Campfire in the Woods

During the summer of 1970, I traveled throughout the American west in a diaper truck that had been converted into a camper.  My companions were some graduate students from Amherst that I had met along the road somewhere.  I left a group from the school I had just graduated from, the George Washington University in Washington DC, somewhere in Wyoming.

I had graduated "on strike" and under an injunction that a large number of student leaders could not enter any campus buildings.  On May 1st, Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia.  A student strike call came from Seattle.  In Washington DC, we were responding to a student strike call issued from New Haven, where the trial of the New Haven Black Panthers for murder had started.  On May 4th, 4 students were killed in Kent State.  On May 14, two more students were killed at Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the summer of 1970, what seemed like tens of thousands of young people hitchhiked, camped and traveled through the American West.  I was part of that.  Everywhere I went, I met other kids who had been involved in the student strike.  Everywhere I went, we talked about Kent State, the War in Vietnam and what the future might hold.

I remember a night when 20 or more of us argued late into the night around a blazing campfire somewhere in a National Forest campground.  I could not tell you where.  There were people there from Massachusetts and Wayne State in Michigan, and the University of Nebraska and other colleges and universities out West.

We argued that night about the future.  Some of us, count me in on that group, looked forward to a fall of continued confrontations with the Nixon administration.  More protests, more national strikes, more militancy.

And others argued for stepping away from all that anger and talk of violence.  Go to the land; withdraw; change ourselves instead.

For the first time, I think, I saw the personal transformation of people and social transformation as two separate and opposing paths.  Before then, it had not seemed so polarized -- that we were creating a new world and ourselves as new people all at the same time, in some sort of revolution of freaks.

I think that dichotomy has been the frame through which I have instinctively viewed the world ever since.  And I have been on both sides of it at different times.

I think that it is still potent in all those who were and are liberal, of any sort, who date back to those days.  In particular, in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, when we contrast social justice work with spirituality, we are still operating within that frame of vision.

And now, at this stage of my life, when I am no longer leading a parish, I have been reflecting on that dichotomy and thinking back to that night around a campfire in the summer of 1970.

What I remember now, which I was not conscious of at the time, was how scared we were.  We had not expected that our government would kill us.  You can say that we were naive, and so cushioned by our class privilege that we were shocked when we had no right to be even surprised.  True enough, but still we were shocked, traumatized and terrified, and none of us would say that out loud.  And because none of us could name our fear, we split our thinking into two polar opposites -- that we would make a heroic stand of anger and defiance, or that we would silently withdraw from the conflict, never calling it  a retreat, but just a rising above.

And things only got worse from there.

Can I suggest, ever so gently, that the splitting we turned to in our days of trauma, is not how the world really is?   Spiritual development and social justice are not sequential, separable, or a choice.

The essential spiritual task is to be grounded enough in ultimate values to respond with aliveness, creativity and compassion to the present moment.  To be here now, as is said.  But here is the whole world, and now is the historical moment in the life of nations and peoples, too.  Here and Now in an interconnected world of history and time is a seamless web of reality.  To be alive in it is one life.


  1. Very thoughtful article! Thanks! It sort of reminded me of this:

    Which I thought you might appreciate


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