Wow. So much I want to write about this week. Since my last post, I spent a week in the Bay (San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland – California). While there, I facilitated a conversation – courtesy of The Praxis Project – on Spirited Activism. I also spent time at Casa de Paz in Fruitvale, Oakland. And I went to and Ecstatic Dance session as well as a class with a Dancing Freedom group. All these experiences were very rich/enriching, expanding and grounding. Yet, I’m inclined today to write about a dance I had a few days ago – after returning from California. This dance was one of those dances that arises and passes in the course of daily life. It is a dance with the rhythms of love, compassion, forgiveness, security, anger, frustration, authority, authenticity. I say that I ‘had’ it, but really I think I am in this dance day in-day out. Sometimes, I find this dance tiring and confusing. Sometimes, I find it totally liberating.
This summer, I have been re-connecting with an old friend. I’ll call her Janet. The other day we were in a group talking about mundane stuff and she got snarky. She made a slightly sarcastic comment and just said things that I felt were a little bit harsh to our friend Andy. I reacted to this with feelings of irritation and anger. Had I allowed these feelings to manifest in words, I would have been snarky back. In previous conversations, I have done just that – created a snark-fest. This time, I kept quiet. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t open my mouth until the feelings had subsided, moved through me. Even then, I didn’t comment on the snarkiness. I did, however, talk about it later with a mutual friend. Sally pointed out that Janet was kind of just dishing out what Andy has given to her in the past. I nodded somewhat in agreement – with recollections of Andy’s own snarkiness. But I also said to Sally – “Well, then, you would think that knowing what it is like to be on the receiving end of such comments, she wouldn’t want to do that to people – even Andy.” Sally’s response: “Yeh, I guess so, but you know what people are like. And you know, Janet’s carrying a lot of stuff – who can blame her?”
Later, as I was walking, I was reflecting on the incident and felt a wave of sadness flow through me.
I recently learned that Janet was a victim of child abuse. She’s thirty-eight years old and, until last year, had never told anyone about the abuse. I was thinking about this. The sadness that flowed through me was sadness for that wounded little girl who is very alive in Janet. It was sadness for the adult who is carrying much pain and rage. It is sadness for a lost childhood that turned into an adulthood full of much struggle and anguish. It is sadness for person who – as a child – disconnected from her emotions in order to prevent herself (presumably) from being overwhelmed by them.I found myself thinking that snarkiness is Janet’s learned behavior – part of a web of defense mechanisms borne out of the abuse she experienced as a child. Does it make it right/give her permission to be snarky? No. And nor does her behavior give me the right to be snarky – to reflect back at her what she is putting out into the world. I thought to myself that if I react with anger and frustration to her when she gets snarky, I am – in some ways – perpetuating the abuse. I’m feeding the demons that live with her and push her to be snarky – demons that were created when she was a child. I thought to myself: if I were to meet a child who I knew was being abused or had been abused, would I get mad at them for acting out in certain ways, for being defensive and a bit aggressive? No, I wouldn’t.
I would want to show that child love and compassion, wouldn’t I?
What if, I wondered, I responded to Janet the adult – snarkiness and all – with the love and compassion I would be inclined to give a child?
A lot of questions arose with this pondering. How do I balance setting boundaries and challenging snarkiness with expressing tenderness, understanding and forgiveness? And thinking about the situation with Andy, I wondered: Who am I to decide that someone is being inappropriate in their behavior towards someone else? Are people not allowed to express their anger towards other people? If I feel uncomfortable with how someone is expressing their anger do I really have a right to say something? Isn’t that censoring them/their expression?
The incident had different layers to it – for example, Janet’s tensions with Andy and his treatment of her over the years, as well as Janet’s childhood history. To me, these layers also raise questions about responsibility – when and how do we draw lines? It isn’t healthy or constructive for people to spend their whole lives acting out the wounds of their childhood. When is it okay to say ‘enough is enough’ to someone and call them out on their destructive behaviors, their past experiences notwithstanding? Take Janet – she’s only just coming to terms with what happened to her as a child? What is a realistic time frame to expect her to ‘let go’ of the past. How do we be firm while also empathizing with each other (regardless of whether or not we know what is driving someone’s behavior – because often times we do not).
I’m sharing these reflections here, in this space, because I think that in social activism – as changemakers – we are often in analogous situations professionally. I am wondering: How do we decide when it is appropriate to stand up for others – to call people out on their behavior towards someone else? Is it always appropriate – because we have an obligation to protect one another? Or is it sometimes none of my/our business? Whether we want to challenge someone’s behavior towards others our toward ourselves, how do we balance such boundary setting/standing up with compassion and forgiveness?
Such questions, it seems to me, flow into wider reflections (and more questions!) about what we mean by, need from and aspire to when it comes to justice, reconciliation, conflict resolution, authenticity and integrity – and not just in social activism, but in our all our relations.
After writing the above and then stepping away to do something else, I’ve just come back to these words. And it strikes me that really what I am writing about is a form of dancing freedom. Because what I think I’m grappling with – if I distil it down – is how we free ourselves and each other from cycles of abuse and violence – that manifest in obvious and subtle forms. We move with and feel the rhythms of love, compassion, forgiveness, security, anger, frustration, authority, authenticity. What does such movement look like? Feel like? How can we manifest all of these energies/qualities in ways that are nurturing and healing?
How do you determine when you our going to challenge someone’s behavior? What do you do to connect with the different – sometimes seemingly contradictory – rhythms involved? What is your attitude towards forgiveness? How do you set your boundaries? What do you fear most about this dance?