One definition of “Defiance” is “contempt of danger.” The Latin root of the word is disfidare and is a combination of two words: “away” (dis) and fidus “faithful.” The word came from a 12th century attempt to make a new word which shifted belief or fidelity from danger to engagement; but not retreat, not cowardice.
This image of defiance struck me in an airport this week so I took a photo of part of it for further reflection. I am a visual creature. I could hardly take my eyes off it, circling back again and again, missing one, two and then three trams to my gate. Fighting to remember to breathe. Feeling adrenaline being pumped into my brain. (Apparently, when we see danger we are biologically wired to associate and so respond even if it is just a photo. It’s what makes social media and media and the nightly news so dangerous to our mind and body. But I digress. A bit. A very little bit really. There is a psychological term for it but …)
To be a “child of God” makes sense to me when I meditate on this image; when I use it as an icon. The photographer has added a cobalt blue light to the leopard and has adjusted the cobra’s colors migrating green into black and white. Neither changes are likely and yet they make statements about each animal interesting to the meditator. Invite a meta observation.
The Dali Lama (I think it was he) was once asked by a pilgrim why he was so very peaceful. Was it the many hours of meditation? Was it his freedom to ponder life? Was it diet or sleep patterns or protections from noise or business or Prozac or lots of masturbation? (Ok, perhaps he did not list Prozac but I would have.) Was it a meditative stance itself or was it perhaps how he was raised as a child? The Dali Lama was silent for a while. Then a mischievous smile grew over his face, like a sunrise, and he said, in answer to the question: “I don’t mind what happens to me.”
Well I do mind. I mind very much. But I am trying so very hard to live out this statement – to not mind what happens to me. Some days hold more successes than others. Kai-the-dog is a constant mentor to me to be relaxed and strong at the same time as is a co-worker-friend. To be “with” people but not “against” or “under” or “over” – as much as possible is to “not mind.” To be humble, patient and compassionate – the three diamonds of the Zen practice into which I am having such trouble making my way will help one to “not mind.”
I watched a leopard protect her young once when on a photo Safari in South Africa when I was young and somewhat more stupid than I am now. A little. Ok, not so much.
Then in South Africa, as now with this image, I saw defiance and it sped up my heart, pumped my blood, connected with something primordial inside me. My Frontal Lobe and my Amygdala were playing tennis with my thoughts. “Yes.” I thought. “Do what you must. Defy danger. Hold your ground. Protect the small, the weak, the predator’s dinner. And be peaceful. Very quiet. Courageous without being aggressive.” Not easy to hold one’s ground.
Dis-fedus is to be defiant. To be unfaithful. Go reject belief and fidelity when necessary. One must, when in danger.
And yet it would be tempting to think we are the pup and God is the defiant leopard. Such an interpretation of this image would make a good Hallmark greeting card or evangelical religious poster in a church hall. But could it not be that God is in us rather than blocking in front of us? Might you and I be both the mother and the inner child – the leopard and the pup? Or, even, perhaps all three – might the snake, leopard and pup be within God – within us? What would this image look like were we to step out of the dangerous, tired dualism which western religious fear-mongering has so perpetuated this past millennia … or two? What if the cobra is more frightened than the leopard? Even the pup? Compassion is so difficult when one is sure about mystery.
One day, walking on this farm in New Mexico’s South Valley, Kai and I came upon a rattle snake. Its body tightened. Its rattle rattled. Is head moved like a belly dancer. Kai slowly moved between me and the snake and simply backed up, pushing against my knees while staring at the snake which was, in all fairness, enjoying the sun on the path …first. One step. One more step. A third step back Kai-the-dog pushed with his haunches, tail wrapped between his legs like the letter “C”. For “Charles.” For “Courage.” For “Yikes.”
I guess I could have grabbed Kai and pulled away from the snake, but the sudden jerking would have startled it. We defy. Then we back up, not giving into fights, slowly, quietly but never, ever looking away or running scared. Defiance. Might it not also be a Sacrament? At times? Baptism. Marriage. The Eucharist. Extreme Unction. Defiance.
This mother leopard does not mind what happens to her. She also however. holds her ground, locks eyes and defies. On principal. She will not attack. But neither will she run.
When Jesus faced his accusers, He basically did the same thing did He not? Held his ground? Stayed strong but quiet. Did not mind what happened to him, mostly. Found solace in the three diamonds?
The refracted light casts cobalt and green light in the strangest places, messing with our labels, but not our resolve.