(photo credit: Unsplash – Alex Mihai)
I was on my way to the dentist, feeling anxious because I had a broken tooth and was sure the repair would be expensive and painful and that it must somehow be my fault and I’d be shamed for not flossing, eating hard candy, or clenching my teeth when I sleep. I was also feeling a little guilty for driving the two blocks, but didn’t want to have to walk home in the extreme cold with a frozen mouth.
Driving slowly through the parking lot, I got hit from behind by another car. In my anxious state of mind, my automatic thought was that I must have done something wrong because I was distracted. But just as quickly, I realized that there was nothing I could have done in that moment that would have caused the bump – it had to be something that hit me.
I turned and processed what had happened. A car was pulling out, hadn’t seen me, and hit the back passenger side of my car.
The driver of the car that hit me pulled up beside me and we both rolled down our windows. “I’m sorry,” said the guy, looking strangely frantic, given how minor the incident was, “but I didn’t hit you.”
“What do you mean you didn’t hit me? My car moved. Clearly you hit me.”
“Look,” he said, pointing back, “there’s a block of ice on the ground – that’s what you hit.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, looking in the mirror at the tiny block of ice. “How could a block of ice have caused my car to move like that?”
And then he just kept yelling “I didn’t hit you! I didn’t hit you!”
And I said, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “Can we just get out of our cars and look at our cars to see if there is any damage?”
His voice began to escalate. “But I didn’t hit you!!”
“Before you drive away, I’m JUST asking you to get out of your car and come with me so we can see if there is damage.”
He kept yelling, but got out of his car and we both went to look at the side of my car. Sure enough, there was a small dent on the fender near the wheel (ironically in the same spot I’d had repaired a few months earlier after I’d backed into a pole).
“I didn’t hit you!” He yelled. “How do I know that dent wasn’t there before?!” (Well, for one thing, I knew because that whole section of the car’s body had been repaired and repainted, but I didn’t think to say that at the moment.) He started wildly flinging his arms, pointing at other dings and marks on the car. “Next you’re going to say I caused that! And that! And that!”
“No, but you DID cause THAT!” I said – pointing at the small dent.
“I DIDN’T HIT YOU! LOOK – THERE’S THE BLOCK OF ICE. AND LOOK AT THE SKID MARKS BY THE BLOCK OF ICE. YOUR CAR WAS HIT BY THAT AND THE DENT WAS ON YOUR CAR ALREADY!”
I glanced toward where he was pointing. In the thin layer of snow on the ground, my tire marks showed clearly where I’d been traveling in a straight line and then was jolted five inches to the left. Near the zigzag was not a block of ice, but a lump of compacted snow that had likely been dislodged from my mud flaps on impact.
As quickly as I’d glanced away, though, I turned back to look into his eyes. Instinctively I knew I couldn’t take my eyes off this raging, irrational man or I would not be safe. Behind the anger in his eyes, I could see something else. Fear? Trauma? Shame? Maybe he was driving without a license? Maybe he’d been traumatized by parents who wouldn’t allow him to make mistakes? My mind reeled with the possibilities, wondering what parts of his history and his pain I needed to draw on to diffuse this situation.
“Look – I’m not going to take you to court or anything, so stop over-reacting and simply realize that what just happened could only have happened if your car hit mine.” My fingers touched the edge of the cell phone in my pocket, wondering whether I should pull it out to record this moment or take a photo of his license plate.
“I DIDN’T HIT YOU!” Seeing the rage increase in his eyes, I made a split-second decision to let it all go rather than risk being punched in the face. I left the cell phone in my pocket.
“Sir,” I said, as calmly and deliberately as I could muster, “the damage is minor enough that I’m not going report it. Get back in your car now and drive away.”
“Okay,” he said, getting back into his car. “But I didn’t hit you.”
I got back into my car and carried on to the dentist. As I sat in front of the dentist’s office, trembling, I had a flashback, realizing that this wasn’t just the story of a five minute encounter with an irrational man in a parking lot – it was a story of my whole lifetime. And it was the story of every woman I know.
