Bearing Witness

I watched Bryan Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk, We Need to Talk About an Injustice over the weekend. I consider myself to be a fairly aware white woman, but Stevenson pointed out a number of things about the experience of black people in this country that I simply have not fathomed.

For instance, Stevenson notes that terrorism did not come to this country with 9-11, [or even the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City]. It existed for years before slavery was abolished and for years after–when a black man could be lynched for simply failing to move off the sidewalk if a white man or woman was on it. I know that it was not safe for black people if white people took exception. I know that it still isn’t. Yet the disconnect between my thinking and my understanding is undeniable.

Stevenson gave voice to what I have not been able to articulate in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and countless other black men and boys. We have created a society of fear that justifies anything that happens to those we fear. White people for the most part don’t question it–if we are even aware enough of all of the atrocities perpetrated on people of color to question it.

In his talk, Stevenson said, “we have in this country this dynamic where we really don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically. . . . We have a hard time talking about race, and I believe it’s because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, people understood that we couldn’t overcome apartheid without a commitment to truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, even after the genocide, there was this commitment, but in this country we haven’t done that.”

When I have been deeply upset about some way I have been treated, there is one response that evaporates my anger or pain, my holding a person out as if they don’t matter to me. It’s not an apology, which so often come without any real meaning. Apologies are often offered as a way to get away from uncomfortable feelings and back to equilibrium in the relationship between two or more people. To be honest, I have often not even involved the other person in my truth and reconciliation process for fear that the bonds between us would not be strong enough to hold me in my hurt. In an attempt to preserve some degree of relationship, I have tried to do all the work myself–and in the end lost the friendship anyway because it could not hold up under the accumulated weight of my feelings.

However, when I have been met by a heart willing to feel the pain that has been touched in me, my feelings of pain and anger have evaporated. Not diminished slowly, evaporated. When I have been able to look a friend in the eye; when they have found the courage to tell me that this thing that I did confused or angered or hurt them; when I feel the pain that I have caused and own that I did not act with integrity or courage, I have felt the anger/distrust/pain evaporate and trust renew and deepen.

It takes courage to see ourselves capable of harming another. It takes courage to see how we have contributed indirectly to the harming of another through our ignorance, through our unacknowledged history, through the privilege we are afforded by an unjust society that values “us” over “them.” Stevenson states that we cannot be “fully human until we pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to unfairness, to injustice.” He is aware of the challenge in paying attention to these things. It will break our hearts to do it, but reconnecting our hearts to our minds will heal our world. It may be the only thing that can.

Surrendering to Greatness

One of the topics in my Core Prosperity Relief (CPR) course that really called me out was about faith and surrender. We were asked to give ourselves a number from 1-10 that spoke to where we were in relation to faith at that moment. That question proved to be the key to the lock that had presented itself in the (Center for Spiritual Living) CSL strategic planning session that took place the weekend before.

A group of 10 of us had met that Saturday to work on answering the question we had set for ourselves: “How will we change the world this year?” I love this kind of work. We all threw out suggestions. At one point, though, after the leader encouraged us to go deeper, I hit a hard patch. I knew she was right. There are a lot of things that matter to me, but what would matter enough to me that I would step over the inertia threshold and actually do something about it? What would be big enough to engage me, to keep me from hitting the snooze button and rolling back over?

I sat there stuck. All of us seemed to be. Finally, the facilitator put it like this: If we were each given a month in which the other 9 would support our vision, our cause, our work, what would we offer up? That question was like a razor-sharp knife slipping right through all of the blanked-out resistance I have used to keep myself from even thinking seriously about really doing the thing that matters most to me. I knew in that moment what my month would be about. And I felt how deeply afraid I was of putting it out there, of asking others to join me in making it happen.

It’s simple–I want to help heal the divides between (and within) people that have arisen through false stories they have been handed about who they are, about who the “other” is, about what is possible in the world, about what is possible within/for/through each one of us. It’s hard to fear someone who has shared their story with you. It’s hard to hang on to the stories about ourselves that defeat us when someone helps us listen a new story into being. A new story that rings with the truth of who we really are. That is how I want to change the world.

What kind of surrender would it take for me to say: “This is my thing; it is powerful and I want you to join me in it”?

It will take the kind of surrender that doesn’t use the excuse of “I don’t have the first clue how to make this happen.” Something in me does.

It will take the kind of surrender that knows that anything that gets inside your skin like this is inside mine is fully supported and divinely guided, that all I need to do is take the first step.

It will take the kind of surrender that knows the truth about who I am and how people see, respect, and love me. I am a storyteller. I am a story listener. I am fierce. I am equal to this challenge.

So what was my number on that day? Though I ‘d like to say it was at least an 8, the truth is that I often find myself balancing on a tipping point. Not quite sure if I am a 4.9 or a 5.1, struggling to see the minute differences between the two. And that is exactly where I was in that moment—5.1 and tipping. What I am celebrating today, is that I have closed in on that 8, and I am still climbing.

Cruise to Nowhere Takes Me Back Home

The texts started at 5:30 a.m. informing us that our cruise was delayed–for the second day. Lying in our beds in the dark after the buzzing had subsided, Julianne and I ended up moving into a deeper conversation than I’m used to having at that hour. 

At one point, Julianne said to me that it bothered her that my family didn’t have an adult relationship with me, that they didn’t have room for me as a lesbian. I was immediately awash in a sea of possible meanings (which is as close as I ended up to an actual ocean that trip as it turns out). I wondered if it had played into the ending of our dating relationship. Was a family that welcomed her (as her family did me) important to her? Then I wondered if it was not about my family but about me not including her with them. It made sense to me, and still does, that a thing like that can have a damaging impact on a relationship, though I had never felt like it was a big issue for her. After a moment of spinning through possibilities, I finally just asked what she had meant. Julianne replied that she wished that my family welcomed all of me, that there was so much of my life lost once all the editing is done. 

