Lessons From A Slave

DSC_0906“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.” –Cynthia Ozick

Hello friend,

I am guilty. Sometimes I get self-indulgent and actually start to believe that the world is being tough on me. I think I am too busy and working too hard. I wonder, “Why is life so difficult? What did I do to deserve this?” It doesn’t take much to trigger these grumbling moments:

  • Not getting enough sleep due to kids and other commitments, such as staying up late to write this letter to you.
  • My back is stiff from standing too long, especially on a hard floor at my job.
  • My muscles are sore from working out at the gym.
  • I have to miss a night of putting my kids to bed because of a special event at work. I HATE missing even a single bedtime with them; it pains my heart terribly.
  • My wife is leaning on me too hard about what to do with my time or with our money.
  • My palate is bored because I have had Cheerios for breakfast four times this week, and I make the same half-dozen different meals for supper each week.
  • It feels like I am losing track of my siblings because I only spend a few long weekends per year with them, which feels woefully inadequate.
  • Other than visiting my hometown for Christmas and taking a couple of long weekends at the family lake cabin in the Summer, we haven’t been on a “real vacation” in several years.

And on and on and on. You get the picture. There are so many opportunities to grumble, so many temptations to cast the verdict that Life Is Difficult.

Thankfully, though, once in a while, a reality check comes along and smacks me upside the head, knocking some sense into me. This past week, I have been getting a daily dose of that smacking. At her request, I bought my wife a DVD copy of the film “12 Years A Slave” for Christmas, as we have never seen it. Knowing the weight of the topic, we have been waiting for just the right time to watch it. From all indications, it is the kind of movie that requires some processing afterwards. So, it has been looming out there for a couple of months now, a haunting-but-magnetic abyss, just waiting to be plunged into.

I think the Universe knows about this stuff, though, and it has a way of making you face the things you need to face if you want to remain at peace. So, when I finished my book last week and went to my library’s online shelves for a new one, what should jump right off the screen at me but 12 Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup, the true story that inspired the award-winning movie. Call it what you like—fate, destiny, synchronicity, the Law of Attraction—but the Universe was knocking on my door that day. I answered.

I am only just past the halfway point in the story now, and it undoubtedly has many more lessons for me to learn, but its effect has certainly been felt already. Before I go further, though, perhaps a short synopsis would help. Solomon Northrup was an African-American, born free in New York in the early 1700s. He grew up there, married, and had children. With the promise of good pay for some temporary work, he was led away from his family to Washington, DC, where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He remained there for twelve years. I am not yet to the part of the book where he returns to freedom, but it was upon his return in the mid-1700s that he wrote his story. It is clear that he is both well-educated and humble, and the tale seems to be completely unembellished.

What the book does well, however, is detail the daily life of a slave on a cotton plantation, and, in this case, one with a particularly vicious master. It is devastating, truly, and so difficult to comprehend how these people kept themselves going from one day to the next, one sorrowful year after another, with nothing more to look forward to in their lives than returning to the dust from which they came. It has certainly made me do a double-take on the life that I am sometimes tempted to grumble about.

  • Not getting enough sleep? The slaves slept lightly due to hypervigilance, knowing that if they were not in the fields working when the sun came up, they would be whipped mercilessly. They worked past dark in the field, then had to return and do all of the regular chores before they were allowed to make their own supper and go to their brief sleep—on the ground or a piece of wood, no mattress or pillows. Every day of the year.
  • My back a little stiff from standing at my part-time job? The slaves worked at a breakneck pace to keep up and get their daily quota of pounds of cotton, being whipped if they dared pause for even a moment, and then being thoroughly brutalized with the whip at the end of the day if they didn’t hit their number. No matter how sick or injured, the drill was the same: work every moment and produce well, or face the wrath of the master.
  • Sore from the gym? I won’t even bother addressing this one.
  • Missing a night of putting my kids to bed? Slaves and their children were regularly sold away from each other without regard, leaving both sides devastated and the parents to live with only the hope that their child’s master would be one of the more humane ones. Nothing more. Not the chance to put them to bed, to watch them grow up, or to even know if they had become grandparents. Nothing.
  • Time and money pressures? The slaves never had a choice about what to do with their time. They couldn’t pursue their passions or take a personal day, couldn’t even decide in which order to do their own chores. There was no money to be concerned with at all. Their bodies were bought and sold by others instead.
  • Bored with a limited menu? The slaves of Louisiana were given a small amount of bacon and corn meal each week, enough for two small meals per day. Never anything different or more, even if the bacon spoiled or became infested with bugs that week.
  • Losing track of siblings? Just as with children, it was a rare case that a slave was on the same plantation as any other member of her family. The concept of family basically ceased to exist.
  • Haven’t had a “real vacation”? This may seem silly to even address, but it is a good review of the rest. As I mentioned, the slaves worked every single day, had no money to go anywhere with, and had neither family nor family home to visit. If they were caught trying to go to a good place, they would likely have paid with their lives, or at the very least 500 lashes with the whip, “well-laid on,” as was the lingo. Perhaps death would be preferable.

Slavery is, for me, simply an unimaginable existence. Even with a good master, it is still bondage. And, as Northrup says, that is NEVER better than even the worst days of freedom. I think that most days, I am extremely grateful for my existence and well aware of my blessings. But after this perfectly unpleasant reminder called 12 Years A Slave, it is clear to me that it would be nothing short of a disgrace to complain about my circumstances (or almost any circumstances above poverty or incarceration). So, when I become self-indulgent and feeling oppressed by lack of income or busy-ness or missing my kids’ bedtime, I think of the slaves. They had it a billion times worse than I do, and through no fault of their own and no great deed of mine.

My life is darn good by any measure, but when I think about those slaves and the complete absence of opportunity to live their dreams—or even to think that the concept of having dreams was pertinent to them—my heart just breaks, and I know how, on the wide spectrum of human experiences across history, mine is at the far, far end to the positive. I am a truly blessed being. I thank my lucky stars for that.

How about you? How aware of your blessings are you? Get out your journal and consider your existence. What are your biggest gripes? Who or what seems to be oppressing you? Is it certain people? Your financial situation? Your health? How bad is it? Go ahead and indulge yourself for a moment: name what is weighing you down, and just how much it weighs. Now consider a comparison. If slavery doesn’t do it for you—maybe you want something that feels more contemporary to you—imagine the people living today under oppressive regimes, without the freedom express themselves or live as they choose. Or pick someone from a Third World country, where economic conditions keep the people from moving beyond addressing their most basic survival needs. What do your woes look like in comparison? Does it make you feel embarrassed to complain? The goal here is not to make you wrong for having gripes, but rather to make you more aware of, perhaps, how well you have it in the grand scheme of things. So, on a scale of 0-100, with zero being completely stifled by your circumstances and 100 being completely blessed and unoppressed, where do you stand? Leave me a reply and let me know, What lessons do a slave’s life teach you? 

Gratitude is beautiful,

William

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