Ai Weiwei, Alan Blueford, and Us


“Maybe being powerful means to be fragile.” - Ai Weiwei


Ai Weiwei

Last week, I went to see “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” a powerful film that made me feel like I did at age sixteen: troubled and inspired. Ai Weiwei is an internationally acclaimed artist who was disappeared by the Chinese government for almost three months last year. Upon his release, he was fined 2.4 million dollars in taxes. He just lost this case, but will continue to fight, despite having been detained and not allowed to go to court. This is what he does: along with making art and taking care of his cats, he prods the Chinese government into giving citizens rights. When the government wouldn’t release names and a count of all the school children killed in the 2008 earthquake as a direct result of shoddy government construction projects? Weiwei gathered volunteers to interview the families, collect the names, and get as accurate a count as possible: around 5,000. He then went on to make art to commemorate these children. 

Ai Weiwei is a people’s hero. He is powerful. People all over China follow his work, his Twitter feed, and his blog until it was taken down by the government. He is fragile. He stands out. He is at risk. He puts himself at risk, I think, because he recognizes that really, everyone is at risk. He’s willing to pay the price, and has already suffered cerebral hemorrhage from being struck by a police officer, plus the imprisonment I wrote of, and now his current “Beijing arrest” as his passport has not been returned to him.

Alan Blueford

Last night, I sat around a table with lawyers, activists, labor representatives, and the family members of Alan Blueford, who was killed by the Oakland Police Department on May 6. I was there with other members of the Interfaith Tent at Oakland who have pledged to rally and inform the religious community about this case, which unfortunately links to so many others cases of young black men and women being beaten and gunned down for no reasonable cause. It is an Interfaith issue because justice work is spiritual work. There is no separation.

Alan’s parents are strong, and are gathering the collective strength of the community. They are doing this, I think, because they are fragile. Something in them must have broken open that night they spent waiting in the coroner’s office, being stonewalled, while their son lay dead, lacking ID, the officials said, despite always carrying his high school card. The story kept changing: He had a gun. He didn’t have a gun. He shot the officer. The officer, it turns out, shot himself.  I wrote of the city council meeting I attended last May, where the council members were shocked that no coroner’s report had been released, no fingerprints had been run, in short, nothing really had been done except trying to make the implausible story more plausible. Alan’s crime? Being a black teenage boy on a street corner with his friends after a sporting event, waiting for a ride.

Alan’s parents are standing up to the government, because the lives of young black men in America are powerfully fragile things. We are standing with them. We can be broken, but we stand up anyway. Ai Weiwei has been broken, but does not remain so. He stands up to tyranny again and again.


We can each be called by this, if we allow it. We can each say, “Here I stand. Here is where I have been broken open. Here are the scars where I have repaired my heart. Here I am.”

“Maybe being powerful means to be fragile,” Weiwei said. He said that because he didn’t feel powerful after close to three months of who knows what sort of psychological torture. Yet he still stands as a symbol of hope to millions, and has not given up. That is powerful. But even more than that, he is pointing us to a conundrum that holds deeper truths. I want to take this and sit with it at my altar. It feels like there are many ways it will unfold. Here is one: We think we always have to feel powerful in order to not be frauds, in order to have an effect on the world, in order to create art or stand for justice. We don’t. In our times of greatest fragility we are more powerful than we recognize.

We are at risk – even those of us with enough privilege to forget this. We are strong – even those of us despairing. God Hirself connects us, hand to hand, from Beijing to Oakland and back again. We are fragile. Together. And that is a powerful thing.


In other words, Brene Brown was right.

25 Responses to “Ai Weiwei, Alan Blueford, and Us”

  1. Hecate Demeter

    Leonard Cohen says that there is a crack in everything & that’s where the light get in. And, as your post notes, how the light shines back out into the rest of the world.

  2. Br. Jay

    Wow. These stories are so powerful. “Here I stand. Here is where I have been broken open. Here are the scars where I have repaired my heart. Here I am.” This is the voice of the prophets in every age, relgion and time. Yet this too is a challenge to add our voice and conviction to the call. Thank you for this reminder. Bless you!

    • Thorn

      It is always interesting to examine what enables us to answer the Call and what causes us to resist it.

  3. paganmama

    For me, this belief has been showing up: I need to be powerful in order to make things happen, to fight injustice, to be taken seriously, to be a force to be reckoned with. And I’m at a time in my life, going though cancer treatment, where I feel powerless, and I hate it. So you given me much to think about. Thank you, as always.

    • Thorn

      I wish you the support you need to get through your treatment. If you end up sitting with Weiwei’s conundrum further, I hope we are able to hear about it. Feel free to leave links on any of my social media pages if you get around to writing something up. Love and strength to you.

