Recently my dedicated efforts to build community, end violence, and create social change have seriously undermined my ability to build community, end violence, and create social change. I have been my own worst enemy.
It’s taken me a while to get a handle on this, to see things for what they were. To see myself for who I am.
It took me too long to recognize the signs: my persistent eye-rolling, long and deep sighs, decreased commitment to my morning runs, steady return to Diet Cokes and processed foods, withering houseplants, much less writing, rushed everything. The list goes on and on.
Then, I was slow to admit to myself what these signs meant. Finally, I accepted them for what they were–acts of violence, gestures that devalue, dismiss, and silence. This may sound dramatic. It’s not. It’s not because I know what it feels like to deploy these weapons and I’ve felt the impact of the weapons on others, on myself. But why was I acting this way? Feeling this way?
I struggled with the why. At first, I came to a truth I have carefully woven over many years, a truth that tells a beautiful and heartwarming story of myself: I am a good worker; I believe my work is meaningful and significant; I care about those with whom I work; I care so much about social justice that I make personal sacrifices toward its end. I give of myself….
This time, this time I didn’t buy it. I was suspicious because this story did not hold up across all parts of my life—my “truth” did not currently apply to my private life, my unpaid work.
At home, I had become disconnected. From those I loved, from myself. Somehow I had created an internal schism that divided my whole self into two opposing existences: the public/private. I was sucked into the rat race, bought into this dualistic thinking and way of being. This was an important defense mechanism that upheld my status quo. It kept me keepin’ on. I could continue to pursue my truth.
And so, the past few months, it became increasingly the case that the T.V. would be on in our house during the week (a typical no-no) so I could get stuff done. I spent less time engaged in the kids’ bedtime rituals. At night, when the kids would finally be in bed, I noticed more and more that Michael would retreat to his online gaming and I to my work. There were few conversations. A lack of intimacy in our home. Very little creativity. I knew this and honestly, needed to keep it this way—keep “those” people “over there”. (Sounds awful, I know but it’s true). This way, I could more easily justify my pursuit of truth. Acting in these disconnected ways, I began to behave more violently. When Thomas started to whine, I’d immediately roll my eyes. “Seriously, T?” Meg would cry for her pacifier and in immediate frustration, I would spew, “You are too old for that thing, Meg!” And Kate…well, let’s just say I’d adopted some of her adolescent tactics. The other night I even yelled back at her, “Well, I hate you, too!” Who was I? And in response to this question, I relied on that carefully crafted, self-righteous truth: I am a good worker; I’m giving all I can; I can’t do it all.
But I was right to be suspicious of this so-called truth. It really was bullshit. My truth had betrayed me, allowed me to believe one thing about myself while I was up to something else altogether. And after weeks of weaving evolving iterations of my meaning-making, I seduced a new truth, one that struck a chord: I was after the glory. I wanted the attention, the respect, the approval. Of others.
I was disgusted with myself. So, now what? Just as difficult as it was for me to face this truth about myself was the difficulty I found in doing anything about it. I knew I was acting ugly, violently. But I was stuck.
I figured I’d start with something easy. My eye rolling was a key weapon in my game of othering. So, I tried a new strategy. The other night, I was rushing to get Kate to her lacrosse game. Always rushing. I’ll save the details of my hectic day to that point but to paint a picture, I’ll share this: I was stuck in traffic with three hungry, tired kids. I was stressed and not sure of where I was going. I missed the turn and took us way out of the way. We wound up being twenty-five minutes late to the game. Kate, who hates being late to anything (she even made her appearance to the world two weeks early!) was so upset she was having a hard time pulling herself together to get to the field. Precisely here, at this moment is where I’d typically enact an eye-roll. I was so frustrated. I knew, though, that I was mostly frustrated at myself. Why had I not left earlier? Why did I not take time beforehand to scope out the location? I garnered all the energy within me and instead of losing my temper with Kate, I apologized. I told her how sorry I was for making her late and that I had tried my best and felt just awful.
The energy in that car completely changed. I changed. I felt myself ease. Kate did, too. Even Meg and Thomas grew quiet. I couldn’t believe both how hard that transformational act was and how simple.
I’m still digging myself out of this rut that I’ve created. My vigilance is renewed as I watch for signs of internalized dualism and subsequent acts of violence, of othering. I will try to not be seduced by truths veiled in self-righteousness. These truths only hurt. I need to heal myself, bind myself, renew my integrity so that I feel connected again.
One of my favorite quotations comes to mind, “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you coming because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.” (An Aboriginal woman; Instituto Oscaro Romero, n.d.). I’d never thought of how this applies to every one of my relationships.
Now, I will stay disciplined in my running and writing and art making; I will make time to sit by the window and lose myself in thought. I will laugh. A lot. And cry. I will not talk over myself, trying in desperation to convince me to think and act against what my gut tells me. I will linger in the gaze of someone I love. I will listen. I will breathe.