Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Irritating Crusader

Once again I have made a statement in defense of what I believe to be right and once again, I regret it. It isn't a big deal, just a comment on another blog. I wish I hadn't done it. This Friend is weighty and admirable. I know he can make short work of me if he acknowledges me at all. He is older than I am, more experienced and more intelligent. But there was an unkindness in his words that felt like a punch in the gut. There was an injustice in his message that I could not leave alone. Perhaps he did not mean it to be so but for all his intelligence and weightiness, he wrote as one who is too removed from the experiences of want, of need, and poverty to understand how deeply they cut. Though I admire him greatly, his plate is full and his words dismissed the shame and rage felt by people who fight all their lives for a few crumbs. And I could not let that stand. So I commented. I sure do wish I hadn't. Who cares what I think? How annoying everyone will think me. How out of control.

When I was a little girl, my family was strolling through a mall. It was a rural mall that appealed to rural people and someone had set up a display of taxidermy. Among the stuffed animals was a wolf. Earlier that year, I had read an article in the Weekly Reader about the attempt to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone against the opposition of ranchers who shot and poisoned the wolves out of fear that they would hunt their livestock. For whatever reason, it struck me as grossly wrong that any creature should be threatened with extinction after a process of systematic vilification and misunderstanding. I read all the books in the elementary school library I could find on wolves then I moved on to the high school and public libraries. I even began a group of other little girls who got together to do research on wildlife and to write essays on our findings. We called ourselves the Society for the Restoration of Canis Lupus. My father's best friend owned hybrid wolves and I arranged to have him bring them to my elementary school to introduce the younger kids to the creatures. I knew that the Big Bad Wolf wouldn't stand a chance as soon as they got to touch and play with the real thing. I remember feeling so proud when I began to see happy pictures of wolves on display outside the primary school classrooms.

So there I was in the mall looking at this stuffed shell of a creature I had come to respect as kin and for whom I had taught myself to fight. The disgust I felt that someone had shot, disemboweled and displayed it as a prize threatened to overwhelm me. I don't know how long I stood there but I suddenly became aware of my father gently saying my name. "Come on, now," he coaxed as he led me away. I was small for my age and not in the least bit physical or athletic but I realized that my hands were in fists and that I had been moving toward the taxidermist. I'm not sure what I planned to do once I got there but I knew it was going to be ugly. My father knew, though I did not, that my body had a mind to go hit that man, to tear into him, to lay him low for his crime. I let Dad draw me away. He laughed at me a little bit as he always does when I start to lose my cool. "You have an acute sense of injustice," he teases.

It would not be the first or last time I would lose my cool in that way. Once, while sitting on my father's lap listening to my liberal father and my conservative uncle discuss politics, my uncle decided it would be fun to bait me by making disparaging comments about homeless people. I began to argue with him and he argued back as if I were a grown-up. It was a game to him but deadly serious to me and as he mocked poverty, I grew more and more upset until my father, stepped in. My father's voice held a warning in it when he told my uncle to stop. This was no longer a game. Sitting on my father's lap, I realized that he was physically restraining me from flying across the table and attacking my uncle.

I was the girl who took her eighth grade science teacher to task for his homophobia in front of the other students. I was the girl who got kicked out of homeroom for refusing to pledge allegiance to a flag. I was the woman who walked up to her department chair in a crowded hallway and told him that I was disappointed with his sexism and expected that he would correct the behavior (I also expected he would fire me on the spot). I was the woman who sent an email to the entire campus including the college president expressing my alarm at a racially insensitive fund raising drive then crawled into bed and cried all day as I waited for the angry responses. I hated all of these experiences.

Over and over and over again I do this thing and every time I've felt sick to my stomach and guilty and tearful for it. Even as I write or speak these things there is a part of me screaming, "Shut up, for God's sake!" But I never seem to be able to do so. This is not a gift. Others with finer tuned morality and greater understanding than I can ever boast will do much better things for the world. I will likely never hold a decent job or exercise any real power because I am never able to choose discretion when I taste injustice... and I taste injustice every day. I do not believe that my truth is universal but I do not seem to be able to withhold my truth when I think justice or compassion is insulted. If a thing is wrong, I say so...and often alienate everyone around me.

Does this make me heroic? Maybe sometimes. Maybe. But mostly I think it makes me an ass. There are too many times when I make a grand speech and then realize that I jumped the gun, misunderstood, or used lousy judgment. I'm too hard on people, humorless, and impatient. I am, and this is no surprise to anyone who knows me, a judgmental person. I am embarrassed by this. But what else can I do when I know that someone weaker is being shamed or bullied? I know what it feels like to be in that position and then later to hear from a witness to the event, "I was going to say something but..."