It’s a story as old as history. Man does wrong. Woman second-guesses herself, thinking she may have done wrong. Man swears he didn’t do wrong, gaslights the woman to try to convince her she’s crazy for thinking wrong was done, yells at her and makes her afraid he might hit her if she calls him out for what he did wrong. Woman does the emotional labour of trying to calm him and assure him he’s not a horrible person because she needs to keep herself safe. And then she carries the trembling with her when she goes.
Last night, as I sat down to journal after processing this five minute encounter nearly all day, I could feel the ache in my body and I knew that it was not from whiplash (the jolt was too minor) but from holding my body tense and alert throughout the encounter as I reacted instantaneously to what I needed to do to stay safe in that moment. It was also from holding a whole lifetime of such encounters in my body. I wrote “It’s still in my body. I can feel the shakiness, the tingling, the tight throat, and the tears that want to come but are blocked.”
Suddenly, a new thought appeared in my journal and every cell in my body knew the truth of it.
Women have learned to be the shock absorbers for men’s pain.
We are masterful at absorbing the intensity of it and diffusing it so that it won’t cause further damage.
This is a story of a whole lifetime, and a thousand lifetimes before mine. It’s a story of generation after generation – a story we carry in our DNA. It’s a story of a whole lineage of shock absorbers showing up in my instinctual need and ability to keep that man from exploding.
This is the story of a childhood with a father who would never hit his children, but who would throw hammers at trees or tractors in his rage. It’s the story of a little girl who learned, from a young age, to jump up very quickly, if she heard him come in from the barn, to make sure there was food on the table so that she didn’t have to face his anger. It’s also the story of a woman who, at thirty-five and with children of her own, could still feel her body react in the same way when she heard the back door of the farmhouse open.
This is the story of a twenty-two year old, naked and trembling in her bed while the rapist held a tight grip on her throat and a blade over her head. It’s the story of how her mind raced, trying to find just the right thing to say that might soothe him enough so that he would do the least amount of damage. And it’s the story of how she sat with him on her bed for an hour after he raped her, listening to him tell stories of his childhood.
This is also the story of a wife and mother who learned to contort herself to absorb the pain, shame, anger, and insecurity of a man who needed someone else to blame, because she thought it was her job. It’s the story of how she learned to anticipate his mood the moment he stepped in the door, and how she did everything to fend off his darkness to keep her daughters safe. It’s also the story of how she woke up one day and realized she’d taught her daughters how to become shock absorbers too.
And this is the story of Dr. Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Tarana Burk, and every person with a #metoo story. Every single one of us has absorbed the pain of men who didn’t know how to diffuse it on their own.
We are exhausted. Our bodies have been nearly destroyed by the many shocks we’ve absorbed (and many HAVE been destroyed).
We don’t hate men, as those who would dismiss us as “angry feminists” might have us believe. Quite the contrary – we love them and we want better for them. And for us. And for our daughters and sons.
We simply want to stop being shock absorbers. We want men to learn how to diffuse their own pain without throwing it, like hand grenades, into someone else’s yard.
There is another five minute encounter with a man that happened shortly after the first one that helps to bring this into perspective. The dentist (a man) looked into my mouth and said. “It’s the crown that’s broken. We just put that in last year and it shouldn’t have broken, so we’ll take full responsibility for it and replace it. I’m really sorry about that.” Simple as that. No defensiveness, no deflection, no gaslighting or trying to convince me it was my fault. Simply taking responsibility for it.
THAT is what we are asking men to do. Just take responsibility and learn to deal with the shame and fear that might come along with that responsibility. Once that happens, we’ll stop talking about toxic masculinity.
P.S. If your response to this is “Why are you assuming this is a male/female thing? Couldn’t it as easily have been a female ranting and raving?”, my response is this… it is not purely a male/female thing, but it IS a power thing. In that situation, as a man, he has more physical and cultural power and so my instinctive reaction to him was about knowing (and remembering in my body) that he could hurt me. And, though I can’t speak for him, I suspect that some of his behaviour was about knowing I would absorb it rather than punch him first. I believe this is also the case with BIPOC people who have learned to be the shock absorbers for the pain that we as white people have not learned to process. The person with more power is more likely to assume that the person with less will absorb it. The closer you are to the top of a hill, the more you can afford to throw hand grenades.