  4. Claude

    Speaking from personal consciousness:
    Self-preservation is a built in code; some people go beyond it, seeing a larger world and a deeper point. I am impressed and encouraged by WeiWei- he is no longer seeing from fear of death, being an artist or saving anybody- he moves where he sees he must go, & therefore is one of the strongest forces in China, whatever they may do. He shows that we can rise beyond our fear, our prejudice, our conditioning. I want to see the film. Don’t want to forget the community around Alan Blueford either. If we forget, it happens again. Not one more.

    • Thorn

      What helps you get beyond the built in code?

      For me, it is somehow the realization that self-preservation depends on community preservation. We are inextricably linked.

  5. Staśa

    Oh, Thorn, thank you. I needed this right now. The reminder that we are interconnected. The reminder that justice work is spiritual work. (I did have a recent reminder that spiritual work is justice work, which also helped.) The reminder that in our brokenness, in our fragility, in our narrow places, is still our strength.

    You have given me good things to mull on in worship and meditation.

  6. Fourge N.

    I am a kid at heart, amongst other things. I watch the Avatar cartoon series, called “Avatar: The Legend of Korra”.

    At the lowest point of her power, or rather, when her power as an Avatar was taken away from her from a tyrant man, her spiritual abilities her unlocked, and Korra was able to speak to her past lives, the past Avatars right there and then. The last Avatar, Avatar Aang, told her, “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” I cried right there and then, such a moving scene. Will never forget those words now.

    I concur. People say a cornered cat becomes a lion. When we are backed up against a wall, feeling so vulnerable, something within us sparks. Think of it as layers. Underneath strength is this fragility, right? Then it seems even underneath *that* is more strength, a different sense of strength. Maybe passive strength? Meaning the layer up above the fragility is a more active strength. Meaning, in turn, that there may be various levels of strength. In that case, maybe being fragile is another case of strength.

    It may be the type of strength that gives you the power to sit down and reflect upon that which is hard to look at, letting you unleash the emotion in that passive state, from which you enter the passive strength beneath the fragile. Could that time of reflection be a state of fragility, letting you be as big as you know you can be, even when it feels like it’s being small? The flood of emotions, all tied together in some neat pattern, are unleashed. Maybe this is breaking the fragile, seeping into the strength of letting your raw emotions flow through. You feel vulnerable, the cornered cat. You pray. You seek help from the Gods, your Spirit Guides, whomever. Then there is the helping of yourself. Now there’s transformation going on, and a new given strength to endure the pain with the help of the people around you helping you through the fragile times, and anchoring on other ways that will help liberate the fallen pieces. You become a lion.

    But I need more thinking on this basis, I don’t fully yet understand this part and how it connects with fragility being, not a weakness, but a sense of strength in letting others help. Perhaps the letting yourself be fragile bit is the cornered cat letting itself evolve into the lion, possibly through the help of those around you willing to help. Hmmm…

    • Thorn

      Fourge, thanks for this thoughtful reply! I put some ideas down in my reply to Bob, below. Let’s keep working on this!

  7. Bob

    Society generally conflates power with force. Economic force, physical force, moral force.

    What Ai Weiwei is touching upon may be the secret of the universe, the interconnected nature of things. A single voice can, at different times, move mountains (or crowds) – or be lost amid distractions. Voices joined together – in song, in prayer, in common purpose – become far more potent.

    If we look at society today – torn apart by ideologies and zero-sum thinking – we can see how the community suffers when self becomes disposable and cheap. Conversely, with a lower value attached to self, the community is also diminished. Too much yelling, too much force being mistaken for power.

    ‘Maybe being powerful means to be fragile.’ Amazing.

    • Thorn

      Bob, yes, I say this so often, that we mistake power for force. Force is brittle, power requires flexibility. Perhaps the acknowledgment of fragility helps us step more fully into power – the power that we know comes from connection: connection to our core, to our spiritual values, to our community.

      As I said to Claud, self-preservation requires preservation of the community. We are linked.

      I wonder if Fourge’s grappling with the emotional aspects of our process isn’t also an important key. Fourge, you spoke of the cornered cat..what helps us to not simply react, but find a deeper place to *act* that includes all the emotions and energetic coiling we feel when cornered. Because it isn’t about just fighting from the corner, I think. To claim fragility and power, as Weiwei is doing, seems to need something deeper than that. You are onto something here, but I’d love to see us push it a bit further.

      Stasa’, Paganmama and Hecate bring up brokenness and how that is important. I like to think that we can work more strongly from the places we have healed and rehabilitated. That experience with pain expands our compassion, which feeds back into strength…

      • Sarah

        I find that when I am afraid to be fragile, that fear takes away my power. That might be especially true for me because, like many people who have survived one kind of trauma or another, I spent a piece of my life trying to gain power by exerting control. The power I find in willingness was one I worked for, not my natural strength.