I have wondered if I was made to be this way. It seems an awfully mean trick to play on a little girl. Aren't we supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice? I just ended up bookish, moralistic, and socially conscious, a combination that earned me the distinct privilege of having other kids roll their eyes at me whenever I spoke and throw stuff at my head when I walked down the hall. Though the other children did not care for me, I cried and raged whenever I saw another kid treated badly by a teacher or the principal. Even the early stories from preschool seem to suggest an inability to accept hierarchy or injustice and as I age, though they promised me I would mellow, I find that I get myself into more and more outrageous situations. My father pulls me back whenever he can. He acknowledges the injustice that is tormenting me, but he gently reminds me to use my head and think before I act. I am now in the habit of seeking his counsel before communicating with wealthy and powerful folks since I am most likely to lose my temper with those who have nice manners, pretty cars, and lousy ethics.

On the days when I believe in God, I have asked why I continue to humiliate myself by telling off people who are so powerful that they need only dismiss me with a chuckle. Is all of this some part of the plan? And what kind of crap plan is that? Why do I believe that I am some kind of modern day David with slingshot in hand? Probably there is no plan am I'm just maladjusted. I'm no David. I'm much more like one of those little aggravating yappy dogs, nipping and growling as if to make up for its ridiculous small size. I suppose being told off by me is akin to dealing with an especially persistent fly. After each encounter, I am ashamed of the scene I made and quietly thankful that I was not crushed. I know one day I will not be so lucky.


Mary Ellen said...

I don't think that it is a curse to have injustice rile you - would that more of us were shaken out of lethargy in that way. And I don't know how John Woolman grew into the person who could labor with slave owning Friends in a loving way. But maybe that took some time, and certainly much prayer. It sounds as though your father plays a role some local Meeting attenders/members play as discernment committees for folks I know who are laboring with very strong convictions. Don't get discouraged! We need your passion.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Well Hystery,

I would never have guessed that you speak your mind;-)

What comes to my mind as I read your words of the deep inner drive to speak up against injustice and for those in need
is Ezekiel (being the watchwoman:-)
and Jeremiah
"But if I say, "I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name," Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it."

Maybe the goodness of Quaker worship is that waiting upon God will help you speak your "burning" messages with more grace.

Thanks Hystery. You're
NOT an ass,(But mostly I think it makes me an ass) but
called to be prophetic.

Keep speaking up for truth.

In the Light,


Hystery said...

Thanks, Daniel. Thanks, Mary Ellen. Both of you redirect me to the benefits of time spent among Friends. I know that they have helped me focus so much more on speaking out of a peaceful center rather than out of rage and arrogance. I need so much more time with this practice. I work on Sundays and have such limited transportation so I have not been to a meeting in months now. :-(

Shawna said...

Injustice is injustice. In my current concern with my meeting, I have been surprised to find a lot of people who agree with my position, who have been of that opinion for years, and yet who have never done anything about it. Sometimes I give in to irritation... If they saw the injustice, why didn't they do anything about it? Then I take a deep breath, and remind myself that if everyone always concerned themselves with everything that needed to be done in the world, probably nothing would ever get done at all. I know it's frustrating.. there's so much pain in the world. But I think you're doing fine. It's better to get angry at injustice than to be indifferent to it.

I'll imagine that you're in meeting with us tomorrow. We start at 10:30.

Anonymous said...

Hystery, this is so much like something I'd do that it's not funny.

I could say "I feel you there" but it sounds so twee - but I'm serious.

So you're not alone. Not by a LONG shot. Try to take a little comfort in that, if possible.

I just got through a towering rage with an atheist troll on my blog. Part of me feels horrible about it, yet part of me feels like "hey, that's my electronic space, and I have a right to not allow him to monopolize it and come on there with no intent of listening to anything I say anyway."

But I still screamed my head off in 2 entries. :D

I could never be a Quaker. My temper is entirely too poisonous.

Poimandrea Alchemi said...

"Over and over and over again I do this thing and every time I've felt sick to my stomach and guilty and tearful for it."

Just my two cents' worth, from the far reaches of the Internet, and from someone who's never met you in person, relating my own experiences, that I hope will be helpful to you.

I have a tendency to speak plainly when I see things that I think are wrong as well.

I also have a tendency to turn over rocks that are better left in place, and demonstrate the private wrong-doings of Christians publicly; this does not make me popular amongst Quakers.

