Amidst crushing obstacles and inequities, we have a choice in how we respond
I’m disturbed by the headlines in the daily news: Harassment. Everywhere. But I’m more disturbed by America’s reaction: Shocking! Unbelievable! What pigs! Whose world is this?!
This is our world. This has always been our world.
We let harassment happen every time we turn a blind eye to behavior designed to keep others down. Sexism is everywhere in our country and shows up in basic ways — even by good men and women who default to embedded cultural behaviors despite good intentions. So I’m not at all surprised about the number of women and men coming forward with harassment claims. I am surprised at our shock. And I am irritated that we are not yet having important conversations about what constitutes harassment, how to respond to it, and how to heal from it.
My harassment and bullying story officially took shape over 20 years ago when I placed myself in an environment that would do irreparable damage. That specific situation is long gone, but the PTSD remains. These cuts go deep; the trauma leads you back to similar situations again and again that re-traumatize and can keep you stuck in the muck for years — or forever, if you don’t take steps to heal the wounds and find peace with your life and the people and circumstances that have transformed it. Because I’ve committed my life to lifting others up, I choose to remain silent about the details of my experiences, but I refuse to keep silent on the solutions found on the road to repair.
To heal, I have found it helpful to accept three truths:
Truth #1: It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everyone
No one gets through this life unscathed. We are all the walking wounded. If it’s not harassment and bullying, it’s disease that ravages the body, poverty that disintegrates hope, death that darkens the heart, addiction that terrorizes the mind, or any number of inequities or catastrophes that break hearts, dull spirits, and forever change the course of a life. When I see my pain as a part of the human experience, I can accept that I have been victimized without being a victim.
Truth #2: It’s Not Just Here, It’s Everywhere
When our line of sight is narrow, we see but one main character (ourselves) and one set of problems (our own). We feel targeted, unfairly victimized, and alone. When our world is small, our problem is disproportionately large. But when our world is large, our problem is perceptively small. Broadening our worldview broadens our perspective. At any given moment, millions of people — many in your local community — are experiencing exactly what you are experiencing and feeling what you are feeling.
The insidious thing about harassment is the shame. It hovers like Pig-pen’s musty cloud of dirt and dust. There’s no emotion more useless or more destructive. Shame grows in silence. Most of us hold our harassment stories inside for decades, or a lifetime. No one knows our truth; they simply observe (and often judge) how we behave in the world, which can seem odd at times given that our behaviors are a protective defense against further harassment. The tragedy of harassment isn’t just the harassment itself, but the shame that builds over a lifetime and the quirky, defensive behaviors that take shape. The only antidote to shame is to share with others who are capable of empathy and withholding judgment.
Truth #3: It’s Not Just Them, It’s Me
No human being is perfect. We all cause hurt, inadvertently or intentionally. When we can see our own humanness, our own capacity to inflict pain on others, we can better see the humanness in others. This helps us to forgive. This also helps us to evaluate uncomfortable situations and the intent of others.
My Acid Test for Evil
There is evil in this world. There are evil people, too. But mostly, over five decades, I’ve found that people are good — stupid and clueless at times, but inherently good.
I have a time-tested acid test for evaluating perceived awfulness in others. I ask: Is there malice behind what they are doing or saying? Are they trying to marginalize me? Are they abusing their power to make me feel inferior? Are they trying to “keep me in my place” or are they just plain clueless because they have never and will never know what it’s like to walk in my shoes?
When an early boss gave me backrubs while giving me project instructions, I knew his actions were creepy and inappropriate, but I also knew they were clueless. Backrubs can be a welcome gift from a close friend or relative. My boss epically misjudged our relationship, but he was not maliciously trying to scare, hurt, marginalize, or otherwise harm me. He was a first-time manager, learning as he was doing. I knew he didn’t understand the power he held over me, and I was too frightened to speak to him about his actions. I didn’t know that I could. Ten years later we reconnected over lunch. He apologized. None of this makes his behavior acceptable, but it gives me more peace inside.
Forgive me for being so forgiving, but when people tell stupid blonde jokes, inappropriately stare or comment or touch, or when men try to needlessly help or ‘save’ me — I see a lot of stupidity and cluelessness, but not a lot of hatred. I know hatred when I see it. I know power plays; I know being marginalized and otherwise taught a lesson. When I received a tiny duct-tape wrapped box via intercompany mail that included a razor-sharp blade, I knew that this was something different —something malicious. Someone wanted to frighten me.
But you see how this works? When we see that we unintentionally and intentionally harm others, we see that others can do this, too. This is human nature — ugly, but human — and we can begin to classify behaviors and identify a range of alternative responses. If someone is being foolish or insensitive because they simply can’t know what living life is like as me, I can tell them so and we can move on. Or I can get assistance in speaking with them if I need additional support or coaching. But if someone is being malicious, this is when I need to raise the red flag to engage others, and to unequivocally say no!
Ignoring the Problem Isn’t the Answer. Neither is Hate.
Regrettably, I’ve let a lot of people off the hook over the years for bad behavior — unconscionable behavior. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve set my radar and my boundaries to weed out the worrisome from the write-offs. I also know that if I made a stink over every word that offended, every look that gave me the willies, or every just-plain-stupid statement, my days would be consumed with animosity and disquiet.
And that’s just it. The hatred and anger in this world is stealing our peace and harming our relationships, our communities, and our progress. We can’t possibly live a decent life if we hold resentment and ill will for every person who doesn’t understand our experience.
We all face unbelievable obstacles in life and some of us face crushing inequities, but we have a choice, a choice in how we respond to what happens to us: We can become bitter, or we can get better. We can choose to live in hate, or we can live in love. We can choose to obstruct, or we can choose to drive change. Every single day of my life I seek to choose better, to choose love, and to choose change. Sure, bitterness rears its ugly head on occasion (remember that human part?), but the point is, I’m trying. And each day is a new day to try again.
I’m not the same woman I was twenty-plus years ago. I’ve got some safety pins and patches protecting my battered parts like a tattered, beloved teddy bear. But I’m also mighty and courageous. I’ll fight the big stuff, but I’m not going to worry about people with minimal empathy and insight doing stupid, clueless things. Instead, I focus on transforming my pain to power — power to educate, power to heal, power to love, and power to help others. Abusers think they break us; they try to, but they don’t. They only make us stronger. And for that there is gratefulness.