        I also find that for me, this willingness underlies a kind of power: I am willing to be vulnerable, to be hurt, even to be broken in service of some things, because in some sense, I believe that what is essential to me will not be irreparably harmed.

        Mr. Weiwei is extraordinarily willing to pursue his work in the face of clear violence on many levels, but we all are to some extent. When we set a boundary with a lover, we put our hearts on the line in service of that boundary. We cannot do that when we believe that we will be irreparably shattered by the loss of that relationship; when we know we are complete in ourselves, conversely, we cannot be bullied. Yes?

        • Thorn

          Yes! This! True power knows it cannot control but must be in relationship to. True power knows that it isn’t the only part of the equation. That in itself speaks to knowing some fragility…I have to be open to what meets my power. Something in me must be soft enough to allow what is firm (and even fierce) in me to meet what is around me, and find out what is to come.

        • Fourge N.

          I like what you said, Sarah, and I’ll let you know it’s true! In the decade of my depressive states, every time I broke through to the other side, during my time of healing I always still had those genuine parts of me that remained intact, as if they were somehow indestructible. Love, compassion, a willingness to live on and to seek another glorious day, the raw desire for the taste of a new flavor in life. These things stayed intact! Even after being shattered, these core elements of me still survived, ready to assist me in the healing process. I think experiencing this helps it easier to be more fragile when the time comes. Being fragile in turn does help me become a new tool of stronger stuff.

          In terms of love, I know that in my state of desperate love, I forced things to happen. Or rather, I forced trying to make things manifest in the relationship. Only when I let go of forcing things, when I let myself soften, did ease finally come, for the both of us. Then, and only then, did sympathy flow, a thankfulness for each other, and decision making that did cause both of us to shatter, but that shattering was well overdue. I think I resisted to softening because of that innate fear of shattering, feeling like I would be irreparable. But in time, both of us shall heal, because that is our inner will, to keep moving forward. To add to you, Bob, I believe it should be a part of our work to remember that in being fragile and potentially breaking, we will repair. We will grow stronger again, and most likely stronger than we once were before.

      • Fourge N.

        Mmm… juicy stuff! Where to start!

        To answer you a bit, Thorn, I feel perhaps it’s the will, the drive to act towards something that is worth *moving* for.

        I suffered from depression for ten years, I realized last night. It’s been a few months now that the depression has not affected me, thanks to daily practice. Still have that inner demon to work with. During that time, I always felt like lying down rather than acting. Only after allowing myself to be fragile, after softening by lowering my defenses did I let listening in, as well as letting myself sit down and cry it out when I needed to. It wasn’t through the feeling of my life being threatened that caused me to change, feeling like a cornered cat; rather, it was really looking at my state of being that said, “Okay, something isn’t right here, and it keeps happening again and again. This isn’t helping anything or anyone. Something needs to change.” The cat said it didn’t want to be in that state anymore, whether cornered or not. I suppose the cat doesn’t need a corner in order to transform itself. We can all do the rigorous work even when we do not feel threatened to act, though that may help. Of course, like any civil rights movement, the drive is for change, transmutation of something old that no longer serves well enough, if at all.

        The knowledge I gained, not only in letting myself soften, but then investigate the softening process itself, hammering away at the parts that needed new forming, gave me the power to evolve into that lion. In my state of reflection, I saw the injustice within myself. And instead of forcing things, like forcing to feel like this, or forcing to ignore feeling like that, I let go and let flow, because that was my will manifested. And so I have new power to act. Gee, knowledge and power… knowledge is.. power… And power is… change? Ring a bell, anyone?

        I feel maybe this is what Alan’s parents may be going through. They see the injustice, and even in a state of fragility, they have this inner power to ask others for help, bringing in more connection to the community. Here, I don’t yet know if the power is within the fragile or by digging deeper into fragile do we all find more power. Or maybe both!

        This will be hard to explain in words… But there is this feeling within me that just yearns for growth, yearns to be changed into better, bigger, brighter being. Something so deep within me, and yet it’s almost as if I can physically feel it! In letting myself soften, I can move through my parts and get to that core that calls for reconstruction of all my parts for something so amazing. This core of me sings throughout my day, and so I can only hear it fully when I soften to its touch. So I don’t know how exactly we can all find it… Ahh… I was warned once not to evolve too quickly or I might miss the parts of me that fly by. Perhaps through sympathy, in seeing the injustice and connecting with those whom have been wronged, even when it is the injustice we ourselves cause upon ourselves, that we may connect with that voice that says, “Something isn’t isn’t right and needs to change.”

