Fear, Holocaust, Identity, Sensitivity

Why We Need True Diplomacy, and Feldenkrais, More than Ever

Moshe Feldenkrais

© Matt McClain/The Washington Post

When I learned that George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, would be testifying in front of Congress as part of the impeachment inquiry, I thought:

Thank God.

I met him during the 1991-1992 academic year when were both students at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. (he was a year ahead of me). During the introduction to his testimony, he shared that “…there has been a George Kent sworn to defend the Constitution continuously for nearly 60 years, ever since my father reported to Annapolis for his plebe summer.” That is what I remember of him: he seemed to have been born and bred for such a diplomatic role. Amidst the diverse characters populating that graduate program, he exuded the calm confidence, integrity and graciousness of a young man who, I imagine, knew what he was meant to do in life and had no doubt he would be able to do it, as if his genetics assured smooth sailing. I alternately admired, envied and resented people like him who emerged into this world from long, uninterrupted and elite lineages, unlike my family, whose Holocaust-surviving DNA had been stamped by trauma rather than embossed with privilege.

At the time I began my studies in international affairs and economics, I had been simultaneously lost in confusion, distressed and heartbroken by my parents’ overdue yet still devastating divorce, while harboring a vision of jet setting around the world to foster peace and permanently end human cruelty. There is nothing like a big, vague dream to either distract oneself from emotional and existential difficulties and/or inspire one to work through them. I clung to graduate school in the hopes that it would help me crystallize who I was and what I wanted to do, even though in the first semester I had misgivings about my decision to attend. I believed that a prestigious degree would be a ticket to belonging, permanently relieving me of deep-seated insecurities, as if a piece of parchment paper could provide social polish. Indeed, fear had propelled me back into academia, even though I had not enjoyed college very much. Studying and getting good grades had been the one thing I knew how to do. If George Kent had been raised to serve, I had been raised to strive. At the time I enrolled, following a year or so spent working in Budapest and taking prerequisite classes, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still perform academically, that I possessed that particular competence, as if such success made me acceptable in the eyes of people whose approval I believed I needed. I thought that learning economics, like my brothers had, would give me the language to participate in their conversations, which often bounced off my brain. I believed that to belong, be heard and included I had to meet people, even family members, on their turf, using their terms. I had no idea what my own territory was, that I even had a right to define it in my words, let alone decide who I’d allow on it and when.

Perhaps because I’d been wobbly on my feet, like a bird that had fallen out of a broken nest, I didn’t feel at ease amidst many of my elite classmates. Nor did I buy into the neoliberal economic gospel preached by professors at that institution. Still, I pushed my awkward self to attend the practically mandatory Friday afternoon happy hours (“bootcamp” for wannabe diplomats) and finish my degree. A high school friend encouraged me, believing I was on a path to becoming Ambassador to Hungary. I even took the written Foreign Service exam. I passed, yet on the morning of my oral interview I overslept and failed to appear. Perhaps my body knew better than I did that I was not designed to work in large, sluggish, hierarchical and bureaucratic structures, or perhaps it had shielded me from the inevitable disappointment of being dinged by the State Department, which rejected many talented, multi-lingual classmates whose resumes rivaled George Kent’s.

Because I had completed the degree, an accomplishment to put on my resume, I believed I needed to do something with it. I couldn’t chalk it up to experience, appreciate what I learned and hit the reset button, a concept that didn’t exist in my mind at the time. Although in the ensuing decades I have wandered far from the world of international economics and banking, my monkey if not monstrous mind occasionally taunts and haunts me with an alternative, theoretical reality I might have lived because of that degree, a life lived in high places among movers and shakers, even though – at the time – I couldn’t connect with, or understand how to operate in, that universe. It’s as if my mind, like a creepy revisionist historian, or like the current Gas-lighter in Chief, is trying to convince me that I shouldn’t have trusted my previous feelings or intuitions. When I saw George Kent’s photograph on the front page of The New York Times, a voice inside said, “I had wanted to be like him when I grew up.” I had wanted to be important. To work on global issues. To save the world. To both be powerful and speak truth to power. To conduct myself with integrity and dignity. I cannot say that I have always been true to myself and spoken and lived that truth in the world. Frequently that prospect has been too terrifying and overwhelming for a highly sensitive person such as I am, and I’ve retreated in spite of my strong feelings and lofty ideals. In hindsight, facing that terror might have spared me a great deal of misery and suffering. Right now I am in the midst of a painful, humbling process of recovering my integrity…for what seems like the umpteenth time. 

During part of the Watergate hearings, when I was five, I recall laying sick in bed in a Chicago hotel. A small black and white TV flickered and droned in front of me as men in suits sat behind a long table and spoke words I couldn’t understand. My family had been visiting my father’s aunt and her husband, Hungarian-born Orthodox Jews, who ran a nursing home. At the time, I didn’t understand what had been so compelling about the testimony or what was at stake. I just knew that the news seemed to distract my parents, which I didn’t appreciate. Because I had rubbed elbows with George Kent, and because the stakes are so high, with fascism bayoneting American democracy off a cliff, I am tempted to follow this particular saga in detail, even though my doing so will not influence the outcome. In remembering my five year old self, who – wisely – didn’t want to be overshadowed by the news, I am again turning to the Feldenkrais Method to return to my body, the only place that can serve as refuge in tumultuous times.

Last Friday afternoon I attended a public Awareness Through Movement class. Afterwards I chatted with another attendee, Ray Sylvester, a practitioner himself. Even though I’ve written extensively about the Feldenkrais Method, I am always interested in how others describe this vast, experiential territory that can be difficult to explain. I joined his newsletter to receive his eBook, “9 Keys to Better Movement”. Reading it reminded me of the importance of following curiosity, which might be one of few exit ramps from internal gridlock and despair. He writes: “The nervous system rules. Time to make friends in high places,” a phrase that struck a deep chord. To do so, one must become a “neural diplomat, playing give and take with the nervous system…and being willing to back down when the feedback is negative,” even when we wish it would give us a green light. His savvy take on Feldenkrais landed as a tonic for my soul, reminding me that I can fulfill my unavowed dream of being a diplomat…just not in the way I had imagined. Inner diplomacy, being able to handle tricky or delicate negotiations within oneself, is a prerequisite for courage and truth-telling. Fortunately it’s available to everyone, regardless of their lineage, pedigree or educational achievements, thanks to Moshe Feldenkrais’ own trauma-stamped history


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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.


7 thoughts on “Why We Need True Diplomacy, and Feldenkrais, More than Ever

  1. Hi Ilona. As usual, I love your post. I hope wordpress lets me submit my comment this time.

    Posted by Sarah Longstaff | November 18, 2019, 4:07 pm
  2. Thanks for the kind mention and link! I especially appreciated your nod to “unavowed dreams,” another of Moshe’s astute touchstones.

    Posted by Ray | November 21, 2019, 6:27 pm

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