Freedom from the Slavemaster

“I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”
Harriet Tubman

Recently, a friend posted an article on slavery in Mauritania.  I read the story three times: first in shock, second in disbelief, and finally, in belief.  It is heartbreaking and totally unacceptable that slavery continues to exist on this planet.  The hopeful part of the article, was that some people in Mauritania were waking up, in part due to teachers who introduced them to this concept: “All men are born equal”.  This simple idea, that we are part, no more and no less, of all of humanity, is revolutionary.

However, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the story about slavery in Mauritania, was that many of the slaves who were legally free, continued to live in communities without walls, where they had few resources, worked merciless long hours, were controlled by landowners, and where there was little hope for change.  Most, although they had been technically “freed” by law and by their former masters, continued to stay in these slave communities where they continued to be exploited, and were caught up in master-slave relationships as abusive or worse than when they were legally slaves.

I have shared this story with a few clients and with my graduate students this week.  What is it that keeps someone in daily slavery even when there are no walls around them?  This question requires deeper exploration.  Here are some inklings of ideas that follow.

When I reflected on the men and women in Mauritania, first I was shocked that any human being would choose to stay in slavery once legally free.  Then I thought of my own experiences, and the experiences of my brave clients, and finally I said “of course”; of course a human will stay in slavery if they believe they are a slave.  The slavery has to continue, until the slaves, as Harriet Tubman said, realize that they are not slaves.

Have you ever had an idea about yourself that limited you?  Have you been surprised by, or even fought off, others who did not see you in the same limited way as you saw yourself?  I remember being in university, fresh from a small hometown on the Canadian prairies.  I was not totally negative about myself.  I knew I was intelligent.  I knew I was capable. I also knew I was a small fish in a big pond.  This made me believe that maybe my past experiences were what I deserved, and that I should just accept my lot and not hope for too much more.

In my freshman year of university, as I walked through a  lush manicured campus so different from my home on the windswept plains, I saw the kids from Toronto, with their expensive clothes and their “I deserve this” swagger of assured confidence.  I was in awe.  In the social hierarchy of our campus, there were different groups. There was the wealthy Eastern group, Everyone Else, and then from my perspective there appeared above and beyond everyone The Student Leaders.  Among the student leaders, there was a set of high value jobs.  These high value jobs were as student leaders in the student dormitories.  These student leaders were very visible on campus, they seemed to me to create an energy among others and to make things happen with an ease and a skill that was beyond my imagination.  To me, they seemed to be people who must know a secret handshake that I could not ever hope to understand.  I remember watching some of the popular students get results from the recruitment process for these student leader positions; for those who got a negative answer there were many tears and much drama.  For those who won a position, there was celebration and victory laps around the student union building. Of course I did not dare apply for these positions, because they were obviously for a class of people to which I did not belong.

One day, early in the school year of my sophomore year, a friend in the dorm told me there had been a call for me from the university director of student life.  This man was in charge of student housing.  He was also in charge of the selection of student leaders.  I was sure that maybe my family, who was not wealthy, had not been able to pay a bill, and that this man was calling to inform me that the university was putting me out on the street. I was terrified.

Knees shaking, I approached the office of the director.  I entered his office and sat down, hands clammy.  He was a kindly looking bearded man, whom the students had nicknamed Po.  (I later learned this was short for Podunk, which might explain what happened next).  Po leaned forward and said, not that I was being kicked out of the university for being poor, but that he wanted to recruit me as a student leader.  I could hardly respond, in part because I thought he must have me confused with someone else. I was just a student from a podunk town. He must be making a mistake if he thought I could be a student leader.

My mind said “You can’t” “this is only for those who deserve it” “you didn’t go to private school” “you are a kid from a nowhere”  “what do you know anyway” “why would anyone follow you”, all in the voice of a mocking slavemaster.

After catching my breath and reviewing my mind’s response to this shocking offer, I argued with Po. Although he was offering me a coveted chance to develop, to grow, and to belong to an amazing community of leaders, I gave him all the reasons why I sould not be offered this prized position on campus, why I did not deserve the honor and freedom that came with opportunity. Also, truth be told, inside I was afraid that if I did take up his unsolicited offer of a student leadership position, I would have no idea what to do.

Thank the universe, Po did not listen.

The next week, after hand choosing the perfect roommate, because Po said  “a leader needs someone who supports and believes in them”, and after moving into a new and larger (and free!) dorm room, I was a student leader.

Many of us struggle with ideas about who we are, with limited ideas about our potential, with limited hopes about our future.  Sometimes there are real limitations in ourselves that we need to confront and work on.  Sometimes there are real limitations in the external world that we need to challenge and fight against.  However, sometimes our slavery comes from our dominating self concept, from a perspective on ourselves limited by past experience, or dim hopes that we can have anything but a predetermined bleak future.  Here’s the news: THE SLAVE COMPOUND IS IN OUR HEADS. We do not have to be slaves to old ideas of who we are, not matter what our past experience.

There is real risk here.  We have to wake up and confront the enslavement our minds have to old ideas about ourselves.  As long as we believe the rules we have made for ourselves about why we can’t be great, why we can’t give up an eating disorder, or a compulsion, or a bad relationship, or a shitty boss, or an unhelpful habit, we are slaves.  We share the psychological suffering of all slaves, and we live as slaves without visible external walls. We stay within a slave compound, even though there are no physical chains on us.

The good news is, once we wake up to these slavemasters of old ideas about our selves, we can begin to drop the limitations on ourselves and move into discovering who we really are, where we want to travel in the territory of freedom.  Even if the old slavemaster ideas accompany us on our long road to freedom, we can begin to make our way out of the slave village, out of domination by taskmasters of perfectionism, low self esteem, and hopelessness.

Waking up to our own self-imposed enslavement is the beginning of the end for the master-slave relationship between our minds and the best parts of our souls.

My wish for the slaves in Mauritania, for myself, and for you, is that we all find freedom.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Harriet Tubman


See the CNN story on Slavery’s Last Stronghold

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