A few years back, I was in Santa Fe during the Zozobra Festival, and everyone told me it was a must-do Santa Fe cultural tradition. So I went, expecting to laugh, have a glass of wine, and let loose. Then I got there and saw the 10-story Zozobra, an effigy of a man who the townspeople had stuffed with all the negativity they wanted to release for their lives that year. Divorce papers, letters, and lists of stuff that no longer served them made up the stuffing inside this giant man with a scary face that looked shockingly like the Joker in Batman, with a mouth that opened and closed while someone with a microphone eerily howled, “OOohhhhh…ooohhhh….AHHHHOOOAHHH” — like he was a ghost in pain.
The ceremony was culturally curious — music, fire dancers, and other entertainers shared the stage with the Zozobra. But there was a darkness to the whole thing. Something ominous in the energy. I started to feel uncomfortable, and the celebratory feeling I started with began to wear off.
Then the “OOohhhing and AHHing” got louder and the fire dancers danced in, getting dangerously close to the Zozobra’s leg, and every time they got close, he cried out, as if he had been burned.
Power of the crowd
The crowd started cheering. “BURN HIM! BURN HIM! BURN HIM!” And the drums were beating and the music was thrumming and people started throwing angry fists into the air and rushing the stage. You could feel the palpable collective angst, the mass anger, the culmination of a year’s worth of crap, as they prepared to light the Zozobra on fire.
In the midst of this Fellini-like scene, I began to weep. Something just felt wrong. I wanted to leave — like, now.
Amidst the screams, I piped up, “SAVE THE ZOZOBRA!”
But the guy next to me was like “But the Zozobra is toxic. He’s nothing but bad. He’s full of all of our shit. When we burn him, we get rid of all that evil.”
And I said, “Then please don’t make him look like a man with a voice whom you’re hurting.”
And then, to the tune of the horrifying screams of the paper mache, paper, and wood man, the fire dancers ignited him. And the people started to cheer, all the while screaming, “BURN HIM! BURN HIM!”
And the Zozobra began to scream, like blood-curdling, “I’m dying” bellowing. And the tears flowed down my face as the people jumped up and down all around me, moving in closer to the stage as the heat from the fire grew. And I got caught up in the crowd as they rushed me, and I thought, “Am I missing something here? Is this supposed to feel different than it does?”
But I went along with the crowd.
And then the Zozobra caught fully on fire, and his face started to melt, and he cried louder and louder, until his cries dimmed down to a whimper, and then you couldn’t see his face anymore. And then his voice stopped.
And wild applause broke out as people started shouting, “Down With Zozobra!” Fireworks shot off overhead.
Can we release without violence?
And I stood there, crying, as people chanted and pumped their fists. And I couldn’t help wondering, “Is this what the crucifixion of Christ felt like?” And I felt heart-broken, not so much because the Zozobra was going down — after all, I understand the power of a good release ceremony, and I include a similar burning of what no longer serves you exercise in my Get Out of Your Own Way e-course. No, I cried because of the mass anger and the visceral feeling of what it must have felt like to witness Jesus dying — or witches burned at the stake — or the mass murdering of other innocent people some considered “evil.”
Now I’m not equating Osama bin Laden and Jesus. One was the devil and one was the son of God. And I’m not equating the Zozobra with Jesus. After all, one was a man and one was a paper mache sculpture. But I am suggesting that it’s confusing — this celebration of death and violence, this rush of hatred spewed out in the name of fighting evil, this overpowering outpouring of vindictive “eye for an eye” rationalization of death and violence.
Some people celebrate when a criminal is put to death. I think that’s vile, no matter how evil their crime. And yes — this crime is beyond words. It’s the worst thing that’s happened to this country in my lifetime. And I pray nothing like it will ever happen again.
But does it deserve a party? No. I don’t think so. A sigh of relief? Yes. A moment of silence? Yes. Some healing tears? Yes. But people spewing hatred? Nope. It just doesn’t feel right to me.
Which is why my heart is so heavy this week as I watch Americans gleefully celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. (I wrote about my feelings on his death here.). I see the Daily News headlines that say, “ROT IN HELL” and the “Go Team USA!” propaganda being spewed out by our politicians. And it breaks my heart even more than watching a paper mache man burst into flames.
Four people died in the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Yes, I feel relieved that this bastion of evil is gone. But is death — even justified death meant to protect innocent victims — really cause for celebration, no matter how vile the person who died is? Now I understand that many are celebrating justice and freedom from more death and oppression, just as people rejoiced when Hitler died. But when we revel in the streets, don’t we only incite the zealots in the Middle East who long to take us down one freedom fighter at a time? When they read our headlines, don’t we only invite more death and oppression?