Guilt and shame, in my opinion, are what may be impeding your progress here. The way I look at it, if I say something unpopular, or bring some uncomfortable truth to the light, I make DAMN sure that I'm ready to stand behind my words, whether it turns out I am wrong or not.

Thanks to my upbringing, I was constantly being drilled with the idea that nothing less than perfection was acceptable.

When I first started blogging, if I said something wrong, or even made a stupid typo, I would literally seethe with shame, quickly would fix or delete, and hope no one had noticed.

Recently, I made a really big mistake, and accused a minister in my former group, of censoring comments I had made on his blog. We were having a conversation over two different entries, and I got them confused.

Naturally, he came down on me like the hammer of god, demanding I fix it, with all the "I-am-mightier-than-thou" hostility that is typical of them (only now it's hidden under a thin veneer of Christianity; but don't get me started on that).

Thing is, I had publicly acknowledged my mistake, before reading his marching orders, and I very politely told him so. Yes, I've acknowledged my mistake, and corrected it, but guess what? I did it BEFORE you told me too.

He backed down after that, and thanked me for acknowledging my mistake without his prompting (he never did apologize for trying to order me around as if I was still a member of the cult, though; but that's probably his own blind spot, that he's still dealing with).

The incident was enlightening in another way, too: I deliberately forced myself to ignore the shame and loathing, the anger at myself, for the mistake I had made. So, I made a mistake, so what?

Shit happens, as the t-shirt says. And because I deliberately ignored my usual reaction, I was able to resolve it with a minimum of fuss and drama, and at the end of it, I felt better, too.

That said, it's hard work to actively ignore or push aside an initial emotional reaction, and that may not always be the right thing to do, in every situation.

You shouldn't feel shame or guilt for speaking up, though; sounds like you've actually been right, more times than you've been wrong. And, even if you're wrong, if you realize you were wrong, then at least you've learned something.

That's my most recent lesson, I hope it was helpful to you, as well.

Morgaine said...

Remember that you're in good company. ;-) Keep dishing ~ I embrace your anger. Toleration of the status quo doesn't = change, and change comes with unpleasantness.

Karen said...

That guilt and shame? That's trying to tell you that Here Be Power.

What you're describing is the fight-or-flight response. A threat is perceived, and the body starts pumping out chemicals readying us to either get into it or get out of there. This is what gets pregnant women lifting cars off their kids, gets us running like the Flash when we see a lorry bearing down on us, gets athletes down the pitch to score goals. It's useful. We need it to survive.

It's also a problem, because our societies have become more complex than those we evolved in. And the human brain-body experiences social threat in the same way it does physical threat, emotional pain in the same way as physical pain. The same parts of the brain light up, the same flood of chemicals rushes through us... and... what do we do? We can neither hurl ourselves at the aggressor nor run for our lives. That thwarted fight-or-flight response becomes shame, rage, humiliation, all seething away beneath the surface. And the body-brain feels this pain as if it is an actual physical wound.

When I learned this, it was a revelation. It wasn't just that I was over-emotional, over-reacting. It was an actual evolutionary fact of life. And the intensity of the feeling was made greater every time those social situations came up because "neurons that fire together wire together" - we're experiencing not only the current situation but all the previous similar experiences. It's a domino effect. And then we conflate all those experiences and mistake them for the current experience. It's a neurological, psychological, emotional trick. We're mistaking one thing for another.

What to do?

Luckily, "neurons that fire apart wire apart". Good old plastic brain! In Buddhist practice as I understand it, there are exercises for detaching the actual emotions we feel from the baggage ("shenpa" in the Tibetan tradition - literally "attachment").

Pema Chodron gives a really good explanation that describes the phenomenon and how to take steps to liberate yourself from it []. You don't stop feeling it, but you recognise it earlier and earlier in the process so you can think and feel more clearly. And then the real you is in control.

If you're like me (and you may not be), a good chunk of the shame and rage is that you were wrong-footed, that you felt out of control and others had power over you. They may have power in some forms (being able to refuse you goods and services, being able to fire you); on a fundamental level, though, on a personal level, the more you do this practice of exploring the shenpa and sitting with it and being compassionate towards yourself, the less power they have.

I am finding that there are layers and layers of baggage in my mind-body. I'm slowly working my way through them. It's hard work, and sometimes it terrifies me. The scarier it is, the more urgently it needs dealing with, because it will just keep popping up and tripping me. It takes me closer to the Light to do it. And I'm noticing my shenpa more quickly these days. Mostly. It's a relief when I do and I unhook from it.