She wanted that relationship for me. She knows me like that, knows how I enjoy my family but that it starts to wear on me the longer I hold pieces of myself out–or in–when I spend time with them. 

She had named something so elemental. I know because I felt the grief well up in me; the grief that comes from being seen by someone who loves you and wants more for you than you have decided to settle for; who sees all the pieces of you.

As we lay there quietly in the dark, I thought about how I have contributed to the silence in my family about my complete self. Whether or not it had any impact on my relationship with Julianne, it struck me that my silence with my family can take a toll on my relationships with other people who matter to me, because it absolutely takes a toll on me. I’m starting to open to the idea that my silence about the fullness of who I am just might be detrimental to my family, even though they might want that silence.

I have journeyed so far and for so long, determined to find a place for myself in the world. I am determined to let go of the belief that has dogged my heels since I was a child that there is not enough room here for me. As I lay there, I silently celebrated how far I have come, how many ideas about myself I have released–ideas that formed the foundation of my decision to not “impose” the truth about me on my family. It occurred to me, lying in that gentle silence with my beloved friend, that the only place left to travel is back where I came from.

One Cold Shower

Last Sunday CSL-KC started a new book of the month: Experiencing Spirituality, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. One of the stories from it that Dr. Chris told us was about a woman who had commented to the Rabbi that she didn’t need all these spiritual practices, that she felt spiritual all the time. The Rabbi responded that the next time she felt spiritual she ought to go take a cold shower then go do something kind for someone. The story made me laugh as I thought about the people like her that I have known.

Today Chris talked about how coming to CSL and getting inspired and being all “Namaste” is the easy part. It is come Monday, when we are faced with living our spirituality, that the rubber really hits the road. Well, being a precocious type, I did not wait for Monday last week. In fact, I hit the road face first before Chris even finished his sermon. It wasn’t much past the point at which he quoted from the book, that I needed that cold shower.

I was sitting there all Namaste and stuff, enjoying the sermon, when out of the corner of my eye, I felt this violent gesture. It was a get-your-ass-over-here-you worthless-piece-of-shit type of gesture. Here’s the thing about me: I’m kind of skittish around violence. And a bit judgmental. In my defense it’s my way of trying to get the violence up off me because it sinks into my bones so fast.

Before I could even consciously register what was going on, my mouth was open just wide enough to allow these words to push through: “That was rude.” Being precocious, I got almost immediately that my comment was just as rude, and coming from a place of judgment and superiority with the intent to diminish. I felt embarrassed by my reaction. Very quickly I shook off the shame I felt and started thinking about what might lead a person to act in such a way. It hit me that there might well be reason to be kind rather than judgmental to one who did.

I thought about some of my own past behavior, some of it very similar to what I had just witnessed. I don’t like it when things are not going well and I feel responsible for their execution. Sometimes I have a little meltdown, anger spurting out of me like I’m helpless to stop it. A desire to perform your duties well is a good intention; maybe that was what was up in this case. Kind of hard to fault a person for wanting to do a good job.

I thought about the people who have met my bad behavior with compassion, those who refused to treat me as if I deserved to be cast out or diminished. My world has never changed when my bad behavior was met with judgment or censure or superiority. It changed when someone looked past the stuff that may have touched their ire or judgment to my heart as I was having the meltdown. That kind of love opened me up. And still, I forget to do it for others sometimes.

I could not really say what Chris’s sermon was about last week, but I can tell you this: it was powerful. I’m off to have a cold shower then to see what kind of kindness the world might need.

A Little CPR Was in Order

I took an online course called Core Prosperity Relief (CPR) last month and loved it. It helped me untangle a few more of those niggling thoughts that run my life. I was riding high every day as I listened to the 15 minute talk. “My life is unfolding perfectly no matter what” was one of the big affirmations I took to heart. “I am equal to the good I desire” was another. I could feel it.

In the middle of the course, I spoke to my boss and asked for a promotion and raise. Yea for me! It might not have happened but for this big prompt: for the second time after contributing to the landing of a big grant, my contributions went unacknowledged while others were celebrated. (My life is unfolding perfectly . . . .) It was time to speak up. So I did. In a few weeks’ time it was announced to the whole organization that I had been promoted– but with no mention of any raise. My direct supervisor supported the idea that promotion = raise. I am grateful that my receiving a raise matters to her, even though I feel incredibly awkward when people congratulate me. (My life is unfolding perfectly . . . .)

Yesterday, I returned to work after a week of vacation and was immediately met with news of others who seemed to have an easy time of getting promotions with pay raises. By the time I sat down to talk with my go-to friend at work about a couple of projects we are working on, I was starting to spin out of alignment. She cut through all the confusion in my head and suggested I get clear about what I want then ask for it. Stop worrying about what this means or that means; stop thinking myself into a trap of having to approach this just right to get what I want; stop trying to control the outcome. Just get clear, take my cues from my own knowing, speak my truth, and let the Universe take it from there.

I love having a brilliant and compassionate friend at work who believes in me and expects me to believe in myself. I am grateful there are people who love holding me in all my spectacular glory. Sometimes I have to see myself reflected through their eyes to be able to see myself right. It’s up to me to choose whose eyes I use.

I just sent off an email requesting an audience to talk about that raise. My life is unfolding perfectly. . . no matter what.