When my husband and I separated and he moved out of the house, my youngest daughter was 13, and she was, understandably, angry about a situation in which she had no agency to control the outcome. I tried to be present for her in as kind and compassionate a way as I knew how, while still wrestling with the healing work I also needed to do for myself. It was hard – for both of us. I made mistakes.
Finally, after weeks of very little communication between us, I said to her “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. AND I want you to know that I am prepared to hold your anger. Go ahead – scream at me if you must. Do what you need to do, and know that I WILL NOT LEAVE. And I will not throw the anger back at you. I will just hold it for you.”
In that situation, I had to recognize that, as the person with more agency and power, who had contributed to a situation that impacted her, I had to be prepared to receive what would come my way, even if I didn’t entirely deserve it. Even if it hurt. Even if it scared me.
I had to be prepared to hold it and NOT WALK AWAY.
This, too, is what it means to hold space – to create a container that is strong enough to hold rage, grief, fear, pain, etc. We receive what’s ours, heal it, make reparations, and let the rest go. And we don’t walk away. (We take care of ourselves, but we don’t walk away.)
Let’s extrapolate that situation to other situations where there is an imbalance of power and agency. Take, for example, some of the conversations I’ve seen and been part of, both online and off, where there is understandable anger on the part of disenfranchised/marginalized people whose lives are being irrevocably altered by people with more power and agency. Online, I’ve seen it in response to a spiritual teacher who failed to listen when people challenged her to see her blindspots. Offline, I’ve heard it in response to the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine murder trials.
For those of us with more power and agency (whether given to us as a “birthright” because of our skin colour, gender, etc., or because we’ve found ourselves in a hierarchically elevated position) can we hold this outrage and pain without walking away? Can we be strong enough to stay in the conversations even if it hurts, even if it scares us, even if we don’t entirely deserve it? Can we receive what’s ours, heal it, and let the rest go?
This, to me, is what reconciliation looks like. Holding space, owning what’s ours, listening deeply, making reparations, and not walking away.
(The good news is that my daughter and I weathered that storm and have a deeper relationship now because of it.)
Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at the pool, I went to a coffee shop to try to get some writing done. Unable to focus, though, I gave in to the distraction of social media, and when I did, I found myself getting more and more angry. I was angry at the terrorists who’ve torn apart so many people’s lives and instilled fear in so many more. And I was angry at the closed-minded people who are responding to the terrorism by becoming protectionist and prejudiced and not offering safe homes for the millions of refugees running away from the terrorists.
Because I was angry anyway, I started extending that anger to people closer to home – people in the coffee shop and people in my family whose actions were disappointing me at the time. Anger needs to feed itself, so it looks for more victims and more people to blame.
When I get angry (or fearful, or sad, or any of those intense emotions that sometimes feel scary and overwhelming), I’m tempted to shut down, to guard my heart and protect myself from further wounding. I’m tempted to pull away from people and become even more self-sufficient. And I’m tempted to find reasons to hate people and blame them for all of the ills of the world.
Last night, I checked out for awhile (Netflix is good for that), but this morning, I knew I needed to do something that would help me resist the temptation to shut down.
The only antidote I know for this kind of reaction in me is to dare to live with an open heart. It’s the hardest choice to make when I’m angry, but the more open my heart is, the less likely I am to let the anger and fear fester and get bigger.
The poet Mark Nepo tells us to be more like fish. “As fish must keep their gills open in order to survive moving through the water, humans must keep their hearts open in order to move through the difficult and wondrous river of experience. Letting life move through an open heart is how we make medicine out of our suffering.”
This morning I decided to be more like a fish.
I posted this on Facebook: “My heart’s been heavy this week, witnessing so much fear, hatred and closed-mindedness. So… let’s do something different. Tell me how you’ve seen love and openheartedness appear this week.”
