 1966. My obsession with war motivated me to seek ever more dangerous assignments as an infantryman. I survived a dozen near misses with death, but on Nov. 3, 1966, while I was "walking point" (the lead man in a file of soldiers threading through the jungle), my luck ran out. I was shot in an ambush.
The shooter, less than 15 feet away, missed with his first round. In a second that telescoped into a century, the first round snapped by my left earlobe so close I felt it; a second round nearly took off my right arm. My war was over.
In the three months I was in Vietnam, I'd experienced the ultimate adrenaline rush war provides. My war took me to a place where another man had nearly killed me, and I'd felt a deep desire to kill him. Killing, after all, is really what war is about. Every other description of war is just someone else's icing.
Kill or be killed. That's all war amounts to. The year I spent in Army hospitals gave me time to look more deeply at what I'd seen and done; I reached a new conclusion about Vietnam while convalescing.
In July 1967, I wrote an antiwar letter to my hometown newspaper, recommended our withdrawal, and predicted we'd be defeated in Vietnam.
When I returned to the hospital where I'd been recuperating, the chief surgeon showed me a copy of my letter. He said he'd have none of it. "If I could," he said, "I'd send you back to the infantry." He knew, though, that my right arm was only partly healed, and that I couldn't even lift an M-16. But I was out of that hospital in a week.
I joined the antiwar movement and stayed opposed to Vietnam from then on.
My politics have been leftist ever since. Like so many other Baby Boomers, though, I then searched for a deeper meaning to life; experimented with psychedelics, marijuana, drugs and alcohol; got married twice, divorced twice, raised one son and in 1982, got sober and clean. Father, husband, worker, seeker.
The Twelve Steps saved my life: sober and clean, never relapsed since June 24, 1982. The Twelve Step Movement also offered me a chance to seek my own definition of "God as I understood God." One part of my search led me to Zen Buddhism; another, to the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Ky., and even to Thomas Merton's private hermitage, for retreats. A third thread of that pursuit led to become a Quaker in 1986.
At the time, Fox was a fiery young man who, today, would easily label himself an Evangelical Christian and from whom I'd probably distance myself. On that day in 1651, though, he opened up the direct experience of God to those of us who, in thousands of lazy, peripatetic wanderings, find our way to the Quakers.
Within a few years, a collection of Christian "seekers"—all searching for a more meaningful experience of God—formed the Religious Society of Friends. The term "Quaker" was given by others, who witnessed some of the spoken testimonies of those who called themselves "Friends," and said they "quaked" as they spoke. Over the years, Quakers have formulated several principles, called "Testimonies," that connect them with one another. Those principles were: Community; Harmony, Equality and Simplicity.
Out of those principles, two other attributes of the Quaker lifestyle have resonated most deeply within me: Silence and Peace (nonviolence).
Since becoming a Quaker in 1986, I've "waited upon the Lord," with "prayer and meditation," and asked God for guidance and direction through several critical junctures in my life. I've felt several "concerns"—where I experienced strong spiritual unease with social problems—which seemed to call me to action. As I waited in a process of discernment in deep Silence within me, I felt compelled to "stand" and move towards action. My "leadings" then have ignited me spiritually, to step again into unknown places in attempt to align my own action with God's will, as particularized through me.
After Sept. 11, I was called "the resident Taliban" by a man I'd worked with, because I'd expressed concerns that our own policies towards Israel, the Palestinian cause and autocratic Middle Eastern governments had, in part, contributed to Sept. 11. Labeled a Communist in the Vietnam era, a "Taliban supporter" in another, I nonetheless sensed that the United States was headed into the darkest period of its history.
I hoped my testimony as a combat veteran could be of use as we drew closer to war in Iraq. Even so, I wasn't sure I could return to political activism. I felt angst about getting back into leftist politics, which often was a flood of social ills that all begged for immediate rectification. Could I keep the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King amidst such a torrent of causes?
By late summer 2002, though, I felt I compelled to take a stand. Our nation's leaders were of my era, but seemed to not have learned the same lessons I, along with millions of others of that era, had gained. They were selling war like a used car; unfortunately, plenty of people were buying.
Even so, I found my testimony on the costs of war I'd paid can speak to others. My opposition to this war has only deepened; my sentiments against all wars have been clarified by my participation in the Gila Friends Monthly Meeting (of Quakers). My convictions finally led me to join the Grant County Peace Coalition (GCPC) in December 2002. GCPC sponsored peace walks and teach-ins, read the names of the dead—Afghan, American and Iraqi—several times, and displayed 1,500 luminaries in March 2005. We also walked in the Silver City Fourth of July Parade three times, determined to demonstrate that Peace was American, and patriotic, too.
In July 2005, I attended a workshop in Albuquerque, hosted by Peace Activists there, for training as a draft counselor and counter-recruitment activist.
My desire to become a draft counselor feels like a direct action I can take now, to stand for peace. I can oppose the occasion of all war, but I want also stand for peace.
As part of a group of men and women who've gone into Silver High School to talk with young folks about "what the recruiters won't tell you," I've sensed I may help one or two young people find their own voice in this period of war and terror.
I love my country, but don't trust my government to speak the truth about this war. In this regard, I regret my trust in the government during the Vietnam years, but even here, feel I had to do all that I did to find this Spirit within, that I now call God. As a Quaker, I find the arising of concerns, taken into patient and infinite silence, the safest method for discernment of action/non-action.
In silence, meditation and stillness, whether in our Quaker meeting house or the canyons and mountains where I hike, I find the deepest experience of God, but also the experience of the Godhead, Jesus and Buddha.
The image of swirling dust, seen in a shaft of sunlight, each dust particle an entity of the Universe, best illustrates the peace I need to deal with the dust devils of fear, trepidation and terror our leaders whip up.
Going into Silver High School, I've been given feedback that: "Those kids listen to you. You have credibility with them. They know you've 'been there, done that.'" Those words were a marker for me to continue on this particular part of the journey.
As this process unfolds, I talk with draft-eligible men and women about what my own experience of war has been: nightmares, "patrolling the house," 20 years, with three bayonets beside my bed, alcoholism, drug addiction, anger, depression.
I also don't understand what part of the Bible justifies war. Any war. As a Quaker, I must do more than "oppose the occasion of all wars." I must also try to demonstrate that Peace IS patriotic, noble and worthy of emulation. Growing up in the shadow of WWII, the Holocaust, Stalinist and Maoist purges and gulags, I never thought I'd see my own national leaders joke about torture and prisoner treatment or live in the shadow of totalitarianism.
But I was wrong.
My Quaker, Zen, Kundalini practice sometimes requires I declare: "I cannot abide by this state any longer. God, help me to act on my convictions, through you, for you, with you. If I am wrong, show me the way."
Peace, Silence, Stillness. . . as succulent as a fresh New Mexico breeze.
Jerry Eagan is a member of the Gila Friends Monthly Meeting, which convenes