It gives me power to work on changing things, even in small ways. It unhooks me from what is keeping me confined, trapped, unable to act, and makes it much easier to cope. I am not losing the fire in my belly, I'm learning (slowly) to use it to warm me instead of being burned by it.

Does this make sense to you?

Hystery said...

This does make sense to me and reading it brings me immediate feelings of relief and curiosity. I want to know more about this. It seems such a very useful and important bit of knowledge that might actually help me do my work in the world in a less uncomfortable, tweaky way. I'm suddenly reminded of the Super Friends (not Quakers!) who said things like "Now you know! And knowing is half the battle."

Karen said...

A great book on brain plasticity is the really engaging The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr Norman Doidge []. He explains the research through its applications in real people's lives. We don't know the limits of the brain's ability to rewire, because we don't yet understand how it works (only a couple of months back, it was discovered that the white matter in the brain is actively engaged in learning, not just the leetle grey cells!). We do know that enormous changes can be made.

The Wikipedia entry on fight or flight [] gives a canned explanation of the biology of the thing, and hints at how it plays into social anxiety.

Pain perception's fascinating. Turns out that the more empathetic you are, the more mirror neurons are firing in your brain - your body is experiencing your idea of the pain the other person is in []. And social pain has real results - this good article on how management styles in the workplace can be as painful as physical violence and how it triggers the threat response is aimed at business people, but is really eye-opening for anyone who interacts with other humans [].

And I love Pema Chodron's books []. The practice of mindfulness as taught by her and Thich Nhat Hanh [] is something I am slowly, slowly learning - dropping and coming back to time and again. In my psychotherapy class, our teacher told us, "If you want to teach your clients any tool for making their lives calmer, clearer and easier to cope with, get them into mindfulness practice. Get them started on that and it will change their lives. Now, you go and get started and see how it changes yours." Pema Chodron's stuff is available as CDs as well as books, and they're worth an interlibrary loan! I especially love 'Start Where You Are' and 'The Places That Scare You'. I'm re-reading the latter at the moment, along with Thich Nhat Hanh's 'The Miracle of Mindfulness'.

I'm discovering that my training is chucking all these opportunities at me to deal with my own Stuff. I just really don't have any choice but to keep plodding along that lifelong path if I want to be an ethical therapist. A friend told me that "what you have to teach is what you have to learn". In my case, it's true.

Hystery said...

Karen, thank you for these resources. I will need to spend some time with them. I have been certain that much of the physical pain I am in nearly constantly (body aches, the sensation that parts of me are bruised, abdominal pain, migraines, and anxiety attacks) are related to stress. I also know that I experienced tremendously more pain and fear when giving birth to my older children than to my youngest child when I employed self-hypnosis during delivery. Since that time, quite unfortunately for my health and happiness, I've become distinctly more Cartesian in my outlook. Ironically, although I countered mind/body dualism in my doctoral work, the very process of doctoral work encourages disciplines that minimize integration of emotion and intellect. I note my emotion, catalog it, analyze it and condemn it. A bad habit.

Karen said...

I'll look forward to your responses to the ideas as you go through them. I always find your insights really helpful.

Regarding your sense of veering off course, I have an image I have to share: Sailing ships don't go in straight lines; they travel broad seaways, tacking between points along the way to take advantage of the wind. The straightest path isn't the best path at sea - veering from side to side, weathering storms, blowing along with the wind, they all get you there in the end as long as you're on basically the right course. Sometimes you sail faster, sometimes the route seems circuitous, sometimes you're becalmed. That's the natural way of the sea. When you feel you're off course, you can always tack back towards that broad seaway.

Now I need to go and apply that to myself.

Shawna said...

Thank you for such excellent stuff, Karen! I like Thic Nhat Hanh a lot... I remember the first book I read of his talked about mindfulness, and suggested taking the opportunity to smile at every stoplight on the way to work and back every day. I tried it, and discovered that I only had one stoplight in a 65-mile commute. I had to laugh. I still try to remember to consciously smile periodically during the day.

Hystery, stress is a serious issue that can lead to serious chronic disease... not just feeling sick, but actually physically being sick. Our bodies don't cope well with prolonged stress. Luckily for us, it's not the outward
events of our lives (much of which we have little control over) that cause stress. It's our attitude towards them... the research shows that folks who can look at difficulties as an interesting challenge, or a temporary issue, or who can let go of them (for example, AA's famous "Let Go and Let God") tend not to experience the same physical reactions to stress as people who look at difficulties as threatening bad stuff. Easier said than done, I know!

Karen said...

Shawna - I'm thrilled to share resources that I find really helpful. I get very excited by it!

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