The responses were simple and breathtaking. One shared about the friend who showed up to help her welcome her new dog. Another applauded her daughter who’d raised $1500 for a rescue mission that helps women get out of the sex trade. Another had seen an elderly white man help a young black boy tie his tie. Still others shared about kindhearted daycare workers, free clinics, supportive husbands, gracious sign-holders, and smiling grand-babies.
My heart started feeling a little bigger and the fresh air moved through my gills as I let the angry air out. I brought that feeling into my work, and was soon coaching clients who shared their vulnerable and brave stories of healing from past abuse and daring to step into their artist calling later in life. My heart grew healthier and stronger with each story that passed through me.
We build resilience when we respond to fear and anger with an open heart. We have to dare to be open to people’s stories and dare to be vulnerable with our own.
But there’s a harder part to this openhearted living that goes beyond being vulnerable with those people who feel safe, and that’s what I had to challenge myself with once the anger had subsided.
Living with an open heart also means daring to be compassionate with those who think differently from me and those who respond to their own fear and anger differently from me.
It wasn’t hard for me to extend compassion to my Facebook friends or coaching clients or even to the innocent Islamic people who are now facing prejudice and hatred because they are associated with the terrorists. Those people are safe and don’t require me to stretch too much. What I find to be much harder is to extend compassion to the terrorists themselves and to the people who are meeting hatred with hatred, spouting racist rhetoric and closing their doors to the Syrian people.
I had to dig deep to remember that these people are all responding to their own fears in the way that makes the most sense for them. Extending compassion does not mean that I need to agree with them or justify their actions, but it means that I have to dare to open my heart enough to see the hurt that turned them into the people they are.
Fear changes us. It makes us fierce in ways that sometimes surprise and even scare us.
When I was sexually assaulted a number of years ago, I went home to the farm to be with my parents. My pacifist, Mennonite dad, who would never allow a gun in the house and who never physically hurt anyone, admitted later that he was shocked by the realization that he was capable of killing another man. He’d never had that temptation before.
When people hurt or threaten people you love, or even if you simply perceive them to do so, it causes fear to rise up and you are suddenly not the rational, peace-loving person you always thought you were. Suddenly, you can think of only one thing – to keep your family safe at all costs. I get that, and I see it happening on a global scale in response to the terrorism we’ve witnessed. I also assume (though I can’t pretend to understand it) that it must be happening in the hearts of the terrorists. Something has made them so fearful and angry that the only response that makes sense to them is to destroy the people and the culture that pose the greatest threat.
There are so many players in this unfolding drama that I don’t understand, but when I remember how my dad was changed in that moment when he realized that someone had raped and tried to murder his daughter, it allows me to open my heart with some compassion to those who are responding out of their own deep wounds. Instead of opening their hearts and living like fish, they chose to close them and to allow the blackness to grow and consume them.
I wish those terrorists and those who are responding with hatred had all had fathers like mine. Perhaps they would have learned to make other choices.
My dad’s surprising rage was not the most memorable lesson of the day. The wisdom that I received from my dad came in the actions he chose just after learning that I’d been raped and nearly killed. After giving me a hug, and then leaving me to my mom’s nurturing arms, he went outside to feed the pigs. I wasn’t there when he fed them, so I don’t know whether he was crying or screaming or throwing things while he fed the pigs, I only know that he fed them. And, because I know my Dad, I expect he was also praying.
He fed the pigs because he needed some physical activity to dispel some of the rage. And he did it because he needed to do something useful and mundane in that moment when his world had been turned upside down. And he prayed because he knew he could only dispel the darkness in his own heart with the help of a Higher Power.
Once he was done, he came back inside with a calmer mind and a heart that dared to remain open. His God and his pigs helped him with that.
When the fear and rage and pain wash over you, it might feel impossible to remember what Mark Nepo said about living with your heart open to the world. Those are the times when you first need to feed the pigs. Or feed the children. Or go for a long walk in the woods. Or make art or music. Or dance. Or swing a hammer.
Do something to alchemize the pain, and then reach for a Higher Power who can help you change your heart. Once you’ve done those things, come back with a calmer mind and a heart that dares to remain open.
Lashing out in your pain will only create more pain and will never solve the problem. Only living with an open heart will allow you to move on without wounding anyone.
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