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For George Bartnick, an active member of Occupy Grand Rapids since the third day of its existence, being a part of the Occupy movement has led him to a greater sense of peace and purpose, which he hopes to pass along to others.
To look at Bartnick you might not think he is the protesting kind. He is older, in his mid fifties, and has the graying hair to testify to his age and experience. Dressed simply in brown pants and a green mock turtleneck, he is quiet, and when he sits down at a table during one of our class interview sessions, he asks “Does anyone want to talk to me?” as if he is somewhat surprised that anyone would like to hear what he has to say.
A native of Grand Rapids, Bartnick attended Grand Rapids Community College when it was known as “JC,” graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in Business Administration. In the early 80’s, he landed a job as a market analyst for Michigan Bell. A new grad with no experience, he found himself in a position that many of his fellow classmates back at U of M would have envied. Despite landing this "perfect” job, Bartnick was unhappy. Likening his time as a research analyst to being “part of a machine,” he confesses that he was bored and living an unfulfilled life.
It would take five years, but eventually a young George Bartnick walked away from the corporation that had by then become known as AT&T and the business world altogether. At thirty-one years of age he found himself heading off to an ashram in Massachusetts. George would spend the next five years of his life at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health committed to a vow of celibacy, studying with a guru and participating and leading trainings on holistic living. This was a foundational time in Bartnick’s life, one that would shape his thinking, his beliefs and his life philosophy.
So how does this fifty-something business man turned yoga instructor find himself a part of the Occupy movement? Bartnick will tell you he got involved in the movement because he is passionate about three things: he wants to see changes in education, healthcare and the way we take care of the environment. He describes a need to “level the playing field” for everyone to have a chance to succeed. This is what motivates him to show up and participate in assemblies, work sessions, marches and protests. However, the longer George is involved in Occupy Grand Rapids the more he is beginning to see a greater purpose in his presence.
Bartnick describes his life mission as healing: helping everyone to be at peace in their spirit despite what is going on around them. He believes this is true for individuals in any circumstance, especially in the face of a political mess. Still – he believes there can be peace.
According to Occupy GR’s website, reasons for “occupying” are many but all seem to stem from “frustrations with corporate greed and control over politics and the overwhelming disparity between the wealth of the top 1% and the other 99%.” With frustration at the core of most movements toward change, Bartnick feels that the most important growth that he and other occupiers have encountered comes with getting to know and understand people who show up at meetings for all sorts of reasons. “The people are as diverse as the issues they are attempting to solve,” he says.
“We all get this little time in life. I am acutely aware of this,” he shares. “What feels good is when you are addressing the suffering of others. When you feel the joy – you can forget your problems when you are helping others.” Sometimes at Occupy GR events, Bartnick explains, you find yourself side by side with homeless people or the mentally ill. "I have never had such close interaction with the homeless.” He likes to get to know them and find out how they ended up homeless. Hearing their stories has only fueled his desire to affect change. “When the rich get richer, they take away from those on the bottom.”
Not only has the Occupy movement given Bartnick the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with those he might not normally find himself interacting with, but it has also led him to take on the role of peacemaker. “Any time there is a group of people there can be a clash of ideas. Sparks can fly.” As mediator, he shares (somewhat in disbelief) what he’s often said to himself: “I can’t believe I am in the midst of this, trying to convince anarchists to reform government.” But the difference in viewpoints in the group doesn’t frustrate or discourage Bartnick. In fact, he is grateful for the founders of Occupy GR. "I am forever grateful that they started this group...I feel great; I feel young again.” He is “in his groove” and he knows this is what he is supposed to be doing.
For Bartnick, the road to inner peace and fulfillment has taken some interesting twists and turns, and his involvement with Occupy GR is yet another turn. While political activism is important to him, it really isn’t his primary goal. Rather, George Bartnick believes there is more we can do spiritually. There is a way to find peace and security in the midst of the political chaos. Peace in purpose – this perhaps more than anything else – is what he hopes to contribute to Occupy Grand Rapids.