        • Thorn

          It’s all about relationship, isn’t it? This listening, this softening, this allowing for change but not changing too quickly… If we try to change too quickly we do indeed miss the lessons that arise when we deepen our relationship to the very things we wish to change. We need to allow these parts their voices.

          Weiwei is a voice for the voiceless. Alan is dead, we must speak for him. But we must listen a lot in order to do so effectively.

  8. Bob

    A plant doesn’t grow in packed, hard earth (it can, but that’s usually an indication of adaptation rather than ideal conditions). We are used to thinking that ‘broken’ means ‘over and done with.’ rather than seeing it as a point of regrouping/reforming.

    Ai Weiwei’s own story shows us there is value in that ‘breaking’ – not in the sense of wanton destruction, but in ‘breaking out’ – being reborn.

    • Thorn

      I like the analogy of breaking up soil so something can grow more easily. That feels helpful.

    • Fourge N.

      Sometimes things in our lives get tough, making us fragile. I feel these are powerful times. Like the practice some of the Wiccans have on not doing any magic during the Dark phase of the moon. During that time, they make space for reflection. In our lives, perhaps during times of fragility and being quite broken, it’s time to reanalyze everything. Time to sit down and take a moment in to… maybe mourn a bit of what has been lost, of what was? Then you can look upon the shattered pieces. On the basis of you still wanting to keep your core values, you pick what you wanna keep in your new piece of art. Maybe it’s here in this time of brokenness that we may seek the help of others… To help us pick up what we want to carry on into the new work. From there we build back up, this time using some of the gorgeous original pieces from before, and now incorporating new pieces.

      So in this process of letting yourself be fragile, or even in the case where, unexpectedly, you have been pretty broken up, in calling for some aid from those around you, not only do you become something new with the magnificent pieces from the original, you have further connected and are intact with others. Seems like everyone wins. And like you said, Bob, being broken doesn’t mean you are irreparable. In most if not all cases, it means a new chance for change, the change that is most likely strongly needed. Through change, we are reborn.

      I think this is something all of us should practice remembering in times of great softening, breaking, and in-between fragility.

  9. Ealasaid

    “In our times of greatest fragility we are more powerful than we recognize.”

    This is a deep truth. One of my greatest leaps forward in my Aikido training occurred when I returned to practice after abdominal surgery. I was too exhausted, too fragile to use force against my training partners, something I had struggled with in the past. It’s an instinctive reaction to meet force with force, but in Aikido, that simply doesn’t work. Once I didn’t have the energy to muster any force, my Aikido improved a great deal (I sometimes joke that if I just pretend I’m turning to lie down for a nap, my blending technique is amazing!). With the automatic option off the table, it was a whole lot easier to access the harmonious path at the heart of the art.

    My chronic illness is often a great teacher in a similar manner, out in the rest of my life. I simply don’t have the seemingly-endless resources of determination and ability to “power through” that I used to have, and that has made it necessary to start culling things from my life – unhelpful activities, unhealthy relationships, and so on. It’s less that my illness gives me the strength to do these things and more that it takes away my strength to continue NOT doing them.

    • Thorn

      Ealasaid, I’ve found this, too, in my shift from machismo to a more balanced energy state. For me it was a motorcycle accident that I tried to “power recover” from which ended up leading to chronic pain, chronic illness, and chronic fatigue. I’m learning new lessons about softening and listening as we speak! There is a much broader relationship available to the world now than there used to be when I was macho-ing my way through and trying to control as much as possible. This increases my flexibility which increases my power.

      Reminds me of when I learned to punch properly. You simply can’t punch well if you are not relaxed. Forcing it only weakens your trajectory and ends up hurting you far worse.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. Sandy


    In our tradition, we talk about and work with “power of” any given thing or situation rather than “power over” (which equates to force in other comments).

    I keep finding, over and over, that we have much work to do on our relationship to “power of” because within that idea, all things have power. And that includes each of us. When we find the power of ourself, it is flexible, it is compassionate, it is strong and it is vulnerable. It is ourselves in alignment with ourselves and with the universe. Said differently, WE are flexible, and WE are compassionate and WE are strong and WE are vulnerable when we find our alignment with ourselves and the universe.

    And it seems as often as not, that scares people – both when we encounter in ourselves and when we encounter it in each other. It scares us so much that often we will not look at the “power of” within ourselves until we feel we have nothing left to lose.

    Without a right relationship to power and vulnerability (a tall order to be sure), we are handicapped by our fear of both.

    • Thorn

      “It scares us so much that often we will not look at the “power of” within ourselves until we feel we have nothing left to lose.”

      Interesting thought. It brings up Fourge’s cat metaphor…


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